Emotional Health · Film & Television · Health

‘Mad Men,’ Seriously . . .

Of course, the concept of the “American family and the “American Dream”—finding it, living in it, selling it—is a major theme of the show as it explores the decade of the sixties with such precision, and, sometimes, derision. Don now has everything he never had before, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. His male colleagues, almost to a man, are unfaithful to their wives, and the women in the office are objects of scorn and pity until they land a husband. Much of the action of the show concerns the important ways in which this changes, through Don’s relationships with women and the female characters themselves—especially Peggy and Joan.

Joan is a competent woman trapped in the body of a sex goddess. In every scene she appears in at the office, her skill, knowledge, and command of the situation shine through. Over and over she comes to the rescue—sometimes literally: She is credited with saving the life of the visiting Englishman who loses his foot to the John Deere in “A Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency. . .” Though she gets no recognition, she helps Harry Crane create the media department, and when the secret succession that prevents Sterling Cooper from being sold by the British to McCann (the first time), Joan is essential to finding all the important documents and launching the business. There is controversy about her use of her sexuality to advance in her career (yet her male colleagues are constantly doing sleazy things), but in the end she chooses to exercise her competence despite her clearly stated wish to have a loving relationship.

Joan could have retired as a rich wife or kept woman many years ago. She can’t resist the opportunity to use her skills to start a business, despite the fact that she’s already well off, and this ending for her is a feminist triumph rather than a loss—who can doubt that there will be other men in her future? Joan says to Richard, her nice-enough but self-indulgent beau, “I just can’t turn off that part of myself—I’d never dream of making you choose.”

Peggy as a character is second only to Don in the series. Her first day at the agency is central to the first episode, and she becomes Don’s protégée, confidante, and the closest thing he has to a friend. She is very young and naïve at the beginning, but her natural intelligence and luck enable her to move early on from secretary to junior copywriter. From there, her creativity and moxie keep her going. Though she thinks she wants a husband, she discovers that she is fiercely ambitious, which propels her career, if not her marriage prospects. In the first part of Season Seven, when Don generously urges her to do the Burger Chef pitch herself, she asks whether the ubiquitous “family supper” even exists anymore—and comes up with the idea that you can get family supper every night at Burger Chef. The episode ends with a long shot through the widow of Don, Peggy, and Pete happily eating their burgers, clearly implying that changes in the idea of family are indeed in the air—they may have already happened.

Hints are dropped all along about the big career in Peggy’s future. In the final episode, Pete predicts that one day he’ll boast that he worked with her. People have speculated that her character is partly based on Mary Wells, a female advertising pioneer. One thing is certain: Peggy has much of Don’s creativity and insight into human behavior, but she has something more—she is emotionally connected to others in a real way. In the end, she and Stan realize that they have grown so close through the years that they are actually in love; that, coupled with the scene in which Peggy bends her tough-as-nails female supervisor to her will, gives us the sense that everything will be just fine for her.

Peggy is the person Don calls in the final episode, titled “Person to Person,” when he hits rock bottom. One of the few women in the series whom he has not slept with (though many think he has), Don is drawn to her groundedness and strength. He knows her secret—that she gave up a baby for adoption, and he told her at that time that she’d get over it: It would be as if it had never happened. He tries to tell Stephanie, Anna Draper’s niece, the same thing during this last episode while the two of them are at Esalen, the California wellness center. Stephanie, who has also abandoned her son, disagrees. Some things we can’t escape. A woman in a therapy group tells Stephanie that her own mother had left her, and “your baby is going to spend the rest of his life staring at the door waiting for you to walk in.” Don tells Stephanie to ignore this, but his denial of this truth has caused him to spend his life running away or chasing people like her to latch onto. “You’re not my family,” she tells him, scornfully.

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