Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men, Far Away Places

Three former secretaries, and the three men who leave them (or at least, who try to).

Megan is the one who seems to have it all.  (In a way, you can chart where each of the three women have ended, based on what they started with.  The two pretty ones have married ad executives, and the two smart ones have become copywriters.  It’s almost too tidy.)  Jane is pretty but not especially smart.  She gets the rich husband (at least for the moment), but no career whatsoever.  Megan, on the other hand, is both pretty and ambitious, and ends up with both the husband and the job.  But this season has shown us how hollow her prize turns out to be.  It’s a tricky thing to be married to your boss.  Her colleagues resent the preferential treatment she receives and openly make fun of her.  And it’s hard to feel too bad for her.  After all, her coworkers are right when they imply that she’s slept her way to the top — she has never displayed any particular talent for writing copy, and it’s doubtful she could have gotten her job on her own steam.

Peggy, on the other hand, has brains, and that’s pretty much all she has.  In a way, the fact that she isn’t so beautiful is what has enabled Peggy’s professional aspirations.  At the start of season one, becoming a copywriter had never occurred to Peggy.  She thought that in order to get ahead, a woman needed to sleep with her boss, so that’s what she tried to do, by putting the moves on Don, and then by having sex with Peter.

Had she been more traditionally alluring, this strategy might have succeeded for her, as it did for Jane and Megan.  Instead, Peggy ended up a copywriter, by dint of her smarts, hard work, and plain looks.  She is something of a pioneer in her office, so she’s constantly butting up against barriers that she doesn’t expect, or finding out that what works for the men doesn’t work the same way for her.  Peggy’s attempt to have a Don Draper day – berating a client, getting drunk before noon, and then having a random sexual encounter during her lunch break – is a total mess.  (Don would have had sex with a cute waitress in a midtown hotel room, but Peggy just ends up giving a thankless handjob to some skeevy dude in a movie theater.)

But even if Peggy has difficulty negotiating the workplace as a woman, the fact that she has a career gives her control over her finances, which in turn gives her some measure of power in her personal life.   This is highlighted in the scene where Abe leaves her, which is contrasted with the two scenes where Megan and Jane are left, respectively, by Don and Roger.

The Peggy scene happens right at the beginning of the episode.  Abe is frustrated with Peggy’s inattentiveness, and stomps out of her apartment, telling her to “have a shitty day.”   It’s an awful thing to do, given that Abe knows that Peggy has a big presentation that day, but Peggy is mostly unfazed.  She may care about Abe, but she doesn’t depend on him.  She has a job to go to, and a home that is her own.  She can let him go, and if she wants to tell him to come back, she can do that, too.

(In this, Peggy shares something in common with Joan, another former secretary who has moved on to a different job.  Although Joan is missing from this episode, we just saw a similar interaction take place in another recent episode, where Joan is left by her own romantic partner.  Like Peggy, Joan has a career that she earned on her brains and hard work, and, like Peggy, the fact that she controls her own finances gives her some power in her relationship.  When Greg leaves, it is because Joan tells him to.  Joan may have loved Greg, but she has never needed him.)

By contrast, the scenes with Megan and Jane really bring home how little autonomy these women have in their personal lives, and how terribly vulnerable they must be in their marriages.  Don abandons Megan in the middle of nowhere, with no way of getting home, and expects her to wait around for him to come back for her.  (Betty, of course, would have waited.)  Megan chafes at the control that Don has over her life, but the fact is that she has allowed herself to become almost totally dependent on him; and when Don returns for her, she takes him back.  Sure, this is partly because she loves him, but she also doesn’t have another choice.   Ultimately, Megan really needs Don, and the show makes a point of her dependency.  It’s notable that at the end of the episode, when Megan and Don reconcile, Megan looks like a child, dressed in a schoolgirl jumper and a printed cotton slip.  She’s Don’s wife, but she’s also essentially his ward.  Both her home and her work really belong to her husband, and she gets to keep them only as long as she stays with him.

For Megan, the scene where Roger leaves Jane should serve as a cautionary tale.  This episode depicts the only time we’ve ever seen Jane share her thoughts with her husband, and it results in his decision (not their decision, whatever Roger claims) to get a divorce, which gives us some insight into how stifling her marriage must have been.  Jane, even more than Megan, who has at least nominally retained a career, is utterly financially dependent on her husband.  She’s not at all sure that she wants a divorce, but she has no say in the matter whatsoever.  The only thing that she can do in protest is to venture, weakly, that the divorce will be “very expensive.”  She is right to bring this up.  Her husband is her sole paycheck, and it may be a while before she finds another source of income.

9 thoughts on “Spoiler Alert Thursday: Mad Men, Far Away Places

  1. I suppose it was probably so inept that I might not have picked up on the fact that that was what was going on. I think the underlying insight into Peggy’s motivations in the early episodes is great, though — it fits well with her total literalism.

  2. It’s in the pilot:

    I just wanted to thank you for a great first day. And for, you know, standing up for me with Mr. Campbell.
    [She puts her hand on top of his.]

    First of all, Peggy, I’m your boss, not your boyfriend.
    [removing her hand]
    And second of all, you let Pete Campbell go through my trash again, and you won’t be able to get a job selling sandwiches at Penn Station.

    [eyes welling]
    He said he left his fountain pen in here, I didn’t know… I hope you don’t think I’m the kind of girl–

    Of course not… Now go home, put your curlers in, and let’s start fresh again tomorrow.

  3. his decision (not their decision, whatever Roger claims)

    That’s a really great character moment — Roger’s trip lets him think that his completely selfish expression is an act of transcendental connection.

    It’s not in the show’s nature to go back to the same well, but I’d love to see more turned-on SCDP.

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