Mad Men made me kind of sad last night for the first time in a long time, if ever in fact. It was a little thing I guess, but seeing Peggy be an asshole to her secretary hurt a little. I use the word asshole because it’s not a sexually loaded word like bitch or that other one that starts with a C. It’s not Peggy’s femininity that made it hurt – Roger would also be an asshole in the same situation – it hurt because Peggy has always been my “in” to a show I didn’t much care for at first. She’s had to be prickly at times with her equals and those above her on her way up, but that was justified and necessary. Last night was the first time I can think of where she was mean to someone below her and it was not at all called for. I didn’t like seeing it.
That’s not to say I blame her for it. The truth is, I can easily relate to the feelings that inspired her to snap. She’d already been not-so-subtly demeaned by male underlings Michael and Stan in the elevator over her lack of Valentine’s Day action, but then her day is quickly brightened when she mistakes the roses on her secretary Shirley’s desk as hers. As soon as you see Shirley’s reaction to the situation, however, you know the truth of it. Peggy of course assumes the roses are from her colleague and former lover Ted, which just adds to her humiliation later in the episode when Shirley finally admits the roses were for her and not Peggy after all. Peggy feels stupid and weak and exposed and she lashes out at the nearest source of her misery even though Shirley’s hesitance about being honest in the first place is tangential to all of Peggy’s other problems.
Like I said. It’s a pretty small moment in one character’s overall progression and it certainly felt like a real one, but it stung a little bit. I’ve invested a lot in the character over the years and I’d hate it if she turns into just another jerk.
Not surprisingly since Don and Peggy’s arcs have always been connected even as they move in opposite directions, Don’s actions so far this season point to him becoming more human even as Peggy becomes less so. I have to admit I did not really care for Mad Men in the first couple of seasons. It felt over-reliant on its admittedly impressive style but ultimately kind of empty. I never bought into the Cult of Don Draper and was kind of appalled at how much leash he was given by other characters and (even worse) by fans because he’s so incredibly handsome and charming. I’m not going to lie. It bugged. But then around the third or fourth season, chinks in Don’s armor started to form into cracks. It’s not been easy for him the last few seasons and I have to admit the more he’s been punished, the more I’ve liked him.
Having essentially lost everything that made him look like a success – his job and his family – this season seems to be hinting at Don maybe emerging from the ashes as a decent human being. 1960s society has radically transformed around him, but Don is still kind of a dinosaur from an era. There have been a couple of signs though that he might actually be evolving and adapting. When the season started, I sort of assumed he was doomed to turn into the animated version of himself falling from a building at the start of every episode since the beginning. But then in the first episode, he rebuffs an obvious advance from Neve Campbell. Since it was Neve and not just some unknown actress, it’s reasonable to expect we haven’t seen the last of her, but the Don Draper of even last season would not have passed up a chance for some hot sex with a beautiful woman. With his marriage to Megan crumbling and with her finding success and contentment completely independent of him, Don for the first time seems completely dejected. He’s failed and he knows it.
Then last night, there was the scene where he gets all dressed up in a suit and jacket in anticipation of his secretary dropping by when in fact he’d spent the entire afternoon in his boxers drinking, eating crackers and watching The Little Rascals. He hasn’t completely given up yet, or isn’t ready to give up the pretense of confidence and success. Then finally he lets down his mask a little bit with his daughter seemingly to the benefit of both of them. It’s been only rarely that Don ever reveals his true self (it slipped out during the Hershey meeting last season with disastrous career consequences) and even more rarely that he’s been honest with his children. It was nice to see, and even nicer that it seemed to finally bring these two characters who have so much in common closer together.
I’m not sure what the end of Mad Men is going to bring for Don, but at this point I’m leaning toward some sort of satisfaction.
A couple of my other favorite moments from last night’s episode include Pete Campbell being literally and figuratively shut out from operations back on the East Coast. “I don’t seem to exist” he complains. Pete is another character I used to hate. He was such a weasely little prick in the early seasons that I just wanted to see bad things happening to him. Even more dramatically than Don, however, Pete has been repeated taken down several notches as the show has gone on. At this point he’s almost been reduced to comic relief.
Another best moment I didn’t even notice the first time I watched it. Don’s secretary Dawn greets Peggy’s secretary Shirley as “Dawn” and Shirley greets her back as “Shirley.” It’s a subtle, almost throwaway jab at white people’s inability to distinguish between two black people. I love that these two black women have this little inside joke between them. This moment along with Bert’s kind of unexpected and unsettling request that Dawn be moved to where she can’t be seen from the elevator is a welcome confrontation of the tensions of a multi-racial office in the 60s when, for a long time after belatedly addressing race in the first place, Mad Men seemed all too happy to drop the subject until the MLK episode. It would be unfair to suggest the show’s creators felt they’d “handled” race by the firm finally hiring a black person and then they just forgot all about it, but that’s kind of how it felt. Even as I write this, I’m reminded the Drapers had a black maid in the early seasons and I seem to remember the issue of race may have come up even then – until I can rewatch for myself, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong – but last night still felt like a subtler and less awkward treatment of race than the show had attempted before.