I was slow to join the Mad Men crowd, mostly because I thought entering a time warp of sexism would make me want to spit fire or cry or both. But I heard enough wonderful things about the show that I decided to give it a try, and thank goodness I did. Yes, it has made me want to spit fire, and it has made me cry. But this show—oh, this show. It is beautifully written. It is simultaneously a story about a group of flawed people who garner sympathy even when they don’t deserve it and a time capture of a significant period in American history. The show is a marriage of the two—reality and symbol—in which the characters are both themselves and emblems of their time.
You have to watch the show for a while to get this duality, to become immersed in it. Much of the symbolism is accomplished on an unconscious level, through subtext. It is within the interior decorating—the chairs and the art, the evolving skin of the turbulent sixties. It is in the wardrobes and hairstyles of the characters—always impeccable, always timed to the year. It is in the dialogue, the interplay between men and women as slowly, more and more women become coworkers on equal footing rather than glorified mistresses of the workplace. Watch the show as I did, four straight seasons in a row, and you realize that you are watching a live novel, character inextricable from plot deeply rooted in time. Yes, I’ve fallen in love with this show.
But I wasn’t ready to write about it until I saw the episode in which Don Draper, mad man extraordinaire, reaches his lowest point in an emotional and physical descent he’s been making for a while. In this episode, “The Suitcase,” we are given the ultimate marriage of reality and symbol. And it is both heartbreaking and transcendent.
To give you some quick background, Don is a partner in the firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and he is the head honcho of advertising. We have learned, by now, that he is a fraud: I won’t tell you exactly how, because I don’t want to ruin the show for those of you who haven’t watched it. Suffice it to say that we know this: Don is an ad man through and through, selling the product of Don Draper to anyone who will listen. Deep inside, below the layers of fraud, there is a lost, hurt boy who is seeking salvation and explanation, and he seeks it mostly from women. He has been taught that women—especially the kind you marry—are decorative intellectual inferiors. Through encounters with various powerful women, he seeks a true partner, but he doesn’t know himself well enough, and doesn’t respect women enough, to form such a union. At his worst, he treats women like disposable sex objects. At his best, he seeks a woman with whom he can truly be himself, a friend who will allow him to shed his false skin and love him anyway. But each time he finds such a woman, he either cannot view her sexually or does something to implode the relationship. Don, in other words, is bad news for any woman. But do women head in the opposite direction when he enters the room? Hell, no. He is too damn good-looking. And charming. After all, he’s an ad man. The very best.
In this episode, Don is spending the evening with Peggy Olson, his former secretary who shot up the ladder of success to become the only female copywriter at the firm. We have watched Peggy evolve from ingénue to ballbuster, but when she is with Don she defers to his authority. He is her mentor, her boss, the reason she is no longer a secretary. She is grateful to him, but she has no illusions about him. He has the dirt on her, and while she doesn’t know the full extent of his history, she’s saved him from more than one embarrassing situation. Theirs is a complex relationship, but until this episode I didn’t realize just how complex.
The evening of this episode, during which Peggy and Don are working on an ad campaign when everyone else has fled the office, becomes a singular point of vulnerability for them both. It is Peggy’s birthday, and she has eschewed her boyfriend and her entire family (who await her at a restaurant) to work with Don. Don is summoning the courage to make the worst phone call of his life, and he does so—as all of the mad men do most things—by drinking. He and Peggy leave the office to eat, and he drinks. And drinks. When they return to the office, Peggy’s ex-boyfriend is there—also drunk—and the two men fight. After Peggy escorts her ex-boyfriend out of the office, she hurries down the hallway to check on Don. It is in her worried step that we find the moment of her doom and ours.
“Oh,” I said aloud to my husband, watching Peggy walk toward Don. “She loves him. I didn’t know that before.”
Poor Peggy. Poor all of us.
Don can never return her love; not only is he incapable of loving another person completely, but he doesn’t see her in that way—he never can. She knows him too well.
And she gets to know him better.
In the weak gray light of morning, after Peggy and Don have slept on the couch, his head in her lap, Don makes his phone call. And then he breaks down crying. He gives Peggy an explanation, and she comforts him.
And there it is: the doomed beauty of this show.
I keep wanting to comfort all the characters. I want to hold Don while he cries and finally accepts his real self; I want to hold his daughter, Sally, who is old enough to understand about half of what is happening in her family and young enough to be hurt by all of it. I want to comfort Peggy, and Joan, and Betty, and all of the strong, weak, complex, self-effacing, empowered and disempowered women of this show. And (sometimes most of all) I want to comfort every last damn sexist mad man in that office, the stupid childish immature idiots. I want to comfort them because they are so lost, and they have no idea what will save them. They have no idea that they are living in a truncated world of their own making, and all they have to do is look up, fess up, and become whole.
Ah, but there’s the rub. The stupid childish immature idiots are always looking to women to comfort them, to save them, to teach them, to obey them. And the women do it, they do every last bit of it, never revealing to the men that they, too, are broken.
The question this show asks so beautifully, so unflinchingly, is this: when will we look up? When will we fess up, and become whole?
Not just the men, but all of us—every last damn broken sexist one of us.