“Mad Men” and its new conflicted woman

25 April 2012

Toward the end of Season 4 (which I wrote about here), I could feel Don’s inexorable march toward Megan (Jessica Paré). No matter how much I respected his affair with the smart, charismatic Faye Miller (Cara Buono), I could see that he (Jon Hamm) doesn’t really want intelligence or self-possession from a woman. Megan is the perfect woman of her day — that sculpted face, the unusual mouth (she almost seems to try to hide it every time she speaks), the way 1966’s brashly colored, leggy clothes fit her.

In marrying the handsomest, most talented, and sphinxlike man at the agency, Megan feels like she won a lottery. But this is a lottery with rules forged during 1958, not 1966. How much do I love the way the show displays her conflict?

She’s going to have to decide, isn’t she? She’ll have to reconcile herself to the fact that her marriage is the only thing that lifted her out of the secretarial pool into copywriting, but that’s just the beginning. Does she take herself seriously enough to be a copywriter? Does she have the stomach to take risks the way Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) did? Can she work alongside that new husband of hers, that man who doesn’t take her seriously as a colleague?

It’s becoming clear that her options are terrible. If she gives up on the office, her options look bleak — most of them are reducible to the kind of wifeliness that broke Don’s first wife Betty (January Jones), and seems to have broken Roger Sterling’s ex-secretary trophy wife Jane (Peyton List).

One thing’s for certain: she can’t have it both ways. That song and dance near the end of the first episode of Season 5 — the French sexpot number that took what was merely a bad judgment call in arranging a surprise birthday party for Don, and turned it into a disaster for her ability to appear professional in the office — oh, it crystallized Megan’s naïveté and her downfall. She can’t be sexy around her co-workers anymore. She can’t be respected as an artistic talent. Don refuses to understand her need for respect and a degree of autonomy at the office. She damn well sure doesn’t want to be just a wifey.

Who knew she’d be in such a tiny box?

No wonder, when she’s furious with him, their fights would take on such histrionic, BDSM proportions — all about control and submission. It’s the one place where (sometimes) Megan can control the outcome. But at the end of one of them, as he grasps her around the waist and holds on like an abused child, the director forces us to imagine her face while we watch his. For we suspect she cannot believe she sold out her youth and promise to win a prize that’s already broken.

I’m not saying the show will cease to use Don and, to a slightly lesser degree Peggy, as its centerpieces. But Megan is perfectly drawn. Nor is her struggle only a vestige of the 60s. I’ll bet a lot of office romances today put women in similar positions unless they are (unusually) the more powerful and highly paid partner in the relationship.

I’ll bet that even some of my students face this dilemma — drawn to believe they can both find love and career advancement via that powerful man, only to find the love conflicted and their careers confined. And, as with Mad Men, that guy believes he’s the center of the story. Oh, Megan.

4 Responses to ““Mad Men” and its new conflicted woman”

  1. Now how about Don? he’s become a different man, at least it seems so. Actually this scene reminded me of the abuse he must have witnessed as a child, and it seemed, to me at least that he was remembering that too.
    I hope Megan doesn’t give up on her goals, she seems clearly cut out for more!

    • Didion Says:

      Oooh! another super-fan to chat with. Is Don a different man? I wish we could hash this out more extensively. Sometimes he seems so close to being a Roger — that unrepentant dinosaur of an earlier era (albeit with such great lines!) — and sometimes he seems capable of change. That dream sequence in which the woman from his past comes back to haunt him seems to reveal how much he’s afraid he hasn’t changed at all. Maybe that’s why he clung onto her hips with such desperation at the end of this week’s episode?

      • Roger does get the BEST lines, can’t help love him even if he clearly seems stuck in the past. About the dream sequence: How he fought that urge from the past! And again it seemed as if his father’s violent history came back to haunt him .. btw love sexual the boundaries the show explores with Peggy!

  2. Didion Says:

    That dream sequence…it’s stuck in my head. And, I might add, it seems awfully realistic as nightmares go. The idea that he might be drawn back to the kind of behavior of his past, and then want to destroy any record of having engaged in that behavior — I don’t know whether Don will remain on the up & up with Megan, but we’ve certainly seen that it’s going to be a struggle in his subconscious mind at least.

    You’re too right about the way the show is letting Peggy continue to grow/ make mistakes. And the way she and Don have a kind of unspoken conspiracy between them — one that they experience so intensely every once in a while — that seems quite realistic given their past and their personalities. I just love that part of the show.

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