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Fighting Against Expectations: How the characters in AMC’s Mad Men struggle with the status quo
Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, which is beginning its final run of episodes on April 5th, is about many things: identity, politics, racism, sexism, substance abuse, and the counter culture. Set in the fictional advertising company of Sterling Cooper (later Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and even later Sterling Cooper and Associates) during the 1960s, the show’s characters navigate the changing tides of history and sometimes finding themselves at odds with a world that becomes increasingly unfamiliar to them. Nearly all the characters discover that there is a deep divide between what the want and what society expects of them.
The struggle with the American Ideal and the path required of them. The game plan is straightforward: go to school, find a partner, marry, buy a house, have children, retire and die. The characters in Mad Men attempt this path to various degrees, and most find the path unrewarding.
“I used to think I’d find a husband here,” bemoans Marge (Stephanie Courtney), one of the switchboard operators in the episode “Nixon vs. Kennedy.” Her remark reflects the general attitude around the office. Women were there to land them a young executive, and some do succeed as in the case of Jane Seigel (Peyton List) who actively flirted with the young executive and eventually married one of the partners
Joan Holloway Harris (Christina Hendricks)
At first, no one displays this attitude more than Joan Holloway, the redheaded office manager. She often gives the other girls advice in this matter. She tells Peggy that she’s “hiding a very attractive, young girl with too much lunch,” in the episode “Shoot.” She assumes that Peggy is looking for a husband as well, and suspects she wants to become a copywriter in order to get closer to Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), another copywriter.
Joan’s world is altered a bit when she is given an assignment to read television scripts in order to determine ad placement. She is dismayed when she is replaced by a male after doing an exceptional job. She continues to look for a husband, eventually marrying Greg Harris (Sam Page), a doctor. She achieves her goal; however her fiancé rapes her on the floor of her boss’s office.
As her relationship with her husband starts to crumble, Joan returns to work when the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency is created. At her job, she becomes more and more independent and even starts to take on clients. Her marriage falls apart and she has a son, through an extramarital affair. She rebuilds her life as a single mother and even goes so far as to sleep with a client in order to make partner and secure her financial position.
Joan finds that what she wanted, a marriage with a doctor, was not satisfying, and it was only when she returned to work that she began to forge a new life for herself.
Betty Hofstadt Draper Francis (January Jones)
Betty’s mother was a beauty and she raised her daughter to be the same way. Her mother wanted her to be pretty so she could find a husband, and she did. While working as a model in New York, she met Don Draper and married him. She moved to the suburbs and had children. She followed the path set for her.
When we first meet her, Betty is suffering from depression and is seeing a psychiatrist. She is unhappy, and although she is mother, she is usually very cold to her children. One would conclude that Betty’s own mother was not a warm and loving individual and therefore Betty has no frame of reference. Motherhood is not always a natural state and she may not have wanted children, but did so out of expectations.
Betty discovers that not only her husband was having numerous extramarital affairs but that he was not even the man he claimed to be. Like Joan she played the part that society demanded of her and it failed her. She divorced Don and remarried. It’s unclear as of yet if Betty is any happier as a politician’s wife with Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), but it is interesting to note that Betty went right from one marriage to another, as if she doesn’t know how to be anything other than someone’s wife.
Megan Calvet Draper (Jessica Paré)
Megan is a little different; unlike the other she was raised by an academic in Canada and came to New York City to become an actor. While at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce she showed an interested at copywriting, inspired by Peggy, and she was a natural talent, but she soon realized that her true love was acting and she quit the agency to pursue that career.
Megan is truly the exception. She’s not following an expected path of marriage and children. Even when she is married she continues to work, and has no interest in bearing children. When she becomes bi-coastal, she determines that she is much more interested in continuing her career than to be involved with Don
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)
Peggy is given the most pressure to confirm to a standard. Raised in Brooklyn to devout Catholic parents, she is constantly berated by her mother for pursuing a career rather than finding a husband. At work, she rises from a secretary to a copywriter, a job that is traditionally performed by a man. She has to work to get her own colleges to see beyond the traditional gender roles. She manages to impress her male colleagues and other men outside the agency such as Duck Philips (Mark Moses) and Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm).
Her romantic life has been less than fulfilling. An early affair with Pete led to having a child out of wedlock and giving that child up for adoption. She has an affair with Duck Phillips and begins a relationship with Abe Drexler (Charlie Hofheimer), which ends badly.
Of all the women on the show, Peggy bucks the system the most, first by moving into a male-dominated field at work, and then by not following the traditional relationship trajectory. Rather than marry Abe, she moves in with him. Peggy is the character most likely to do her own thing and may end up being the most successful of all.
While not as restrictive as the women, the men have a similar path: get married and have children, but also have expectations in their career. These men grew up in the old boys’ network and that’s what they expect.
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser)
Pete has expectations of his own and bucks against the ones that are imposed on him. Pete comes from Old Money the Dyckman family, but it is Old Money without any money left, yet his still has a sense of entitlement. In the early years he expects things handed to him, like the position of head of accounts, but when he doesn’t get what he wants he eventually buckles down and becomes a stellar accounts man.
When we first meet Pete he is about to get married to Trudy (Allison Brie), but it is clear he’s not thrilled about the prospect. When the couple starts to have problems conceiving, he bristles at the notion, wondering exactly why they even are trying for a child. He questions the path that is laid out for them, and he is never happy. Even with a beautiful wife and loving daughter, he is not satisfied, and only after making mistake after mistake does his marriage finally end.
Roger Sterling (John Slattery)
Roger was born rich and really never had to work for anything. His father owned the company and his partnership was inherited. Roger wants what he wants whenever he wants it, but what he wants is never the same. When we meet him he’s been married to Mona for a long time and having an affair with Joan, after talking with Don, he decided that he wants to end his marriage and marry Don’s secretary, but even that doesn’t make him happy.
Roger experiments with LSD, trying to find some meaning to his life. He job at the agency is merely babysitting the Lucky Strike account, and when that account decided to leave, Roger finds himself without purpose. He is still in love with Joan and that might be the only thing that will ever make him happy.
Don Draper A.K.A. Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm)
Don grew up poor. His mother was a whore who died in childbirth and he was given to his biological father and raised by him and his wife, and was a constant reminder of her husband’s infidelity. When his father was killed by a horse, Don went to live in a whorehouse with his uncle. Don doesn’t know hat a normal family is supposed to be like, but yet he constantly wants it.
However once he has a normal family, or what he thinks a normal family should be, he begins to grow restless. He can not stay faithful to his wife Betty, having a parade of mistresses, and he wants to be a good father, but never had a true role model. When he marries again, he also thinks it is what he wants, but when his second wife leaves the agency to pursue her acting career, he grows restless again, having an affair with a neighbor. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) said it best, that Don “only likes the beginning of things.”
The disgust with the status quo is reflected at his job. He doesn’t want a contract and he doesn’t want to work for a group like McCann Erikson, where he will be just one cog in a mighty machine.
It’s unclear where Don will go in the future. He’s beginning to reconcile his true identity and attempting to repair the damage to his relationship with his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka). But whatever happens, he’s going to do it his way.
Mad Men returns April 5th.