‘Mad’ Women: How did the ladies fare in ‘Mad Men’s last season premiere?


I’ve been watching Mad Men since it first began airing, since I first started understanding that good television has to have nuance and subtlety and signals built into every scene. It seems like TV has sort of grown up around it, and judging by the crop of great shows on AMC, HBO and beyond, it certainly paved the way for that sort of programming. It’s a bit sad to see that we’ve all sort of forgotten about Mad Men, especially now that AMC seems to be building this dumb extended final season stuff for all its high-caliber shows. But let’s not forget that Mad Men also opened up the way we talk about women on TV–it’s a show with women writers and starring female protagonists who are very real in their struggle to be taken seriously as women and as professionals. And that’s why I’ll be writing about it, and its female characters, every week until the end in what we’re calling “Mad Women.”

Women in mad men are frequently used to stand in for male desires, and this episode begins with Don ogling a model in a chinchilla coat, him caught in some sort of sad reverie as he directs how she should look. Don Draper tries to fill in the various gaps in his life with women, but he can’t seem to reduce them to objects no matter how hard he tries. He always fantasizes emotional intimacy with them until he discovers that women aren’t there to be fantasized about–they live the way they wanted to live, as a character later in the episode says about a woman who was one of the strongest Don has ever had an affair with.

Don is certainly not shy about broadcasting how he grew up in a whorehouse anymore, and at a late-night dinner with Roger (JOHN SLATTERY’S MUSTACHE! SO MANY MUSTACHES!), he showboats with tales of how poor he was. Don is weirdly attracted and fascinated by the waitress at the diner despite being surrounded by glamorous models. Later, the flight attendant Don gets busy with bends down to clean spilled wine on the floor, just like Megan did after Don’s awkward 40th birthday party. It’s probably not a coincidence that she ends up finding a charm that belonged to now-ex-wife Megan on the floor, too.

In a ever-so-slightly off scene (well, Pete’s smiling doofus face always seems unreal to me), Rachel Menkin is one of the potential chinchilla coat models, but it might have been all in Don’s head (apparently Rachel passed away last week). This isn’t the first time Don’s seen ghosts, and before she leaves, Rachel says she’s there to tell him he missed his flight. Is she the flight he missed?

Mad Men is never really about the advertising, and I know some people complain about the business meeting scenes, but they’re so valuable for understanding the various power plays in the office. Joan and Peggy are cool and confident with the dissatisfied Topaz guys, while Harry sits slumped and silent and Ken looks baffled and irritable. Even at this stage of the game these client side, guys are still politely baffled by female ad execs, but that’s nothing compared to the McCann guys. They immediately proceed to make sexiest remarks, flirt inappropriately and completely condescend to Peggy while hitting on an increasingly uncomfortable Joan.

The other focal point of the episode is Joan and Peggy getting into a terse, cutting argument after that disastrous meeting. Peggy tells Joan that she should expect to be treated like a piece of meat because of the way she dresses, and Joan insinuates that she can never dress like Peggy because Peggy isn’t as beautiful as she is. Peggy’s retort is that, being a partner in the firm, Joan has enough money to simply not give a shit any more. It’s a little nasty both ways, but it prompts Peggy to take up a blind date offer with a co-worker’s brother, since Peggy vacillates between wanting to be a sweetheart who’s loved or a ruthless boss. This guy is a dorky dude who seems initially put off by Peggy’s assertiveness, but admits that his brother told him she was fearless, and the date seems to go way better when it’s clear that’s why he wanted to date her. Peggy gets adorably drunk and, after admitting she’s never even taken a vacation before, spontaneously says they should leave the restaurant and just go to Paris. That’s not quite what happens, as Peggy can’t find her passport, but she and the guy part on great terms anyway, promising to see each other soon. The next day, Peggy is back to normal, irritably shrugging off the knowing smiles and embarrassed to have had that moment of weakness.

Joan ignores the shitty McCann guy’s call the next day, saying she’s in a meeting but goes shopping instead. She buys at least a thousand bucks worth of Oscar de la Renta clothes at the department store she used to work at when her garbage ex-husband made her quit her job at the agency, but swiftly denies working there when the sales associate recognizes her. Joan’s beauty is reassuring for her, just like being the boss in charge is reassuring to Peggy–it’s something she knows she’s good at, something she can always fall back on, but it doesn’t fulfill her.

In an unrelated side plot, poor Ken defends his job to his wife, who wants him to quit and write a novel. He admits he’s waiting to see if he gets that raise, but gets fired the next day instead. The next morning, a weirdly manic Ken tells Don that this is a sign of the life not lived, and he plays the eager, dreaming writer with Pete while handing off all his old accounts to him. The next morning, in an awesomely underhanded move, he tells Pete and Roger that he’s been hired to be head of advertising by his father-in-law at Dow Chemical, and pleasantly promises to be the worst client SCDP has ever had.

Don goes back to the diner to see the attractive waitress again, and it clicks for me–she looks a bit like Rachel, and they sneak in a quickie in the back alley. Weirdly, the waitress seems to know exactly what Don wants, although whether it’s simple sex, or because she’s aware she’s a stand-in, who knows? Don tries to continue talking to her after they get back to the diner, but she rebuffs him, bluntly telling him he’s got his $100 worth, so he can go.

The next evening, Don shows up at Rachel’s apartment, where her family is sitting shiva, and he learns that she had leukemia from her sister. Surrounded by people who loved Rachel and who have no time for him, Don stands alone and imagines what could have been. Rachel’s sister says she lived exactly as she wanted to live, excluding Don entirely. She had no regrets.

Don Draper, America’s Greatest Womanizer, seems to have finally realized that women don’t even want him.

Random asides:

  • “Should we get lunch?” “I want to burn this place down.”
  • I’ve literally just noticed that Ken’s father-in-law is Ray Wise, who you may know best as the constantly sobbing, tapdancing father of Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks.
  • “I just started cooking. I made … what is it called again?” “A pop tart, Ed.”
  • I can never believe this Peggy has anything to do with Season 1’s Peggy.
  • “You should write an adventure story. Do you know how great you’d look on the inside of a book jacket?” Ken’s pirate eye patch is never not awesome.

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