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Character Studies: Sally Draper

Sally Draper
Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper on Mad Men.


Devoted fans of any well-written TV show risk becoming so invested in the intricacies of the characters’ lives that they start talking as if they know these people the way one knows a colleague or a friend. When that show is as committed to historical accuracy as Mad Men, the risk is even greater: Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling—these characters feel real (to me, anyway). When rumors erupted last month that Joan and Don might hook up in the upcoming season, fans declared that they knew better. But if Matthew Weiner has taught us anything, it’s that the closer we feel to a character, the more likely that character is to shock us (consider the surprising/controversial proposal in the Season 4 finale, for instance).

As Mad Men progresses, more and more characters elicit this kind of complicated devotion. When Season 5 starts this Sunday, my eyes will be on Sally Draper.

The eldest child of the former Mr. and Mrs. Draper always had a mind of her own, surviving the first two seasons with scene-stealing one-liners, pouty facial expressions, and pliés. (Who doesn’t love an 8-year-old ballerina who can also serve up a perfect drink?) In contrast to brother Bobby, who has been played by three different actors (so far), Sally is and always will be Kiernan Shipka. In Season 3, her devotion to Grandpa Gene—whose death prompted emotional turmoil that Sally’s parents didn’t seem to grasp—gave depth and complexity to the part. In Season 4, Sally graduated from a supporting character with a distinctive lisp to a series regular. It’s begun to feel, in fact, as if the show is, deep down, really all about Sally. As Maureen Ryan put it in the Chicago Tribune, “you could almost sum up the AMC drama by calling it a prelude to Sally Draper’s inevitable years of therapy.”

Sally’s years of therapy have actually started already: In one of my favorite episodes, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” Sally gets sent to a therapist after 1) cutting her hair when Don is on a date and the babysitter isn’t paying attention, and 2) getting caught “touching herself” at a friend’s slumber party. (If you haven’t seen it, Kiernan Shipka’s comic turn as a child therapist is worth checking out.) This episode made clear, for those who weren’t sure already, that Sally was a character worth caring about. It was an exciting turn for the show: While so many other characters have mysterious or unknown pasts, Sally is someone we’ve gotten to watch from her own personal beginnings.

It was also exciting because it meant that Sally would not become an even brattier version of her mother. She is, instead, the anti-Betty. While Betty is a child in an adult body, Sally is a child who desperately wants to be an adult. She has precocious relationships with Don and neighbor-boy Glen (who had his own weird relationship with Betty in Season 1), and she frequently prefers the company of adults to that of other children. As a kid caught between two parents of divorce, she is curious and confused, but not afraid to ask for what she wants—and what she thinks she deserves.

She’s also one of the only characters on the show that Don Draper continues to love, no matter what. When she shows up unannounced at his office after running away from home in the Season 4 episode “Beautiful Girls,” Don’s initial anger subsides; he takes the next day off work for a day out with his favorite child. She makes her dad French toast; when Don suggests she shouldn’t be using the stove, she responds, “Oh daddy, I use it all the time … and we can watch the Today Show.” What she thinks is syrup turns out to be rum; a fitting metaphor, that. But only a girl with her confidence—or naiveté, maybe—would say to Don, “I want to stay and I don’t know why I can’t,” and still have his love and attention the next day.

Thanks to the accidental use of an anachronistic song in the Season 5 premiere, we recently learned that this Sunday’s episode is set in 1966—placing Sally firmly in her tween years. Will the character who was always growing up too soon, wanting to eat with the adults and talk about “it,” finally command as much attention as the show’s other strong female characters? I hope so. If we’re lucky, less Betty—thanks, in part, to January Jones’ pregnancy—will mean even more Sally.

See all of Slate’s coverage of Mad Men, Season 5 here.

Previous Character Studies: Britta, Community Amber, Parenthood Claire, Modern Family Jean-Ralphio, Parks and Recreation Sterling Archer, Archer