Dear Seth and Julia,
Being a woman in the workplace in 1969: What a freaking seesaw ride. Tonight’s very cringey, very funny episode of Mad Men served up a mess of storylines about the distorted and distorting power dynamics still facing SC&P’s female employees. I’ll start with Dawn and Shirley, whose break room conversation is one of the few (only?) extended chats between two black characters in the show’s history and, from the scathing “Hello Dawn/Hello Shirley” opening—demonstrating without overtly explaining that their colleagues don’t bother to tell them apart—it was perfect, the kind of friendly, collegial, open, everyday shop talk they can’t engage in with their white peers.
In that conversation, Shirley was the more aggrieved one, telling Dawn she was going to get her flowers back from Peggy. Meanwhile Dawn, whom we’d just seen dropping materials off at Don’s—giving him his only reason to get dressed anymore—advised Shirley to bite her tongue: Better to have a job than make a fuss, however much a fuss is warranted. But when Lou kicks her off his desk, it’s Dawn who, awesomely, can’t take her own advice. Her yelling at Lou was a quintessential Mad Men moment, one of historically constrained progress. It was so gratifying to watch Dawn stand up for herself, and so frustrating to see Lou get his way anyway—because in 1969, life isn’t fair, and bosses still get to mistreat their secretaries, especially the black ones.
As for Lou, last week he came across as little more than a fuddy-duddy. Sure, Peggy hated him, but he seemed like a mediocre lump, a nice enough guy who wasn’t inspiring. Now we know better: He is a mediocre, lumpish villain. Even before he laid into Dawn for slightly inconveniencing him while she was out buying his wife perfume, he was mean to Sally. He saw a teenage girl in trouble and … hustled her out of the building as fast as he could. And, I may be reading too much into this, but I thought his response to Roger’s story about being called a kike—“The strangest things happen to you”—had a little hint of, “The strangest things happen to you; no one would ever mistake me for a Jew.” Now I don’t just want Don back at SC&P so I can avoid learning more about his apartment’s roach problem—I want him back so he can take Lou’s job.
But we expect random dudes in offices in 1969 to be heels. Seeing Peggy act just as badly as Lou, if not worse, was a disappointment. She was disappointed in herself, too, or so says that grimace she made in the privacy of her own office. The opening misunderstanding, when she takes Shirley’s roses and then thinks she “understands” that they are from Ted, was excruciating and funny, a classic case of Peggy outsmarting herself. When she gives the flowers back to Shirley, it seems like an acceptable solution: Peggy doesn’t have to learn how foolish she’s been, Shirley gets the flowers back. But things escalate when Peggy asks Shirley to throw the flowers out and Shirley tells the truth. Peggy, admittedly embarrassed, lashes out and gets hugely unprofessional. “You have a ring. Everyone knows you’re engaged,” Peggy says, laying all of her single-lady stress on Shirley, and implying there’s a whole other power dynamic between the two women that Shirley is supposed to be aware of, but also never draw Peggy’s attention to. Peggy caps off her tantrum with “Grow up!” when, clearly, the only person she should be yelling that at is herself.
Lou and Peggy both behave like boss-babies, selfish children who expect someone else to clean up their mess. That someone else being, specifically, Joan. Lou to Joan: “None of this is my problem!” Peggy to Joan: “Just fix it!” And then, the doddering racist white guy icing on the cake, Bert Cooper, who comes into Joan’s office and requests that a white secretary sit at the very front desk.
And yet out of all of this awful behavior and unfair spats come some unexpectedly satisfying solutions. Jim, seeing that Joan does indeed have two jobs, suggests it might be time for her to move upstairs, where she can focus more on her accounts than on personnel. (Between that and calling Don “our collective ex-wife who we still pay alimony,” Jim had a good night.) Shirley moves from Peggy’s desk to Lou’s, which, sadly, seems like an improvement. And Dawn becomes the new Joan—a headache of a job to be sure, but also a promotion. Dawn’s smile at finding herself in her own office was a great moment.
Thematically rounding all of these stories were two other women. Pete’s girlfriend Bonnie, who is so driven she gives me the heebie-jeebies even though I think I respect the hell out of her. I loved how flatly she rejected Pete’s coercive effort to make her leave work early, refused to allow that his work somehow mattered more than hers, and kiboshed his self-pity party. Her line, “We’re salesmen, our fortunes are in other people’s hands. We have to take them,” was good, cutthroat advice that every character on that show could stand to, if not precisely follow, at least remember.
And then there’s Sally. As she is getting older she is learning not just, like her mother, to “lie in wait,” but how to call B.S. when she sees it. I’ll leave the Sally dissecting to you guys, except to say that story ended surprisingly well, too, with Don telling the truth, and getting a “Happy Valentine’s Day, I love you” from his daughter in return—a more than fair trade.
Don’t bother apologizing to me I guess,
Read all of Slate’s coverage of Mad Men.