“Not Some Secretary From Brooklyn”

Matthew Weiner’s great subject wasn’t masculine self-invention or the advertising business or the 1960s—it was women in the workplace.

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Holloway (Christina Hendri
Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson and Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway in the first season of Mad Men.

Photo by Carin Baer/AMC

There are many ways to choose the best-ever line from seven hugely quotable seasons of Mad Men. You could pick a salient passage from the Draper Doctrine of market-driven nihilism. You could open a pot of Sterling’s Gold. You could tap a maple on a cold Vermont morning or tap a bowl with Peggy Olson. But if you ask this viewer, the honor belongs to Sterling Cooper veteran Freddy Rumsen, who, in the Season 5 episode “The Other Woman,” gave copywriter Peggy a rousing directive to show Don that she’s “not some secretary from Brooklyn who’s dyin’ to help out.”

This brief scene crystallizes so much of what Mad Men gets right about the dynamics of being a woman in the working world, whether in 1966 or in 2015. Peggy, who has stuck with one company through the formative years of her professional life, risks being typecast in her original role as the upstart secretary unless she strikes out and finds outside offers. Freddy’s comment manages to be supportive while nodding at the sexism and classism that pervades the WASP-y boys’ club of the midcentury advertising world. It’s a virus that could give even the most determined young woman a raging case of imposter syndrome: the feeling that no matter how many brilliant campaigns Peggy conceives, she’s always really be a secretary; that no matter how many people answer to her, she’ll never really make it out of Bay Ridge; that no matter how much she contributes to her company, it’s always really the company doing her a favor, just by keeping her around. Because SCDP loves to do favors. In the same episode, it grants office manager Joan Harris a partnership on the condition that she prostitute herself to a prospective client, thereby guaranteeing lifelong financial security for herself and her son. Joan’s decision to go through with the lucrative assignation is both correct and wrenching, and it has continued to look like the better of two bad choices even as its reverberations have continued to shock and humiliate Joan right down to the final episodes of Mad Men, which concludes Sunday.

In fact, throughout its run, Mad Men’s great subject has been not masculine self-invention or the 20th-century advertising business or the arc of the 1960s, but the changing role of women in the workplace.

It’s a priority that has been clear from the beginning. The pilot presented three working-woman archetypes: Rachel Menken, the steely and self-possessed business heir; Peggy, the naïve new kid who might get by on sheer talent and pluck; and Joan, red queen of the typing pool and something of a paradox in the way she so deftly uses her sex appeal to buoy herself above Sterling Cooper’s day-to-day rugby scrum of grab-ass and catcalls. Later there was Bobbie Barrett, who wasn’t born into her business but married it, and who enjoyed giving Peggy advice both enigmatic and essentialist. (“You can’t be a man. Be a woman. It’s powerful business when done correctly.” On it!) And there was Dr. Faye Miller, the mind-reading consumer research guru who loses out on Don’s affections in favor of Megan Calvet, whose talent for advertising, much like Kumar Patel’s talent for taking the MCATs, was all the more enviable for how effortlessly she deployed it and for how little she valued it.

Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris and Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, season 7B.
Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris and Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, Season 7 Part 2.

Photo by Michael Yarish/AMC

One of Mad Men’s many memorable episode closing shots is of Joan, Peggy, and Faye in the elevator together, each staring dolefully ahead, each of them mired in workplace frustrations but lacking any framework to forge feminist solidarity among themselves or start a Lean In circle right there between floors. Even when they had one another’s backs, they often stumbled or missed the other’s cues or changed their minds midstream. In Season 4, when Peggy fires a freelancer for drawing and posting obscene caricatures of Joan, Joan responds not with gratitude but with stone-faced derision. “All you’ve done,” Joan sneers, “is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.” Joan rightfully resents the notion that anyone would have to fight her battles for her—even and especially if that notion is true—and Peggy, looking more startled than offended when Joan glides impassively out of that elevator, realizes that she can’t problem-solve sexism at SCDP, try as she might.

Two seasons later, in “A Tale of Two Cities,” when Joan is put on trial in the fishbowl conference room for the capital crime of managing the Avon account herself, Peggy comes to Joan’s rescue again, covertly this time—dispatching Meredith with a fake missive that secures Joan’s turf and shows Pete Campbell that snitches get stitches. But the victory still rings hollow simply for the amount of subterfuge, good luck, and excruciating effort required for Joan to get even a crumb of respect for her abilities and ambition in the first place.

One of the rather Seinfeld-ian takeaways of Mad Men has been that people don’t really change, and the show’s long view of women in the workplace indicates that institutions don’t, either—or rather that they change so haltingly and incrementally that even the most determined female outlier would have to bang her head bloody against the glass ceiling for years or decades before she could see any cracks. Joan is a wealthy partner with an equity stake, and Peggy managed to rise from secretary to copy chief before she turned 30, yet, by the move to McCann in Mad Men’s third-to-last episode, the aptly titled “Lost Horizon,” Joan is pushed out for 50 cents on the dollar because she objects to being sexually harassed, and Peggy is being mistaken for a secretary—albeit perhaps a secretary who’s dyin’ to help out.

Over the course of seven seasons, Mad Men has sowed in us a deep and almost unconditional affection for its working women. Don is indisputably the show’s focal point, but as charismatic and hypnotic as he’s been from the jump, we never sympathized with him the way we did with Joan when Harry Crane squandered her scriptwriting talents or with Peggy every single time Don took her for granted, whether he was screaming at her about how her salary obviates his duty to treat her with common courtesy or literally flinging dollar bills in her face. (“That’s what the money is for!” indeed.) No matter how much his Depression childhood is filled in with flashbacks or how amply his dad bod is displayed, Don has remained bronzed in his mythos and mystery and untouchable talent, a Colossus of Madison Avenue. Peggy and Joan, by contrast, began as near-cartoons—the mousy naïf and the man-killer—and transubstantiated into people, lending flesh-and-blood immediacy to Mad Men’s rendering of women in the ’60s office jungle.

“There’s no number,” Peggy replies in “The Other Woman” when Don cynically asks her how much he has to pony up to keep her from fleeing into the arms of Cutler Gleason and Chaough; in the same episode, Joan names her exact numerical value (and to sleazy weasel Pete Campbell, of all people!) before agreeing to go to bed with oily Jaguar rep Herb Rennet. Everyone on Mad Men, body and mind, is a marketplace commodity, but the show made this explicit with its most beloved female characters, and never more heartbreakingly than Joan being forced out at half-off in McCann’s everything-must-go sale, destined to forever wear her suggested retail as a scarlet letter. Here was Mad Men’s most cruelly corroborated thesis statement: that while men are paid for what they do, women are priced for what they are perceived to be.

Read more of Slate’s Mad Men coverage.