TV Club

Mad Men season 7 reviewed: I wish Mad Men had handled its themes about women in the workplace with a little more subtlety.

I wish Mad Men had handled its themes about women in the workplace with a little more subtlety.

Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in Mad Men.
Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in Mad Men.

Photo by AMC

John, Julia,

Holloway Harris! Brilliant. A double dose of the Red Queen. I love the way the newly minted production company’s name snuck past us, signaling that Joan already knew that Harris Olson was not to be. Just as I loved how it snuck past us that Joan was offering Peggy $1,200 to moonlight—and portraying it as a fortune—when the offer from Ken Cosgrove was for $50,000.* (Guess who would pocket the rest.) The stunted negotiation between the two women perfectly captured the two female types, a division that’s run through all of Mad Men: Peggy, a creature of the office, who understands its rules perfectly but is trapped by them, and Joan, who uses them as a springboard to actual life. And it also captured another compelling theme of the show: the inability of women of that era to bond together to beat the man.

Jessica Winter wrote last week that the great subject of Mad Men was not masculine self-reinvention but women in the workplace. I agree that Matt Weiner took this on as a central and recurring theme but I also think, in this finale and elsewhere, it was somewhat dutifully executed. Fred Kaplan and others have taken me to task for calling the piggish executive Joan and Peggy encountered “cartoonish,” because, in fact, men of that era were just that bad. Point taken, but Mad Men is not a documentary. While the sexism may reflect the times, I still find it unsatisfying that, as characters, Peggy and Joan are put through such obvious sociological dilemmas while the men are allowed to wander down a more novelistic arc.

Peggy and Stan: that one mortified me. Partly it’s what you pointed out, Julia. The office marriage is a delicate dynamic. It thrives on a mild sexual tension that must never be realized. If Peggy has absolute authority on anything, it’s the rules of office politics, down to the finest details. (“He acts like we’re the three musketeers. We’ve never even had lunch!”) Taking that away from Peggy seemed like an act of cinematic heresy. The phone silence between Peggy and Stan in an earlier episode made me cry, while this Bye Bye Birdie style love chatter felt so empty. When have we ever seen Peggy melt, tap her heart and giggle? And then that last shot of them, Stan, Mr. “There’s more to life than work,” rubbing her shoulders while she taps away at the typewriter. Cut to 1980, where Stan has a roast in the oven and a toddler in his arms while Enjoli Superwoman walks in the door and puts up her feet for a massage. 

Joan’s conflict unfolded with a little more subtlety, but not much. The banter between her and Richard was just right, the misunderstandings brimming under the surface. Richard says he wants her to take advantage of all he has, then adds, “all you have.” In her mind, what Joan has is $500,000 and a full Rolodex, but Richard is waving his hand up and down her body. She has in mind her earning potential; he has in mind her physique. Richard is not a cartoonish villain. He recognizes that their relationship would turn ugly if he were in a position of always rooting for her to fail, as he says. But the final showdown between them is, once again, for a woman on Mad Men, man vs. work, love vs. success. There’s Joan, putting a client on hold, tears on her cheeks as she watches bliss walk out the door. Even the barely legal blonde Don sleeps with is trapped in the feminine mystique, telling Don she’d like to have a man to take care of while stealing from his wallet.

Don, meanwhile, took a journey that felt a lot less archetypal. In that final shot of him ohm-ing, I imagined him not trudging up a linear path of history, as Joan and Peggy do, but walking in little circles, like we all do. Julia, I was actually surprised at how ungenerous an ending Weiner had laid out for Don. (Yes, he got a hug, but in my favorite moment of the episode, he also got a shove from that grey-haired woman). After all that suffering, all those betrayals and heartbreaks and wine stains, Don ended up pretty much where he always was, only a little more self-actualized. And if we didn’t know it already, this episode made clear what Weiner thinks of self-actualization: “Divorce: a creative experience,” and the naked man who dresses himself in red mechanic overalls. Weiner is on the side of the woman in group therapy who feels for the abandoned children, and yet he let Don walk glibly out the other side and make a jingle. If he did indeed make that famous Coke ad, then Don is responsible for harnessing all the ’60’s idealism into corporate profits, the precursor to today’s odious Bobos in Paradise.

Another very present theme of this finale was the next generation—the fate of the children in the show who are exact contemporaries of many of its viewers. Kaplan argued that the show’s moral center is Sally. I found it a little sad where she ended up. I expected Sally would represent next-generation freedom from female roles, but there she was, in her yellow gloves, while Betty sat at the table reading the paper and smoking a cigarette, like Sally’s future jerk of a husband. Roger took his proper place in the generations, settling down with an age appropriate woman and leaving a fortune to his son. No mention of Peggy’s child—that surprised me, although maybe we are meant to imagine that happy Stan will one day fold him up in his big hairy arms. John, I know how fond you are of Ken. What do you make of his damaged progeny? In the context of the one-eyed Wasp, what does a “little weird” look like?

I translated your speech into Pig Latin,


Read the previous entry, by Julia Turner | Read the next entry, by John Swansburg

Correction, May 18, 2015: This post originally misstated that Joan offered Peggy $12,000 to moonlight. She offered her $1,200.