The XX Factor

You Watch Mad Men Because Peggy Is a Museum Specimen

Another round from Matt Labash on Mad Men , Peggy, and lip-plated cannibals. Is he right about why we watch?

Sure, I’d go for that plot twist . But at the risk of offending my DoubleX sisters, I’d actually like to see much less of Peggy until she can figure out what to do with her bangs. They’re distracting. You’re right on all the merits, of course. Never would I suggest for a moment-especially not to you, Emily, who I have struggled and marched with-that women shouldn’t receive equal pay for equal work. Of course they should. But we’re not talking about gender equity in employment law. We’re talking about a fictional subculture on a television show. I’d put Peggy’s subplot in another category from what I was complaining about yesterday (ham-fisted topicality), since her tensions are intrinsic to the goings-on at Sterling Cooper.

But to put you and many of the show’s viewers on the couch for a second, I’d submit to you that the reason you watch Mad Men isn’t to see Peggy collect shards of glass ceiling in her lint-roller bangs. You watch with intense interest precisely because she is oppressed. The clubby frat-boy barbarism that you would never tolerate in real life is actually what fascinates you on some visceral level. If David Plotz, say, acted similarly on the Slate Political Gabfest (knowing Plotz, I can’t swear that he wouldn’t), he’d be frog-marched out by an HR rep in about a half a second and put in a stockade, where the women of Slate would jeer him and poke him with sticks. Which would make a swell podcast on Slate V , come to think of it. In other words, it’s behavior that’s become completely foreign to you, because the men in your life presumably don’t behave that way, and therefore, it’s more interesting to watch. The same as if you’d watch a documentary on some exotic, lip-plated tribe of cannibals. The anachronistic and unfamiliar holds interest because their ways are not yours. Hell, Mad Men ’s ways are not my ways-except for the daytime drinking, which I’ve always held is a pretty useful model for living. ( Note from Emily: More from us on DoubleX about drinking like Mad Men , soon . )

The genius of Mad Men , particularly Season One, is that it was as proud and unapologetic a period piece as I’ve ever seen, in that it did not condescend to its unenlightened characters. They merely were what they were. They behaved as they behaved-as they would’ve behaved at the time. If you wanted to pass judgment, that was your business. But the writers felt no need to club us over the head with what the sit-commers call the M.O.S.-the nice, tidy moment-of-shit ending. And so you quietly enjoyed the frisson provided by Draper’s caddishneess or Roger’s piggishness-as much as you enjoy Peggy’s steady build-up to the inevitable bra-burning that I suspect will happen mid-Season Four, shortly before the Woodstock episode, which I’m not looking forward to. Why? Not because I don’t love braless women and Jimi Hendrix. I do. I understand the outside forces the writers are bringing to bear, and can’t fault them for it. But the story they’re heading for has been written a million times in a million different ways. The story they’re telling hasn’t.

I don’t understand why it’s considered impossible to freeze fictional time and milk it until it moos. It’s totally possible. Otherwise, Brenda and Brandon couldn’t have stayed high school students on Beverly Hills 90210 for the better part of 10 years, and MASH couldn’t have lasted four times longer than the Korean War. By taking the leap ahead into the ’60s, the show will become something else. If you’re watching the documentary on lip-plated cannibals, do you really want to see them rescued by missionaries, brought to Passaic, N.J., and enrolled in classes down at the community college? No. You want to see them eat people. It’s what they do. And there’s something dramatically satisfying about watching people fulfill their nature, even if its base and cuts against the accepted norms of today.

Or maybe my doomsday predictions won’t happen. Hell, it’s early. And though I don’t think the show is up to Season One standards (I didn’t think Season Two was up to Season One standards, either-it was a ridiculously high standard), it’s still one of the best two or three shows on television, so its makers should be forgiven much. Weiner and co. have given a gift. I just want to make sure it keeps on giving.