Peggy’s a captain of industry, and Megan’s a burgeoning soap star. How do the rest of the women rank?
It’s official: Don Draper and his one-time secretary Peggy Olson have switched places. While Don was bombing with his poetic suicide fantasy for Sheraton, Peggy was owning it “like a bawse” with her Super Bowl emergency ad for Koss headphones. Peggy is summoning her youth and relative hipness to create timely ads while Don’s still operating on that old magic.
Last night’s Mad Men reunited us with its strong female characters in a two-hour season premiere that was heavy on set-up and shy on unified scenes. (More on that later.) But not everyone was faring as well as Peggy – or was even given a respectable amount of screen time. Hello and goodbye to Joan, for instance. We only got one snap of her standing on the stairs, looking like a flame-haired Dolly Parton squeezed into a shade of purple only a pimp could love.
Megan Draper, however, is also ruling it pretty hard (if you don’t count her status as a cuckquean). First, on her and Don’s stoned Hawaiian vacation, she’s spotted by a fan of Berkshire Falls, the TV soap she’s on. Later, she bails on Roger’s mother’s disastrous funeral so that she can shoot more scenes. She seems bubbly with her modest success but Don is less engaged with her than ever. He lost interest in Megan because she left his world (advertising) to build her own life in acting, despite her prodigious natural talents with copy. Megan knows Don’s reputation, could’ve established one for herself, and yet she still said “I’d rather be a D-level actress on a soap,” thereby stripping Don of the only kind of power he wants in a relationship. After all, what is Don without advertising? If he can’t dazzle her with his status at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, then what else does he have?
Meanwhile, Betty is a substitute mother to everyone but her own catty daughter. She tells the precocious violin player Sandy to cool her heels on this plan to move to the East Village yet later, she tries to stoke some kind of rape fantasy her saintly husband Henry Francis didn’t even have about the girl. “You can stick a rag in her mouth,” Betty says with a malicious little smile (which January Jones could barely manage underneath her fat-face prosthesis). Rape jokes about 15-year-olds apparently counts as edgy humor around the Francis household, which seems fitting for a chilly Victorian castle in the suburbs where grandmothers dope children with Seconol.
Once Sandy goes missing, Betty tours a St. Marks’ squatter dump looking for her, and ends up helping some beatniks make goulash. When one of their friends mocks her bottled blond hair, she’s bothered enough to go and dye it black, a look that Henry charitably likens to Elizabeth Taylor (but in truth she looks more like Henry’s dragoness mother). What was she thinking? She’s never seemed that concerned with authenticity before, but Mad Men seems almost cruelly determined to punish Betty by taking away the one charm factor she possessed: beauty.
But of all the characters last night, Peggy had the most satisfying story arc, which is saying something in an episode that mostly doled out check-ins on various characters. The men especially feel inert. (Did anyone else find it tiresome to see Don in yet another affair?) Peggy has grown more confident. We see her rocking Don’s old mantle of TCOB but with just a slightly softer, savvier touch. It might’ve seemed like a token gesture, but Don would’ve never given away his meatball sub to minions who’d just flubbed a pitch session. Peggy knows to borrow the best of Don’s managerial tricks while leaving his petty and vengeful ones behind.
Peggy’s biggest asset at the moment is her self-awareness. Unlike Roger, who sublimates his grief over his mother to the shoeshine guy, or Don, who can’t recognize his own dark fantasies when captured plain in a print ad. This development might seem hard to believe from a woman who was in denial about her pregnancy a few seasons ago, but given the cultural axis-shift Peggy’s standing on top of, it makes sense. The time of Mad Men has always been billed as more difficult for women – and it no doubt was – but for a resourceful opportunist like Peggy, it created openings and if you could jockey quickly enough, you might get to the top, by 1967 terms, that is.
1. Peggy’s ranking: Future creative consultant on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run
2. Megan’s ranking: Susan Lucci meets Merry Prankster
3. Betty’s ranking: Mother Theresa to Greenwich Village
4. Sally’s ranking: Future barbiturate salesgirl at prep school
5. Joan’s ranking: Dollywood bit player
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