by Claire Moshenberg on April 14, 2012

Mad Men brought back the ladies of Sterling/Cooper/Draper/Price, and they delivered with story lines that dropped my jaw and renewed my Mad Men love. But before we get into that….

Other Stuff That Happened

  • Nurses were raped and murdered in Chicago; Pauline Francis made a terrible story worse by delivering an overly aroused, practically salivating late night rendition of it as a bed time story to an already terrified Sally Draper. Then she gave her a Secanol! Babysitters these days, I tell ya.
  • Ginsberg delivered an intense Cinderella retelling at a pitch meeting with a client; somehow he managed to do this while impersonating Woody Allen.
  • Don is getting older. He used to be an adulterer, and now he’s not. Both things are difficult. Don’s whole storyline, if you can call it that, can be summed up in those three sentences. The dream sequence, the too obvious symbolism, the sick old man juxtaposed with pretty young Megan imagery—it was like a high school English class short story, rife with sloppy metaphors on obvious themes.

Dashed Dreams: Peggy and Joan come full circle

In Episode One, Season One, Peggy trails eagerly behind Joan, as Joan offers this sage advice to her fresh-faced-outer-boroughs hire: “In a couple of years with the right moves, you’ll be in the city with the rest of us. Of course, in a couple of years if you really make the right moves, you’ll be in the country and you won’t be going to work at all.”

It’s 1966, episode 4 of Season 6, and when it comes to Peggy and Joan, all the right moves have been made. Joan is married to a handsome doctor stationed in Vietnam. Peggy sidestepped traditional gender norms and sought out a career instead of a cushy life in the country. Not only is she a gifted copy-writer, but after years of practice, she can connive and imbibe with the best of them. Unfortunately, the aftermath of all those right moves isn’t pretty.

While Joan boasts ample beauty and brains, her husband Greg is a bumbling surgeon, unable to land a job after his residency, then bouncing from field to field and surfacing late at night, drunk and directionless. While directionless losers and the beautiful women who love them are television’s bread and butter, Greg and Joan’s relationship took a more sinister turn the day the audience met Greg. In the Season 2 episode “The Mountain Kings,” Greg is introduced as a character, and half an hour later, he rapes Joan on the floor of Don’s office.

Every episode that features a Greg appearance is an episode where we watch Joan try to keep up appearances, whether she’s playing an accordion at a failed dinner party or talking up his new psychiatry dreams to Pete Campbell, who she runs into at a dress shop where she’s forced to work to make ends meet. Even in the episode where he rapes her, when a well-intentioned Peggy praises Joan’s relationship, Joan pauses only for a moment before rattling off a list of Greg’s positive attributes.

Joan’s Episode 4 storyline opens the same way: hair in curlers, trying to bake a cake and hunt down Greg’s favorite beer, trying to orchestrate a perfect welcome home from the army. When he opens the door, she’s meticulous in her matching dress and shoes. He’s classically handsome in his uniform, pulling her in for a drawn out kiss, the camera lingering on her foot, popped up as their lips meet. It’s the V-J Day in Times Square picture all over again. But it doesn’t last.

Greg tells Joan that, contrary to what she had expected, he has to go back to Vietnam for another year. She’s aghast. Her life as a single mother, paired with the necessary albeit frustrating live in inclusion of her mother, has worn Joan out. She wants her job back, her husband back, her life back, and this is a bombshell that will impact every piece of that, not in her favor. But Joan perseveres. Later that night, at dinner with Greg’s parents, Joan keeps up the appearance of a united, unfettered family. She defends Greg to his mother, commending him for how he’s handling the situation, grabbing his hand and encouraging everyone to follow his lead. But Greg’s been keeping up appearances too: He wasn’t drafted for another year, he volunteered. “You have a family,” his mother says forlornly, as Joan’s jaw literally drops.

There’s an immediate deluge of little flickers of normalcy—he lights Joan’s cigarette, an accordion player appears by her side as her mother says  “Did you know Joanie plays the accordion?” But it’s not enough this time. She’s not going to explain this away. She’s not going to pull out the accordion. Joan Harris isn’t going to try to make things normal; Joan Harris had had enough.

When they get home, she explodes, and as they fight she yells “You can’t make decisions like that without me, and you’ve never understood that.” He replies “I’ve got my orders and you’ve got yours,” and storms out the door to go drink with the boys.  In the morning, Joan tells him it’s over. She’s glad the army needs him, because her little family doesn’t. She’s glad the army makes him feel like a man, because she’s done trying. And when he says “The army makes me feel like a good man,” she finally says it: “You’re not a good man. You weren’t a good man even before we were married and you know exactly what I’m talking about.” Almost four years later, this is the first reference Mad Men has ever made to Joan’s rape.

When he walks out the door, for good this time, she shrugs and says “It’s over.”

Many seasons ago, Joan had a dream that she would get married, that she would be off in the country and not have to work at all. But dreams change. Look at how much she wanted to get back to work in Episode One this season, or how she discarded that long sought after, but ultimately all wrong, husband. It’s not an accident that twice throughout these exchanges, Joan wakes up from oversleeping twice. She has woken up. It’s time for a new dream.

Peggy had a dream she didn’t know she had until it fell into her lap: Being a copywriter. She started off as Don’s lowly secretary, and several seasons later, she has ascended through the ranks of Sterling/Cooper/Draper/Price. Little ponytailed Peggy from Episode One, Season One is long gone. In this week’s episode, Peggy masterfully switches up the power roles with Roger Sterling, forcing him to pay her a whopping $400 for a weekend copy-writing project. Late at night, still at the office, Peggy finds Don’s new secretary, Dawn, asleep on his couch. It takes Peggy several tries to figure out that as a young, African American woman, Dawn doesn’t have a safe, reliable way to get home late at night: Her family doesn’t want her on the subway, there are riots in her neighborhood, and cabs won’t take her where she needs to go.

Their interaction reminded me of Joan and Peggy in Season One: As the elder stateswoman, Peggy tries to be firm and helpful, and ultimately is, though she comes across as more than a little clueless. She invites Dawn to stay at her apartment, where Peggy drunkenly regales Dawn with tales of her time as Don’s secretary, and explains how she got “discovered” as a copywriter. She asks Dawn if she wants to be a copywriter, and when Dawn declines, Peggy gets into what’s really bothering her: She doesn’t know if she wants to be like these people she has modeled herself after. She doesn’t know if she wants to be like a man. She doesn’t know if she wants any of this.

When it comes to Peggy and Joan, one question is clear: What do you do when your only dream isn’t good enough anymore? Joan has figured part of it out. I look forward to watching Peggy do the same.


Claire Moshenberg is a San Francisco based author, activist, and new media consultant. She is co-proprietor of the web site Charm City Jukebox.

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