Mad Men: Death and the Maiden

This season of Mad Men has been about differentiating between the past and the future, Don's struggle for redemption, and the women in his life. Finally, all those themes are starting to congeal into a very satisfying whole.

In classical mythology, women were classified in one of three types based on their role: the maiden, the mother, and the crone. We got to see all of those in last night's episode when little Sally Draper, the maiden, ran away from home; Miss Blankenship, the crone, died (spoiler alert); and Joan, Peggy, and Dr. Faye, the mothers (kind of), dealt with the modern idea of womanhood.

Let's start with Peggy, shall we, who has gotten a lion's share of the focus the past several episodes (as well as being one of our favorites). Peggy has always been very progressive, with her lesbian friends and professional aspirations, but last night was the first time that we saw her think something that even remotely correlates to modern feminism.

When David Mamet's lesbian daughter Joyce set Peggy up with Abe, the beatnik Peggy met in the closet at the Warholian loft party, he tries to talk about politics and global culture and Peggy, like a "good woman," tries to keep the conversation light and polite, switching to neutral topics. But Abe won't give it up, and changes the subject to how she deals with corporations in her job. When Peggy brings up her client Fillmore Auto Parts, Abe informs her that they won't hire "negro" workers in the south and that there is a boycott of the store. Peggy, who already showed that she views her work as apolitical when she admits she would have killed to do a campaign for ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater even though she'd never vote for him, said that advertising isn't about right or wrong, it's about serving the client. And, by doing so, they should help them end the boycott—not because it's the right thing to do—but because it's good for business. That kicks off a whole different conversation.

Peggy's always been looking out for herself and struggling for advancement, but last night is, perhaps, the first time she's put that struggle into words or acknowledged it's something all women face. By seeing the struggles that black people face and the rights they're fighting for, Peggy wants to have those rights for herself. When Abe says derisively, "Let's have a civil rights march for women," it's like Peggy thinks, for the first time, "Oh, actually, that's a good idea."

This interaction just highlights the uphill battle Peggy and her future feminist sisters are going to have to face. If a guy as "progressive" as Abe doesn't see the need for women's equal rights, then she's going to have an even tougher time convincing the Goldwater supporters she would have willingly worked for.

After his date fell apart, Abe shows up at Peggy's office with a story he wrote for her. This is how boys stalked girls before Facebook was invented. He insists that Peggy go read his story. Peggy is wearing an adorable blue Oxford shirt with a navy vest and plaid skirt ensemble, and she feels so great about her outfit that she's willing to give this cute boy from Brooklyn a second chance. When she reads the story, she almost has a meltdown, because Abe called her a corporate slave who was fighting for the interests of "the man" over the interest of human rights. He says that he's trying to flatter her, but he's just showing that he doesn't understand her at all.

Peggy takes a great deal of identity from her job, and she has worked very hard to get it, as she reminded him at the bar. He thinks that she should sacrifice her job to do the right thing. Peggy thinks that is a crazy idea and makes him promise, repeatedly that he'll not only not publish this article, that could make her lose her job, but that he'll burn it.

Abe clearly doesn't understand women, and especially Peggy. The sad truth is, if she gave up her position at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, she probably won't be able to rise so far so quickly at another firm or in another field. She'd be back on the secretary's desk where she started out, and that is something she's not going to tolerate. Later, when talking about the incident, Joyce says she's always found men to be like vegetable soup, and they are nothing without a woman to serve as a "pot" to contain them and heat them up. That's why she doesn't like men (aside from that whole lesbian thing) because she doesn't want to be the great woman behind a great man, she doesn't want to be a vessel for someone else's accomplishments. Peggy disagrees with her, but deep down I'd like to think that she knows that something of what Joyce said was true. This is classic Peggy, vacillating between being her own woman and wanting a career and trying to start a family and being the "perfect little woman" at home—a path that she clearly gave up at the end of season one when she put her baby up for adoption.

Now on to Joan. She was in a fouler mood than usual when Roger Sterling—who can't seem to sell his invaluable memoir, Sterling's Gold—hit on her. She continues to be unamused by his advances, and Roger's secretary tells him it's because her husband Doctor Rapist is going to be on Gossip Girl going to be shipped out to Vietnam right after basic training. If this were a Choose Your Own Adventure™, I would tell you if Doctor Rapist is going to be killed in Vietnam you would turn to page 14 and if he comes back maimed and Joanie has to nurse him for the rest of his life you would turn to page 52. Those are really the only ways this story is going to play out.

Anyway, Roger is going through his second midlife crisis, which is much like your 19th nervous breakdown except that song hadn't been written yet. Still, he seems annoyed with his new wife Jane, who has been absent most of the season, and is jonesing after Joanie. Even though he can't write a chapter about her in his memoir, he says that all the best times he's had are with her. Going back to Joan is a very powerful thing for Roger. It's the future twinged with nostalgia. It's reliving what he views as his more virulent younger years. It's also forbidden, which is always the tastiest, um, fruit.

But he starts to soften Joanie up by sending her a massage to her house and then asking her out for dinner. Joan has a hard time thinking that Roger would do something without trying to get something in return (because, duh, she knows Roger) but when she relents and goes out to dinner with him—presumably someplace they used to go when they were having their affair—he tells her to open up to him, and she does, in her very closed-off way. But, strangely, they both seem happy to be friends, to have someone to talk to who really understands them and to be living in the past when things were good. Of course that all changes after a scary incident.

I can tell you two things from personal experience: getting mugged sucks, and having sex in an alley is awesome. Also, watching someone get mugged sucks and watching two people have sex in an alley is awesome. This is the one incident we've seen Joan not be able to handle, but Roger takes control. Is that why she initiates their encounter? Is the heat of the moment (and a hot moment indeed) that drives her into Roger's arms. But even when he pauses, she tells him not to stop. She wants this, no matter what she says later, she wants this. This is history correcting itself. Joan should have been the secretary Roger left his wife for, not Jane. She should have married him and been the pot containing his vegetable soup for all these years. Then she wouldn't be stuck married to Doctor Rapist Who May or May Not Get Killed or Maimed in Vietnam. She would have achieved her dream to marry a rich man and prosper for the rest of her life. She would have been the nicest copper pot in the whole fucking cookware store!

But once her mind clears and they're in the office the next day, Joan calls an end to it, and says that they're both married. Oh, this isn't the end to this story by far.

Now it's time to deal with Sally Draper, our little run-run-run-run-runaway. When Don is called out of his meeting with Fillmore Auto Parts, I knew it would be a surprise, but when I saw Sally sitting on that couch I laughed and shook my head because this was so obvious and unexpected at the same time. Don's reaction was obvious from the minute he saw her, terse rage and anger, not only for Sally, but for the nice old lady who helped her arrive at his office from the train (things might have sucked in the '60s, but you would never see an old lady help out a girl like Sally today, and if she did the parents would probably call her a predator or have her sued or something).

After Miss Blankenship dies (spoiler alert!), Don sends Sally home with Dr. Faye. Sally makes it clear that she hates things at home and wants to stay with her father. As we've seen before, all she really wants is her father's approval, and Don, though initially angry, gets to play the nice parent. He orders pizza for them and takes her to the zoo the next day. In the morning, Sally looks kind of like one of Don's one night stands, wearing his T-shirt and cooking him breakfast with mussy hair. That was a little strange.

But our crafty little Sally is something else. She's clearly cared for more by Carla, who taught her how to make French toast, than by Betty who didn't even notice that she had disappeared until Don called her. Sally figured out how to get into town all on her own, and she even almost got what she wanted, to move in with her father. But when it's time to go, she throws a fit of epic proportions.

Don calls in Dr. Faye to talk to Sally and she has absolutely no idea how to relate to her. Sally "doesn't want her help" and having Dr. Faye there probably makes it worse. After all, she's the one who gets to spend time with Don. Sally liked Faye earlier when she thought she was Don's girlfriend, but now that she's coming between her and her father, she's lashing out. When it's clear that she's going to be sent back to her mother, Sally runs off down the hall, trying to flee for a second time, but she falls on her face. She's comforted by Pretty Megan (and if I were going to continue my theory that Sally Draper is a future lesbian, I would point out that the embrace of the prettiest woman in the office was the only thing that would calm her, but I'm not going to do that) and once she's embarrassed herself in front of the whole office, she calmly goes off with her mother. Well, she may be calm, but she's seething inside. Now she doesn't only hate Betty, but she's also harboring increased resentment towards Don who either can't or won't explain to her why she can't live with him. Don may love his children, but he's not winning any parenting awards. When she utters a clipped "Goodbye," to her father in the lobby, it has an uneasy foreboding.

The incident with Sally also weighed on Dr. Faye, especially when Don called her in to talk to Sally. For a change, Don handles a woman in the exact right way.

It seems that Don, who wouldn't take Dr. Faye home at the end of last episode, is now bedding her on the regular and in the middle of the day. When they have their nooner at his apartment, it's Don who is trying to pry information from Dr. Faye and she's not giving it up. It seems like the tables have turned on Don and he's finally met someone who is more enigmatic than he is. Their relationship seems to be progressing and Don might have learned a few lessons from his disintegrated marriage and the death of Anna, because when Dr. Faye has her little conniption in his office, he knows just how to calm her. I think that he likes that Dr. Faye doesn't want children and that she's powerful and intelligent, so he doesn't ask her to apologize for her lifestyle, because she's not going to apologize anyway.

The funny thing is we see Don stepping backward from all the progress he made last episode to quit drinking and getting his life together. He's sleeping with Faye, he's stopped writing in his journal, and, after Faye leaves his office, he starts drinking casually again. He was also falling into his old domineering, arrogant persona when dealing with Sally and the nice predator old lady who brought her into his office. It seems like these are the first few pebbles of an avalanche.

I saved the best lady for last: Miss Blankenship. And now she's dead (spoiler alert).

At first when I saw this, I thought it was funny because, well, it was fucking funny. Then I thought it was just a tad too jokey for Mad Men, where even the comedy tends to serve some existential purpose. I couldn't find the meaning in it.

When Joan and Pete have to wheel her out of the office under a blanket so it doesn't upset the warring Fillmore brothers from Fillmore Auto Parts, that was funny too. I thought it was sort of a reflection of what the show is about. All the good stuff is happening in the background, just outside of the "action," which is really just some boring business deal. Like Don, Ken Cosgrove, and Dr. Faye, we get to see both the business and what's in the background, because we're sitting in the privileged vantage point of the present looking back at the past.

But it was more than that. Miss Blankenship's death, while funny, did serve an existential purpose. When Bert Cooper calls her "an astronaut," it seemed ludicrous, that this old woman who "died like she lived, surrounded by the people she answered phones for" could be something so glamorous, but she was just that—an explorer and a pioneer. Like so many of the other women on the show, she seems to have given up having a family (her nearest kin is "a niece") for her job and the chance to be, as Roger Sterling calls her, a hellcat back in the day.

Miss Blankenship is not only the old ideal of a dutiful secretary, but she's also a protofeminist who made her own life choices contrary to society's dictates. You see this in how Joan reacted to her death, deifying her role as an "executive secretary" and trying to trump up her accomplishments in the office for her obituary (which is what Joan hopes someone will do for her some day). And after her death, you have little Sally raging in Don's office, unhappy at the way she's treated by both men (her father) and women (her mother) but she finds comfort in sisterhood when she embraces Pretty Megan and is overseen by the trio of Joan, Peggy, and Dr. Faye. She is the future of feminism. Someone who will come of age to burn her bra (probably at Smith) in the '70s.

And between them we have Joan, Peggy, and Dr. Faye. Not only did they deal with the death of Miss Blankenship—Joan by taking control, Peggy by freaking out, and Dr. Faye by cleaning up the mess—but with Sally when she was in the office. Then they're in the elevator together to end the episode. The moment lingered so long, it has to be significant. At first, when I saw them like that, I immediately thought of the maiden, the mother, and the crone. But that wasn't them. No. They're all mothers. Well, Joan aspires to be a mother, Peggy gave up being a mother, and Dr. Faye chose not to be a mother. That's all important.

It seems their closest corollary is the warring Fillmore brothers. We saw one who wants to stay in the past, one who is progressing to the future, and—sitting in the middle—one who is ripped between those two poles.

That is Joan, Dr. Faye, and Peggy trapped in the middle. Joan is still stuck in the past, getting it on with Roger and trying to give herself value by attaching herself to a powerful man. Dr. Faye is a pure feminist who made the choice to have a career and not have children and doesn't need a man's approval. Peggy, like the stuttering Fillmore brother, "wants it all." She doesn't want to have to choose between the old role of having children and a man or the new role of just having a career. She's trying to find a way to make both ends of the spectrum happy. That makes Peggy the most modern woman of all. Maybe she is the true spirit of feminism that Miss Blankenship had to die for and Sally will have to struggle for—to have both the option of the dependent and the independent and to make the decision for herself.