Mad Men: Don's Coterie of Women, All Mirrors for His Sad Existence

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It's so satisfying, as we wrap up the final episodes of Mad Men, to realize that Don was simply the moral barometer, and the show was about its women all along: Joan, Peggy, Megan, Dawn, even Caroline, Roger Sterling's nerdy secretary. The '50s and early '60s crawled by, entrenched power moving tectonically—so slow as to be imperceptible—and embodied by the cartoon towers of Madison Avenue, as well as Don Draper's stupid hats. Now that we're in 1970, it's clear how swiftly everything has shifted, and how the avalanche began right about the time Megan decided she was going to quit being a secretary to pursue acting. Megan has always been emblematic of the new era—full of youth and defiance—but at this point even old-world Betty is making liberated career decisions, her intent to become a psychologist based on self-delusion but intent nonetheless. Imagine, though, having Betty as a shrink? Definitely get a reference from Sally before enlisting her services.


After Betty tells Don she's going back to college, Don's look of longing as he leaves the Francis residence says it all: Henry, Betty, Bobby and whatever their other son is called, all gathered in the kitchen, the family unit Don has lost twice now. The terribly outdated suburban décor underscores that this scene is a rarity now—divorce is de rigueur these days, as Megan tells her fuddy-duddy sister—but then again, there's Don getting along with everyone, making chocolate milkshakes in the blender surely as it was his own home.

But wait: since when does Don hang out at the Francis residence? Some people have a theory that the surrealism of these episodes is Don living in an alternate universe—though, please miss me with the reaching idea that Mad Men is Lost—and that poor, beautiful Megan may already be dead. Suggested clues: the wine on his carpet as blood symbol, the Sharon Tate lookalike who spills it, the discovery of Megan's earring, and Megan's annoying mom's insistence that he "ruined our family." Don's silly secretary, mentioning "the Manson brothers," the first reference to Charles and them, though it's 1970; Sharon Tate's long gone, and the family is already in custody, their trial set for June. (Last week's episode was set in April 1970, per the Nixon speech Don watched on his little TV.) All that's for Megan-as-Sharon Draper truthers, though, and seems far too simplistic an explanation for my impulses—if Mad Men learned anything at all from Lost, let's hope it's that the "and then they woke up!" finale is the fastest way to take a giant shit upon your legacy.

No, the point is just to delve into the concept that misery loves company, and no one is as miserable as Don Draper or, if we're being real, Dick Whitman, the loneliest man in the world. All the women in his life are projections—Megan is his spirit and youth flitting away (how cold, when she truthfully calls him "aging"). Diana is maybe the most broken woman he ever met, residing in a one-room hovel with a lonely vodka bottle as roommate, and even she rebuffs his overtures—she will not allow herself to be a tool in his serial monogamy, and besides, he distracts her from her self-punishment, so wickedly bleak. They're filling each other's soul vacancies, and she hates it. "There's a twinge in my chest," Diana tells him. "A pain," Don responds. "No, it's not that," she says. "I'm positive." For a minute, we are inclined to think it's love, but maybe it's just something Don should get checked out, if you subscribe to the theory that he's gonna croak by the end. If only Diana knew he's using her as a stand-in for poor dead Rachel Menken, for whom he should have left Betty when he had the chance. Don can't really handle women with pluck and their own minds, though. He wants to, or thinks he does, but his subconscious impulse is to tamp them down. (Now there's something Betty could analyze.)

Good god, though: of all the sad shit in this episode, hands down the most horrific was the interchange between Megan and Harry Crane, whose dalliance in showbiz has liberated him to become the classic Hollywood asshole, thinking his proximity to agents can bag him a babe like Megan. "You're a big girl," he tells her, and implies that she is without leading roles because of her unwillingness to sleep with disgusting fuckballs like Harry Crane; she is repulsed, of course, and unfortunately does not throw her wine in his face. At least she left him with a big check.

On the surface, this episode was about desperate sadness, but moreso it was about "hustlers," as Peggy puts it, seeing through the Fran Lebowitz/Annie Liebovitz hybrid photographer's ruse to use her bod to book jobs. Megan will not have sex with Harry just to get a job, but she will take Don's million-dollar check, payment for her companionship and, underneath that, another moment in Don's habit of throwing money at things to make his problems disappear. (Diana, fully cognizant of putting herself in debt, doesn't even want the book he bought her.) Betty's sick and tired of Henry, no doubt, but is definitely too comfortable in her position as a society wife and supreme hostess to trade it in (the master's degree is, perhaps, just talk).

Stan, his girlfriend, and his bolo tie are the episode's only depiction of happiness, two progressives trying to make life work in this cold, cold world. He Nan Goldins her into a pin-up, his infidelity with Patti Smith photographer lady only about his own career insecurities, and not about dating a nurse. When Megan's mom leaves papa (for Roger Sterling?! Haha), she tells her sister at least she's doing something about her miserable life. She means herself, too, and gives us the longview that everyone's in stasis. If they don't change soon, the train's gonna leave without them, and they'll be left standing alone in an empty room.


Image via AMC/screenshot.

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Megan's sister feels like the key to understanding the whole series, right? she's (roughly) the same age as Megan, but has since resisted the siren call of the 1960's. She's a young woman in 1970, but to her, it might as well be 1959. She's as backwards as Roger, and she coldly resents her sister and her mom for being able to escape her crappy life. Change happened, but not everyone wanted to accept it.

By the way, am I the only regular Mad Men watcher who genuinely loves the character of Megan?