Mad Men is my favorite television show of all time. Peggy Olson is my favorite television character of all time.
It is only natural that I would be emotional about the end of the series. With the final seven episodes beginning on Sunday, April 5, I have compiled a list of the most pivotal moments (for me) that made me fall in love with the show for what it is–among many other things, a brilliant study in perspective, that we all experience events in our own ways shaped by our own experiences. Whether the story depicts an historical event or one that is personal and, as a consequence, very often universal, Mad Men always makes me consider what truth means and what I should do about it. This list only includes one episode as a whole, as my goal is to highlight moments, not entire shows.
1. The Drapers litter (Episode 207 – “The Gold Violin”). I was a “latecomer” to Mad Men. I watched a marathon of Season 2 on AMC and then bought the Season 1 DVDs to catch up before Season 3 started. At some point I also purchased the Season 2 DVDs just to watch that season again to make sure I’d “gotten it all.” Seeing the Drapers having a picnic in the park was nice. Then, Sally asks her parents if the family is rich, and she is told that it is not polite to talk about such things. Then, as the family is leaving, Don throws his can away–by hurling it into nature. And Betty shakes off the picnic blanket, leaving all of the trash on the ground. This was early in my exposure to the show, and I was shocked. Did people really do this? Certainly the setting seems situated at a time before the anti-litter ethos had taken hold in the nation. Here are these people in their own world taking this action, not considering the future (or not conceiving the concept of it in this context). I was enthralled by this.
2. Pete tries to sell televisions to negroes (Episode 305 – “The Fog”). Betty (January Jones) (brilliantly) gives birth to Gene in this episode. But this moment is about Pete. Yes, Pete has become a chronic cheater (I love Trudy (Alison Brie) for how she handles him) and is very “bad” at it. But there are aspects of Pete’s life and personality to which I can relate, and I root for him while others continue to write him off. And when it comes to race, those aspects make him stand out among people living life through their own perspectives with no intentions of making matters “harder” by recognizing their privilege. Pete realizes that it would be good for Admiral to sell televisions to African Americans. He speaks to Hollis (Le Monde Byrd), an incredulous elevator operator, about his television purchasing habits. He eventually relates to Hollis as a man, and Hollis warms up to him. This is not an ordinary occurrence. In Season 6 (Episode 605 – “The Flood”), when the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination reaches everyone, Pete angrily reprimands Harry Crane (Rich Summer), head of the television department, for complaining about the assassination because it is bad for advertising dollars, saying, “That’s disgusting. . . . How dare you? . . . This cannot be made good! It’s shameful. It’s a shameful, shameful day! . . . [to Bert Cooper] Did you know we were in the presence of a bonafide racist?! [back to Harry] . . . Let me put this in terms you’ll understand: that man had a wife and four children.” Back in Season 3, when Pete is reprimanded by the partners for offending the client, who “has no interest in becoming a colored television company,” Pete expresses that he simply cannot understand why the agency would turn down the chance to make a profit. And in Season 6, while there are now black secretaries employed at SCDP, Pete still stands out for his whole-hearted views. I took notice from the start.
3. “The Suitcase” (Episode 407). This is my favorite episode of Mad Men. This episode focuses on the most significant relationship of the series–the relationship between Don and Peggy. They are both at their most vulnerable, and they share in that. The two argue about work–Peggy does not feel that Don appreciates her as much as he should (a common theme throughout the series). Don deals with Anna’s (Melinda Page Hamilton) death. Peggy ends a relationship and sees Trudy pregnant. Trudy’s idealized view of Peggy is not how Peggy sees herself. The two work alone (except when Duck shows up) in a dark office, go get a bite to eat, return to the office to work, and support each other both personally and professionally. While out for dinner, they broach the subject of Peggy’s pregnancy, an event that cements their connection because Don is there when she has no one else. Don tells personal stories from his past, which we all know is rare. And, in a funny moment, Peggy asks, “Why is there a dog in the Parthenon?” There is no better episode, and there is no better work than “The Suitcase.”
4. Peggy struggles with intersectionality (Episode 409 – “The Beautiful Girls”). Because we all experience life from our individual perspective, (in my mind) life is about the moments when we realize that there are people who do not experience life the way we do, and no one exactly how we do, and how we deal with and act in those moments. I continue to be, in a profound way, struck by what Peggy says to Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) as they are discussing Civil Rights. While Peggy acknowledges that it is wrong–and not just for business–that a company would not serve negroes, Peggy does not quite grasp the concept that a company would deliberately hold their services and products out of reach of African Americans. Because she is so focused on her own ambitions and trying to navigate the sexist world in which she is paid less and treated like a second-class executive, she does not understand intersectionality, an “unknown” concept in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and before the Women’s Movement. Peggy remarks, “But I have to say–most of the things negroes can’t do, I can’t do either. And nobody seems to care.” “What are you talking about?” responds Abe, who is trying to get her to understand that “they’re not shooting women to keep them from voting.” And that’s the thing. Movements have gone one at a time because of how slowly liberty progresses in this country. Peggy is speaking from her world–her experiences. She has not seen outside it yet because it is all she can do to keep her head afloat as a woman. We see Peggy evolving, but it’s not easy. Life is about choices, and people choose to speak out in their own ways. Others don’t speak out at all out of self-preservation and survival. Because of those minutes of Abe and Peggy in that bar, I look at how all people, whatever their choices, have (in my mind) the responsibility to consider their own privilege, whatever it may be, and act accordingly. This is complicated, but necessary. Thank you, Charlie Hofheimer. Thank you, Elisabeth Moss. Thank you, writers Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner.
5. Don calls Betty a whore (Episode 313 (finale) – “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”). There is something about Don Draper that makes me root for him as he navigates his way through life. His difficult childhood, his charm, his brilliance at his work, and, I admit, his picture-perfect exterior (albeit phony) image he portrays are all part of what elicits my empathy. The moments of genuine happiness he shares with his family (which I associate with this absolute gem–This is “The Carousel”–Don’s pitch in the Season 1 finale–Episode 113 – “The Wheel”) make me appreciate his rise from poverty to Madison Avenue, even when there is ugliness beneath. But there is nothing–not even his speech to Hershey’s–which I welcomed even if it is extremely bad for business and ultimately results in a forced leave of absence–nothing that excuses what he says to Betty after she’s finally had enough of his infidelity and decides to leave him. “You’re a whore, you know that?” says an indignant Don. These sexist views are totally his personality, and I have to listen to people who have always hated him, which I don’t understand because the show is about his struggle for the “American Dream,” and everyone knows he is deeply flawed, as we all are. But still, I will never forgive him for that, and while I root for him, those words from him are a lingering and permanent taint, above everything else he has said and done. I thank Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy for writing this truth. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.