An Open Letter to ‘Mad Men’: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility


An Open Letter to ‘Mad Men’: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility


There was a time when I didn’t recognize any of the actors on Mad Men, save for in their roles on Mad Men. Don Draper was just Don Draper, not Jon—who? Peggy was Peggy, or maybe me. Betty was Betty, and definitely my grandmother, back in the day. The show was a world onto itself. It took place in a time then unfamiliar; the early 1960s were not yet vividly mediated in my mind. I believed everything Matthew Weiner put out.

When an actor is not known to you except in one convincing role, that actor is her character; the world they occupy is real. I dreamed I was Betty hatefucking cheating Don more than once. I had a series of existential panic attacks when I watched, in one solitary week, all of season two and half of three. Things got dark in season two and by S03E05, after Betty’s forced labor, my anxiety became so unmanageable, I cut myself off — for a while.

As the series progressed, its actors became more prolific. Soon enough, Betty Draper was also the White Queen, Emma Frost, a character I’d known decades longer than B.D. Jon Hamm became Jon Hamm, a great comedic actor and tabloid hunk (he of the mightiest schlong). I spotted Roger Sterling, my slash-fiction favorite*, in an airport in Florida in a Floridian geriatric leisure tracksuit, I swear to Gaia. Joan, I learned, without even trying, was actually “Christina Hendricks” and that was not her natural hair color.

My Mad Men suspension of disbelief was irreparably shattered when a certain Canadian actor was cast on the show. A certain Canadian actor who, in the early 2000s, played two tittiellating roles that imprinted hard on my budding bisexual brain (twelve-years-young). A certain Canadian actor who also happened to be the first love of the man I was in deep, narcotic, it’s-sex-not-love “love” with. A certain Canadian actor who, through the ex-vine, I would see “out” and be like—but where’s Mr. Draper? It didn’t help that they wrote many of the real life actor’s character traits into her character. The illusion was gone. My disbelief upended. Mad Men was just a television program.

I almost quit watching last season. I say Weiner lost his touch, but all of my viewer friends insist it was me, not him. Me who couldn’t stand watching her (how petty, like Betty). I joy-yelped at my screen this season, though. It’s that good and I’m that over him. I’m over needing any suspension of disbelief. Now what I’m seeking out of Mad Men is a social program.

Mad Men’s current sixth season opens in December 1967. Vietnam, Women’s Lib, the Civil Rights Movement—here is a history I know, and want to see treated well. But it’s not just a history. The social conflicts of the late ’60s seem as relevant today as ever. Race, class, gender, sex, and wars fought abroad, as experienced in the American media, workplaces, and bedrooms. It’s as basic as sex and death. These issues will never, except in Iain M. Banks novels, be over. The revolutionary optimism of that time is especially alluring to me. I’ve felt resigned and apathetic my whole life but things right now—in global relations, in sexual dynamics, in identity politics, in class mobility, in health care—are shitty enough for me to feel called to arms. In a recent interview, novelist Renata Adler was asked how our current “this time” compares to the “this time” of the early 1970s that she catalogued so acutely. Adler knows. She responded:

Things are worse. Way, way, way worse. In every sphere. That can’t be true. It can’t be true, for instance, of medicine. Yes, it can. 

Yes, it can.

If Betty Draper represented Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, btw), Peggy Olson represents Sheryl Sandberg’s current bestseller Lean In. Peggy is the lone woman rising high among the ranks of ashamedly-uncomfortable men comforted only by the comforts that patriarchy offers them. She has suffered for not being attractive enough, for not asserting herself enough, for asserting herself too much. Peggy epitomized the double-binds that women in the white-collar workforce continue to face: baby or job, to not just succeed but be liked for one’s accomplishments, etc. While Sandberg’s proclaimed “program” is—a feminist academic’s favorite word—”problematic,” Olson’s ongoing narrative screams with the feminist call that, “the personal is political”: her relatability is powerful, a force of change.** 

The actor who plays Peggy Olson, Elisabeth Moss, was still only Peggy to me until Top of the Lake, Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s phenomenal 2013 BBC/UKTV/Sundance miniseries. If you watch any TV this year, let it be Top of the Lake. In it, Moss plays Robin Griffin, an Australia-based detective who returns to her home in Queenstown, New Zealand to visit with her mother only to be called to duty when a very young girl is discovered pregnant and then goes missing. It’s Twin Peaks and The Killing and every other show about communities with seedy underbellies that victimize young women but it’s not—because it’s made by Campion and what she and Lee do with the subject is positively consciousness raising. Top of the Lake is one of the most productive depictions of violence against women I’ve ever witnessed.

So when, in E02 of this season of Mad Men, Pete Campbell literally fucks his neighbor over by fucking her in his New York playpad, giving her abusive husband a great excuse to throw her around, I kept expecting Peggy to comb out her bouffant, put on some slacks, take out her detective badge, and lay it down on Campbell and the wife-beater neighbor. That didn’t happen. But Trudy Campbell, played incendiarily by the lovely Alison Brie***, did prove, once again, that she should have a spin-off show wherein she becomes an active member of NOW.

Mad Men is so good on gender, on the pitfalls of both traditional masculinity and femininity, and so good at revealing how these conflicts are not just historical, but ingrained in the interpersonal and the sociological, and still relevant and still battled. Mad Men is not so good on race, but they’re trying this season, and I really hope they succeed. A convincing social program has to address all facets of the time. Weiner, my man, you only have one and half seasons left to get race just a little bit right. I say get revolutionary: have your lead protagonist finally jump out that window, hire Angela Davis as a contributing writer, and keep giving Alison Brie more lines.

Mad Men has influence, it has reach. It has the power to not only shape our idea of the past, but inspire the now. I want that NOW.

*My then-slash-fiction-favorite. My now is most definitely Stan. His beard would make for great head.

**Joanie, it should be noted, is also doing the Lean In this season, juggling single parenthood, a sex life, and a professional title.

***Alison Brie is another one of those was-truly-Trudy, but who is now also known to me as Annie Edison from Community and Beth from Save the Date. Many of the secondary characters these days are familiar faces. I love Linda Cardellini, a.k.a. forever Freaky Geeky Lindsay Weir, as Don’s new lover. Lindsay’s brilliance flows through MM’s Sylvia, Catholic or not. And, last season, Rory Gilmore as The Depressed Person—heart-aching casting. Sheila Heti wrote a great essay about how, “watching actors we’re familiar with… aligns closer to our subjective experience of the world—of life as it’s lived by us.” Heti proposes that when we get to see an actor, like Elisabeth Moss or Linda Cardellini, in multiple roles, we start to see them as a full person, because, in R.L., people do try on multiple roles, and are different things to different people, throughout their layered lives. This, I think, relates to why I imagine Mad Men has the potential to be a great “social program,” to inform real people and events. We can essai and learn through Mad Men, through its characters who are going through things for us. You know?