Mad Men: A Very Unfeminist Ending

On Behalf of | May 29, 2015 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

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Fans seem to be all over the map on the “Mad Men” series finale. When I watched it, I was candidly a little disappointed. But reflecting on it, I think that some of that disappointment speaks to the real world. In other words, Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, seems to have captured the frustrations of the era. And fittingly for this blog, many of them touch on themes of female disempowerment and male workplace hegemony.

First, there was Peggy. After years of climbing the ladder, speaking out against the man, and possibly the best entrance ever (in an episode called by some “the Series’ Most Feminist Episode Yet”), Peggy’s solicitude comes not from her career, but from a man.  Sure, there’s a lovely reversal of gender power dynamics in that here, Peggy is Stan’s boss (shout out to a great “30 Rock” episode). But two troubling dynamics remain. First, recall that Stan is married. Call me crazy, but I don’t imagine that Peggy’s teenage dream was to fall in love with a man who is already married to someone else.

Second, Peggy will stay at McCann. I’ll suggest that this I partly to be with Stan.  This is not a feminist outcome. As Pete says, McCann is a place where she could make Creative Director by 1980.  And as Peggy says, that’s a long time. The viewer’s instinct is to feel happy for Peggy because someone finally loves her and loves that she is good at her job.  But this reality is actually somewhat dark: She’s staying in a glass-ceiling environment, and her happiness comes from being a mistress (will she one day be a spouse?).  This is hardly the feminist ending that some of us would have hoped for.

But there is also realism in this unfeminist outcome. Peggy’s career prospects aren’t what she deserves. And settling for a man married to someone else . . . I’ll leave it there.

Joan arguably fares marginally better.  She has managed to reinvent herself once again. But let us recall that Joan’s two major career advancements have come at a substantial personal cost. She made partner at Sterling Cooper by sleeping with a client. And she left McCann at cost of half of the equity that she’d accrued by doing so.  On top of that, once again, the man that she thought that she loved has left her.  In other words, virtually all of Joan’s downside accrues from sexism. Any happiness we feel for Joan should come with a strong helping of disgust for what she has had to endure.

And what of the next generation?  Sally has returned home from school to watch her mother die while taking up her mother’s domestic tasks.  Perhaps the only saving grace here is that the parallel runs to Don and not to Betty: Don was forced to become his own father when he and his mother went to live in, as he termed it, “a brothel.” Just as Don became his own father, Sally now becomes her own mother. The heteronormativity and gender-confirming roles notwithstanding, perhaps Sally will be able to become who she wants to be as Don did. But then again, Sally’s wish as she left on her bus tour was to never be like her parents.

So who wins at the end? Arguably Pete and Don. Pete is back in all of his season 1 splendor: Married to Trudy and on the fast track.

And Don? The series leaves us hanging a little, but Jon Hamm’s recent New York Times interview sheds some light. Don finds both self-transcendence and reaches the apex of his career, according to Hamm:

“My take is that the next day, he wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is. And who he is, is an advertising man. And so, this thing comes to him. There’s a way to see it in a completely cynical way, and say, ‘Wow, that’s awful.’ But I think that for Don, it represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led.”

In other words, Don is back on top of his profession.

I see this conclusion as both troubling and fitting. Despite the strivings of female characters, the arrival of 1970 did not spell workplace equality. The resolutions that the characters find show that women can’t have it all. But we are nonetheless led to feel happy for them.  It is, as Jon Hamm says, “some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life.”