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Making Choices in a Kyriarchy: Agency, Power and Politics on Mad Men

Mad Men has always been about how power operates in relationships: How it operates between people in disparate way and what that does to relationships. How it complicates, ruins and sometimes sustains emotional bonds. At its best, the show mucks through the significance of human connection in spite of power, which is more diffuse and ephemeral than one-sided.

Certainly, Mad Men traffics in a range of power imbalances – a few examples include disparities between men and women; whites and African-Americans; bourgeois capitalists and employees. Earlier seasons of the show depicted ridiculously offensive examples of racism and sexism that seemed designed for shock value rather than character development or storytelling. This conceit was ubiquitous, from Roger Sterling performing in blackface with his new wife to Pete Campbell’s never-addressed rape of an au pair who was staying next door.

The show has yet to develop its sole remaining Black character – a secretary named Dawn – or move beyond shock value in its depiction of racism. In Season Five, Dawn mostly serves as a plot device whose presence forces Peggy Olson to confront her own racism. But this season’s approach to sexism and gender discrimination in the workplace shows that the writers are capable of going deeper when it comes to oppression.

One hopes that latter seasons will delve just as deeply into racial injustice as Season Five delves into gender inequality – not because it’s the right thing to do (which it is), but because the show realizes its potential when it mines inequality in greater depth to explore how individuals might contend with it from day to day. Indeed, when the show gets really interesting, it leaves behind dichotomous power relationships (largely those between women and men in Season Five), and forces us to think about how people exercise their own power – or agency – in spite of power imbalance. What will people give up in order to get what they need?

After Mad Men’s fifth season came to an end last night, I finally said to myself, “So this is what the critical acclaim is all about.” That’s because the season was all about people coming to terms with inequality and asserting themselves in spite of it. Three different character arcs this season entail personal decisions characterized by confident finality – those of Peggy Olson, Joan Harris and Lane Pryce, all under-appreciated employees who must contend with the untenable this season.

Peggy Olson

Season four brought glimpses of how great the show could be, particularly with an episode called “The Suitcase” that explored the complicated workings of power – and deep emotional connection – between Don Draper and Peggy Olson.

I have long thought that, if there is any great love story on the show, it’s the one between Don and Peggy. Bear with me here. Some feminist analyses have suggested that Peggy’s arc this season was about getting out from under Don’s control and finding a place where her talents could be better appreciated. And of course, Peggy’s decision to leave SCDP had a lot to do with that, as well as the fact that Don mistreats her.

But the thing I took from “The Suitcase” – and indeed from Peggy’s entire Season Five arc – is that her story is now about coming into her own intellectual potential, or recognizing it in a way that she hasn’t been able to do before. There’s a way in which Peggy is Don’s only intellectual match on the show. She likely outmatches him in some ways, and almost certainly wouldn’t have needed his tutelage if she were a man.

Still, between the immature young men who work with Peggy and the (mostly) ridiculous assortment of male partners who work with Don, it’s easy to understand why the two characters crave intellectual stimulation. Neither really has anyone else on the show who gives them this bond of intellectual recognition in which neither party is left behind. These characters understand each other, and I think this is why Don responds to Peggy’s departure with such emotion, and why he seems so eager to reconnect with her at the movie theater. It’s clear that Peggy feels the loss as well, as our first glimpse of her new workplace reveals her frustration with the ineptitude of the new colleagues.

I hope these two never become romantically involved because it would undermine the love story there, which is really about an equal meeting of minds. This is unusual in television, the way in which the love relationship between Don and Peggy crystallizes the importance of intellectual kinship. If it weren’t for Don’s sexism and the structural imbalances between them, they may have gone into business and left the agency behind together.

As much as both characters are drawn to each other, neither quite knows how to deal with the feelings in light of the power imbalances between them. How to negotiate a deep bond between a businessman and a promising female protégé that doesn’t carry uncomfortable romantic feelings? How to differentiate between physical and intellectual attraction? How to navigate the path from protégé to equal without losing a meaningful relationship?

On every score, Peggy figures out what to do long before Don. She has to because she’s the one with less power, whose career really depends on her ability to navigate relationships like these. Don has always asked her to fill contradictory roles, depending on his whims. After a season of confusion, sputtering and fights, she takes control of the relationship – and leaves. The love story has changed, but as we see in the movie theater, it’s not over.

Joan Harris

Over the course of the staggering “Other Woman” episode, I thought Pete’s scheme to prostitute Joan had devastated her. But Joan somehow figures out how to work demeaning circumstances to her advantage, and to her credit, she never displays a hint of shame. We know she’s been keeping SCDP afloat all along anyway – if it takes one awful night for Joan to get shares in the company that are rightfully hers, then by god she will suffer the one horrible night. Why? Because there’s a child at home who depends on her, and she is nothing if not practical.

While Peggy has always tried to hide her femininity in order to survive in the workplace, Joan has always used hers strategically – both perfectly valid coping strategies in a sexist system stacked against them. But Joan’s tendency to rely on her sexuality is what makes the transformation that happens over the course of the season so astounding. It’s not that Joan starts dressing as conservatively as Peggy once she becomes a full partner at SCDP. It’s just that once she earns her rightful stake in the company, she’s no longer compelled to rely on her sexuality for professional advancement. We see a weight lifted from her shoulders.

It’s not that Joan’s style changes altogether after that night, but her make-up is no longer as thick, her hair as perfectly coiffed or her necklines as tactically low. She’s used her sexuality to advance with these men for the last time. She’s always been confident, but this is something new – and it’s clear the dynamic has changed whether Joan is taking charge of a partners meeting or keeping track of company finances. She can do what needs to be done without apology now.

Because Joan is a woman, she will never be taken quite as seriously as the men, and it’s unlikely that she’ll ever own a percentage of the company commensurate with her contributions. The other partners know how she has secured the partnership, and other employees could probably guess. But she secures an agreement in which this doesn’t matter quite so much anymore, in which she’ll never be forced to do another degrading thing to care for her child ever again.

Over the course of the season – between tossing her rapist husband to the curb and coming into her well-deserved new responsibilities at SCDP – Joan establishes herself as the moral center of the show. And the despicable Pete Campbell may have liked to destroy her, but he hasn’t. She wins this one with steely-eyed grace, and secures new personal and professional freedom as a result.

Lane Pryce

In the second to last episode of the season, Don catches Lane’s embezzling and asks for a letter of resignation. Shortly thereafter, Lane hangs himself on his office door. Joan is the only one who really ever knew Lane, and she’s devastated. Everyone else – everyone except for Don – is dumbfounded.

Lane has never been fully appreciated for his contributions to SCDP. He has saved the company from certain collapse on more than one occasion, but he’s never been taken seriously by the men of SCDP. In some ways, his character is more identified with the show’s women. His only real ally in the company is Joan, and she has very little political power anyway. Like Peggy, Lane has been overlooked after sacrificing personal happiness for the good of the company. But unlike Peggy and Joan, Lane isn’t beset by structural imbalances – it’s just that this was never really what he wanted for his life, and everyone knows that.

Lane’s suicide is predictable, but what hasn’t been captured in the writing about it is that it finally gave him a measure of personal agency. It was nothing if not a final “fuck you” to an agency that had never appreciated his contributions or compensated him fairly – a way of standing up to power, however wrong-headed.

As much as we may have wanted to see Lane demand professional respect before getting into this mess, why should he have had to do that? Weren’t his contributions obvious? With the suicide, Lane takes what little power he has within the company and sends the strongest message he knows how – and what he does leaves even Pete Campbell at a loss for words. In any case, it’s not clear that this crowd would have paid much attention if he’d asserted himself in company negotiations, no matter how much Don needs to believe they would have.

In the season finale, Don meekly offers $50,000 to Lane’s widow, Rebecca Pryce. Always more assertive than her husband, she summons what Lane needed to say all along: “It was even more than $50,000 that already belonged to him, so don’t leave here thinking you’ve done anything for anyone but yourself.”

Over time, it will become clear to Don and the others just what Lane has contributed all these years. And though Don seems to feel guilty about the whole thing, even he has no idea what the company has just lost. Only Joan really understands. And in a move consistent with her character, she starts wondering what she might have done to help Lane even as the male partners – those who really contributed to his demise – are unmoved to ask the same questions.

What a season this has been! Peggy is finally fulfilling her ambition. Joan finally has a measure of financial stability without having to rely on a man or an emotionally abusive mother. And Lane – well, Lane finally communicated just how much the company had hurt him. All three characters have taken drastic measures to escape from some – or all, in Lane’s case – of the more toxic power imbalances in which they’ve been forced to operate. None of these choices is a perfect one because none of the characters is operating outside of power. Instead, they’re negotiating how to respond in light of power in relationships, and there are never wholly pure or innocent options.

For once, I’m looking forward to the next season of Mad Men, when we’ll learn how all the changes shake out, and maybe even start to see Maegan Draper learn to assert herself fully, whether she’s being emotionally abused by Don or her mother. Maybe the show will develop Dawn more fully – and stop making her such a silent – nearly invisible – presence on the show. The best way for the show to move forward is to expand on what went so well in Season Five.
Past season finales have involved dramatic plot twists that shook the story – whether the creation of SCDP or Don’s rushed Season Four marriage. This time, character development does the work of moving the plot forward, as each character navigates murky power disparities in relationship with others. Well done, Mad Men. Bring us more seasons like this one.


Kristin Rawls

Kristin Rawls blogs at Halogen TV. Her work can be found in The Christian Science Monitor, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere on the web. She often covers international politics here at Global Comment.

One thought on “Making Choices in a Kyriarchy: Agency, Power and Politics on Mad Men

  1. This was a disappointing season for me. Matt Weiner’s continuing refusal to fully explore racial issues or even a minority character is becoming increasingly frustrating. And despite a handful of well-written episodes, Season 5 has not been that impressive.

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