So this is the most optimistic episode of Mad Men, possibly ever, right? As Marc and I discuss in the video, the entire episode was about the breakdown of the “traditional” nuclear family. Which was always more an aspirational ideal more than a “tradition”, per se, as is made evident by the fact that Peggy finds herself feeling inadequate compared to the housewives without noticing that those housewives are not actually achieving the ideal of the home meal-cooking happy homemakers that they thought they’d be. Since Mad Men tends, at best, to be ambivalent about the rapid social change of the 60s,* I was buckled down for an episode that was just as ambivalent about that. A lot of people have noticed that Peggy has been something of an ironic character this season: Dressing like Mary Tyler Moore, for instance, but dissolving into tears instead of throwing her hat joyously into the air. But the cheerful, optimistic ending for Peggy suggested something very different, instead. It suggested Peggy’s sadness has less to do with the realities of her life and more to do with her hang-ups, and that the solution to her sadness is to let go of the illusion that there’s one right way to live and instead create her own path in life.
So yeah, that episode, complete with “My Way” as a kicker and the image of Megan actually smiling on the plane as she escapes Don’s clutches, was a real bright spot in the midst of a season that is tracking the growing dread of the era. Weiner & Co clearly have a cynical take on the hippie movement of the late 60s, for devolving into magical thinking and repackaging the same old sexism in dirty dungarees and pretending it was something new. But, this episode seemed to argue, the chaos of the late 60s gave women an opportunity to break free from stifling gender norms and start asking themselves what they authentically wanted out of life, and that was a wholly good thing. Even Don, who can love Peggy without his judgment being clouded by what he wants from her, can see quite clearly that she’s making out like a bandit. Now, if she’d only let herself enjoy it.
Same goes for Joan and Megan. What struck me is that both of them seemed to have reached a place where they’ve realized that autonomy counts for more than pretty much anything. Both of them have a man offer them yet another golden birdcage, and both reject it without hesitation. Both realize that autonomy is more important than security or luxury. Both know that the life these men offer would probably have fewer frustrations. But being the hero of your own story, in the end, matters more than the day-to-day pleasures that being the well-pampered wife of a rich executive has to offer.
Jessica Valenti recently wrote a piece about the way that conservatives concern troll modern women about how all our independence is supposedly making us unhappy, something they seem not to worry about when it comes to men having independence.
While I don’t mind being a little unhappy as a feminist, I admit there are downsides. The realization that there is so much work to be done isoverwhelming. But the itch of discontent makes us better: we fix things, seek out new adventures, and think about new ways of living our life. Ignorance may be bliss – but it’s not the truth.
This episode showed that better than anything. Megan, Joan, and Peggy have all considered the choice between the pampered life of a dependent—which admittedly has fewer frustrations, since it’s easier to figure out what to make for dinner than what makes a great ad campaign, how to get that great part that will be your break-out, or how to organize a business—but they choose the struggle. Happiness is an emotion that comes and it goes. But feeling true to yourself is, well, a strategy that makes life worth living.
Thoughts? Feelings? Do you think Don has learned something? What was with all the baby blue dresses?
*Except, of course, when it comes to both the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement. But even then, the marginalization of both those movements on the show is an ambivalence in and of itself. Not of the moral rightness of those causes, but of their effectiveness as enacting real, lasting change.