As the show progresses into 1968, the backdrop of SDCP and its characters will be the Vietnam War, the rise of feminism and the ERA, as well as the continued civil rights movement, not to mention two assassinations of powerful American figures. Many cite 1968 as a historical turning point from the Baby Boom and suburban life of the 1950s to the turmoil and anti-war movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Author’s Note: In light of these historical conditions, I plan on writing weekly posts about the show’s female characters. Mad Men is a show with a long narrative burn and I thought a weekly discussion of the female-centered storylines would be an interesting endeavor. I’m not going to claim my character speculation will hold up throughout the season, but half the fun is seeing what small steps the characters take every week towards a bigger arc.
While Roger and Don contemplated their looming mortality for most of the two-hour season six opener of Mad Men, the women’s storylines were a little more diverse.
Last we left them, Megan was starring as Beauty (as in Beauty and the Beast) in a Butler shoes commercial.
Peggy left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) to take a better position at Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough.
Joan felt pressured to sleep with a client in order for SCDP to secure an account. In return, Joan asked for partnership in the firm, which she was granted.
And Betty was comforting Sally over the arrival of her period.
As the show returns, the characters are celebrating Christmas of 1967 and New Year’s of 1968. While the show has made mention of events which informed the civil rights movement, not as much mention has been made of the rise of the second wave of feminism. Perhaps Weiner and company feel the feminism of the era is implicit in the text of the show via the female characters, without citing specific events, but since the show takes place in New York, it seems likely one of the characters would have encountered a feminist demonstration or meeting.
Hawaii. Don is here for work and Megan appears to be living the good life. While they’re attending a typical tourist Hawaiian pig roast, the audience discovers she’s “made it” as an actress. She gets recognized by another guest and asked for her autograph. Megan seems a little put off by the attention, but she’s soon back to her bubbly social ways.
The character of Megan is an interesting amalgamation. Weiner has spoken about being influenced by the books of Helen Gurley Brown when writing the character of Joan and the career ambitions of Peggy seem to categorize her as a someone who would support second wave feminism, but it’s unclear what school of thought Megan’s character would fall under. Peggy chooses to use her brain to move up the ranks at work, as does Megan. She’s capable and intelligent and rises from a secretary to a copywriter, similar to Peggy. Don points this out when he tells Peggy of their engagement: “You know she reminds me of you. She’s got the same spark.”
On the other hand, by marrying Don, Megan is ensuring financial stability for herself, a goal which Joan states in the pilot episode of the series. “Of course, if you really make the right moves, you’ll be out in the country and you won’t be going to work at all.”
But rather than climb the advertising ranks like Peggy or become a homemaker, Megan pursues her own goal: to become an actress.
Megan’s success may make her character more interesting in the long run, but sadly for now, it only makes her interesting in relation to Don. Here’s why: Don’s never been in a real relationship with a woman who works. Yes, he’s slept with many women who had careers (Midge, Rachel Menken, Sally’s teacher), but being in a relationship–a marriage–with one is different.
Joan barely appears in the premiere, other than a brief scene where the partners are having pictures taken. She’s also mentioned in reference to her relationship with Roger, a not-so-well kept secret at the office, since Peggy and Stan discuss it later in the episode.
Peggy is handling advertising emergency crises at midnight on a Friday, during a holiday weekend. It’s clear Peggy isn’t afraid to speak her mind to clients or staff who work for her. In fact, it seems Don’s style of management has rubbed off on her, maybe more than she would like to acknowledge. She puts in the same long hours Don would have back in the day and ultimately saves the idea. Her boss comments she’s “good in a crisis.” Since she took a big career step last season by choosing to leave SCDP, it’ll be interesting to see what Weiner and Co. have in store for her this year.
One of the more complex storylines in the premiere was Betty’s. One of Sally’s friends, Sandy, seems to spend a lot of time in the Francis household. Sandy’s a talented violinist whose mother recently passed away. Betty seems to feel a close bond with the girl, because as she points out, Betty lost her mother, too.
There’s been much discussion over Betty’s bizarre rape joke to her husband, Henry, about Sandy. Although the joke seemed out of place, it fits with Betty’s sometimes off-color sense of humor. Early on in the series, Betty joked about Sally being a “little lesbian”. The rape comment was an odd choice for a joke, to be sure, but it seems to fit in with the characterization of Betty.
When Betty finds out Sandy has left for Juilliard (after Sandy admitted to her she didn’t get in), Betty performs an act of kind-heartedness, driving into the city to search for the teenage girl. Sandy’s mention of St. Mark’s Place leads Betty to the rundown tenements there. While two of the occupants are tolerant of her presence, when their friend returns, he is not as willing to put up with this blonde suburban housewife. The ne’er do well informs her Sandy was trying to get money to go to California. He calls her “Blondie” and says she’s a goodie and wants her out of the building.
The encounter gets under Betty’s skin. She doesn’t want to be perceived as simply a blonde housewife, so she dyes her hair black. Henry asks if she was inspired by Elizabeth Taylor, but seems accepting of the change.
The question is if the hair color change will be enough for Betty or if she wants to make other changes in her life. From the beginning of the series, it’s clear she has been unhappy, but she has remained the most stagnant character, afraid to step outside of her role as wife, mother, and housewife.