Mad Men Season 6: Why I’m Obsessed With The ‘Mad’ Women

This Sunday (April 7th), Mad Men will return us to a time when men still wore fedoras unironically and cocktail hour never ended. It’s going to be good to go back. Mad Men has been intoxicating since the final shot of the pilot episode that revealed that the cocky ad man Don Draper had a family tucked away in the suburbs. Six seasons later and the series has only grown into a more confident and densely layered character piece. There are many, many things that keep me coming back to the show: Jon Hamm’s masterful performance of a man rapidly passing his prime right before our eyes, the sleek ’60s playground and the increasingly poetic metaphors chief among them, but more than anything else it’s the Mad women who have earned my devotion.

Until Homeland and The Americans appeared on the scene, prestige dramas were primarily interested in telling stories about men. Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper are the faces of the television revolution; each of them antiheroes and walking embodiments of the question “what does it mean to be a modern man?” with nary a one offering up a comforting answer. I enjoy stories that examine the nature of masculinity, but I will freely admit I’m more likely to be drawn to the women who orbit those men, or in the case of Mad Men, who eclipse them.

Mad Men ceased to be a one man story a long time ago. At it’s core it is a duet between Don and Peggy Olson, his protege who stands on the brink of surpassing her teacher. Their relationship provides the series with a pivot point, but the deeper into the revolutionary depths of the ’60s we go, the more prominent all of the female characters become. With each passing season, Peggy, Joan, Betty, Sally and Trudy have risen in prominence, and last season was largely dominated by Megan, Don’s new wife and the purest embodiment of the era the series has presented us with to date.

It’s not surprising; the female characters have consistently been the series’ greatest asset. When I think back on the first five seasons, the moments that immediately come to mind all involve the women in some capacity. I think of Peggy’s graceful exit from Sterling Cooper Draper & Pryce, Sally pleading with Don to let her stay with him, Megan’s performance of Zou Bisou Bisou and Betty taking aim at her neighbor’s pigeons after he threatens to kill her daughter’s dog. Each of those scenes is about power: having it, lacking it and the illusion of it. Peggy seized control of her future when she chose to leave SCD&P for a another agency. Sally demonstrated just how frustrated and desperate not having a choice in your own fate can make a person. Megan’s dazzling performance was free and open in a way that was terrifying for a man like Don, and when Betty strolled across her lawn with shotgun in hand she was taking charge of the only situation she could at the time.

Matthew Weiner and his team delve into gender equality issues fearlessly. They present us with a picture of how the world was that is often still startlingly relevant today. In last season’s most polarizing episode, “The Other Woman,” the partners asked Joan to have sex with a potential client in order to secure a lucrative account, and Joan agreed on the condition that she would be made a partner. The episode sparked an endless debate about whether or not Joan’s actions were feminist or if she was victimized. It doesn’t matter which side of the debate you land on, the episode was searing, difficult to watch and impossible to look away from all at the same time. Most importantly, it shined the spotlight on a terrific, often heartbreaking female character and asked us to critically think about a subject that is undeniably uncomfortable.

Joan is the outwardly the archetypical bombshell and inwardly a character who is struggling with changing times in a way that’s every bit as visceral as what Don’s going through, and the writers have made it clear they’re just as interested in telling her story. The same goes for Peggy, who has blossomed from a naive secretary into a confident businesswoman, and Sally, who is growing up not only in turbulent times, but in a turbulent home. Even Betty, a character who has been dismissed by many fans as too cold and cruel to be worth sticking with hasn’t been let go, instead we continue to follow her as she travels listlessly through another marriage that can’t offer her happiness and I couldn’t be happier about it. I don’t always like Betty, but I enjoy watching her none the less.

The women of Mad Men are fascinating, challenging and they all have amazing wardrobes– is it any wonder that I’m obsessed? Many of my favorite shows leave me starving for quality, female-driven stories, but Mad Men offers them up without prompting, nestled amongst stories about when men were men (whatever that means) and women were struggling, growing and quietly changing their fates in a thousand different ways.

Is it Sunday yet?

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