“Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. The best one’s between your legs. Learn how to use it.” – Cersei Lannister
“There is no number.” – Peggy Olson
“What do we say to the god of death?” – Syrio Forel
“Not today.” – Arya Stark
I’ve been saying for some time that once the books are finished and the television series has caught up, there’s an essay I can’t wait to write about the male mentors of Arya Stark. But watching this Sunday’s episodes of both Game of Thrones and Mad Men, I was struck by the parallels between those series’ traditional women, Sansa and Joan, and their trailblazers, Peggy and Arya, and the advice they receive from others about how to make their lives better.
One of the ways we understand that Don Draper is a fundamentally selfish person is his failings as a mentor, one of the major threads of this season. On a fairly fundamental level, he’s incapable of seeing Peggy’s — or anyone else’s — success as a contributor to his success rather than detracting from it. He’s not going to advocate with her with Heinz. He hangs up on her when she tries to apologize. Instead of seeing Ginsberg’s rise as another opportunity for Don to get credit for spotting and developing a talent that other people might have passed over, he undermines the younger man by leaving his design for a Sno-Cone ad in a cab so he has an excuse not to pitch it. Alan Sepinwall remarked on how “Peggy tries to resume her role as Don’s work wife — literally in the Cool Whip pitch — but the chemistry’s not the same” in “Lady Lazarus,” but in a way, that’s an illustration of the fundamental awkwardness of their relationship. Don’s lack of confidence means that he’s keeping a ledger of what Peggy owes him, rather than secure and able to spend his influence and knowledge without expecting a return with interest in a series of scheduled payments. Everything he does when Peggy gives her notice is wrong. He’s asked too much of her over the years to understand she sees their account as basically even. Even if Peggy wants the role of Don’s work wife, his ardent, courtly kiss on her hand is an attempt to seduce her rather than respect her, a fundamental reminder of her gender. The emotion is powerful, but what she wants is a kind of relationship that Don is unable to engage in.
Joan, who gets and takes the best advice (which is not saying much) offered to her all episode by Lane, who advises her to get a fair price for what she’s selling, was never really considered a potential subject for mentorship and professional growth. She buys her way to a more stable, secure, second-class existence. It’s a place she can have not just because, as Don tells Peggy, she’s been there for thirteen years, but because giving your office manager five percent of the firm is fundamentally different from admitting a woman as an equal partner. Joan, as Emily Nussbaum argues at the New Yorker, has won her right to be in the room, to hear what the men think of her. Peggy wants to change the terms of the conversation rather than simply hearing it, or participating in it. Her deep drink, her conviction to leave, is less about the firm choosing Joan over her, and more about the affirmation that Don Draper has trained her for something he doesn’t actually know how to give her: leadership.
The men and women who act as mentors to the Stark girls, one of whom is playing by an old set of rules, the other of whom wants to forge new ones, in Game of Thrones can be crueler to them than Don is to Peggy or Pete is to Joan. I’m fascinated by the HBO interpretation of Cersei Lannister’s relationship to Sansa Stark, the daughter of a traitor who is meant to marry her son. Cersei can be vicious to the younger woman, forcing her to go through the motions of denouncing her family and pledging her allegiance to the Lannisters. But while her dedication to stripping Sansa of all her romantic fantasies may seem unnecessarily harsh, Cersei’s doing the younger woman a mercy, saving her from a brutal disillusionment on her first night in her marriage bed. Cersei was utterly unprepared for the prospect that her husband might not live up the courtly ideals that she once treasured as Sansa did, that she might be subject to regular marital rape by a drunkard who hated her. Cersei, in her twisted way, is rescuing Sansa if not from the same fate, from being caught unawares, particularly since Joffrey is a genuine sadist where Robert was merely broken. She warns Sansa that she can try to love the king, but gives her no promises that it will be a fruitful effort. Instead, she urges Sansa to focus on her own capacities. Cersei’s warning to Sansa that “Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. The best one’s between your legs. Learn how to use it,” is undeniably crude. But it’s a rough attempt to recenter Sansa’s worldview, a reminder that not only should she depend on herself rather than a man, but that she has more capacity than she knows, if only she can dare to imagine using it. Lane may encourage Joan to reach for an option that would give her independence in a way Sansa can’t dream of, but that’s an indication of altered stakes, not a fundamentally different game.
If Sansa is like Joan, navigating the terms and conditions of her own sale, Arya is Peggy, though born with a bone-deep conviction that she was never meant for girl’s things. The war of the Five Kings saved her from entombment with a septa and a marriage to a minor Lord, the Westeroi equivalent of a smart girl ending up at a secretary’s desk at SCDP. But because she’s made her escape in a time when there is no precedent, no rising tide of female emancipation, her mentors tend to be genuinely unusual men who educate her on the sly, rather than attempting to satisfy themselves by slotting her into the roles they need filled. First, there’s her dancing master, Syrio, who does her the respect of teaching her and criticizing her, rather than treating her as if his job is to satisfy a whim. He’s followed by Yoren, who keeps her secrets and educates her on a reason for living previously unavailable to a gently bred young lady: hatred and revenge. The emotions involved may be harsh, but Yoren knows they will give Arya motivation even in the midst of despair. Jaqen extends her moral education, encouraging her to consider when it’s reasonable to collaborate to survive, giving her the first taste of power and command she’s experienced, experiences she was denied first as a girl and second as a refugee. And Tywin Lannister gives her a sense that she is valuable for herself, even if he encourages her to moderate herself and think carefully in the name of self-preservation: “I enjoy you, but careful,” he warns her when she gets smart with him.
For Tywin, Arya is an indulgence, his conversations with her a small luxury in the midst of a deeply unpleasant war—he misses both the risks and the opportunities of having her in his midst. Don loses Peggy, a person with much more power, with much more developed potential, and much more freedom to maneuver, when he forgets that he enjoys her for herself. Tywin’s ability to truly see Arya, her gender, her spirit, her good conversation and to be pleased rather than afraid marks him as a more confident man than Don Draper, and in some ways, a more modern one.