‘Mad Men’ And the Impossibility of Discussing the Problem That Has No Name

My affection for the finale of Mad Men has increased the more I’ve thought about the episode, even as I wonder if I might look back on it as a better series finale than jumping off point for anything new. For a show that’s been blunter than previously about its themes in any given episode, the fifth season of Mad Men is a fairly subtle look at how and why men of a certain era failed to anticipate the rise of feminism, or to recognize that a rearrangement of gender roles could do anything to ease their lingering discontents.

The end of the finale emphasized, as clearly as was humanely possible, that Don Draper is a limited person. That’s not to say he’s incapable or weak, but that he’s settled deeply into certain patterns and is profoundly bounded by certain desires and fears, which really may be a way of explaining that he’s feeling middle age hard. When Megan gets drunk and tells Don “This is what you want, isn’t it? For me to be waiting for you? That’s why you won’t give me a chance,” she’s partially right. Don wants not to want that, but he can’t help himself. The stay-at-home wife who he failed to satisfy intellectually or emotionally left him. The work wife he nurtured professionally moved on without him. Don may be at peace with Peggy’s departure—”I’m proud of you. I just didn’t know it would be without me,” he tells her before the beginning of Casino Royale. But his privilege means he’s never developed the capacity to work his way through personal situations that are difficult for him. Of course he only likes “the beginnings of things.” Everything else requires skills Don doesn’t have. And the finale of the show seems to emphasize that he will never develop them.

We can see that fundamental, but it’s an uncertainty that’s invisible to many of the men around him. Don’s walk off Megan’s set and towards the bar begins with a nifty bit of lighting that transforms him briefly into the silhouette from the credits sequence, a featureless archetype of masculinity. Don Draper may be an individual, but he’s a role model to the men around him, and he may be a void, but they see the strong, clean lines, the cut of the suit, the swoop of the hair, the success.

That archetype’s always been appealing to Pete Campbell in particular, a man who’s always looking for someone to emulate. Pete is somewhat closer than Don to articulating why he’s unhappy, and more active in pursuing alternatives, whether it’s his vigorous attempt to eclipse Roger at work, sleeping with a prostitute at a classy brothel, or pursuing an affair with his neighbor’s wife. When Beth returns to his life, Pete’s reaction is a combination of an attempt at Don-like suave and something new. “This is not a joke,” he says in an evocation of Don’s California reset button. “Let’s go to Los Angeles. I’ve been there. It’s filled with sunshine.” She’s not buying it, and Pete’s attempts to stand up for her autonomy don’t stick a landing either. His insistence that “Howard can’t make you do this. He can’t control you. He’s a monster,” doesn’t acknowledge that Beth might want shock therapy. Instead, his real goal is keeping her sexually available to him. He didn’t like the idea that she was ignoring him or had forgotten him voluntarily after their first encounter, and the prospect that he’s literally been erased from her memory permanently drives him into a rage. “You are the most disgusting person I’ve ever seen,” Pete spits at Beth’s husband on the train, provoking the first of two fights he’ll lose within five minutes. “You just couldn’t wait to get her in the hospital and erase her brain.”

Unlike Don, who sees only the newness of things as they come into their lives, Pete’s ahead of the curve only in that he sees the disappointments immediately. He feels Beth’s distance immediately after sleeping with her, but he can’t seem to process that Beth’s treating him like men in this series often treat women: she wants to sleep with him and then make him disappear. When Trudy, lured in by Pete’s story of how he got his injuries, relents and decides he should be allowed an apartment in the city, he’s ceased wanting it before they’ve even signed a lease: he doesn’t have an idea of who he wants to have an affair with there anymore. But whether he can see the rot earlier than Don is doesn’t mean that Pete’s gotten the shock that would make him realign his goals and values. The incentives to stay within the protective shell of patriarchy, to retain the right to blow off Joan in partners’ meetings and cheat without getting caught, are simply too great. If anything, the man who got the sharpest shock this season, aided by LSD and Pete’s condescension, is Roger Sterling. And the closest he comes to progress is an affair with an age-appropriate woman who sets her own terms for their encounter.

The women on the show, by contrast, all have strong incentives to change their lives, given the limited gains they reap from the status quo. At SCDP, Peggy faced limits on how far she would be promoted and the sometimes-condescension of a mentor who had taken her as far as he knew how, and at home, she is compromising with Abe. In accepting her new job, Peggy has new financial resources (which are resulting in some gorgeous red ensembles), a relationship with Don that’s freed from the pressures of their working relationship—plus, she can pick up where he left off on tobacco—and professional opportunities that are emotionally fulfilling. “I’m going to Virginia to tour the factory,” she tells Don with a touching excitement. “I’m going on a plane.”

Megan has fewer professional resources, and as her mother points out, a plusher default life than Peggy. But her lecture to her daughter fails to acknowledge that even if “Not every little girl gets to do what she wants. The world cannot support that many ballerinas,” women may become less adept at mashing down revised versions of those dreams. Megan’s suffering from a quicker-onset, more severe case of the Problem That Has No Name than Betty Draper ever did. Her attempts to solve it seem unlikely to be confined to declarations of dislike for orange sherbet, heavy daytime drinking, or a single whirl in a commercial. And Don’s essential inflexibility means they’ll pull further away from each other.

And of all the women on the show, Joan’s circumstances were likely the most immediately untenable: she is married to her rapist, facing the prospect of raising her child as a single mother (and the idea that she might not want her mother around as free child care). Whether you think her decision to leverage her sexuality into a partnership and financial security in the firm was realistic, it’s happened. But in the room where previously she could be discussed without being present, Joan faces the likely prospect of being disregarded. When she tries to keep to procedure in the debate over the new office space, telling her colleagues “Tabling does not require a vote. It only needs to be seconded,” Pete snaps at her “What is this, parliament?” and Don petulantly demands to know “Is the meeting over yet?” When Pete stomps out of the conference room, Don asks “We can do that?” Giving Joan a partnership may have been a necessity for the firm, but none of the men who sit around the table with her seem to believe that they have anything to gain in the long term from her presence there.

And ultimately, this is the challenge feminism poses to men like Don Draper, to Pete Campbell, to established old firms. While they recognize that they may have to accomodate the needs of the women around them to keep the peace, they fail on a more fundamental level to understand that the upheaval around them may have benefits for them, too. As they cling to old privilege, and women find more opportunities to respond to the incentives they have to radically remake their lives, the gaps between Don and Megan, Pete and Trudy, perhaps even Betty and the more sensitive Henry, will become chasms. That promotional image of Don Draper staring at a set of store mannequins may have been less about foreshadowing, and more for a time when the conversation between men and women was limited and unequal, but on his terms.