What Happens to the “Mad Men” Women?
While Mad Men is, undoubtedly, Don Draper’s story, the series has always provided viewers with complicated, diverse, and challenging female characters. In the final season, viewers can move toward closure on the stories of Betty (January Jones), Megan (Jessica Paré), Joan (Christina Hendricks), and Peggy (Elizabeth Moss). Happy endings will never be a legacy for this show, but earned endings are a different story. Each of these main female characters are treated with respect and sent onward into the uncertainty of their future in the 70s.
Betty faces the ultimate fate in the final season. In the second to the last episode she is given a terminal diagnosis of lung cancer, the last and ultimate impact of all of those Lucky Strikes. It is as if Betty only exists in the stylized 1960s of the show. Betty would never have been voted “Mother of the Year,” but as she comes into her own in the final few seasons, challenging Henry’s views on Vietnam and reconciling, in a way, with Don, she becomes more rounded. She is no longer the trophy wife viewers first met in the pilot, but she maintains her manicured, coiffed, and powdered identity. She even manages to plan for her own funeral, not at all to Sally’s surprise. As her illness takes its toll in the finale, Betty never relinquishes control. She urges Don not to push for custody of their young sons. In a heartbreaking moment, she says they need a woman in their life, a family like her brother’s, which is something she and Don were never able to provide together.
Betty will be missed, loved, and mourned by her family and both of her husbands for her beauty, grace, and ultimately, her self-awareness.
Megan, Don’s real trophy wife, was always more complicated that most gave her credit for being. Thankfully, the theories that sprung up after Megan moved to the Hollywood Hills about her being Sharon Tate proved to be false. As the series moves towards its conclusion, Megan and Don are separated. She is struggling with her acting career in California and Don is struggling with his identity in New York. Don and Megan have one last meeting, in a lawyer’s office. Don writes Megan a check for a million dollars, both as a divorce settlement and a sincere apology. Megan was never a gold-digger. She saw Don through some dark and transitional times. The check isn’t a pay-off for her as much as it is a pay back.
Joan’s path, in spite of, or perhaps because of, her outward appearance has never been as smooth as she makes it seem. Heading into the final series of episodes, Joan has finally found her place professionally as an account executive and partner. Unfortunately for her, life outside Sterling Cooper is even more complicated than it is in their offices in the Time & Life building. The sexual harassment Joan faces at McCann is all the more insidious as she moves higher up the corporate ladder. But, Joan being Joan, she faces it with aplomb, grit, and tenacity. There is no doubt Joan will go, but she will not go quietly. Ironically, though, she will go it alone. Joan has always relied on the men in her personal and professional life, often manipulating their own misogyny to her advantage. She tells Peggy, when trying to convince Peggy to join her production company, “You need two names.” In the end, both of those belonged to Joan (she uses her maiden and married name to form Holloway Harris) and she heads into the future finally as the master of her own destiny.
Peggy Olsen entered the Mad Men universe young, wide-eyed and pony-tailed. In many ways, both on and below the surface, Peggy is the most altered of the characters by the journey through the sixties. Peggy has always been complicated, but never burdened by her complications. She manages to work her way through it, pun intended. Her reflection of the tension between having a job and having a career for women in the last century has continually resonated with viewers of all ages. In the final season, Peggy struggles again to find her place with a new set of men and a new set of women and the expectations that come along with that struggle. She and Roger literally turn out the lights on Sterling Cooper, but not after she spends some time roller-skating down the halls. Peggy’s resolution in the finale is a surprise for viewers who always worried that Peggy would continue to always choose work over everything else. Her realization, a genuine surprise to her (beautifully acted by Elizabeth Moss), that she loves Stan leaves everyone with hope for her happiness. This is a softer landing for Peggy than anyone imagined. The image of Peggy that everyone will remember, the one that became instantly iconic—-her bad ass strut with dark shades and a cigarette, moving into her new office at McCann—-is absolutely awesome, not just for Peggy, but for all the women in the Mad Men universe.