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What Joan and Peggy have learned from the crumbled marriages of Mad Men

Richard (Bruce Greenwood) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) share a quick moment together.
Richard (Bruce Greenwood) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) share a quick moment together.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and foreign policy reporter Amanda Taub. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Amanda Taub: Libby, I'm so glad you brought up Mad Men's terrible record when it comes to marriages. I agree it feels foolish to get too excited about Joan and Peggy getting lucky in love when we've seen so many marriages on the show turn out so disastrously.

On the other hand, those failed relationships were, like the rest of the show, an indictment of the dangers of placing one's faith in convention during changing times. Joan and Peggy's expectations of their relationships have changed with the times. Maybe that will give them a better chance at happiness now.

It's true that most of the Mad Men marriages were fundamentally destroyed by the terrible behavior of husbands: namely, Roger, Don, and Pete's lies and philandering, and Joan's husband Greg's failure to be, as she put it, "a good man" — an indictment that encompassed everything from raping her to running off to Vietnam to hide the fact that his career was in tatters.

But most of the actual divorces happened not because of men's bad behavior, but because their wives stopped putting up with it. The social pressure on women to endure their disappointing husbands eroded in the 1960s, and took the marriages along with it.

That erosion can be seen in the way the Mad Men wives became quicker and quicker to sever ties with their husbands. Roger's ex-wife Mona, the most old-fashioned, was willing to tough it out indefinitely. Betty, the most traditional after Mona, had clearly considered leaving Don in the past, but it wasn't until she had the prospect of marrying Henry that she took the final steps toward divorce. She was willing to be divorced, but she wasn't willing to be a single mother.

Joan thought marriage was so important that she didn't break her engagement to Greg after he raped her, and then didn't end her marriage until he had effectively abandoned her first, by re-upping with the Army without even consulting her on the decision. But she was willing to be a single mother — she didn't wait for a Henry of her own before leaving her terrible husband.

And although Trudy was younger and more decisive, even she temporarily tried to engineer a continued sham marriage in order to save face. She banished Pete from their suburban home but insisted that he still show up for Mother's Day and other important events because "I refuse to be a failure." But eventually, it wasn't enough, and she sent Pete packing to California.

The youngest Mad Men wives, however, could barely be held down in the first place. Jane took Roger on an acid trip, then calmly told him that their marriage was over. Megan moved to California alone, and when Don offered to follow her, she told him not to bother. And Roger's daughter, "Marigold," née Margaret, left not just her husband but their young son to go find herself at a commune.

But my hope is that Peggy and Joan's new relationships offer the promise of something different from all those disappointing marriages.

After all, we heard Peggy tell Don her dreams this episode, and there was nothing in them about marrying a lawyer. She might want a partner, but she won't be searching for fulfillment in the role of wife and mother. Since the beginning of the show, she has wanted other things. And while she has certainly suffered along the way, she has been steadily progressing toward her goals since the first season. It's too soon to know whether her relationship with Stevie has potential, but no matter what, there's no reason to think that she would end up like Betty, Trudy, or even Cynthia.

Likewise, although Joan was once so focused on meeting the right man that she was willing to be a living embodiment of male fantasies, this episode showed us a Joan who is laser-focused on her own priorities.

Early on, she explains to Richard that she needs to work, but not because she needs the money. Rather, it's because her work is meaningful to her: "it's the job I always wanted."

And when Richard throws a tantrum because he wants a single, unattached Joan who can satisfy his fantasies of jetting off to the pyramids at a moment's notice, she leaves. When he shows up at her office later, bearing flowers and repentance, she shames him by sarcastically stating what he's really asking of her. "I thought about what you said, and I like you too. And if I have to choose between you and my son, I choose you."

"That's not what I said," Richard protested, shocked at his subtext suddenly becoming text. (He'd better get used to that happening if he's planning to stick around the Mad Men universe.) Joan, resolute, refuses to let him off the hook. "It's exactly what you said."

Chastened, Richard offers Joan a fantasy of family outings on the Upper East Side. I'm not sure how confident I am that he'll be able to keep his selfishness in check and make Joan happy. But at least I feel confident that Joan has no intention of settling for anything less.

And in the world of Mad Men, that's as close to a happy ending as anyone can really hope for.

Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for more thoughts from Todd.

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