Mad Men was always a show about men who didn’t — or couldn’t — change.
No matter how many times the men of Sterling Cooper (Draper Pryce) tried, the series always sent them back to the self-destructive routines they knew best. Those patterns could be anything from the liquor they kept in their desk drawers to the women they slept with to the larger worldviews that kept them anchored to their own pasts — and, more often than not, ensured they sank.
Looking back at the pilot of Mad Men — which premiered on AMC 10 years ago this Wednesday — isn’t quite like looking back at the pilot of most shows, which tend to be almost hilariously different from whatever came later, when the series figured out what it actually wanted to be. Mad Men always knew who world-weary Don Draper was, who petulant prepster Pete Campbell wanted to emulate, who cavalier heir Roger Sterling was thrilled to be. Sure, the writers and actors finessed their depictions along the way, but nothing about where each of those characters ended up by the series finale would have surprised anyone who met them in the first episode.
The women of Mad Men, however, are an entirely different — and far more dynamic — story.
When we first meet Peggy Olson and Joan Holloway, they’re secretaries who know they’re smart, but are also staring down an endless row of grinning frat-guy superiors and trying to be realistic about their chances of success beyond their assigned desks. Betty Draper is barely a blip on the radar, only appearing in the final minutes of the episode as the twist of Don’s suburban life. And while Peggy’s storyline in season one develops into an obvious parallel to Don’s as she reveals a knack for advertising, Joan was never supposed to become the powerhouse she became down the line. In fact, as per creator Matthew Weiner, Joan’s original purpose was just to be a “courtesan” who taught people the ways of the office. Eventually, all three women reveal rich inner lives their male counterparts never bothered to consider were there, and create the kind of lives they once assumed they never could have.
For as much as Mad Men was about the cyclical frustrations of petty men, it was also about the determination and creativity of women. Just as much as Mad Men knew Don Draper would never change, it discovered that its women — especially Peggy and Joan — were destined to take the kinds of journeys he never could.
Don Draper’s story is one of a man who desperately wanted to transform himself — and never could
Mad Men’s very first scene has Don Draper sitting in a restaurant booth, surrounded by smoke and other “Mad Men” who make their livings selling American dreams as he scribbles pitches for Lucky Strike on a napkin. He grills a waiter about his favorite cigarette brand, marveling at the man’s seemingly unshakable loyalty, and then orders another drink.
“I’ll do this again,” Don says. “Old Fashioned.”
The fact that this is Don’s drink of choice is a little on the nose, but in true Mad Men fashion, that detail is also meticulously chosen. The more we get to know Don Draper — the man, the constructed myth, the self-destructive legend — the less surprising it is that he returns again and again to an Old Fashioned.
Don’s journey over seven seasons of Mad Men is one of a man who wanted with all his might to be a different person — something made literal in the first season, as it was revealed “Don” was a facsimile hiding “Dick Whitman,” the scared boy who grew up in a brothel and crafted himself a new, sleeker identity after the Korean War.
Mad Men always brought Don to the brink of real change, only to yank him back again. He gives up drinking, gives in to drinking, gives it up and comes back to it all over again. He expresses interest in being a more involved parent, then blinks in surprise when his daughter Sally appears to have grown up without him noticing. Once Betty becomes sick of his shit and presses for a divorce, he trades her for a more modern version of the model wife (see: Megan) — which also ends in divorce. He mentors Peggy, more by accident than design. He falls apart, and stumbles back up, and crumbles all over again, waiting for someone — usually, some woman — to come by and put him back together.
Even his clothes scream that he’s a man who would resist true transformation at any cost; as Tom and Lorenzo have pointed out in their stellar “Mad Style” breakdowns, Don’s suits stubbornly stayed the same throughout the show (give or take a slightly wider lapel), while most everyone around him embraced the new trends of the evolving world.
Don is one of the most deeply felt TV characters ever, and Jon Hamm’s performance reveals more layers every time I watch it. But at some point, Mad Men made it clear that Don’s slow and steady breakdown was never going to end — and he was never going to change.
In the very last scene of the series, Don has run away to California — his place of choice to do drugs with hippies and escape himself — to try to find some semblance of peace. The last we see of him is his placid expression as he attempts meditation — and the series then cuts to the famous 1971 “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad, which plays Mad Men out for good. In interviews afterward, Weiner was less ambiguous than the show about the fact that Don created the ad, which confirms a truth about Don the show never shied away from: Here is a man who wants to be better, but in times of trouble he will always go back to what he already knows.
This truth about Don couldn’t have been surprising to anyone who saw the show’s first episode, in which he also takes a seemingly transformative experience and turns it into an ad. The breakthrough moment of the pilot, in fact, comes when Don snags the Lucky Strike account by appealing to a room of powerful men with a very simple pitch: “Advertising is based on one thing — happiness.”
“And you know what happiness is?” Don continues, as the Lucky Strike men fight their instinctive smiles. “It’s the smell of a new car. It's freedom. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you're doing is okay. You are okay."
All Don Draper wanted was to be happy. But all Don knew was how to create facsimiles of happiness — and so he never found a way to make it real for himself.
But his female counterparts, against much greater odds than Don Draper faced, did.
Peggy had Mad Men’s most dynamic storyline from the start
While Don spun his wheels, Pete threw tantrums, and Roger pickled himself to distraction, Peggy was busy getting shit done.
The pilot only shows glimmers of what’s to come for Peggy, but her journey is the most purposefully progressive Mad Men ever did (and, thanks to actor Elisabeth Moss, one of the most compelling on TV, period). She started as Don’s secretary, but quickly revealed a wit that made her his most obvious creative successor. Eventually she carved out her own place in the relentlessly misogynistic advertising industry, by sheer force of will and undeniably sharper instincts.
One of the more interesting aspects of Peggy’s character is that she didn’t necessarily want to be a pioneer. If she were around today, she might even deride affirmative action as an unnecessary act of pity that denigrates the value of hard work. But by the simple virtue of being a woman who pushed past a constant onslaught of sexist bullshit to get what she wanted, Peggy grew into a force that dared men to reckon with her brilliance, and smirked when she got the better of them.
The first season of Mad Men made plain the parallels between Peggy’s story of discovering her creative voice and Don having done the same, and the series continued to develop her trajectory into something even more complex and fascinating than Don’s. But that Joan followed suit was a surprise to everyone (including the show’s own creative team), and a turn that reveals how Mad Men found new possibilities in places it didn’t expect.
Joan wasn’t supposed to be more than an hourglass figure. Instead, she became a legend.
Watching the first episode of Mad Men reveals exactly how little Mad Men knew — or even cared to know — about Joan Holloway. She’s not much more a sashaying column of red strutting through the office to show Peggy the ropes. She assures Peggy that the typewriter might look complicated, but “the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use,” and then instructs her new hire to go home, put a paper bag over her head, and assess where her strengths and weaknesses are. (“And be honest.”) She’s basically the leader of the sorority that is the Sterling Cooper steno pool, and woe betide the secretary (or drooling man) who dared cross her.
But per Weiner, Christina Hendricks made it impossible for Joan not to become more than what the character herself calls “something in between a mother and a waitress” in that first episode. In Hendricks’s hands, Joan didn’t just show Peggy around; she surveyed her territory, wielding her wicked smile and swaying hips like well-honed weapons of charm. When someone pissed her off, her eyes flashed fury, foreshadowing the righteous wrath to come.
Soon enough, it became impossible to ignore the fact that Joan was too smart to be satisfied with corralling lunch orders. Her ambitions grew despite her more practical judgment, morphed to leap beyond the men in her life who disappointed and devastated her. If you only knew Joan from the pilot, the fact that the series ends with Joan offering Peggy a partnership in her own production company would be just as mind-boggling as it would be thrilling.
Joan, like Peggy, didn’t necessarily set out to become more than what the world told her she could be: a decently smart gal who would make some man moderately happy someday. But Mad Men nonetheless lifted up Joan and Peggy’s fight to be taken seriously — a fight they won — as pointed counterparts to its men, stuck in their own loops of self-defeating self-pity.