Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mad Men: Compartmentalization, Then and Now

Amanda Marcotte hits one of the high points of season 4, episode 4 of Mad Men:

[I]f we thought that perhaps Peggy was going to make her new bohemian friends an escape from her life, she actually has them come to her work to pick her up for lunch. That’s far from the only way she looks to live openly and honestly. When she’s at the party and her new friend introduces her as a writer, she doesn’t go along with the ruse, instead asking one of the guests if he’d like some paid work with her. She doesn’t compartmentalize like Don does. She struggles throughout the episode with longings for marriage and babies and good old-fashioned patriarchal validation, and at the end, she nods at Pete (who represents a lot of that in her mind) and steps into the elevator with her new friends, including an unabashed lesbian.
I think this overstates the matter. On the compartmentalized-integrated continuum, it's true that Peggy appears to have found a spot closer to the integrated side, for now at least; and it's definitely fair to say Peggy is seeing Don's example and trying to find a better path.

It's one thing to resist the example, but quite another to succeed at doing so. If we imagine Mad Men prequels and flashbacks never yet produced, we can imagine a younger Don struggling in the same way and trying some of the same tactics, and yet here Don is, fragmented and faceted -- and this season, completely drunk with increasing frequency. I question whether Peggy is doing anything more than trying to integrate the conflicting and conflicted strands of her life.

It's worth noting the ways Peggy is already visibly not pulling things together: yes, she allows herself to be seen with her new bohemian friends in her workplace lobby, but she is not inviting them in and making introductions. She is not going to their workplaces; she is not introducing her boyfriend to them, nor have we seen her mention the friends to the boyfriend; it's unknown, and I would say unlikely, that her mother and sister know anything of these friends or her boyfriend; we have not seen Peggy face the challenge of melding a bohemian side with a higher-authority, higher-stress, higher-visibility position in her work; and so on.

Even the boldest gesture toward integration we saw -- happily chirping of her work in advertising and suggesting that her artsy stoner friends should join her in that -- has yet to be repeated. It's possible that what we saw there was the exact instant when Peggy learned that certain friends don't want to hear about the dreary world of paid work for "the man," and that she does not want to be the attache connecting these worlds.

She's far from just one consistent, integrated, inwardly and outwardly harmonious Peggy. How this problem plays out for Peggy and for other characters -- Don, Pete, Joan, even Roger -- continues to bear watching. We know that the 1960s passed to the 1970s, 80s, 90s, 00s, and beyond without resolving this problem (is it a problem?) on a mass scale, and maybe not on any level, so my expectation is that we will see these characters struggle with and over it -- struggle but not resolve.

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