The smokin' ladies of "Mad Men"

Marijuana, marital discord and motherhood on last night's episode of our favorite television drama

Published August 31, 2009 6:32PM (EDT)

Major spoiler alert: We’re going to tell you what happened on last night’s episode of “Mad Men.” If that will cause you to vent your rage against us, please stop reading here.

Here’s one way to look at this week’s episode of “Mad Men”: It’s all about the clash of the generations. Don seems uncharacteristically pissed off at Roger, once his older mentor and partner in marital crime, for actually leaving his wife (as opposed to continuing with the old-school tradition of maintaining a wife in the suburbs and a mistress -- or two -- in the city); his father-in-law, Gene, the aging patriarch who now spends his days at home in the suburbs with the women and children, instigates a domestic row between the Drapers' black housekeeper, whom he accuses of stealing $5, and his granddaughter, Sally, the actual culprit. (In keeping with the consequences-to-depraved-generations theme, note that Gene has the kid reading “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” as a bedtime story and greets his son-in-law with, “Hi Don. How’s Babylon?”). Also, this seems to be the musical episode: There are four song and/or dance numbers, one for each quarter-hour segment.

But here at Broadsheet, we’re all about the ladies, and thus today we’d like to focus on what’s going on with Peggy and Joan, both of whom, in parallel story lines, take on the men in their lives (Peggy’s fratty colleagues on creative, Joan’s husband and his colleagues) and have revealing conversations with women of their mothers' generation.

In Peggy’s case, that woman is her new secretary, Olive, who, unlike her bitchy and dismissive (perhaps jealous, perhaps incredulous) predecessors, takes her duties to her boss seriously. But while the guys’ secretaries tend to act like wives or girlfriends, flirting perkily, mixing drinks, covering their boss’s affairs and generally aiding and abetting their sins, it’s clear that Olive has another role in mind: She wants to be Peggy’s mom. She brings Peggy her choice of freshly brewed coffee or tea (and, in true mom-martyr fashion, offers to drink the discarded beverage herself), cancels her weekend plans when Peggy and the creative crew must work over the weekend, and seems to be trying to set her up with her son. If Peggy ever comes down with the flu, this woman will surely show up with a thermos of homemade chicken soup -- delivered to Ms. Olson’s apartment. One must assume this personnel decision is the result of a certain redheaded head secretary finally figuring out that young girls who see Peggy as a sexual and professional competitor might not be as good a fit as the matronly older woman who will see her as a child in need of protection.

But alas, Peggy -- who got laid by a guy she picked up at a bar last week -- is swiftly discarding her good girl act (not that it was ever much more than an act, given that we watched her get contraceptives in Episode 1, Season 1) and is in need of no one’s protection. The guys decide to blow off their work and call in Paul’s Princeton buddy-turned-“drug pusher,” failing, once again, to invite Peggy in on the merriment. “You don’t want to go in there,” warns Olive, who smells the smoke, despite the guys' attempt to block the door with Paul’s beloved mohair sweater. But Peggy marches in and -- while deflecting the “drug pusher’s” advances -- delivers an all-time classic line, “I’m Peggy Olson and I want to smoke some marijuana.” The guys sputter that she won’t like it. “How do you know what I’ll like?” she shoots back. “You never ask me about anything except brassieres and body odor and makeup.” Reader, we cheered.

Meanwhile, back at the cramped apartment that Joan and soon-to-be-doctor Greg call home, the one-time husband hunter -- whom her husband now calls by the irritating diminutive “Joanie” -- is discovering that being a doctor’s wife is not all she thought it would be -- and perhaps not even as rewarding as being the head secretary at a major ad agency. Joan has clearly become the dominant partner in their relationship: When they argue about seating arrangements, Greg tells her he doesn’t want to fight. “Then stop talking,” she says.

As the two host a dinner party for Greg’s colleagues and their wives, we learn why Joan has yet to follow through on her purported dream to quit her job, get knocked up and move to the suburbs. She can’t afford to. She’s supporting her husband.

Joan’s conversation with a woman of an older generation happens with Mrs. Ettinger, the wife of the head of surgery, who knows just how little Greg makes as a resident and immediately recognizes who is funding their lifestyle. “You must do very well,” she tells Joan, once the women are discreetly hidden in the kitchen. Seemingly to Joan’s surprise, Mrs. Ettinger informs her of the long tradition of doctors’ wives supporting their husbands through med school and residency (“I taught kindergarten and made three times what Ron did”), and warns her it’s not over yet. Even worse, it seems that Dr. Greg isn’t that great of a doctor -- his colleagues will later allude to a major fuck-up that he hasn’t yet revealed to his wife -- and his professional future may be much less certain than her own. “The fact that Greg can get a woman like you makes me feel good about his future, no matter what happens,” she tells Joan, and delivers the killer line, “Just don’t get pregnant.”

Now that’s a blow. Joan is 31, and probably wouldn’t even be married to this guy -- a clear asshole who basically date-raped her last season -- in the first place, had she not decided that it was time to have a child and live as a doctor’s wife. You can see her reconsidering everything she thought she knew (even stupid Jane is married and being treated like a princess by Roger Sterling, who loved Joan first and best) -- and perhaps wondering if she should have been more like Peggy, willing to use her talents to play a man’s game. (Remember how good she was in her stint as a script reader last season? And remember how she refused to fight for it when her job was turned over to a man?)

Peggy, by the end, refuses to take shit from the guys and lets us know she’s not going to ask permission from Mom anymore, either. Olive freaks out when she comes back reeking of pot and Peggy tells her, essentially, it’s none of her fucking business. “You’re not thinking of my future,” she says. “The thing is. I have a job. I have my own office with my name on the door. I have my own secretary. That's you. And I am not scared of any of it.”

It’s an awesome comeback: She’s basically giving a big defiant fuck you to every woman -- from her Catholic mother to her teachers at secretarial school to a certain head secretary -- who told her to stay put and be happy with her lot. But it’s more than that: She’s refusing to be constrained by the double moral standard that says the guys can goof off with drugs and sex, while the good girls must stay chaste. But, of course, many guys don’t care if a girl has a little fun (unless you are their mother or sister): They’ll just move you a few places over on the “virgin/whore” chessboard. It’s old-school women, and, in particular, mothers, who were worried that their daughter’s loose morals might keep them from husbands, children and everlasting happiness. And in her loopy, stoned, sweet way, Peggy suddenly gets it: “But you're scared,” she says. Olive isn’t scolding her, per se, she’s scared for her, and worried about the consequences to a young lady who breaks the rules that governed women in her own day. Leaning in, Peggy says, “I am going to get to do everything you want for me. I'm going to be fine, Olive.”

More and more, it seems like she will. Call it the beginning of the New Age or call it Babylon, but this season, Peggy seems to be the one who really gets that change is coming and recognizes that, as a woman in the business of inventing dreams, keeping up with the culture is her job description. (“Are you working?” her colleagues ask her in the middle of smoking. Having just dreamed up a campaign while under the influence, she replies, “I think I am.”) Mom would be proud. Let’s hope Joan realizes she’s more than the perfect Marilyn living in the Jackie era, and gets a chance to catch up. 

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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