Mad Men’s greatest subject was women in the workplace.
Matthew Weiner’s great subject wasn’t masculine self-invention or the advertising business or the 1960s—it was women in the workplace.
here are many ways to choose the best-ever line from seven hugely quotable seasons of Mad Men. You could pick a salient passage from the Draper Doctrine of market-driven nihilism. You could open a pot of Sterling’s Gold. You could tap a maple on a cold Vermont morning or tap a bowl with Peggy Olson. But if you ask this viewer, the honor belongs to Sterling Cooper veteran Freddy Rumsen, who, in the Season 5 episode “The Other Woman,” gave copywriter Peggy a rousing directive to show Don that she’s “not some secretary from Brooklyn who’s dyin’ to help out.”
This brief scene crystallizes so much of what Mad Men gets right about the dynamics of being a woman in the working world, whether in 1966 or in 2015. Peggy, who has stuck with one company through the formative years of her professional life, risks being typecast in her original role as the upstart secretary unless she strikes out and finds outside offers. Freddy’s comment manages to be supportive while nodding at the sexism and classism that pervades the WASP-y boys’ club of the midcentury advertising world. It’s a virus that could give even the most determined young woman a raging case of imposter syndrome: the feeling that no matter how many brilliant campaigns Peggy conceives, she’s always really be a secretary; that no matter how many people answer to her, she’ll never really make it out of Bay Ridge; that no matter how much she contributes to her company, it’s always really the company doing her a favor, just by keeping her around. Because SCDP loves to do favors. In the same episode, it grants office manager Joan Harris a partnership on the condition that she prostitute herself to a prospective client, thereby guaranteeing lifelong financial security for herself and her son. Joan’s decision to go through with the lucrative assignation is both correct and wrenching, and it has continued to look like the better of two bad choices even as its reverberations have continued to shock and humiliate Joan right down to the final episodes of Mad Men, which concludes Sunday.
Jessica Winter is executive editor of newyorker.com and a former editor at Slate and Time. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Bookforum, The Believer, and many other publications. She lives with her family in Flatbush, Brooklyn.