So, the final half-season of AMC’s now classic series Mad Men is on again–episode 3 of the final sequence airs tonight–and people are again talking about this, probably my all time favorite TV show. I’ve done several “Mad Men geography” posts on this blog, but I’ve never actually done an article opining on the show or its characters directly, and as the show will soon be finished forever this may be my last chance. I’m speaking up largely as a response to some sentiments expressed in a few of Vox.com’s recent articles analyzing Mad Men–which are great articles, by the way–to the effect that the character of Megan Draper, who likely made her final appearance on the show in last week’s episode, is generally disliked by most Mad Men fans. When I read that it surprised me. Not only is Megan probably my favorite character from the show, but one can make an argument that she’s in fact the entire linchpin of the series. I’m going to use this article to make that argument.
Just to get everybody on the same page, let me explain that Megan Draper, who is played by beautiful French-Canadian actress Jessica Paré, is the second wife of the show’s main character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm). (Spoilers ahead, obviously, for the series up until the 4/12/2015 episode). Megan first appeared in Season 4 as a secretary at Sterling Cooper Draper Price, Don’s ad agency. A young woman of French-Canadian extraction, Megan had ambitions as an actress but was working as a secretary. She fell in love with Don and he with her rather unexpectedly, and they got married in the Season 5 opener. In the show’s time this occurred in 1965. They’ve now spent the last five years–the show is now up to the spring of 1970–trying unsuccessfully to make their marriage work. The final break came after Megan moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career, and Don proved characteristically incapable of being faithful to her. She also has conflicts with her mother, played by Julia Ormond, and in the 4/12/2015 episode “New Business” we got to see Megan’s sister, who has many of the same issues she does. Her presumed exit from the show involved her getting a million dollars from Don as an impulsive divorce settlement. (The image at the top of this article was used to promote this episode).
One of Megan (Jessica Paré)’s most endearing moments on the show was this one, where she performed the ’60s song “Zou Bisou Bisou” in the Season 5 opener. It has made the song a classic (again).
For the life of me I can’t figure out why many Mad Men viewers don’t like Megan as a character, if that is in fact the case. I hope it’s not because she’s far less screwed up than most of the show’s characters. One of the Vox articles ruminated that Megan falls flat because no one knows what she wants, or alternatively that it’s never clear why she’s attracted to Don. Both ideas are, in my opinion, rubbish. Megan is the sole voice of the “normal” world that can speak into the head of Don Draper and have any chance of being heard. What she wants is very simple: a tranquil, loving, supportive relationship with someone who respects her. Isn’t this what most of us want? Why she’s attracted to Don is also straightforward: she sees the good in him, the nurturer, provider and companion that he desperately wants to be and pretends (unsuccessfully) that he is. She fell in love with him. Whether he’s worthy of that love is a totally different issue. Mad Men is a show that involves fabulously complex characters with deep and often puzzling motivations; I think why Megan throws viewers for a loop is that her motivations are actually very simple. It doesn’t make her less of a character. In fact it makes her indispensable.
When I first started watching Mad Men it took me a long time to get into it because the main characters–Don, Peggy and Joan, and to a lesser extent Peter, Roger and Betty–were all so incredibly unlikable. Everyone had some terrible personality defect that made it difficult for the audience to sympathize with them. The brilliance of Mad Men is that ultimately it makes you care about characters despite the fact that they are unlikable. Like real people, you’re stuck with them and must find some good in them, some reason to root for them–even Don, whose chief appeal to the audience (I think) is that we all secretly want to see him change his ways and become redeemed, even just a little bit. Then Megan comes along, a character who really is sympathetic, and brings us out of bizarro-Mad Men world where nearly everything is morally confusing to one degree or another, and she grounds us back where we at least hope we live. The lucky among us do live in a world where our spouse is supportive, faithful and respectful, and where domestic and personal tranquility are not unattainable, however much they may seem so in Mad Men-world. This is why Megan is such a crucial character. Without her the show would utterly collapse.
Some more intense scenes from Mad Men show off Jessica Paré’s considerable acting talent, and how she works so well with co-star Jon Hamm.
Megan also provides Don with the opportunities where he comes the closest to the moral redemption we all hope he achieves. In “Tomorrowland,” the Season 4 finale, Megan appears as essentially Don’s redeeming angel, bonding with his kids and providing him the love that Betty was never capable of. Don says to her, “I feel like myself when I’m with you.” This is the Don Draper we want–and only Megan can bring that out. Don’s moral failures in the latter episodes are all the more painful because he’s not only hurting himself, but Megan too, who stands alone among Mad Men’s principal characters in her honesty and transparency. She represents the life he could have had, if he decided he wanted to be a human being instead of being…well, Don Draper. I can’t think of a more important role in the long-arc story of the show.
Jessica Paré plays Megan so perfectly that she inhabits the role. A talented actress who has mostly played minor roles so far, Mad Men hopefully will catapult her to a higher level of roles, and I for one can’t wait to see what she does next. In Mad Men she’s been called upon to go head-to-head with some extreme heavyweights as far as actors are concerned. Jon Hamm may be one of the best actors working in Hollywood today, but she’s more than a match for him. Paré is every bit as strong as the female leads of the show, Christina Hendricks (Joan) and Elisabeth Moss (Peggy). She’s just terrific.
Sadly, this scene from last week’s episode may be Megan’s final appearance on Mad Men.
Alas, as it seems last week’s episode “New Business” was her exit, I doubt we’ll see more of Megan in the few episodes left. But she’s been a fabulous addition to the show. If fans out there don’t like her, all I can say is, I think they’re missing something. But there’s a lot to miss in Mad Men, a show so complex that we’ll probably still find something new in it as we watch and rewatch the episodes for the next 10, 15, or 30 years–and I have no doubt that will come to pass.