through the eyes of a child: Mad Men’s Sally Draper
FYI: there are tons of spoilers in this post, please read at your own risk.
I’d been anticipating the DVD release of season 3 of AMC’s Mad Men since many of my friends mentioned that Sally Draper, the eldest child, and only daughter, of Don and Betty Draper, was allowed to shine this season. Last week I finished season 3 via Netflix and the narrative arch for Sally lived up to expectations. I finally felt as though Matthew Weiner and the writers understood how to develop Sally outside of her relationship to Don and Betty, and season 3 offers glimpses of Sally becoming an individual.
This is all great for me – not only because I’m a girls studies scholar – but because, to be honest, Sally is one of my favorite characters on the show. You see I like Mad Men well enough, but admittedly I do not love the show. I understand why critics and academic flock to the show (there were multiple panels at the Console-ing Passions Conference devoted to Mad Men) and why the show scoops countless awards each year. The show looks amazing, the cast is amazing, and overall the episodes are intellectually stimulating. Yet, I have a hard time maintaining interest in the characters’ lives and situations, and I often feel that the show focuses too much on white, well-to-do people, who seem incapable of finding happiness despite (or maybe in spite of) their highly privileged circumstances.
This season left me especially bewildered in terms of the male characters and how to read them. We have Don Draper who has slept with countless women over the course of the show, but who threatens his wife Betty and calls her a whore when she files for a divorce in the hopes of being with another man. This season is also when Pete Campbell rapes – yes I will use the word rapes! – an au pair, but then by the end of the season he’s recruited to be a partner, along with Don, Roger Sterling, and Burt Cooper in a fledgling ad agency. In those final scenes I feel that I, as the viewer, am supposed to cheer for this underdog agency . . . but I can’t let go of the fact that Pete raped a woman, and that his inclusion in this group taints an overall uplifting moment.
Between the unabashed delight in racial and class privilege represented on the show (the show drips with privilege, but there’s a moment of black-face this season courtesy of Roger) and the unsettling gender dynamics, I have a hard time finding points of identification in the series. This is one of the reasons why I gravitate towards Sally. I feel that we’re both navigating a world that we do not quite grasp. This season deals Sally some hard lessons, which resulted in one of the few moments where this show has brought me to tears.
The first half of this season develops Sally’s character by establishing her relationship with Grandpa Gene, Betty’s father. Gene is coerced into staying with the Drapers after his partner, Gloria, leaves him, and his dementia worsens to the point where the family grows concerned for his well-being. Gene reluctantly agrees to live in his daughter’s house, but quickly becomes accustomed to being part of the family. In the image above the Drapers and Gene attend one of Sally’s school events. A photographer asks for the Drapers to pose for a picture, and Gene inserts himself alongside the rest of the family (much to Don’s dismay). It’s unclear what Betty’s and Gene’s relationship was like when she was a child, and whether or not his attention towards Sally is a reflection of that relationship or maybe a way for him to make up for their lack of a relationship. Either way Gene makes a point to spend quality time with his granddaughter.
Throughout this season Kiernan Shipka’s performance highlights Sally’s deep desire to be loved and recognized by her family. Gene not only provides this type of love and support for Sally, but he also nurtures her rebellious side. This is illustrated in the clip above and in another scene when Gene invites Sally to eat ice cream with him in the middle of the day, though Betty strictly forbids this. Later in the season Sally steals $5 from her grandfather. Feeling guilty she creates an obvious lie to recover the money and give it back. Though Gene sees through Sally’s performance he doesn’t punish her or even broach the subject. It isn’t explicitly spelled out, but the show suggests that Gene wants to instill confidence and agency in Sally. In one of the most touching moments between these two characters, Gene tells Sally to ignore all the awful things Betty says (and will say) to Sally. For those who’ve seen seasons 1 and 2 of the show, we all know that Betty can be very hard on Sally and her disparaging remarks range from comments about Sally’s weight and appearance to comments about her behavior and worth as a daughter. These touching moments between granddaughter and grandfather build only to break the viewer’s heart when Gene dies midway through the season.
The episode “The Arrangements” deals with Gene’s death and how members of the Draper family cope with the news. This episode is crucial in showing how Betty and Don fail to consider how this news affects the children, especially Sally. When the officer visits the Draper residence and informs Betty that her father is dead, Sally overhears the news, but is shut out of the house and left to contemplate Gene’s death on the front steps, alone. Later as Don, Betty and Betty’s brother and sister-in-law discuss Gene, the adults start laughing as they joke about how Gene and Gloria won’t meet up in heaven. Sally overhears the laughter and interrupts the adults, shouting “Nobody cares that he’s really really really gone!” Shocked by Sally’s explosive remarks and unable to fathom that she is grieving as well, Don tells Sally to go watch television, which she does. The camera settles on Sally lying on the floor, watching footage of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation on television, again all alone.
I’m not sure how to read this scene of Sally in front of the television. I would hope the show isn’t equating Sally’s distress over Gene’s death with the rising conflict and distress occurring in Vietnam at this time. In giving the show the benefit of the doubt, I’d point out that in previous episodes Gene has Sally reads passages from the book Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and he gives Bobby a Prussian helmet of a solider he shot and killed during WWI. In his review of “The Arrangements” James Poniewozik argues that Gene embraces the idea that “sheltering kids from the brutalities of life is indulgent and unwise” and as a result he makes it his mission to “un-shelte[r] his grandchildren, exposing them to the kind of responsibility and risk–and, therefore, accomplishment–that he kept from Betty.” In this respect maybe we can read Sally’s visual consumption of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation as an indication of her growing awareness of a world outside her house, a world embroiled in wars, annihilation, and social inequities.
The show continues to focus on Sally’s stages of grief over the loss of her grandfather. Betty and Don are asked to see Sally’s teacher after Sally gets into an altercation with another student. There’s also an issue with the Drapers’ newest addition to the family, a son, whom Betty names Gene. Sally refuses to hold the baby or interact with him at all, which Betty chalks up to jealousy on Sally’s part. Even gifts from Baby Gene – in this case a Barbie – cannot warm Sally’s heart. In a later discussion between daughter and father, Sally reveals that she thinks Baby Gene is Grandpa Gene reincarnated. Sally states her case by pointing out that the baby has the same name and sleeps in the room where Gene used to sleep.
It is this moment in the season, this discussion between Sally and Don, where I started crying. As ridiculous as Sally’s fears may sound to adult viewers, I could completely relate. As a child my great-grandfather, whom I loved dearly, passed away around the same time my dad bought a puppy for the family. Even though the events were probably months apart, as a child all I noticed was that this puppy loved to take walks and go fishing, things my great-grandfather had also thoroughly enjoyed. While I was never outright convinced that my great-grandfather had been reincarnated into my puppy, I always gave the dog table scraps – like a piece of toast with homemade strawberry jam on it – just in case it was him, and he missed these things. Seeing another girl character have an experience similar to my own, brought back all these memories along with more than a few tears.
Season 3 ends with the Drapers filing for divorce and informing their children of their new living arrangements. As Betty and Don prepare their children for the upcoming changes, Sally is quick to blame her mother for making her father leave. This scene suggests that season 4 will be a rocky one between daughter and mother, and I look forward to seeing how Weiner and the writers further develop Sally’s character and her position within the Draper household.
P.S. Dear Matthew Weiner: Can we please follow Carla home one time this season? Can we please see what Carla’s life is like outside the Draper residence – as in can we see where Carla lives, can we see her family? I have a feeling that once Carla leaves the Drapers’ residence she has even more work to do, taking care of her own family, cooking meals for them, scrubbing and cleaning her own place. This narrative detour wouldn’t be hard to write. Maybe Carla’s car breaks down and she needs a ride. I mean if you can have us believe that Don magically picks up two hitchhikers who just happen to talk about escaping the draft (season 3), or that Don randomly hooks up with some swingers in California (season 2), how much work would it take to find a plausible reason for us to see Carla’s home?
Alas I feel that you may never grant this request – why? Because Carla is denied access to the things Betty and Don take for granted. She is denied these things due to her race and class status. More than likely her home life would reflect her lack of privilege. Her home would not have a fainting couch, or the latest in home furnishings. Her kids may not have the latest fashions, the latest toys, or say . . . riding boots (which Betty gives Sally in season 2). If you allow us to see Carla’s home, and what she is denied in comparison to the Drapers (and the Campbells and the Sterlings and on and on), then it might be difficult for us to go back to enjoying Mad Men the way we did before. I get it, but I’m begging anyway – please let us see Carla’s life beyond her folding the Drapers’ laundry, cleaning the Drapers’ dishes, carrying for the Drapers’ kids.
a sorta fan of the show who wants more than what the show is currently offering.