Should we have a craft meet-up to make “Free Sally Draper” t-shirts, or what? As Hazel Cills observed last month, “for the rest of Mad Men’s run, Sally Draper will be forced to essentially live atop the grave site of a very different sort of death: that of her parents’ failed marriage.” More than that, though, last night’s episode showed that Sally Draper’s real obstacle is overcoming her parents’ failed personalities, and living in a new way so the entirety of her being doesn’t bleed out the way theirs have.
The Mad Men writers have never put it more plainly that Betty Francis and Don Draper are the parents of nightmares. Of course we’ve been witness to their detestable behavior before, as Sally no doubt accrued emotional scars—walking in on Don’s infidelities was nothing compared to the pathological scapegoating Betty has inflicted. But Sally’s perspective is infinitely more grown-up now, and this episode revealed their characters in a more complicated fashion; we got a better understanding of their utter garbageosity because Sally has a better understanding of it now, too. And whereas before they were bereft of character or scruples but still sparkled with a sheen of glamour, the passage of time has come to reap the hell they’ve sowed. They’re pretty people living ugly lives, and now that the reality of the climate has crashed into Sally’s world—childhood friend Glenn is shipping off to certain death in Vietnam—she just can’t get down with Don and Betty’s bullshit.
Others reflect that: Megan got the ball rolling when she told Don off last week, but bumbling homie from creative continued the onslaught, with his astute observation that Don has “no character, you’re just handsome.” Don’s assignment to locate the elusive site of optimism for a campaign is at a standstill because he can’t envision the future—and because the future is Sally, he can’t see her for who she is, either. She’s as gimlet as she’s ever been, though, and when she gets her own chance to administer some real talk, he’s such a chump it barely even registers. He tells her she’s beautiful but she can’t rely on her beauty: she’s got to make something more of herself. She essentially tells him to fuck off with her eyes, and almost with her mouth, too.
Sally’s ability to speak up and speak out is what will ultimately save her. Before her world plunges into minor chaos, she clowns Betty for trying to pussyfoot around a sex convo—Sally is 16, for god’s sake—joking that “it’s too late... and I’m late.” The generational chasm between them feels endless at that moment. Her sarcasm is a finely honed coping mechanism that fits neatly with that era’s jarring, sudden disillusionment. Betty’s palpable repression is so old-fashioned it’s painful to watch—her face is perfect as a doll’s, but all that pent-up aggression is as near to shattering her porcelain facade, as ever.
To avoid becoming as barren as Bets, Joan is straight up willing to abandon her son for the new guy who looks like Frank Sinatra with a pure George Hamilton tan. It’s the ‘70s and she’s in love with her job and the idea of being free, goddammit. But Mad Men’s boomers have difficulty distinguishing from reality and illusion, so who even knows. Betty’s not going to college in the fall any more than Glenn is going to survive the war. She wanted to sex him, but her refusal to do so had nothing to do with her marriage, or their age discrepancy, or even Sally—it simply would have violated her staunch philosophy of self-abnegation. Aspiring martyrs are a drag.
It’s interesting to think about how specifically Sally’s experience speaks to the generational shifts of Mad Men’s time, and to fantasize about what her future might hold. She’ll be 21 in 1975, the last year the US had troops in Vietnam—without veering fully into fanfic, you could imagine her specific type of discontent accommodating itself to punk rock. Imagine a grown-up Sally finding liberation in the Ramones’ jubilant, ironic devotion to ‘60s basement-party jams? Even better, she delves deep into the soulful discontent of Patti Smith: Then he cries, then he screams, saying/Life is full of pain, I’m cruisin’ through my brain...
But there is a finality to the revulsion Sally feels for Don after watching him try to charm her 17-year-old friend as though she was a potential lover. We might not see her again—there are only three episodes left—and we get the feeling that Don might not, either. Sally was willing to wave to him from the bus, half-heartedly no doubt, but when he forces the topic she admits she wants to get as far away from her shitty parents as possible. Maybe it’s finally starting to register for Don, but the way it clicked in Sally’s mind at that moment was resolute. She will be her own person. To return to Patti Smith: “ There is no keeper but the key/ Except for one who seizes possibilities, one who seizes possibilities.”
Also: give Peggy a goddamn promotion, Don, you empty bastard.
Image via AMC.
Contact the author at email@example.com.