Sally Draper is almost nine years old in season three of Mad Men. During the episode "The Fog," after a bloody school fight in which Sally (Kiernan Shipka) pushed a classmate's face into a drinking fountain, parents Don and Betty are called into her class to discuss her increasingly bad behavior. The cause is determined to be the devastating death of her greatly loved grandfather Gene, coupled with Sally's fascination with civil rights activist Medgar Evers' assassination, which was all over the news. "Did she go to the funeral?" her teacher asks of Gene's death. "I don't think children belong in graveyards," Don responds.
The irony of Don's cold reasoning is that 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. And the more her parents turn a blind eye to her loneliness, pain, and confusion, which will manifest itself in various acts of mischief from running away to sexual self-exploration, her emotions on screen only heighten. Because in a show filled with adult characters who confront hardships of abuse, addiction, death and love, Sally has remained a compelling character who arguably deals with all these subjects from the unusual viewpoint of a child. Sally Draper is proof that the struggles of a child can be as dark and complex as that of her older counterparts and, as Mad Men nears its end, a guiding example for how other television shows write their child characters.
While viewers meet Sally as an almost five-year-old child who dabbles in ballet and can craft a killer cocktail on educated command, over the course of the show's seven seasons she has turned into a strong-willed, loud-mouthed teenage girl. Television dramas are filled with young, female children whose stories take a backseat to their parents' far more intense problems—and sometimes with disastrous storylines. Homeland's irritating Dana Brody had SNL spoof-worthy arcs and was considered one of the most hated characters on television during her run. Scandal's Karen Grant, the president's daughter, was kept in boarding school shadows until her character was subjected to a sensational and humiliating nude photo plot. And when television shows like The Sopranos and The Americans have given complex storylines to young female characters like Meadow Soprano and Paige Jennings, they are teenagers by the time viewers enter their lives—much older than Sally at first blush—albeit still naïve about their parents crimes.
As a longtime Mad Men fan who started watching the show as a teenager myself, I longed for a central teen voice in the show from the start. Who better than to embody the show's inevitable inclusion of 1960s counter-culture and political rebellion than a teenage girl? And while the show doles out pieces of this in minor characters (Roger Sterling's college-aged daughter, a sultry teen girl Don encounters at a Rolling Stones concert, etc.) it seems like the moment we finally get to experience Sally Draper as a full-fledged teenager, the show is ending. But I realized, as Mad Men went on, that what's even more interesting than the narrative of a troubled teenager is the road to exactly how the teenager gets there.
While Sally Draper has acted out against her parents in superficial ways (smoking cigarettes, kissing boys, cutting her own hair) they are always representative of larger anxieties in her life (her parents' divorce, her grandfather's death, her overall horrific relationship to her mother). Early on, Sally was a springboard from which Mad Men could make commentaries about the time period and her parents. In the now-infamous season one scene when Sally Draper is walking around in an easily suffocating dry cleaning bag, Betty scolds her not for wearing a hazardous plastic bag around her head, but for potentially ruining her clothes. In a scene when Betty finds out Sally has kissed a boy for the first time, she tells her, "A first kiss is very special…it's where you go from being a stranger to knowing someone," echoing an earlier, extramarital kiss she shared with her eventual second husband Henry Frances.
But as the show progresses, Sally becomes less a mirror for Betty and Don, and more of a young girl with her own problems that insist on a space in the storyline. In season four, she gets caught masturbating at a friend's sleepover and then is later forced to go to therapy. "You don't do those things," Betty screams at her, "You don't do them in private and you especially don't do them in public!" She then runs away from home onto a train and ends up at the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency where she makes a scene, refusing to go back home to Betty. "I am not leaving, I am not going, I hate it there!" she screams with such a red-faced passion that she leaves Don speechless—as well as those of any viewers who previously considered Sally's pains as trivial. And in season six, after catching Don in the middle of an affair with a neighbor, Betty hands a now-teenaged Sally a cigarette because she says Don must have given her one at this point. "My father has never given me anything," Sally replies wearily. All of Sally's trauma is inevitably magnified by the information showrunner Matthew Weiner has given audiences about Don's childhood; his fatal birth to a prostitute, his alcoholic father, his coming-of-age in a whorehouse. If Mad Men has taught viewers anything through Don, it's that a person's terrible childhood will make them a terrible person.
Unless they're born to the Stark family and have to fight against extreme forces in a fantasy world, children's voices in dramatic television are very rarely heard or fleshed out. Sometimes they are depicted poorly, like the badly written children of House of Cards' Peter Russo or the half-baked little girls-turned cliché rebellious teens of True Detective's Martin Hart. And other times, main children characters are just older, from Walter White Jr. to Meadow Soprano—arguably there are greater stories to tell with a teenager. The fact that Sally has consistently been a well written and interesting character from the age of five and up is a celebratory feat on Mad Men's part. Sally Draper, like so many of Mad Men's female characters, demands a voice. Moving forward in television I can only hope more dramas write young children characters who do the same.
Mad Men's final season returns April 5.
Hazel Cills is a writer whose work has appeared in Rookie, Grantland, Pitchfork, and more. She tweets @hazelcills.
Images via AMC