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Yesterday’s future: the troubled mothers in Mad Men will live on

Image courtesy of AMC

This article contains spoilers for Mad Men, Season 7, Part 2, Episode 14, Person To Person.

As the dust begins to settle on the controversial finale to Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men (2007-2015), the series is destined to have a long afterlife. As with The Wire (2002-2008) or The Sopranos (1999-2007), it will take on a new life as a cultural artefact to be analysed and interpreted for years to come.

The prominence given to questions of motherhood in the seventh and final season of the program – which wrapped up last month – suggests that, in all likelihood, ongoing debate about the mothers in Mad Men will form part of this discussion.

There was no shortage of missing mothers, relinquishing mothers, hostile and discontented mothers, sexually competitive mothers and those failing to become what psychoanalyst DW Winnicott (1896-1971), would deem “good enough”.

The show’s penultimate episode screened on Mother’s Day in the US - Sunday May 10 – that date coinciding with the revelation that one of the central female characters, Betty Francis (January Jones), was dying of lung cancer, a tragic irony not lost on commentators and bloggers alike.

Of course, there have been numerous interpretations of the way maternal absence framed the character of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), his self-destructiveness, his suffering and questionable decision-making.

Don Draper and Roger Sterling in Mad Men: Season 7. Image courtesy of AMC

But, on the whole, since its debut in 2007, analyses of the representation of mothers have been overshadowed or subsumed by lively commentary about the growing influence of second-wave feminism on female characters.

Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) have been frequently seen as embodying an emerging feminist consciousness and the rise of the so-called “career woman”.

In a strange merging of memory and forgetting, the show has also been credited with helping younger women of today understand the feminism of their own mothers.

But the delineation of the different (supposedly historic) mothers in the series – and how this relates to the present – remains something much darker, less resolved and more disconcerting.

Relinquishing Mothers: Peggy, Stephanie and Diana

In keeping with a historical period in which single, unmarried women were denied legal access to birth control, Peggy and later Stephanie Horton (Ann Draper’s niece, played by Caity Lotz) both have unwanted pregnancies and relinquish their babies for fostering or adoption.

Stephanie Horton, played by Caity Lotz, in the final episode of Mad Men: Season 7. Image courtesy of AMC

Betty, in Season 3, also has an unwanted pregnancy but, as a married woman, keeps the baby as her youngest child, Eugene Scott (Evan Londo/Ryder Londo). As we know with hindsight, it would be difficult to accurately assume that “choice” was involved in any of the decisions these mothers made.

The secrecy surrounding Peggy’s pregnancy, the birth of her son and her invisible maternal status clearly highlights the social and moral condemnation of sole mothers in the period represented.

But does it also tell us something about a continuing irreconcilability between motherhood and a work-centred feminism in 2015?

Peggy Olson in the final episode of Mad Men: Season 7. Image courtesy of AMC

In Season 2, Peggy quickly returns to work from hospital after the birth of her son, seeming to follow Don’s advice to act as though it had all “never happened”. We are left assuming that Peggy relinquished her child for either adoption or fostering without experiencing conflict or loss.

It is only in the final episodes of Season 7 that an ongoing grief is revealed. When her co-worker and soon to be lover Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) accuses her of not liking children, she confesses that she is a mother and unable to think about her son because the loss would be too difficult to bear.

Stephanie, by contrast, does not want to acknowledge that her son’s life – relinquished to the care of his paternal grandparents – may be marked by her absence. She is willing only to see and resist the wide social disapproval around her desire not to mother. It is no accident that she re-emerges in the final episodes to take us into the 1970s; a decade identified with the philosophy of personal growth, regardless of the consequences.

If we needed any more evidence of the centrality of maternal ideas to Mad Men, it is provided in one of the group therapy sessions in the Esalen-style retreat where Dick (Don Draper) finds himself. After pursuing various forms of selfish hedonism and deception in his life, he has a dramatic breakdown in the last and final episode of the series.

Perhaps the precipitating moment for Dick’s collapse is a mother in the group criticising Stephanie for abandoning her son because he will be waiting for Stephanie to walk in, every time the door opens. Dick tries to convince Stephanie, like he did with Peggy, that she can forget her son and move on.

But this time he is unconvincing, even to himself. The viewer is left wondering just whether he will ever be able to recover from this stark image of a child’s longing and loss.

The enigmatic character of Diana (Elizabeth Reaser), reportedly named after the Roman goddess of fertility and childbirth, is fundamental to the series’ conclusion and to the feeling of desolation that pervades the final episodes. She is a mother who has abandoned her only surviving daughter, after her youngest had died.

Her self-loathing and inner conflict about this decision is palpable in the few scenes where she and Don are together. Unlike Peggy or Stephanie, who want to (or force themselves to) forget their relinquished children, Diana wants only to continue to remember and punish herself through an endless cycle of self-destructive acts.

Reluctant mothers: Betty and Joan

Betty Draper is perhaps the most blatant example of a mother taking little or no joy in her children and in her mothering. She appears unenthusiastic, resentful and hostile to her children, particularly to her daughter, Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka). In Season 1, when her son Bobby Draper (Mason Vale Cotton) turns to her with a question about feeling bored, she tells him to “go bang your head against a wall”.

Sally Draper and Betty Francis in Season 7 of Mad Men. Image courtesy of AMC

As critics and commentators have pointed out, Betty is perhaps named after the author of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Freidan, the book that marked the beginning of second-wave feminism.

In fact, Weiner has credited reading Friedan as one of the original inspirations for writing the show.

Allison Weiner talks to her brother and the creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner (2012).

The character of Betty exemplifies the nameless discontent experienced by many middle-class women confined to a private and domestic role in the 1960s. Coldly mothered herself by a narcissistic and competitive woman, Betty is unable to know how to comfort her children.

In the finale, we see her sitting reading and smoking in the kitchen, dying but still absorbed in her own disappointing world while her children are left struggling to cope with little, except technical instructions, to help them prepare the next meal, let alone for her impending death.

By contrast, the character of Joan is a mother who is shown to enjoy her son. Her own far from perfect - but supportive - mother lives with her and cares for him while Joan has some limited freedom to revel in her job. She is one of the few mothers in Mad Men who maintains her financial and sexual independence without the same level of conflict, guilt and disavowal of some of the other maternal characters.

One of the highly commended aspects of Mad Men has been the way viewers sympathise with the characters, despite their flaws, because they are so well represented as being caught in social forces that elude their full understanding.

This is particularly true of the ad men, who are readily forgiven as being “victims of their time”. But do we forgive the “not good enough” mothers in the series quite as easily?

Consistent with second-wave feminist interventions at the time, Matthew Weiner has ruptured the dominant versions of the stable and harmonious family of times past. He has also raised questions about what it is to be a mother, post-1960s.

The afterlives of Mad Men may continue to remind us that, despite the advances of feminism, there is no easy resolution to the conflict, tensions and ambivalence experienced by mothers today, either working in the home or in the workplace.

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