The Women of ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Game of Thrones’
Both Sunday shows belonged to their female characters this season
Nobody knows how they will react in a crisis, we all say dumb things under pressure. When — as the siege of Blackwater was underway — the increasingly malevolent Cersei Lannister, voice dripping with scorn, tells Sansa Stark that “Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon, the best one is between your legs,” fans rolled their eyes. The fuck-me feminism was not worthy of the show.
But she had a point, if only this: Both Game of Thrones, which ended the Sunday before last, and Mad Men, which drew to a close less than 24 hours ago, preoccupied their seasons with women revising their relationships to power: figuring out how to get it, how to use it, and what it means.
Take Thrones’ Arya Stark (played brilliantly by young Maisie Williams). When the first season concluded, she was a scared little girl on the run. By the end of the second, she has learned from mentors (Tywin Lannister, the assassin Jaqen H’ghar) that she is her father’s daughter, a killer who lacks only the physical strength. As her mother Catelyn flounders while advising her son and releases Jaime Lannister to the imposing Brienne of Tarth, Arya has been, as they say in Full Metal Jacket, born again hard.
In midtown Manhattan, Peggy Olsen was going through something similar: She had to leave her family in order to find herself. She severed ties to her actual family by living with her boyfriend in a sin her mother disapproves of, and she cut the cord with her coworkers in a sudden departure. Her resignation from Sterling Cooper Draper Price was an emotional catharsis that peaked above the hideous drama of Layne Price’s suicide. Her tender moment with her mentor was not when Don kissed her hand, but when they met in the movie theater, two hardened creatives playing hooky to get their minds right. “I’m proud of you,” Don says, “I just didn’t know it would be without me.”
Indeed, all of the women around Don Draper are forced to rethink their path to power. Megan started the season looking like she planned to use her remarkable beauty to get what she wanted, “Zou bisou bisou”-ing at her man and playing S&M games in the bedroom. But then, she surprised us. Was she going to the character who shattered everyone else’s illusions by saying: You don’t have to be unhappy. You can do whatever you want. She left Sterling Cooper, scrapping her career for the one she wanted. But pluck alone didn’t suffice. When her dreams don’t materialize fast enough, she asks Don to do her a favor, and we get the sense that he loses respect for her as a result. As it turned out, maybe Joan knew better. Remember when she scoffs at Peggy’s suggestion that Megan is the type of girl who is good at everything? Megan might have issued that message of fearless determination, but only Peggy took it to heart.
And then there’s Joan, abandoned by her rapist husband, refusing Roger Sterling’s help with her son, and forced to degrade herself with a client. But she does get something out of it: a partnership in the company. When we last see her, she is surrounded by men, assuming Layne’s place as the detail person in a room full of idea guys and client pimps. If anyone is going to make that company sing, it’s her. The tradeoff was immensely problematic, but she does belong at the table.
Manhattan during the mid-’60s and Westros are both far off places, both mythical in their own way. Yet each carefully cultivates a relationship with realism. Mad Men creator Matthew Wiener fetishizes period accuracy, while Thrones never works better than when it feels least like traditional heroic fantasy and more like a mutant history of the dark ages, cute baby dragons included. Daenerys Targaryen experienced what was probably the most dramatic rise to power. She spent a lot of this season slipping, looking for allies where none were to be found and attempting to forge partnerships that would help her regain the throne she believes is rightfully hers. When we close, Daenerys, with her dragons in tow, might be the single most formidable woman in Westros.
So Cersei’s comment is nonsense. Tyrion’s consort Shae may not have found a problem she can’t fuck her way out of, but that sort of thing never lasts. Power can be manipulated in all sorts of ways — the trick isn’t getting it, it’s keeping it. Will Daenerys set foot on the shores of King’s Landing? Will nepotism be Megan’s lucky break? Will Peggy and Don ever again work together — or vie for business as equals? We’re excited to see where these women land.