What I Learned from Watching 'Mad Men'

A character-by-character rundown of what we've learned from the first seven seasons.

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Apr 5 2015, 6:37am

Photo courtesy AMC

Spoilers abound below. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Mad Men returns this Sunday for part two of its final season. As the first half concluded with Don Draper watching Bert Cooper's ghost sing "The Best Things in Life Are Free" and Ginsberg slicing off his nipple because a computer was installed in the office, it seems pointless to guess what will happen in the last few episodes. The trailer released by AMC is no help either:

What year is it? Who is Don sleeping with? Is Pete Campbell less of a little shit? We don't know, and though I'm sure we'll find out, with Mad Men it's not the destination, it's the journey. There are sometimes soap opera-esque twists and sudden reversals of fortune, but I don't think people tune in for the plots; the show's appeal is more atmospheric. We watch because of the gorgeous, accurate-to-practically-every-last-detail period costumes and sets, and also because of the slow way characters grow, change, and teach us values, sometimes without us noticing. Here's a character-by-character rundown of what I've learned from its seven season

Don Draper — You Can Always Find a Way Out

Don, obviously, is an alcoholic serial adulterer and therefore a pretty bad role model in most senses. But there's no character on television as capable of reinventing himself. He did it when he transformed from Dick Whitman into Don Draper and then into DON DRAPER; he did it most recently in the last season. His confidence may waver from time to time, but he never really loses trust in his creative instincts and his capacity for risk. His character embodies the ideal that you can work yourself out of any hole; the bottom is only the bottom if you stop trying. (Also, have a drink... just don't have five.)

Peggy Olson — Don't Take Any Shit from Anyone

What haven't we learned from Peggy? She's been called the show's "secret protagonist" and her journey is probably the most uplifting of any character's—it's an almost Horatio Alger-esque tale of climbing the ladder in the workplace while fighting sexism through hard work, ambition, and intelligence; she even got past being raped and giving birth to the resulting child. (OK, maybe her story isn't exactly like Horatio Alger.) In spite of her achievements, though, she remains something of an outsider. She takes teasing from her coworkers in stride though not without displays of vulnerability. "I am the person you need to impress right now." FUCK YES, PEGGY.

Roger Sterling – Doing Acid Can Make You a More Likable Person

Megan Draper — Nobody's Perfect, and Happiness Is Hard

In season five, when Megan quits the agency, despite having a promising knack for advertising, to pursue acting, Peggy says to Joan, "I think she's good at everything. I think she's one of those girls." And she does seem to have an ideal life in some respects—a rich, powerful husband she adores, her own career, an endless series of fashionable dresses and a bungalow in L.A. But in the last couple of seasons her arc seemed to be about how the sum of those parts doesn't add up to happiness, and her falling away from Don (despite the world's most awkward threesome) showed how untethered her life had become.

Pete Campbell – Try and Try Again

Poor, poor Pete. He's likable in the way a sniveling sycophant can be, and is apparently enough of a people person that he can charm clients, but Jesus Christ. Almost all of the stories centered around him show a man in the grips of his shitty, shitty impulses. Remember when his affair with a neighbor ended with her being beaten by her husband and him kicked out of his house? Or when he spent a driver's ed class ogling a high-school girl? Or when he ran into his father-in-law at a brothel? Or that dalliance he had with the mentally unstable woman who ended up getting electroshock therapy and forgetting him? How about the time he crashed a car in front of a bunch of Detroit executives because he lied about being able to drive? His life is a blur of disasters and bad decisions, but he manages to seem upbeat despite everything—even his own inherent lousiness.

Joan Harris – Men Suck

In the first episode, as she tours Peggy around the office wearing the first of many cinched ponte dresses and her signature gold necklace, Joan says, "Of course if you really make the right moves, you'll be out in the country and you won't be going to work at all." That's not at all what Joan wants, as it turns out—there's no doubt she could have any man she desires with a crook of her fingers, but men, especially in Mad Men, are basically sacks of poison that learned how to walk upright. Joan has suffered countless indignities at their hands (her husband, the other SCDP partners, that fucking Jaguar piece of shit), but continues to survive, and even thrive, despite them.

Sally Draper – Adults Are Even Worse Than Men

The show generally does a good job of avoiding and subverting the cliches of the 60s, but Sally's journey is about discovering what a lot of Boomers discovered during that era: Your parents are not on your side. Betty is controlling and abusive, Don lies and cheats routinely, and their new partners aren't invested in your lives. Like most of us, Sally has had to come to the realization that adults are no more moral than kids, they're just more experienced liars, and it's up to all of us to carve out our own space in the world.

Follow Kim Winternheimer on Twitter.

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