5 'Mad Men' episodes where women stole the show
As we draw closer to the final episode of Mad Men, airing on AMC tonight, we’ve been thinking a lot about our favorite episodes of the show. And we’ve noticed something: Many of them are the ones all about the women. Viewers of Mad Men knows the show is more about women, and all their girdled midcentury oppression, than the men who ostensibly headline the show. Misogyny and female liberation have been running themes throughout the series, and the explicit focus in several standout episodes. Here are five of the best.
“Ladies Room,” Season 1, Episode 2
After establishing the charmed life of its male leads—afternoon cocktails, swanky dinners out, a bevy of sexy women available for ego-stroking and one-night stands—the series focuses, just two episodes in, on how decidedly uncharmed life is for women. When Betty, the picture-perfect embodiment of supposed domestic bliss, suffers psychosomatic hand twitches and gets in a car accident, Don is perplexed and dismissive, unable to understand how she could be anything but thrilled about her life devoted to serving him. The episode puts a fine point on how difficult life was for housewives like Betty when it ends with Don getting a full, and discreet, report on her private therapy sessions. It’s not just Betty’s hands she’s unable to control; her entire life isn’t, and has probably never been, her own.
Meanwhile, in the office, Peggy—still a naïve young secretary at this point—wards off the sexual advances of several men, even one she comes to trust. It’s both fascinating and chilling to watch this eventual formidable businesswoman learn her first lessons about the obstacles she’ll face as she tries to ascend the ranks.
In a moment of telling symbolism, the episode also includes a scene in which the men scheme ideas for female deodorant and ask, “What do women want?” The answer, quite clearly, is not this life.
“The Beautiful Girls,” Season 4, Episode 9
Peggy, Joan and Betty may get most of the lead storylines about women, but plenty of minor female characters have had fascinating story arcs as well. In this episode, the focus is on Faye Miller, a brilliant and tough-as-nails strategist who gets romantically involved with Don.
Like Peggy, Faye must overcome serious obstacles to achieve her success; she wears a wedding ring even though she’s not married, and continually ignores demeaning misogynist comments from the men she works with. In this episode, we learn she also defies conventional femininity by being uninterested in motherhood, when she reacts angrily to Don foisting his daughter Sally into her care. Interestingly, this also the first episode where Megan gets real screen time; unlike Faye, she shows mothering potential when she helps Sally after she falls. The moment sets the scene for Don’s eventual dumping of Faye for Megan, which reveals how women like Faye—driven by career, not domesticity—often had to sacrifice romantic love in their pursuit of success.
This episode also features Peggy forthrightly discussing her struggles as a woman with her new love Abe, even comparing her plight to that of African-Americans at the time. It’s the first scene to put feminism in a distinctly political context, signaling cultural changes afoot.
“The Other Woman,” Season 5, Episode 11
In what may be the series’ most harrowing episode, Joan is prostituted to a sleazy executive in order to land a lucrative car account—a situation she then leverages into a partnership at the company. This episode asks viewers to confront misogyny at its most appalling, and internalized misogyny at its most tragic.
Yet it ends, triumphantly, with the promise of a better future; this is also the episode where Peggy announces she’s leaving the company to become chief copywriter at a rival firm. “Girl, You Really Got Me Now”—the song that plays as she makes her righteous exit—has never sounded so sweet.
“The Runaways,” Season 7, Episode 5
Betty—the stereotypically demure, subservient housewife—has always been one of the most stunted and depressed characters on the show. In this episode, she reveals she’s a lot more complex than viewers might assume when she boldly expresses her political opinion, then stands up for herself when reprimanded for doing so by her condescending husband. It’s easy to believe that Betty’s flaws are the fault of her character, but here we’re reminded that she is really a victim of circumstance—a strong, intelligent woman who’s never been allowed to act like one.
The episode also includes a threesome between Don, Megan and her friend, which you get the sense happens not because Megan wants it for herself, but because she believes it’s the only way to keep her philandering husband happy. It’s one of many disheartening moments in the storyline of Megan, a smart and talented woman who is slowly crushed by her husband’s controlling ways.
“Lost Horizon,” Season 7, Episode 12:
This recent episode of the show included perhaps its most overtly feminist moment yet: Joan threatening to get the ACLU and some very angry women on her side to fight back against sexual harassment at her new, deeply sexist employer. When she ends up accepting half of what she’s owed to go away and shut up, it exemplifies the highly qualified options women had available for success at the time. Sure, she walked with $250,000…but at what cost?
One again, Joan’s bittersweet narrative is complemented with a more triumphant storyline for Peggy, who—after being instructed by Roger to stop caring what men think—struts boldly down the halls of her new employer, cigarette dangling from her mouth and lewd painting of an octopus under her arm. Three episodes before reaching its conclusion, Mad Men finally presents a vision of a woman able to achieve success on her own terms, stereotypes and stigmas be damned. And it’s nothing short of thrilling.
Nikki Gloudeman has written for Mother Jones, The Boston Globe, The HuffingtonPost, Ravishly, GreenBiz and more. Follow her on Twitter, which she promises to get better at using.