Mad Men’s “Megan Problem” (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Jessica Paré)
Posted by therebelprince on April 1, 2013
The sixth season of critical darling/reviewers’ bugbear Mad Men is but one scant week away and, as usual, creator Matthew Weiner is keeping his cards close to his chest. In turn, wary fans are already tearing each promotional photo to pieces while having all-caps forum debates on such subjects as “MATTHEW IS A GENIUS AND YOU LEAVE HIM ALONE!” or – more likely, it seems – “THIS GUY IS RUINING TELEVISION BY LYING TO US WHEN WE ASK ABOUT PLOT DETAILS!”
Now, it’s risky business to throw oneself into the world of internet fandom but as I’ve rewatched the end of the show’s ball-breaking fifth season, part of my research has involved visiting forums and keeping up to date with what fans (and detractors) of the show are saying. A large part of this discussion – the part not centering around the anatomy of certain other cast members – seems to involve fandom’s dislike for one character: Megan Draper, nee Calvet. And it’s intrigued me so much, I just had to throw my thoughts into the ring.
Megan, as played by 32-year-old Canadian actress Jessica Paré, joined the cast in the series’ fourth season (2010). A young typist at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Megan finds herself unexpectedly promoted to secretary of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and becomes his latest one-night-stand, partly by impressing him with her starry-eyed ambition for advertising and acting, and partly because she pursues him with the promise that she’s not going to run off crying when he later rejects her. This ingenue is perfect for Don, who is getting too close to self-assured, independent Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) and finds an out, choosing instead this young woman who also appears to be a great mother, if her rapport with Don’s kids is anything to go by. By the time the series’ fifth season opens, Don and Megan are living in seemingly wedded bliss, with Don able to continue repressing his madonna-or-whore desires.
Yet despite the fifth season’s heavy focus on Megan and Don’s relationship (and Megan as a character), a vocal section of the fans responded extremely negatively. By season’s end – with Megan retaining her hold on her husband and using his position to get her first TV commercial – it appeared that the young woman’s star was rising within the world of Mad Men, and these poor, misunderstood fans were going to have to suffer through at least another season of the character.
So, what exactly are the fans’ complaints, you may ask? (I’ll address these below)
1) That Ms. Paré is a weak actor, especially compared to some of this series’ powerhouses, meaning whatever story the writers are trying to craft doesn’t work.
2) That Megan isn’t a “central character’ – like Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Betty, or Pete – and so we’re “wasting” our time to spend several seasons following her story, while being deprived of others.
3) That she’s what TV fans call a “Creator’s Pet”: a character or plot that is overused by the writers due to some kind of personal attachment, despite the fact that it is disliked by the fans and/or detrimental to the show. This trope is often made more painful by the fact that all or most of the characters in the show’s world admire and adore the “Pet”. (In short, the fans are saying that Weiner has some kind of obsession with the actress or character that is blinding his artistic sensibilities.)
4) A culmination of all of the above: that Megan is simply the wrong direction for Don Draper’s storyline to be heading, and ultimately the series will be a delicate failure because of it.
So, are they right? Are they wrong? Is this too much analysis for a simple TV show? You be the judge.
Oh, wait. I’ll be the judge. This is my blog after all, folks.
1) Can the lady act? Well, this is always going to be personal taste. I would have to agree that Paré isn’t as astounding an actress as her co-stars Elisabeth Moss or Christina Hendricks. But then, few are. Personally, though, I’ve enjoyed her performance. As a person, Megan is vastly different to the rest of the show’s women – she has far more naked ambition than Peggy but is far more doe-eyed than Joan. To compare them is utterly pointless. And many actors, if we’re going to go there, relate to different scripts differently. Just look at outliers like Aaron Sorkin or Amy Sherman-Palladino and the way that some guest stars simply can’t handle the workload on those shows. I’d argue that January Jones is a far more wooden actress than Paré, but she has such a grasp on Betty that – between the scripts, the directors, and the innately childlike elements of Jones’ performance – the series is able to effectively convey the psychological fragments of Betty’s psyche. Hendricks, meanwhile, can occasionally be over-obvious in her performances simply because the scripts for Mad Men can sometimes veer to the riper side of ripe. On the other hand Moss’ greatest strength is in underplaying things, so she’s perfectly at home in this world. As a result, I’d probably cast Hendricks over Moss in a sitcom any day, but it’s Moss whose career will have the best jumping-off point once Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce closes its doors.
Point being: every actor has their strengths and weaknesses, and are served just as much by a crew who know how to offset these. I don’t think Paré is quite strong enough to carry some of the twisted aspects of Don and Megan’s marriage (their mutually-agreed-upon abuse, for instance) but as an ambitious, slightly fragile model with mother issues and a need to please? She fits the bill perfectly. Your opinion will, of course, vary, but this is surely the least important of the four points.
(Also, feel free to check out the actress’ Wikipedia page. Regardless of what one thinks of her, Jessica has been in the industry for over a decade and has clearly worked hard to get where she is. She’s no Megan Draper, breezing in overnight and getting a leg-up everywhere she looks.)
2) “Megan isn’t a central character”. I’ve seen this quote – verbatim – on at least two forums, and I still can’t quite come to terms with it. I’m sorry, but what’s a central character? Are we honestly saying that because Megan didn’t feature in season one, episode one, she’s not allowed to have a storyline? The attitude seems to be “I signed up for a specific formula when I joined the series; if you take that away, I’ll get real mad”. The fact is, TV programming these days – particularly cable programming – crafts a series like a great novel. Look at any amazing series like Game of Thrones or The Wire, or take absorbing characters like Breaking Bad‘s Gus Fring or The Sopranos’ Janice. Character studies that reflect back upon the series’ protagonists and themes even as they’re introduced at a later date. There are certainly examples of characters added to series for the wrong reasons – The Brady Bunch‘s Cousin Oliver springs to mind – or those to whom the fandom just never warms (I can appreciate why Buffy fans don’t love Dawn, although I’m one of the few who applauded the initial concept behind Lost‘s much-maligned Nikki and Paolo). But how can we possibly credit such an argument? If someone becomes a central character later in a series’ run, whether they are a new addition or a long-time recurring haunt, they surely merit our attention. To not give it is just poor critical reading.
But wait, you say, the issue is Megan’s storylines are edging out existing characters. Well, are they? Are they really? Beloved character Sal (Bryan Batt) left in season three after a gay scandal and reportedly will never be coming back. Sal was a great character, but Weiner’s reasoning is sound: his loss was a true tragedy. It would cheapen the show’s argument to bring Batt back to the fold simply because the audience and creatives like him. By the same notion, Betty and her family have moved to the sidelines this past year. Partly, admittedly, because of Jones’ pregnancy, but also because they are less intricately tied into the plot machinations in New York. At the same time, the Francis family remain an inevitable part of Don’s life – particularly through their shared children. Betty’s aversion to self-discovery makes a strong parallel with the journeys of Don and of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and she will undoubtedly be an important part of whatever choice Don ends up making about his life at the series’ end. Sure, Jones may sit out a few episodes every now and then, but it would be silly to have Betty suddenly become a marketing maven just because the series wants to make sure its “central characters” are always on the scene.
(What is a “central character” anyway? Someone in the main credits? As ensemble shows like 24 and Lost pointed out to us, the actors paid by the network to be available for each episode aren’t necessarily any more vital to the series’ tapestry than someone called in week-to-week. Game of Thrones keeps endless characters on retainer as part of its master plan, as when Nikolaj Coster-Waldau sat out most of the second season while remaining in the credits, since his character is integral to future seasons. Gilmore Girls ultimately gave fewer storylines to some of its main cast – Yanic Trusdale‘s malevolently French concierge, for instance – than to some of the recurring folk like Liz Torres‘ Miss Patty. This was primarily because Trusdale would’ve signed a seven-year contract at the outset. The same could be said on Mad Men of Rich Sommer‘s increasingly smarmy Harry Crane. He’ll undoubtedly continue to contribute to the series when needed, but if he barely registers in an episode, that’s okay too. Yes, the perfect – that is, Platonic – series would have a flawless plan of exactly who should be credited where, but realistically this is never going to happen. Get over it.)
Mad Men‘s approach to storytelling – particularly in season four – has become increasingly fragmented. As I discussed in my reviews at the time, one of the aims of the fourth year was to take us inside the head of each character – Lane’s feelings of isolation and childhood guilt; Joan’s realisation of a hovering glass ceiling; Don’s gradual awakening – so that when characters do now interact, the audience is aware of much more than the characters. More than almost any other series, Mad Men is deeply laced with irony. When a drunken Lane (Jared Harris) makes a feeble pass at Joan, he can have no idea of how much resentment she carries toward the firm or of her separation from her misogynistic husband. But she can have no idea that he’s contemplating taking his own life and she may have been the person to talk him out of it. The fragmentation of the series’ characters – and hence the deliberate decision to isolate many of them into smaller stories in the last few seasons – is that scene writ large. Adding Megan to the mix was in no way the reason that fan favourite characters may be perceived to have had less screen time.
To be honest, I don’t even think Megan is a “central character” by this series’ mandate. In the next paragraph, I look at how her development colours in Don and the show’s women. In fact, I can think of very few Megan scenes that don’t feature other main characters. She’s not Pete Campbell on the train home, or Peggy at a party. As a character on a show about world-building, we do of course explore Megan’s origins and concerns. But – like so many before her – Megan exists primarily to bring the other characters into sharper relief. What makes Mad Men so rare is that this is the function of every character, no matter how important. Even Don Draper can be used to shade in the boundaries of Lane Pryce or Peggy Moss. But, folks, spare a thought for us poor Doctor Who fans: I mean, almost all the characters from the 1960s have been written out of the series! And the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s too! What’s a fan to do but begrudgingly enjoy new characters?
(This interesting article over at the A.V. Club discusses the evolution of NBC’s Community, and the ways in which all series change over time – a result of changes in cultural interests and even the growth and development of the audience. Worth a read.)
3) Megan is Weiner’s pet. Take a look at the page on TVTropes about television “pets”. One could easily rebut all of those with the line that the preferred characters are clearly the “Fans’ Pets”. Apparently “fans hate [Megan] for her vapid character”. Well, that sounds authoritative. Thanks, internet!
Look, I don’t doubt that there are cases where showrunners let their own interests get the better of them. Or where an entire season is in the can before producers realise that their creative decision wasn’t optimal. (Case in point: Heroes.) But perhaps we need to look a bit deeper. Mad Men‘s fifth season gave plenty of fascinating business to Don, Peggy, Joan, Pete, and John Slattery‘s ever-delightful Roger Sterling. If I find Megan’s character interesting, does that make me wrong? Or have I somehow been brainwashed by Weiner? The exploration of Megan as a part of Don explores the ways in which someone with very different values (compare Megan and Betty’s parents!) responds to the Don Draper who is halfway between his pre-war upbringing, and ’60s liberation. The exploration of Megan as a woman contrasts her nicely with Peggy’s feelings of frustration, Betty’s caged-in qualities, and Joan’s increasing resignation to her era – not to mention the development of the next generation in Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka). When people react negatively, there’s definitely some viewer substitution going on here (“Don Draper’s so handsome, why won’t he pick me? I mean… Peggy!”), and a bit of an urge to deny the changes Don has been making. Is it so unreasonable that the diary-writing Don Draper of season four would tell his new partner about his secret life? Particularly now that most of the key players in his personal life know about it, and he’s determined to be a new person? I think not.
Don’t mistake me: people who just don’t enjoy Paré’s performance have every right to do so. I know fans who don’t particularly enjoy Betty or Lane, and of course everyone is welcome to their opinion. But, to actually argue that one is going to “press the fast-forward button” when Megan appears (as I’ve seen mentioned in forums) – again, it seems like people just refusing to engage with the text at hand! Perhaps we can agree with a small part of the “Creator’s Pet” trope: that Weiner has taken the character in a direction that some of the show’s fans did not want. But… why can’t they play along? Peggy’s left SCDP. Pete had an affair. Roger got married and then it fell apart. Any of these decisions may have surprised or annoyed fans who – not unfairly – see these dimensional characters as people. But we take them in our stride, and let the series show us why these things are happening. What points are the writers making with these decisions? How do they tie in to the overall canvas of the series? This is the way critical reading works. Sure, if we step back from the canvas and say that some things don’t tie together, that’s our right as critics and fans. But to chide a storyline simply because it’s not the one we want? You may as well go yell at Shakespeare because you really liked that Rosencrantz guy, and why did he have to go and write a whole play about the boring prince instead?
4) And finally: Megan is just wrong for Don. Well, of course she bloody is. In my review of the season four finale, Tomorrowland, I wrote that “the whole engagement seems just another way of [Don] not listening”. I stand by this. He married Betty for who he thought she would be and who he wanted her to be. The man he became fled Betty for a number of other independent women (lastly Faye) until he found one he hoped to tame. As we saw in the season five finale, once Don realised that Megan would always keep wanting more, he has begun to pull away. In those final moments, to the strains of You Only Live Twice, Don strolls away from the set of Megan’s first commercial, ending up in a bar where – in a moment after we cut to black – he throws himself once again on to the nearest available hottie. Like all of Don’s love interests on the show, Megan is another analysis of the man himself. Like Rachel Mencken, she’s also an exploration of feminists who don’t necessarily know they’re feminists. Like Betty Draper, Megan’s an exploration of what it’s like to be raised for one purpose but become aware you’re not interested in that. And like most of the characters, she’s also doing some overtime exploring how we get what we want even when the deck is stacked against us. The fact that she’s “not right” for Don is… well, hilariously obvious, isn’t it? (You only need look at the exquisitely muted reactions of his work colleagues when Don makes the engagement announcement in Tomorrowland.)
(My favourite line on the above TVTropes page is one that alleges Megan “transform[ed] Don Draper from a likeable manwhore into a boring newlywed with no fire in his belly for his career”. This is, to me, laughable. I always shuddered when college parties would be themed “Mad Men” just so guys could dress in suits and smoke cigars. They were unable to read below the surface – like people who just enjoyed The Sopranos because they hoped someone would be brutally murdered – and seemed to genuinely think the series was in support of that lifestyle. Not to say we can’t appreciate how utterly freaking boss Roger and Don can be, but also the emptiness of traditionalism is such an ongoing concern that anyone who simply views Don as a “likeable manwhore” really needs to turn off CBS and read a book once in a while, you know?)
Mad Men is ultimately about the moments when we step up to the brink of change, and whether or not we back away. Pete Campbell backed away in season three, when he and Trudy – shaken by the Kennedy assassination – could’ve jumped full throng into becoming ‘mod’. Joan Harris backed away by getting married and returning to SCDP, but she was penned in. Peggy Olson, meanwhile, has chosen to flirt with the notion of change and become a substantially better person because of it. Don keeps wrestling with the demons of the future and so far finding no rest. Megan is not the answer – or at least, she isn’t the answer unless they can both make some radical changes – and seeing how Mr. Draper faces down his future is going to be one of the highlights of the show’s remaining seasons. Anyone who seriously thinks Don and Megan will be together at series’ end has got to be a bit foolish, but similarly anyone who can’t grasp her importance as a character isn’t looking hard enough.
And, by the way, Megan haters? Every minute you spend posting your harebrained theories about how Megan clearly resembles a mother figure Weiner can’t come to terms with, or whatever it is you believe… you’re taking away from the far more important question:
How many Bobby Drapers will there be? And, if we figure out the answer, is this some kind of secret code that will explain Don’s psyche? Send me the answers to i’email@example.com. If I get enough fringe theories, I might even write a season six review or two.
My other late night rants can be found here.