The Saturday Rumpus Essay: On Madness and Mad Men


In the episode “The Forecast” from AMC’s Mad Men’s final season, Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) unleashes on her father, Don (Jon Hamm) just prior to boarding a Greyhound bus to embark on her teen tour. Frustrated after witnessing her mother’s flirtatious interactions with childhood friend Glen Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner) and her father’s subsequent flattery of her friend Sarah (Madison McLaughlin), Sally hisses a harsh goodbye to Don, “When anyone pays attention to either of you, and they always do, you just ooze everywhere.”

In my eight years as a Mad Men fan, the series has repeatedly prompted me to reflect on parenting. In the four seasons that aired before my son was born, I watched, a childless critic, judging these parents of the 1960s. Did people really discipline one another’s children as one of the male partygoers does in Season One’s “Marriage of Figaro” after the child runs through the house and spills a drink? Would I ever tell my child to go bang his/her head against a wall as Betty (January Jones) does to Bobby (Jared S. Gilmore) in Season Three’s episode “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency?” When I started teaching a first-year writing course themed around the series in spring 2010, I wondered why my students were so quick to excuse Don’s poor parenting. “Sure, he left his daughter’s birthday party,” they often argued about the ending of “The Marriage of Figaro,” “But, he brought back a dog!” In the same breath, they would criticize Betty. “Can you believe she called Sally fat,” they asked incredulously after watching Season One’s “5G.”

I found out I was pregnant in the fall 2010 while teaching the course, and when I revealed on the last day of class that I was expecting, I joked that I felt a little like Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in Season One; I kept getting bigger and bigger, and like Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton),11145197_10102199642266174_8467521009237354717_n Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), and Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), I figured the students were probably all wondering why. When I became a parent in May 2011 for the first time, Mad Men was on hiatus, and when it returned in spring 2012, still in the haze of that first year of parenthood, I fought to stay awake so that I could watch Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) perform “Zou Bisou Bisou” in the long-awaited Season Five premiere.

It wasn’t really until the final season, however, three years after giving birth, when Sally made that accusation against Don that I truly understood how the television series had enabled me to process my experience as a mother. That night, after the episode ended, I snuck into my sleeping son’s room, much like Don does at the end of the series’ premiere, stood at the edge of his bed, and reflected. To me, the ooze that Sally references was metaphorical; I wasn’t honestly concerned about my ability to keep my charms in check when meeting my son’s future teenage friends. I was more concerned with how to avoid metaphorically oozing my self, especially after a long undiagnosed battle with postpartum depression and anxiety. How could I prevent my own sadness and my own worries from affecting him? As Mad Men era poet Philip Larkin wrote, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.” To Larkin, oozing, it seems, was unavoidable.


I have always been a very obsessive television watcher. When I find a show I like, I dedicate myself to it. And, these television series become, for me, a way to chronicle major periods of my life. Senior year of college it was the medical drama ER. That summer alone in graduate school with no friends and a roommate overseas it was a terrible reality show about the Hamptons. That time I lived in Austin, Texas it was Alias. Seeing Mark Greene or Sydney Bristow will immediately take me back to that place and time; there’s nostalgia with those shows not unlike the “twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone” that Don references in his Kodak pitch from the Season One, season finale “The Wheel.”

Mad Men wasn’t much different. When I wasn’t watching the show, I was teaching about it or writing about it. It was a constant. The eight years during which Mad Men was on the air were particularly transformative for me. The year that Mad Men first aired I got married. Our theme, if we had one, was 1950s chic; I wore my mother’s gown–a perfect vintage coatdress that my grandmother had made. Once we married, we lived for a few years in an apartment in the Glover Park neighborhood of DC.10392127_706861646544_7600632_n My husband was finishing up his PhD at the University of Maryland; I was teaching students how to write about Mad Men at George Washington University. In 2010, we moved into a half-a-double in Brightwood, a neighborhood near the tip of the DC diamond, excited to fix-up our newly purchased home and start a family.

That summer, as we tried for a baby, we watched a lot of Mad Men. We joked that our baby would be conceived in madness, and when we discovered in the fall that I was pregnant, we were overjoyed. My reaction was so different from the women of Mad Men who find themselves in similar positions–unlike Peggy Olson, who unknowingly carries Pete Campbell’s (Vincent Kartheiser) child, unlike Betty, whose marriage is in serious trouble when she finds out she is pregnant with her third, and unlike Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) who discovers she is carrying her boss’s baby while her husband is overseas. There was no disappointment for us. No hesitation. We were ready, excited, thankful.

My pregnancy, as I remember it, had a certain sheen to it, not unlike the glossy ads in magazines that Don and his team conceive. I felt wonderful–both emotionally and physically. When I think about my pregnancy, I think about the moment in the Season Two episode “For Those Who Think Young,” when Betty, in slow motion, glides down the stairs at the Savoy on Valentine’s Day. The camera follows her; she’s dressed in her pink gown, fur around her shoulders, the envy of all those around her and her husband’s prize. I felt that way when I rode the Metro, when I walked down the street. And, I smiled, as Betty does, at those I caught staring at me, sure that they were coveting my life.

But if you remember, that scene doesn’t end so well for Betty. Don and Betty retire to their hotel room for the evening, and Betty emerges in a black corset. When the two attempt to make love, Don isn’t able to satisfy her. The moments that follow are filled with long pauses, punctuated by Betty trying to explain the situation away. “We drank too much,” she says, “I don’t even know where I am.” Betty suggests they order room service, but when Don asks for vichyssoise and a BLT, Betty vehemently disagrees, asking for two shrimp cocktails and then changing the order entirely. When Don goes to switch the television channel, she forcefully commands him to “leave that” on the station with Jackie Kennedy’s tour of the White House. On the surface, Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 3.01.25 PMBetty and Don’s evening at the Savoy seems picture perfect, but in reality, the couple is miserable. Don’s been lying to and cheating on Betty, and Betty has started to passive-aggressively act out in rebellion. This theme of appearance versus reality is pervasive in the series, as most of the characters struggle to reconcile their inner and outer selves. In watching this scene and many others in the series, the viewer is reminded of the series’ tagline, “Where the truth lies.” Despite its pretty package, Mad Men is also about a very deep ugliness.

In her article for the New York Times, Katie Roiphe writes about a very specific “messiness” that Mad Men embodies; she wonders if our attraction to the series belies an “unmistakable hint of longing toward all that stylish chaos, all that selfish, retrograde abandon.” I agree with Roiphe; there’s definitely an allure to the type of messiness that she describes, especially for viewers today who, as Roiphe writes, “have moved in the direction of the gym, of the enriching, wholesome pursuit, of the embrace of responsibility, and the furthering of goals.” For me, however, the messiness of Mad Men extends beyond the affairs and the drinking that Roiphe concentrates on. It’s a much more general messiness–the kind that makes for good drama and even better television. Fans wanted to see at the start of Season Two if Betty had left Don for good. When Season Three began, we couldn’t wait to see how Betty and Don handled Betty’s pregnancy. We were incredulous that Betty would leave Don at the end of Season Three. And, when Don proposed to Megan at the end of Season Four, it seemed like forever until the show would return to the air. It was the series’ messiness, with its flawed, oftentimes unlikeable characters, that drew me to the series even more after the birth of my son, a time where every “truth” I’d ever been told about parenthood seemed to be a lie.


In the Season Three episode, “The Fog,” Betty gives birth to her son, Gene. As was common during the time period, the nurse gives Betty a mixture of morphine and scopolamine in order to induce a “twilight sleep;” the intention of such a practice was to erase the pain of childbirth for women. Eerily, Betty’s birth sequence mirrored my own birth experience, even though decades span between the medical practices of the 1960s and 2010s. I labored for twenty-four hours before the on-call doctor decided that a C-section was necessary; exhausted, scared, and confused, I was wheeled into the operating room where I was told very little about what would happen. Emotionally and physically drained, I didn’t have it in me to protest, to ask to see my baby, to do anything but experience it all in a strange twilight sleep. When I think about that experience, don-betty-baby500x338 (1)I think about how Betty, hallucinating, saw her father, saw Medgar Evers. I think of how she cried out for Don, desperate not to be alone. That sense of being alone was what still haunts me about that evening. Even though my husband was beside me and the operating room was full of doctors and nurses, I felt like it was just me, by myself, trying to make it through.

I continued to feel a deep sense of loneliness even after my son was born. I had a complicated birth and a slow recovery, hampered by infection and a series of allergic reactions to the medications I was prescribed. I had generally unsympathetic doctors who–although attentive and wonderful while I was pregnant–seemed as though they were now in a hurry to stamp me “well” and send me on my way. I had well-meaning but ineffective family members coming in and out, yet no one who truly recognized what I was struggling with. Every day, I felt very much alone, not unlike Betty, sitting at her dining room table in the middle of the day, drinking wine.

In fact, after my son’s birth, I began to develop an intense association with Betty Draper. I’d always loved her character, but as a new mother, I felt as though I understood her on a deeper level. Though the series wasn’t on for the first several months of my post-pregnancy life, I kept thinking about the Betty moments that resonated with me. Like Betty, I was sad. I cried often and without provocation. Like Betty, I worried deeply about my child hurting himself and it leaving a lasting scar. And, like Betty, I didn’t completely understand what was happening to me at the time. It seemed as though I, too, was afflicted with another Betty’s–Betty Friedan–“problem that has no name.”

But, my problem did have a name. I was suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety, which manifested itself in an overwhelming sadness and an intense fear about my child’s well-being. Because I wasn’t able to adequately express what I was actually going through, like Betty, I often resorted to anger. In the media, women with postpartum depression are often stereotypically represented this way, sometimes taking extreme actions against their children. And, even in the series, Betty often takes her anger and frustration out on her children, sometimes punishing Sally severely for minor infractions–the slap when Sally cut her hair, the threat of cutting off Sally’s fingers when Sally was sent home from a sleepover for masturbating. I never unleashed that anger on my son. Instead, I unleashed it on my husband, picking fights so that I would have an excuse to leave the house and sleep for a few hours in the car. I unleashed it on my beloved dog, who I had previously referred to as my “fur kid,” sometimes not so gently kicking her to speed up her walks. And, I unleashed it on our families who, despite their best intentions, failed me at a time when I needed them most.

The details of that period are extremely difficult for me to write about. They are so private and so painful I can’t really put them into words. Looking back on those two years of illness and recovery, one thing that strikes me is how little my experience with my mental health and the mental health industry differed from the way that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner depicts it throughout his series. The topic is introduced in the very first season as Betty goes to see a psychiatrist. There’s a pointed scene in the episode “Ladies Room” where Betty is reflecting on her experience; spread out on the couch, in a beautiful dress, she concludes her reflection to 520857bc0f346c4248ff9c4668e8cb7eher unresponsive doctor by unconvincingly saying, “We’re all so lucky to be here.” I felt myself delivering a version of those lines to anyone I encountered during those first few months. I acted the part of a new mother as well as I could. I dressed, combed my hair, put on jewelry, and nodded and smiled while everyone encouraged me to savor these newborn days. They wouldn’t last long.

Weiner picks up on this theme later in the series with the Season Five storyline of Beth Dawes (Alexis Bledel) who Pete Campbell falls for. Beth’s storyline reveals a stigma against mental illness that was strong in the 1960s—a stigma that I was very much confronted with fifty years later. In the episode “Lady Lazarus” (the title of one of 1950s poet Sylvia Plath’s most famous works), Peter meets Beth at the train station; she’s waiting for her husband who Pete knows will not be returning home for the evening since he confided in Pete that he had taken up a mistress in New York. The two go back to Beth’s house. Beth encourages Pete to leave, but he responds, “I’m sorry but you’re being very dramatic… I’m not leaving until I’m sure you’re not hysterical.” These stereotypes of the hysterical female, the madwoman in the attic, and the crazy bitch are very much alive and well today. In popular culture, we see such figures as Amanda Bynes, stigmatized and mocked for her bipolar disorder, and in literature, women such as Rachel Watson and Megan Hipwell (Girl on the Train, 2015) and Amy Dunne (Gone Girl, 2012) providing fodder for bestsellers. In the few times that I attempted to express my anguish to family and friends, I heard a version of what Betty says to Sally in Season Three’s “The Arrangements.” Heartbroken over the loss of her grandfather, Sally shares her grief with her mother, father, aunt, and uncle. Betty’s response is, “Stop it. You’re being hysterical. Calm down.”

In Season Five, “The Phantom,” Beth and Pete meet at hotel prior to her being hospitalized for electroshock therapy. Beth tries to explain what she’s going through: “It’s so dark, Peter. That I just… get to this place, and I suddenly feel this door open, and I want to walk through it.” He replies, “That’s for weak people. People who can’t solve a problem.” In my own postpartum struggle, I found this perception of weakness to still be prevalent. I had a doctor who–from her pristine, private office attached to her multi-million dollar home on a cul-de-sac in an exclusive neighborhood in DC–told me to hire some help; a few hours with someone else watching the baby would do me wonders, she assured. She also told me not to call back until I had taken this step. It was easy, with the encouragement of others and my own predilection for self-loathing, to convince myself I was weak. Having been brought up in a family that valued soldiering on, I told myself I could work through whatever this was on my own, which is why I didn’t seek treatment immediately. That specter of the hysterical female was all too strong in my own consciousness for me to seek help.

It wasn’t until my husband discovered that I had been cutting myself that he even realized the seriousness of the issue. At the time, when he questioned me, I thought about Betty and her hands. In the first season, Betty suffers from shaking hands, a physical condition which prompts Don to more aggressively pursue medical treatment. She can’t apply her lipstick when out on a business dinner with Don, and she crashes the car while driving her two children. Reluctantly, Don agrees to her seeing a psychiatrist but only after two doctors confirm that there is nothing physically wrong with her. It was only when her mental anguish manifested itself physically that Don began to take her seriously. Eight months after my son was born, I attended my first postpartum support group. It wasn’t until the spring of 2012 that I started seeing a therapist. And it wasn’t until a year after that I started taking medication for my depression and anxiety. Slowly, with each of those steps, I began to heal.


Even still, I have moments where I’m overcome with worry about being a good mother. I understand, based on the mommy blogs I read and the mom forums I belong to, that this inclination is natural, to have doubts about your ability to perform this awesome task of parenthood. For me, though, that “normal” anxiety is exacerbated by that postpartum period where I literally could not function as a mother.Momma I nervously watch my son, wondering just how much I might have “oozed” in that first year. He’s an empathetic child. Is it because I cried so much after he was born? He’s affectionate. Does he sense that I needed–still need–signs I’m loved? He has an extremely positive attitude. Does he suspect that I need reassurance that he will be fine? Have I, as Larkin suggests, fucked him up?

In the episode “Field Trip” of the final season, Betty chaperons Bobby (Mason Vale Cotton) and his class on a field trip to a farm. The two have a conversation on the bus about monsters, which clearly delights Bobby. When his mother makes an insightful comment about Dracula transforming into a bat, Bobby couldn’t be more pleased. The trip continues to go well. When no one volunteers to taste the fresh milk, Betty does. Bobby stands proud at his mother’s bravery. Later, however, the trip takes a turn when Bobby–thinking that Betty isn’t going to eat lunch–trades her sandwich for a bag of gumdrops. Bobby apologizes, but Betty is not interested in hearing it. “Eat your candy,” she hisses. Bobby, clearly disgusted by the gumdrops, reluctantly puts one in his mouth.

Mad Men fans were quick to label this field trip a Larkin moment, chastising Betty for her selfish behavior and bad mothering. Admittedly, it’s certainly not one of her finer moments. She guilts Bobby into eating the gumdrops, and then she holds his actions against him the rest of the day. But, later in the episode, we see Betty, lying on her bed, Gene snuggled fast asleep at her side. Henry (Christopher Stanley) comes in to ask Betty why Bobby is so upset. Betty’s first response to Henry’s question of what happened that day is, “It was a perfect day, and he ruined it.” But, then, a few beats later, she asks, “Do you think I’m a good mother?” Henry reassures her that she is, and she responds, “Then, why don’t they love me?”

There’s a lot to unpack in this moment, which is why I love it–and the series–so much. At a very basic level, it’s a character driven moment, highlighting Betty’s own insecurities. Bobby gives away her sandwich, thinking she’s not going to eat; the move is a logical one, given that Betty struggled with weight gain and loss throughout the second half of the series. Betty, always invested in appearances, is upset that the perfect day was ruined. Despite her matching dress and coat, her glamorous sunglasses, and her attempts to act as the model chaperone, the day didn’t go as planned.

Despite Betty’s iciness throughout the series and her often harsh actions toward her children, we see, in this moment, Betty’s vulnerability. This vulnerability is refreshing, especially given our cultural tendencies to reduce women, and more specifically mothers to one-dimensional characters. In their anthology Representations of Motherhood (1996), editors Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan note:

…the predominant image of the mother in white Western society is of the ever-bountiful, ever-giving, self-sacrificing mother. This image resonates with a mother who lovingly anticipates and meets the child’s every need. She is substantial and plentiful. She is not destroyed or overwhelmed by the demands of her child. Instead she finds fulfillment and satisfaction in caring for her offspring.

These types of mothers were plentiful during the 1950s; we were surrounded by images of what Betty Friedan labeled “the happy housewife heroine.” Donna Reeds and June Cleavers were on television and in magazines. And, when a woman strayed from this ideal, she was often labeled monstrous. While today’s television programs tend to be much more invested in imperfection than the series of the 1950s, we still see insidious ways in which women and mothers are punished for their bad behavior. Anna Gunn, who played Walter White’s wife Skyler on another AMC television series Breaking Bad, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that touches on this double-standard. She discusses the way in which her character did not “conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female” and how fans as a result vocally disliked her. Walter is an anti-hero; Skylar is a bitch.

For me, Betty’s moment with Henry reminds me that being a mother can be hard. It reminds me that our society holds tremendously high standards for mothering, sometimes standards that are unrealistic.tumblr_noybemCoYb1u4766mo2_1280 It reminds me that, while I will want to act in the best interest of my child, at the same time I am a person, too, with her own wants and needs and faults. It reminds me to adjust my expectations, to simply be the best that I can be on any given day. Betty Draper, I realized, has given me permission to forgive myself.

As Don tells Sally in that scene at the bus station, “You are like your mother and me. You’re going to find that out. You’re a beautiful girl. It’s up to you to be more than that.” My child is part me, but he will also be more.


I was obviously devastated to witness “the end of an era, ” as most fans were. I ran up to New York City to make sure I had my picture taken next to Don on the Draper bench. On Facebook, I changed my profile picture to a photograph I had taken of costume designer Janie Bryant’s sketch of Betty. I had snapped the photo at a reception at the Smithsonian Museum following a lecture by Bryant. And, of course, I watched old episodes to remind myself of where we had left off.

The ending, though, was hard for me to process, given the way that my personal life seemed complexly interwoven with the series itself. Mad Men’s end coincided with my own recovery. It really wasn’t until this spring, just under four years after Henry (a good solid 1950s name and a Mad Men moniker) was born, that I finally began to feel like myself. I still have dark days, as Luke Danes from Gilmore Girls does (another television obsession, my chief distraction while writing my dissertation), but I also have many, many good days. I thought about having a series finale party, but I decided–ultimately–I wanted to experience the ending by myself, with my husband, martini in hand. The series’ finale aired on my forty-first birthday, May 17th, 2015.

That night and the next morning, social media was a buzz with what-did-you-think-of-the-finale questions. In writing for Vulture the next day, Sean Fitz-Gerald compiled some of the reactionary tweets: “I want to run into Matthew Weiner’s office and kiss him just like that for making Stan and Peggy happen;” “Mad Men was the greatest sponsored content of all time;” “Our tough-minded AMC shows turned out to be a lot more open to fan service conclusions than we might have imagined;” “So Mad Men [sic] was basically just an eight year Salinger novel? upper [sic] middle class NYC misery solved by Mahayana Buddhism?”

Like these fans, I had mixed feelings. The feminist in me did not think that Peggy’s ending and Joan’s ending were complex enough; it seemed as though–as always–women were being given the choice of marriage or work, love or money, private or public. The same went for Pete and Roger, whose lives seemed to be tied up nicely and neatly for fans—endings totally at odds with the essence of their characters. As a Betty superfan, I was devastated to see her fate but not surprised. It seemed as though the series had committed to vilifying her and now had no choice but to punish her for her behavior–a common fate for female television and movie characters who transgress. My heart broke for Sally, giving up her trip to Madrid, as she helped Bobby make grilled cheese and washed the dinner dishes for Betty. I worried that she’d misinterpreted Don’s advice at the bus station in “The Forecast.” Did Sally feel that being more than that meant being a dutiful, loving, caring daughter rather than the outspoken, independent-minded woman who viewers get glimpses of throughout the series? If so, embracing this role, I worried, might lead her to a fate similar to her mother’s.

don draperBut Don. Don’s storyline got me. To me, his “revelation” on the mountain seemed fitting with both the series’ messiness and my own. Throughout the series, Don struggles. He stops drinking. He starts again. He journals. He swims. He womanizes. He gives up womanizing. He falls. He gets back up. He falls again.

When we see his beatific smile at the end, while he sits cross-legged, meditating on the mountain, I don’t feel that viewers necessarily get the sense that he’s worked it all out, that his ending is happy, per se. He may feel good in that moment, but the reason why isn’t quite clear. Has he finally come to terms with his personal failures? Has he just come up with an idea for the greatest ad campaign of all time? In either case, this seemingly blissful moment takes place alongside the very real, very ugly facts that he’s just divorced his wife, that he’s left his co-workers in the lurch, that his ex-wife is dying, and that his children can’t count on him to intercede when she’s gone.

Mad Men’s title is apt. Though it refers to Madison Avenue, “madness,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, connotes various feelings from “imprudence, delusion, or (wild) foolishness resembling insanity” to “mental illness or impairment, esp. of a severe kind” to “uncontrollable anger, rage, fury.” All perfect ways to describe the series and its characters. All perfect ways to describe parenthood. And, all perfect ways to describe my own experience with being a mother. The series’ conclusion, then, is in keeping with that theme of beauty and ugliness, light and dark. It’s in keeping with the messiness that can be madness.


Image credits: Featured image, image #2 provided by author, image #3 provided by author, image #4, image #5image #6, image #7.

Caroline J. Smith is an associate professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University where she teaches first-year writing seminars themed around visual culture. Her research interests include women’s fiction and popular culture productions, and she has been published in such journals as Women’s Studies and College Literature. She is the author of Cosmopolitan Culture and Consumerism in Chick Lit (2007). More from this author →