LOS ANGELES — Since the award-winning “Mad Men” went on the air in 2007, the central focus of the series has been the lives, loves and lunacy of the men who work in the maddening world of advertising during the 1960s. Although they aren’t mentioned in the title of the series, there have been just as many stories about the “mad women.”
In many ways, the stories of the female characters have offered an even broader look at the time period, a perspective that continues when the sixth season of “Mad Men” begins tonight.
“I think one of the big surprises of the first season of the show was that there were some very cool women on the show. Betty, Joan and Peggy are really complex and layered and not stereotypes,” says Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy Olsen.
Her character’s an example of that complexity. Peggy is a talented woman who has had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts in advertising to gain success. Her rise through the ranks of the agency has been treated by some as an accomplishment and by others as a threat.
Moss considers herself lucky for getting to play Peggy. The character has gone through huge professional and personal arcs, from Don Draper’s secretary to being his second-in-command in the creative department.
“And, it’s happening in the ‘60s, in the workplace. There’s been so much material to play with because this was when so much was changing,” she says.
Even the way the character dresses reflects the thinking of the times. Moss says the conservative clothes and hairstyle are Peggy’s way of not looking like a woman — an effort to be seen as just a great copywriter.
January Jones has found that her character, Betty Draper, has been a continuous work in progress because she’s striving to be the beauty queen and perfect mom.
“I think that she sort of generically represented the implosive housewife that was unsatisfied with her circumstances and felt sort of blocked from doing things that she wanted to do ,” Jones says. “I think over the seasons, especially when she left Don and married Henry, I think she’s trying to find more independence.”
A recent story line — necessitated by Jones’ pregnancy — had Betty gaining weight and then struggling to lose it. The way Betty has been dealing with this personal battle has been an example of how the character has become better at handling disappointment.
Betty’s also had to deal with the stress of being a mom because of her emotional immaturity. Jones believes that Betty became a mom not out of a love for children, but because it was expected of women at that time. Despite her best efforts to be a good mother, it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to her.
Each season, Betty has shown a little more maturity. The key, says Jones, was when Betty’s father died and she realized she was orphaned and she had to act like an adult.
“But you still see bits of her emotional immaturity. She’s changed, but she isn’t a completely different person,” Jones says.
There’s also been an emotional growth to Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), the voluptuous secretary of the advertising agency who has used her sexuality, and been abused because of her sexuality, in a workplace that’s years away from harassment laws.
Hendricks suggests that while the women reflect what was going on in the ‘60s, series creator Matthew Weiner has avoided enough stereotypes so the characters still resonate with women today.
“I don’t know that she represents anything specifically for her era. I think a lot of people, if you said Joan, maybe the first thing people would say is strength or confidence. I think that is one of her wonderful attributes, but I also think she has also shown an incredibly vulnerable side and a fragile side,” says Hendricks. “That’s why I love playing her. She gets to do all this different stuff that Matt writes. I definitely think she is a fighter for sure.”
Her strength and vulnerabilities were on display in season five when Joan was asked by a majority of the agency partners to sleep with a major client. The fact she was asked was shocking, but Joan used the situation to strengthen her own status by agreeing to the liaison if she was made a partner in the firm.
Joining the all-boys club opens even more potential conflicts.
“Are people going to just all of a sudden turn around and say, ‘Oh, Joan’s a partner. Let’s treat her like a partner.’ Or, is it a title and just everything same as usual,” says Hendricks. “One of the things I really like about Joan is that she makes a decision, sticks with it, demands not to be judged for it in all sorts of things that she does throughout the show, and I think this is another one of those things.”
On the other end is Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), who finds herself torn between the traditional thinking of her husband and the forward moving push by women. She has allowed her creativity to be stifled in an effort to be a good wife, but the passion she feels for the creative world is causing her to doubt some of her decisions.
“I think Megan is probably part of the first generation of women that thought that she could have a career and a family life without so many social barriers. I think she’s one of the first who thought it’s just there for the taking,” says Paré.
Paré expects that having to deal with a working wife will make Don face the possibility that he has to adapt to this new social norm. How that plays out is what makes for the madness of both the men and women of “Mad Men.”