In Defense Of Megan
A lot of people hope we've said au revoir to Mrs. Draper Deux for good; this commentator agrees...sort of.
As the curtain falls on another season of Mad Men, it's safe to say the curtain has probably fallen on Don (Jon Hamm) and Megan's (Jessica Paré) marriage -- or it should have, anyway, and I don't say this as a Megan-hater who believes she's never brought anything to Don's story but prominent teeth. I like Megan.
It's a lonely gig.
I understand the objections to her, don't get me wrong. The responsibility for most of them doesn't lie with Megan, though, or with Jessica Paré, but rather with the Mad Men creative team, and secondarily with what they want to do with Don. Initially, the introduction of Megan and Don's quickie marriage to her looked pretty brilliant, because of the way it commented on Don's relationship patterns: that, as Dr. Faye (Cara Buono) bitterly tells Don, he only likes the beginnings of things; that he's attracted to a nurturing woman but at the same time has so little formative experience with a non-twisted maternal figure that he's, at best, at a loss as to what to do with that sort of love; that Megan is, while confident and capable (wins a Clio, gets a soap role, relates well with his kids), also younger enough and accustomed enough to relating to Don as a superior that, if she questions him, he won't have to take it seriously. And can't, because if he does, he'll have to question himself -- and the abyss isn't just staring back in Don's case. The abyss brought friends, and the friends brought Louisville Sluggers. The abrupt feint in that trophy-ish-wife direction didn't sit well with some viewers, and as a viewer who related strongly to Dr. Faye, it made me kind of sad -- because I saw the truth in it. This is what happens, still, sometimes, fifty-odd years later. He'll try her on for a while, the independent lady who's awkward with kids, but he's not going to marry her.
That worked; the writing of Megan yawed all over the harbor until Season 6. One week she's poised and sweet, the next she's icy and bratty (the sherbet sequence remains annoying to me); in theory, Don marrying Megan made perfect sense, but in practice, the writers' room didn't seem to know what to do with her, so they adapted her to fit whatever was going on with Don at that moment.
Linda Holmes at NPR's Monkey See also pointed out a problem with the character that I didn't realize until I read it written down: "For me, Megan Draper is an example of a problem that's not uncommon on long-running dramas, where the writers become fascinated with writing for someone and abruptly expect the audience to be deeply invested in that person, simply because the audience cares about the show and the show puts the person on the screen all the time." Once she noted it, I couldn't stop noticing it, that someone on the MM staff really loved Megan, and/or Paré, and wanted to write for her and put her at the center of things, regardless of whether it worked, which it didn't always. That frustrated me, too, but it wasn't Megan herself.
And that ties in to an issue with Don, at least in the most recent season -- a trough TV sometimes stumbles into that I guess you could call the Realism/Interest Fallacy. In other words, just because a thing is true to life doesn't mean we want to watch it week in and week out. Don is a bifurcated self, and the half he shows the world is self-absorbed, imperious, and unreliable. He can't remain faithful, he tells himself various lies about that, and he thinks his powerful -- compulsive, even -- drive to get others to love and respect him is the same as loving and respecting them. He doesn't see safety in vulnerability, only in successful manipulations. Season 6 felt like variations on a theme of Don's debasement, the boozing, the cheating, the fever-dream trip to California, the pre-sweated flop that never happens. We've seen it before, and in prior seasons, the dialogue rang a lot truer; Jon Hamm did a hell of a job with that Hershey's-pitch scene, but that the character as written over several years would say it? That way? Nope. Didn't buy it. He'll win an Emmy for it, and I can hang with that, but the writing didn't seem to have much to say that we hadn't already heard.
I bought the break with Megan, though, and I will bet you American money we've seen the last of her, because I think she sees what he is, or really what she is to him, and she can't unsee that. She can't unknow that, to Don, she only exists as a function of his own self-loathing -- if she exists to him at all. Her line about how she used to pity Don's kids, but now she understands that, to him, they're all the same, abstractions, benchmarks, coupled with her "oh…oh God, what have I been doing all this time" expression…a door has slammed closed and disappeared into its wall. Paré did a fantastic job in that scene of keeping it in close, and in that scene, Megan both justified her presence on the show and made it crucial that she not return.
I hope they find a way to bring back her mom (Julia Ormond), though. Her Gallic eye-roll/hang-up combo is practically educational programming.