One of my favorite television shows aired its final episode in May. I'm referring to the hugely popular and critically acclaimed Mad Men, and specifically to the episode "Person to Person." One of the things I liked most about Mad Men was how it revealed, and reveled in, the drama of the workplace.
While it was brilliant at showing the inner workings of a bustling business (advertising), it was just as brilliant at depicting the workplace as a place where humans interact and grow in complex ways. In the most compelling episodes of Mad Men, we saw how personal (and interpersonal) life was intimately entwined with work life.
That was certainly true of the series' final episode. And with this episode in mind, I would like to reflect on how Mad Men might inspire people in business. I'll do that by looking at four of the show's major characters in the final episode. I'll start with two of the main female characters, Joan and Peggy, and follow that up with a subsequent column on Roger and Don.
Joan is the red-haired beauty who has always been so much more than her looks. As the series made progressively clear, she is a highly creative and fiercely determined businesswoman. In the final episode, she is forced to make a difficult decision. Richard, her latest boyfriend and prospective husband, made a fortune in business but now seeks to travel the world with a beautiful woman on his arm. The problem is that Joan is not yet ready to retire, nor does she want to become "arm candy." She has an entrepreneurial spirit and plans to start her own business as a producer of commercials.
Though Richard says that Joan's life was "undeveloped property," he makes her choose between him and her new venture. She chooses her business career. In the final scene featuring Joan, we see her bustling startup in action in her apartment. While some might be sad that Joan lost her lover, in this final scene the show encourages us to rejoice that this vivacious woman can find her fulfillment in being an entrepreneur.
Peggy is also an ambitious career woman, but she is more insecure than Joan. In the final episode, she too has a decision to make. At first, it looks like a decision between love and work, but really she has to decide between a career that allows for personal fulfillment or one that demands the sacrifice of everything that makes us human.
In a moment of anger, she tells her friend and co-worker Stan that he's a loser with no ambition, because he dares to have a life outside the workplace. Stan leaves her office but later phones her, against his better judgment, with a declaration of tortured love. This awakens Peggy to the fact that she loves Stan back.
This is when the co-workers strike up a romance. Their work together in advertising continues, as well. When we last see them, Peggy is at the typewriter, still hard at work, but Stan stands behind her, giving her a neck-rub. Unlike Joan's Richard, Stan will not make Peggy choose between her work and her romantic life. He will be her partner in love and business, which will likely lead to more creative ventures for them both.
Mad Men brought home much about what women in the workforce faced in the mid-20th century. Joan and Peggy, sometimes with the help of men and sometimes despite them, were trailblazers who helped open doors for those who followed, including the many women taking leadership in payments today. For that, we can all be grateful. To be continued …
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