Fargo, Penny Dreadful, and Halt and Catch Fire, these seem to be three of the shows called to set the pace of what’s to come in serial fiction. All of them star, or co-star, independent (even, sometimes, solitary) and melancholic women. Women finally released from the household, and we are talking here about shows set in the XIX century and the 80s, that take the initiative in their male-dominated fictional universes. But, what do these three newcomers look at? They are looking behind, they are looking at Peggy Olson, the character that made possible their status as groundbreaking female leads in contemporary television.
Mad Men started as the story of the fictional existence of Don Draper: the exposure of his true identity, Dick Whitman, the ending of his fake marriage with Betty, and later the ending of his second marriage with Megan, already hinted in season 5 finale with that image of Jon Hamm walking out of his own tale, “you only live once or so it seems, once life for yourself and one for yourself.”
Meanwhile, as Don Draper transitions from fictions towards reality (Matthew Weiner suggested that the end of Mad Men would be the image of an old Don in our present), his female counterpart, Peggy, has made her own journey, a journey from a reality to the the next. Women on TV can’t afford to “live twice”, there’s a lot of work to be done and dreaming is not an option. Peggy started as Don’s secretary, the bottom of the 5th avenue’s food-chain, and slowly climbed it to almost the top, being now Don’s boss. “Does this family exist anymore?” she claimed in the second to last episode of the 7a season, ‘The Strategy’, referring to our image of the ‘happy American family’. “What the hell do I know about being a mom?” she followed up. Nothing, as we see in her relationship with her tenant’s hispanic boy, she gave up on family, the household, and, somehow, also on love, she had no luck with her relationships in the whole series. She fought the good fight just to give her successors the choice to pursue their dreams, whatever those are. Women on TV are now more than whores and housewives (and I’m looking at the big fishes here, Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos…), the histrionic, emotional plot mechanism that set things in motion. They are complex characters, women that take control of their lives and can look directly into the eyes of the big male television icons: Don Draper, Tony Soprano or Walter White. All thanks to her, thanks to Peggy.
Now that Mad Men is coming to an end next year, it’s time Vanessa Ives, Molly Solverson and Cameron Howe take over the position left by their role model. Three characters in very different times and spaces but with one thing in common, they are called to continue the new age of complex feminine characters on television, and we are looking forward to it.