As a study in abusive work relationships, this rich Mad Men episode peers into the illusions that enable many (though not all) abusers to be wholly or largely unaware of being abusive. It can be fun to analyze and judge these people from a distance, which is partly why we love this show. Yet to actually deconstruct the term “abuser” means to unwind the experience of an abuser, such as Peggy or Lou, all the way to the point of exposing the problem inherent in the word itself, and then to replace it with a more deeply honest term. This process leads to both compassion and healing.
In this episode, normally down-to-earth Peggy enters a paranoid world where her single status is being made fun of on Valentine’s Day. True enough, as she rides up the elevator that morning Peggy is mocked by Stan and Mike for not having a date that night. However, her thoughts of the holiday itself are likely the main trigger causing her emotionally hijacked mental state. She finds Valentine’s Day – a day when women who dream of romance feel happy to receive even a small a dose of it – especially harsh because of Ted’s recent rejection. Her deepest hopes for love drive her to imagine that Shirley’s flowers are intended for her and that Ted must have sent them. Then, as hopelessness quickly overwhelms hope, she resents it, imagines that Ted’s incoming phone call has some manipulative motive, and assumes that Shirley, in revealing the origins of the flowers, is intentionally embarrassing her, as if Shirley were the abuser. As a result, Peggy demands that Shirley be removed from her desk. The question is whether it’s helpful to label Peggy an “abuser,” or whether – although she is truly abusive – Peggy is more accurately labeled an unhappy woman sorely in need of a good long cry in order to regain her senses?
Lou Avery has similar problems. As emotional as Peggy (though upset about different things) and equally averse to owning his negative emotions, Lou is at a loss for words and embarrassed by it when Sally pops into the office looking for Don. Realizing that she hasn’t even been told her father no longer works there, Lou’s awkward feelings turn to anger at being put in that position. These feelings overwhelm any clear thinking ability he might otherwise have. Thus he unloads on Dawn for not having been at her desk when Sally arrived. He even complains that he is owed an apology, as if he’s been victimized by Dawn. But again, is naming him an “abuser” productive, or does such name-calling perpetuate the cycle of abuse/victimization? Whether Lou needs to cry or talk his feelings out, he definitely needs to process the negative emotions hijacking his mind/body. Perhaps he’s better labeled a decent man who just needs to learn emotional processing to return to clearer thinking and better behavior.
Thanks, Mad Men, for another great episode!
For more Mad Men, tune in to AMC Sundays at 10 p.m. ET.