What’s going to happen to Mad Men’s Sally Draper?

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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I’m worried about Sally Draper, the pubescent daughter of brooding Mad Man Don.

As season five develops, and we get further into the sixties, Sally is becoming a central character. She’s slowly growing up. In “At the Codfish Ball,” her palette matures from spaghetti to cod — and, more revealingly, her wardrobe matures too. When Don sees Sally get dolled up in a short dress, knee-high boots, and makeup for the banquet at which he’s getting an award, he demands that she takes her makeup off and change her boots.

Oh, dads. Sure, Don can try to tone down her wardrobe, but he can’t control what she sees and does. No adult can, especially during the changing times that they are all living in. At the gala, Sally is looking for the ladies room when she accidentally opens the door to a room where Roger Sterling is receiving oral sex from Megan Draper’s alluring French-Canadian mother, a creepy and traumatizing experience for Sally. In an earlier episode from the season, Sally becomes terrified as she reads about the horrific Richard Speck rapes and murders in the newspaper, strictly against her step-grandmother’s orders.

Sally has always been precocious. Throughout the seasons of Mad Men, we’ve seen her making cocktails for Betty and Don’s friends at a party; we’ve seen her learning how to drive; we’ve seen her smoking one of her mother’s cigarettes; we’ve seen her developing a relationship of sorts with an older boy named Glen, against Betty’s order; and, of course, we’ve seen her get caught masturbating.

Sally is a girl who longs for the glamour of being grown up and pushes the limits to get it. But that’s a dangerous combination in the rough-and-tumble world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that’s taking root around her, which has already punctured holes in her romantic ideal of adulthood. Her step-grandmother rightly complains that she is not a well-disciplined child. So what’s going to happen to her as she navigates the world of late-sixties-early-seventies Manhattan as a teenager with an overdeveloped rebellious streak?

I don’t think we can count on the real adults to protect her. Betty is at best an absent and uncaring mother. And Don, who’s a good father when he’s with his kids (which isn’t often), finds himself increasingly alienated from youth culture, as this exchange with his new wife Megan from the latest episode reveals:

DON: Let me ask you something: When did music become so important? Everyone comes looking for some song. And they’re so specific.

MEGAN: You love specific.

DON: But I have no idea what’s going on up there [presumably referring to the room full of young writers who are in touch with contemporary pop].

MEGAN: No one can keep up. It’s always changing.

This generational gap, fueled by the kids revolution in pop culture, is affecting Don more than any other adult on the show. Not once, but twice, he gets mistaken for the symbol of authority and order in our society, a cop. It first happens at the Rolling Stones concert and, later, in a brothel where he refrains from the services of the prostitutes while his friends are otherwise engaged.

But it’s Don’s experience at the Rolling Stones concert that really accentuates how much he has changed — and also how much he’s not changed — as a father and a man. He’s trying to get backstage to see the band for business and, while he’s waiting, he meets a wannabe groupie. But instead of flirting with her or trying to sleep with her, as he would have done in a prior season, he acts like a father-figure to her:

GIRL: You really think you’re going to get the Rolling Stones to do a TV ad?

DON: They did one for cereal in England.

GIRL: Must have been a long time ago.

DON: It was three years ago — when you were probably, what, eleven? [She takes his tie off and puts it around his neck.] Did you see someone do that in a movie?

GIRL: You need to relax.

DON: So what do you like so much about the Rolling Stones?

GIRL: Why don’t you get me backstage and you’ll see.

DON: What do you feel when you hear them?

GIRL: Brian Jones, he’s a troubadour.

DON: So you feel romantic?

GIRL: God, you’re like a psychiatrist.

DON: What do you know about psychiatrists?

A few minutes later, after she explains that she wants to be Brian Jones’s Lady Jane and do whatever he wants her to do, Don skeptically asks, “What do you think he wants?”

GIRL: None of you ever want any of us to have a good time just ’cause you never did.

DON: No. We’re worried about you.

When is Don going to have a conversation like this with Sally? Maybe never. Don is only talking to “Lady Jane” because he’s at work and trying to understand the mass appeal of the Rolling Stones. Though Sally wants to be part of her father’s world more, work continues to trump family for Don.

So, in the absence of her father, she has turned to her pseudo-boyfriend Glen for emotional support, revealing her feelings and secrets to him over the phone. Is this older boy, who once purposefully walked in on Betty while she was in the bathroom, going to fill in as a father-figure for Sally?

Over at Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz notes:

There are hints of deep fear and horrendous trauma lingering around the margins of every episode this year, with all the talk of random murders and riots and the war in Vietnam (we heard two snippets of war-related news in the background of this episode), as well as situations that prepared us for shockingly violent moments (Megan’s disappearance at the Howard Johnsons’ and Don’s subsequent, stalkerlike pursuit of her in their apartment being the most disturbing examples). But the deeper we get into season five, the more I think that Weiner is not setting us up for some sort of conventional Big Moment: Pete going postal in the office, Don strangling Megan, Megan leaping to her death from the balcony of their oh-so-ritzy apartment.

Or, while the adults of Mad Men are wrapped up in their own lives, something terrible could happen to Sally. After all, if the adults are reverting to kid-like behaviors — like Roger doing LSD and Peggy moving in with her boyfriend — where does that leave the real kids? Rudderless in a sea of change.

Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover journal Defining Ideas and associate editor of The New Criterion. She writes about pop culture at acculturated.com.