By Casey Wilson
When Mad Men first began, Sally Draper was little more than set decoration. She, along with her brother Bobby, mostly served to reflect the domestic troubles of her parents, Don and Betty. When Don runs out on Sally’s birthday party in the third episode of the series, for instance, it’s not about Sally but about the world pressing in on Don. Similarly, in its early days the show often asked us to compare Betty to her daughter, not to illuminate anything about Sally’s character but to demonstrate Betty’s own arrested development and childlike nature.
Luckily for us, that changed as the series progressed. Unlike Bobby Draper, who largely remains a blank slate and has been recast multiple times, Sally has become one of the most compelling characters in a show full of them. The young actress who plays Sally, Kiernan Shipka, has proven the depth of her talent through the intricate and nuanced work that she has done in recent seasons, tackling subjects like Sally’s nascent sexuality in a way that is honest, astonishing, and quite often discomfiting. Sally may still function as a referendum on her parents’ complicated emotional lives, but she is also allowed to have her own complex emotional identity.
Consider the most recent episode, “Mystery Date”, which aired on April 8. Woven in between the dissolution of a marriage and a violent fever dream came one of the show’s more troubling storylines – one that has lingered in my mind since it aired, and that places Sally right in the center of the action. The events of “Mystery Date” take place while the Richard Speck murders are flooding the newspapers; all the adults are discussing the murders (some more appropriately than others, Stan) but Sally’s step-grandmother Pauline goes out of her way to keep the girl ignorant of the story. Of course, it doesn’t work – and that’s when the episode gets really interesting.*
Sally is on the brink of being a full-fledged teenager, that awkward time when one is not allowed to be either child or adult and yet expected to be both. She longs for her voice to carry authority – as when she tells her father that Pauline doesn’t believe her when she says that she’s allowed to watch television all the time – but can’t quite bring herself to eat a sandwich that has relish on it. When Pauline verbalizes her reaction to the newspaper’s description of the events (“Those poor souls!”) she draws Sally’s attention only to immediately rebuke it by informing the girl that “Some things are not for children”. Sally’s response is telling: “Mommy lets me watch the news”. She’s old enough to (want to) know what adults know, but young enough to default to “Mommy”. She’s neither/nor and both/and, all at once.
In her next scene, she again attempts to find her way into the adult world. Ordered by Pauline to take the trash out, she offers a deal: “If I take out the trash, will you tell me about the murder?” When this is refused, she reframes the debate, arguing that she’s a good person, even if Pauline doesn’t think so. Coming on the heels of Sally’s inquiry about Pauline’s age, this effectively obscures the line between them. Pauline may think discipline will teach Sally to act like an adult, but Sally believes both that she already is an adult – or is at least close to it – and that she has the ability to decide morality for herself. She refuses to let an older generation undermine her own personhood.
And yet, when she takes the newspapers out of the trash and reads them for herself, Sally finds herself unprepared for the adult world and thus becomes unable to sleep. She comes to Pauline for comfort, and for once, Pauline is terrifyingly honest with her. She tells Sally the events of the case almost like a bedtime story and again the line between child and adult is moved. Now that Sally has forced her way into the adult world, she is expected to be able to handle the implications, even if it’s about rape and murder. “You’re old enough to know,” Pauline says at one point, and it comes out like a judgment.
And this is what makes the end of the episode so disturbing to me. Sally is “old enough to know” about what kind of desire those young nurses would have provoked in a man, and as such she becomes old enough to deal with that knowledge in the manner of an adult – with a pill. When her mother and stepfather return home, she and Pauline are both passed out. Sally’s underneath the sofa – hidden away like the lone survivor of the Speck murders – but there’s no hope or promise of salvation in our vision of her. There’s no sign that she has successfully learned to negotiate the liminal space she occupies as a burgeoning teen. No sense that she will recover from the trauma of the story her grandmother tells. No guarantee that that wasn’t just the first of many pills she’ll take in her lifetime when things get too scary. She’s just hidden away from the world entirely. Comatose.
Waiting to be found.
*The relationship between the episode’s major themes and the titular Mystery Date game is fodder for an entry all its own.
Casey is a PhD student.