My Third Name is Hope: On Love, Loneliness, and Mad Men
My Third Name is Hope: On Love, Loneliness, and Mad Men
by Mandy Grathwohl
I STARTED WATCHING MAD MEN in March 2017 because I wanted to learn how to become a better person. I thought Don's journey would educate me on the repercussions of lying and subtle manipulations. He knew his weaknesses, and for the most part, he chose to ignore them. And I knew about his character arc before I began the show: Don needs to lose everything before he can finally understand himself. I felt similar. Will it take that long? Must I lose everything before I find happiness inside? Who will I hurt along the way? If Mad Men, at its heart, is a story about self-acceptance, Mr. Draper was my obvious muse.
But as the seasons progressed, I couldn't help but follow two other characters: Peggy and Joan. Arguably the most famous characters from Mad Men (alongside Roger and Don), these two characters follow arcs not strictly centered on romantic complications—a feat that does deserve mention. It even seems that most characters within the Mad Men universe believe that Peggy and Joan are 2-dimensional, but in reality, they are struggling to survive as independent women in Sexist America. What's more, they are fighting to thrive in a country that prefers its women to be prostrate, cooking, and silent.
But somehow, at the the end of everything, despite all obstacles and misfortunes during the Silent Generation, these two women become the series' most successful characters. Peggy found love. Joan doesn't need it. Both are champions at work and home. And this baffled me. It was like I wasn't paying attention to their gradual mountain climb. Not until the very last season did I turn to myself and say: Was that who I should've been watching? What did I miss?
First, a rewind. A rewind steeped in sentiment.
I've been dreaming about love. Silly things, brief encounters that make me feel incredible and impractical while I'm experiencing them. But then I wake up, and I am gutted. It's just me, alone in my bed. A big room with no furniture and a cold draft. Nothing in these dreams screams magic or prophecy—nothing points the finger that says, "Go that way." It's nothing to take seriously, yet it's enough to make my stomach churn when I rise in the morning. A little hot, a little bothered. Mostly sad and afraid. My two names.
For me, there's a paralyzing fear surrounding relationships. I'm a supremely emotional person. I'm a supremely selfish person and I don't often like to deal with conflict. It's one way or the other, I never find a middle point—I always choose a side, because working for gray is a struggle, and I'm lazy. I've been lucky in my life because many of the things I've wanted have all had a converging end. My friends have similar ambitions to mine, so we work together. But someone different, someone to love, to touch, stepping into the picture: What does that do to my idyllic future? I'm afraid they'll ruin me. I'm even more afraid that it won't feel at all like I'm being ruined. It's hard to stop a crash if you don't know that you're driving—it's this feeling all the time. Where am I now? I touch my skin. What have I done today?
I have always loved the idea of being loved. Disney spoonfed it. I wanted a prince, a million kisses, the whole nine yards. This desire morphed into a negligent flaw of mine: wanting to be wanted. More than wanted: desired, needed, hungered for. Being such a destructive force in the lives of those I love, that I hold them deep under water and pull their heads up and wait for them to say, "Stop, I want you in my life. Without you there is only wetness, and with you there is light." But that's another story. This story is about my twisted, terrible fear of relationships.
I have always loved the idea of being loved. Disney spoonfed it. I wanted a prince, a million kisses, the whole nine yards. This desire morphed into a negligent flaw of mine: wanting to be wanted.
I don't know what relationships will do to me or my other platonic relationships, or my work ethic. I don't know what loving someone truly and really for the first time ever—someone whose house I can spend the night at, someone who touches me, who solely validates me, who makes me feel wanted—will make me. A monster? I avoid it like the plague. But then that blackness builds in me, this want, and then there's a canyon between the me now and the me I want to become: loving and loved. Compassionate. Good. A girl with a future ahead of her and a lover's bed to sleep in and friendships that rattle the world and make it all move for the better. I want all of it and for fear of not having any of it, I stray from the thing that's always moved me: a potential romance.
Okay, flash forward. Back to Peggy and Joan. The two go in seemingly separate directions: Joan's short-time lover Richard Burghoff nixes their relationship after Joan expresses a desire to continue working—this time as the head of a film production company. Our final glimpse of her: happy and productive, answering phones alongside her babysitter for her production company, Holloway Harris. Peggy, on the other hand, finally seems to successfully meld work and love when a longtime coworker, Stan, professes his love for her and she reciprocates. Our final glimpse: Peggy working at her desk when Stan's hand grasps her shoulder. He leans over her and kisses her forehead, and the two share a smile, having decided to stick it out at McCann Erickson and, also, be together.
As much as I loved and related to Joan throughout the series, it was Peggy's end that had me sobbing, not only out of happiness for her—a hard worker who had, in the midst of all of her dedication to kicking ass at her job, struggled through an unknown pregnancy; given the result of said pregnancy up for adoption; received and denied the father's profession of love; accidentally stabbed the boyfriend who she was the complete opposite of; gotten her heart broken by the one man that I perceived to be her ideal match (former boss Ted Chaough)—but also because of an envy of her. God, she had it: She was finally getting to where she wanted to be in her career. Talented, respected, hardly doubtful—and she finally got the whirlwind romance. The guy who had always been under her nose. And, you know, whatever to that notion, but the thing is, she got it and she was happy and I firmly believe that she went on to be happy. In my mind, she became copy chief at McCann and she and Stan hopefully stayed together and she had it all, because she fucking worked for it. In my mind, can I see myself becoming that? If I try hard enough, can I? I haven't even begun the work.
The pillow talk. The spontaneous gifts. The door peeling open and it's him again, someone to look at me that special way.
What am I working for? I sit on the couch every afternoon and smoke cigarettes instead of, I don't know, writing a poem or working on something for the magazine I work for or hunting for an internship or a job or even reading a goddamn book. I sit and I think about whatever boy might pay attention to me and all the imaginary ways that maybe we could be together. The pillow talk. The spontaneous gifts. The door peeling open and it's him again, someone to look at me that special way. And I can return the look—finally.
It repeats. My succulent sits on a bookshelf next to the door, the knob turns and there he is in the doorway and there I am on the couch and he's home and I love him. The shades are drawn and some movie is on that I've pestered him about for years and we're finally sitting down to watch it. Here comes the cat we picked out together and I love him more. Ten thousand potential futures, and where's the one where my career enters the picture? Read: nowhere. In my fantasies, it never occurs. And to give myself a break, maybe that's because I feel that's something that I can control, with careful and dedicated work, whereas all of these invisible up-in-the-air feelings are ungraspable and impossible to influence. No matter how I look or act or talk, if I'm ever going to be wanted, then I'll be wanted. If not, oh well.
My nightmare: a housewife, a mother, unhappy inside or, worse, not unhappy and just utterly content with my life. This current version of me—semi-ambitious and young and angry and sad—can't conceive of that because I don't want it; it smells like defeat. I'd become just like my mother and all the girls I scorned in high school. It's something to spit at. But the taste of the possibility feels a bit too familiar, like I've known it in some other life, or have some prophetic sense of what I'm capable of obtaining. Rather than confronting it and maybe breaking the spell, I've spent my life trying to subvert the prophecy. And even in this, I fear that I've caught my ankle tighter in the trap.
Most days, I think: I want to cut this part out of me. I'm unhappy when I'm single, and I'm afraid to be anything else. If I could just cull the wanting, then maybe all of my other dreams could come true. Nuns do it. They devote themselves so fiercely to the thing they believe in that they give up sex, love and the entire material world in order to spend their lives caring for—working in the service of their god. The thoughts end there, and I stew and pout because, well, Jesus, why haven't I done that? Why can't I do that? Answer: Their decisions come with a desire, an ability, a need to forego all frivolous things to serve their one true purpose. But that fire isn't in me, not when it comes to abstinence. I want to be wanted far too badly. The risks are not worth the reward. But even then, it's not that black and white.
I don't know. I don't know if I'll ever know. There are ten thousand futures I have but it feels like I have few choices. I want the whole world and I want no complaints. I want happiness for myself and for everyone I care for. I want far too much and my grasp terrifies me, so I tuck it, and I tuck it, and I tuck it. But when I'm on my deathbed, what will all the tucking have done? It will have cost me everything.
In Matador's interview with Bitch Planet creator Kelly Sue DeConnick, she states "it's not courage if you're not afraid." Sometimes I think about this. Not about being brave and being honest, or working harder to be a kinder person. No, that's too much work. When I think about courage, often it's accompanied by the thought of dating. Just getting the boy I want. The boy I need. But I know my truth: being brave is dating someone and overcoming what I feel I'm doomed to. What's brave is finding a balance.
This is the life I dream of, the path I pick: a desire for balance.
In the world I want, I am loving and loved. Friends. Family. A partner. My friends love my partner, my partner loves my friends, I love all sides in varying, passionate, wonderful ways. My friends are happy, my partner is happy, and I play some role in giving them that. I love myself. I question myself and answer myself. I have a career that makes me happy. I eat healthy. I take care of my finances. My friends and I go out sometimes, my partner and I go out sometimes, and sometimes we're all together. Everyone I love is happy, and it never stops.
Television shows end because they have to, but if the characters are believable enough, we imagine that their lives continue. Joan is making films and didn't need a man to feel fulfilled. Peggy is still working her ass off, alongside someone she's fallen in love with. They found their desires, and they balanced their lives around them, but this didn't come without sacrifice. I can't have it all without struggle, without fear, without trying, god damn it, and being transparent every step of the way. Peggy and Joan were not liked sometimes, and sometimes they didn't like themselves, but through great adversity, in swimming through the muck, they found who they needed to be in order to be happy, and by the end of the series, I truly believe they've found it more than any other character—even Don. This is the life I dream of, the path I pick: a desire for balance. It sits high on a mountaintop, and sometimes I feel like I'm at the very bottom of the trail. But what is love, if not always aiming higher? What is love, if not labor? A love for the self, a love for my comrades, a love for the future where all the things I could dream of are there, and blended, and good.
I've made a photo of Peggy (this one) the background on my phone. In one of her penultimate scenes of the entire show, she's seen in all her glory: powerful, confident, and getting what she's worked for. Finally. Seeing it reminds me of all the things I have to work for, and also of all the things I stand to lose. She made it, the it of living. Joan did it. And I can do it, too. Knowing what I want, and the monstrosities behind the desires, and being honest about them, is the first step.