As with most great fiction, personal morality has always been a central concern for Mad Men. What makes someone a good or bad person? Do intentions count, or are we defined by our actions? Does a rough past justify selfishness now? How does the amoral nature of the advertising industry affect the people who work in it? Is Don Draper essentially good or evil? But while these questions usually linger in the background, playing out over a season or throughout the course of the entire series, Sunday’s episode thrust them to the fore. In observing how the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce react to the possibility of trading a night with Joan for the agency’s first car account, we learned a great deal about each character’s ethical compass. In the aftermath of that showstopping hour, it seems like a good time to rank SCDP’s employees from least to most morally reprehensible. Let us know if you agree in the comments.
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s newest copywriter is an oddball, that’s for sure. But Michael is also the most morally upright of the bunch, often expressing disgust at his colleagues’ ruthless attitudes and callous humor. In the most recent episode, we saw him turn away uncomfortably when Megan’s friend showed up at the office to provide some, er, entertainment for the overworked men.
Poor Ken Cosgrove just wants to write his sci-fi stories for The Atlantic Monthly (no, that doesn’t sound quite right to us either) and hang out with his lovely wife, Alex Mack. Over and over, we’ve seen that he places less importance on his job than his workaholic colleagues, and that he’s not willing to do immoral things to succeed, to the extent that even Peggy finds his goodness and loyalty quaint. The fact that, despite all this, he’s still often better at what he does than Pete only makes us love this character more.
Peggy has grown more than any other character since Mad Men began, rising in the ranks from naïve secretary and initially unwitting mother of Pete’s child (ugh, this still makes us shudder) to the confident copy chief who looked into Don Draper’s eyes and told him she was moving on. Yes, she’s picked up some of Don’s ruthlessness along the way, but she’s still a hard-working and sympathetic striver with talent for miles, who generally treats people with respect (unless they don’t deserve it).
Oh, Joan. What you did this week won’t get you into heaven (if that’s what you believe in), but you still come out of the whole ordeal smelling sweeter than the SCDP partners who whored you out for their own personal gain. Like Don and, increasingly, Peggy, Joan is a street-smart survivor, and now that she’s kicked her miserable husband to the curb, she has to find some way to support her young son. By gaining a 5% stake in the company using pretty much the only leverage available to her, she’s ensured her independence without hurting anyone but herself.
Even if they initially seem to fit into stereotypes, Mad Men characters are always subverting our preconceived notions. When we met Lane, for instance, he was an uptight English guy who kept a firm hold on the company’s finances. In a way, he is still those things, although now we realize that he knows how to cut loose and know he’s staying in an unfulfilling marriage under pressure from his psychotic dad, which probably explains why he jumps at the opportunity to interact with any pretty lady who isn’t his wife. So, Lane’s had a difficult life, and he definitely seems to mean well, whether he’s chatting up bunnies at the Playboy Club or advising Joan that she shouldn’t sell herself for any less than a share of the company.
Perhaps because we’ve spent so much time with him and he’s still something of an enigma, Don is the hardest character to place. Basically, his morals are all over the map. This week, he was the lone partner who was too disgusted by the proposition of renting Joan out to Jaguar to even discuss it — but he was also recently the guy who purposely left Michael’s ideas in the car before a client meeting so he could only pitch his own. Then there’s the whole secret identity business, the history of infidelity, and the very clear double standards to which he holds the women in his life (although Megan does seem to be challenging those, often successfully). Don may be improving, and he’s certainly not the biggest scoundrel at SCDP, but he’s still no hero.
To be fair, Bert Cooper is fairly uninvolved in the day-to-day dilemmas of SCDP, and we’d be hard pressed to come up with an episode in which he had his own story line. On the whole, we know little about the firm’s senior partner other than that he is an odd combination of practical businessman and art-loving eccentric who runs around the office in socks. But the few things we’ve learned about his morals aren’t particularly encouraging: he’s against the civil rights movement and he worships Ayn Rand.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: Roger is a devastatingly charming guy, but he’s also almost entirely morally bankrupt. From the blackface to his hatred of the Japanese, he’s a classic bigot. His relationships with women are a mess, and he never thinks twice about cheating. He’s lazy and, these days, increasingly worthless at work. He’d rather pay someone to do his job than lift a finger of his own. In sum, he’s a selfish hedonist who hasn’t earned any of his considerable wealth. This season, with some help from LSD, Roger has begun to realize many of these things about himself. But, from where we’re sitting, he isn’t exactly doing anything to change them. And we’re pretty sure he was only so hesitant about lending Joan to Herb Rennet because he’s still got feelings for her.
But at least Roger would be a fun guy to have a drink with. Harry Crane, however, has absolutely zero redeeming qualities. He’s smarmy and slimy and has an inferiority complex because his contribution to the company — both Sterling Cooper and SCDP after it — is constantly undervalued. Not only does he cheat on his wife, but he is constantly flirting with women who are way out of his league and telling off-color jokes about those, like Megan Draper, who won’t give him the time of day. The debacle, a few episodes ago, with Paul Kinsey’s Hare Krishna girlfriend only confirmed how amoral and deluded he can be when it comes to women. Aside from all these concrete facts, though, what really make Harry odious is his general air of unpleasantness, which makes Don’s vocal dislike of him entirely understandable.
And finally, even Harry can’t compete with Pete Campbell for sheer terribleness. From coercing Peggy into sex on the eve of his wedding in Season 1 to convincing his fellow partners to sell out Joan this past Sunday, he is one bratty, self-important disaster after another. Roger may use people for selfish reasons, but Pete can’t even step outside his own spoiled experience to realize that he treats everyone from his colleagues to his wife like nothing more than pawns in his ill-conceived schemes. He’s entitlement embodied, and if those theories that he’s going to die before the season’s over turn out to be true, we won’t shed a single, fictional tear.