Perfection is a terrible premise for a character. But in the charred emotional landscape of Sterling Cooper & Partners (& spouses), Megan Draper is as close to it as one gets. Beautiful, talented, and self-assured, Megan seems devoid of the tension that creates dynamic, believable fiction in the abstract and fan favorites like ambitious, unsatisified Peggy Olson in particular. On the surface, in fact, the only thing she appears to share with the other women at the center of the Mad Men universe — Peggy, her former colleague; Joan, her onetime boss; and Betty, her bitter predecessor — is the man who’s impacted their lives in various, mostly negative ways. But over the last three seasons, Megan has slowly grown into a figure almost as compelling as she is underrated.
When Megan first enters the picture, she’s not meant to make an impression. Jessica Paré herself didn’t expect to stick around, even when her minor role as a secretary turned into something more substantial; after all, Don Draper isn’t exactly known for his long-term commitment to love interests who aren’t the mother of his children. “My first episode, I had only one line: ‘Yes, Joan,'” she told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month. “When Megan and Don kiss for the first time, everybody on set was like, ‘Well, it’s been great to have you around, Jessica. You’ll be on your way out now.'”
And then Don proposed, a decision that instantly got fans’ attention while guaranteeing their rage. At the time, so little was known about Megan — gorgeous, good with kids, and… that’s about it — that a poor decision she didn’t even make became her defining trait. In part, the reaction was understandable: Don sabotaged his relationship with the smart, savvy, adult Dr. Faye for… his secretary? “She’s… very beautiful,” as Peggy not-so-diplomatically put it at the time, and we saw what she and Joan did. How could anyone trust Don to choose someone who’d complement and challenge him when that’s exactly what scared him off Faye Miller?
Megan’s first full season in the spotlight, however, threw the ultimate Mad Men curveball: whether he knew what he was doing or not, Don had managed to find the ideal partner. He may have run screaming from intimacy into their marriage, but Megan got him to open up about Dick Whitman. She may have gotten the job by falling in love with the boss, but Megan turned out to be an ace copywriter and saleswoman. Acting may have been an indulgent pipe dream, but Megan turned out to have both the resources and the talent to make it work. The point of Megan was not that Don would rather settle for his sweet secretary than make it work with Faye; it’s that if Don couldn’t make it work with Megan, he couldn’t make it work with anyone.
And to the surprise of no one, he couldn’t. Which is precisely how Megan’s flawlessness manages, against the odds, to work for both her character and the show. Typically, perfection renders characters a cipher; it’s the quality the fanfiction community so reviles in the “Mary Sue,” one of the genre’s most reviled tropes. Created as a stand-in for the author, the Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, her male counterpart) functions more as wish fulfillment than a believable construct, lacking dimension or a convincing source of conflict.
Megan Draper, on the other hand, is never idealized — she’s simply ideal, or as close to it as Don will ever find. And rather than erasing any grounds for conflict, her perfection works as the course of it. Her kindness, talent, and yes, appearance bind her and her husband together, of course, yet they also drive them apart. Don likes Megan just independent enough to inspire envy in others and reassure himself (“He doesn’t want to be married to his secretary,” as Joan observes), but not independent enough that he becomes aware she doesn’t need him. And when he does, he walks away — literally.
She may be relatively new to the cast, but sometimes I think Megan isn’t quite as adored as Peggy, Joan, or even Betty because fans blame her for Don’s mistakes. To do so, however, is to misunderstand her. Megan Draper is not a prime example of her husband’s bad judgement; she’s a victim of it, and arguably the greatest. Here is a woman with the beauty, intelligence, and drive to make it on her own. She just had the bad fortune of marrying a man who wasn’t willing to let her.