By the time you read this the last episode of Mad Men will be about to air, and since it’s unlikely that that last hour will satisfy everyone that’s followed the show for eight years, there might be some shouting. The series finale probably won’t be the Shakespearean tragedy that concluded Breaking Bad or the provocative cut to black of the Sopranos finale, but it’s certain that the show’s fans have imagined a satisfactory future for all of their favorite characters, and that whatever series creator Matthew Weiner has written won’t look anything like it.
As for me, I’ve resigned myself to the likelihood that I won’t hear anything new about the only mystery that still haunts me since I joined the chorus of TV critics singing the show’s praises: what happened to Peggy’s baby?
A summation, for those who need it: Mad Men’s first season ended with the sudden hospitalization of Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss,) whose pregnancy was somehow hidden from her and everyone else by a massive weight gain that coincided with her character’s rise from the secretary pool to junior ad copywriter, under the tutelage of the show’s main character, Don Draper. If this seems implausible (though it’s neither medically or psychologically improbable,) keep in mind that despite its quality cable trappings, a show like Mad Men is at heart a melodrama, different from a daytime soap or a Latin telenovela only in its production values and insistence that actors don’t need to deliver each line in a fit of rage.
The baby’s fate was revisited at the end of the second season when Peggy told Pete Campbell, the feckless account executive with whom she’d had a brief fling, that they’d had a baby together, and that she’d “given it away.” In a flashback during that season, we see Don visiting a catatonic Peggy in the hospital; he gives her the advice that he uses to govern the whole of his life – that she forget all about it and “move forward.”
“It will shock you how much it never happened,” he tells her.
Apart from the odd glance, loaded remark or pregnant pause, we have heard nothing about Peggy and Pete’s baby since then, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we never do, and though a part of me longs for some acknowledgement of this absent child, I’m not holding my breath.
As a child of adoption, I suppose my reasons are clear enough, though that doesn’t mean they’re simple. Like nearly every adopted child, I live with a longing for acknowledgment from my birth parents, and the near certainty that it will never come. This is the emotional scar that adoption leaves on everyone involved, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a criticism of adoption or an invalidation of its worth; for most of us, being taken in willingly by a new family is a consolation beyond value, mitigating everything but the lingering ache that, contrary to Don’s advice, we can never forget happening.
Perhaps this is why it often seems like adoption is recommended a little half-heartedly when we’re recommending alternatives to abortion, in favour of trying to keep mothers with their children or even will families into existence when they aren’t. Our opponents on the “pro-choice” side have had the same problem, trying to tell women that having an abortion is a merely surgical procedure that can be as easily forgotten as an appendix or a bad tooth. They’ve finally admitted that this was never true, and so we have stories like “Abortion: Not Easy, Not Sorry,” which ran in Elle magazine last fall, and celebrities like Jemima Kirke of Girls whose recent PSA for the Centre for Reproductive Rights argues that, by speaking freely about their abortions, women will overcome the “shame and embarrassment around terminating pregnancies.”
Perhaps it’s just me, but as Mad Men airs its last episodes I’m coming to the conclusion that the show isn’t about the advertising business or America in the ‘60s but about unwanted children. Don Draper is just such an unwanted child, as shown in his slowly-revealed backstory, and besides Peggy’s baby, there’s the child being raised by single mother Joan Holloway, the show’s bombshell office manager-turned-senior partner. In one of the final episodes, she meets a rich, divorced man whose plans for the balance of his life don’t include raising another child.
She shocks him by saying that she’d send her child away to be with him. When he protests that he didn’t ask her to do that, Joan tells him that, really, that was the choice he was forcing her to make. Becoming an unintentional parent isn’t a choice many people would make, but being an unwanted child – dead or alive – can surely be understood as neither a choice nor a great way to begin life.
A child of adoption might begin life as a bad decision or be remembered with regret, but being adopted makes them wanted and – even more crucially – alive. Like Peggy’s baby, I may never meet my birth mother again, but I hope she knows that her decision to give me away was far from the worst thing that ever happened to either of us. And so I will watch Peggy right up until Mad Men’s finale and hope that, far from living like it “never happened,” she knows that she made a good decision in a bad moment, and that in spite of pain and regret it allowed more than one person to “move forward.”