Tuned In

Earning It: Office Darwinism on Mad Men and The Good Wife

Last night's episodes of both dramas showed that their firms can be unfair places to work—and some of the same characters we sympathize with like it that way.

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David Giesbrecht / CBS

Spoilers for last night’s The Good Wife and Mad Men below:

In most TV dramas set in workplaces, the hero is the job itself. You might have antiheroes, corruption, characters with personal demons, toxic relationships, but unless the drama is about, say, the North Jersey mob, there’s more or less a presumption that the basic work enterprise is a good and worthy thing. It would be a rare hospital drama, for instance, that was based on the premise that the healthcare system mistreats workers and rips patients off (Nurse Jackie maybe comes closest to this). There are plenty of TV dramas about people with jobs and problems but, in most cases, the job is not the problem.

Mad Men and The Good Wife air on the same night and share similar adult concerns, but they don’t tend to get compared a lot–one being a cable serial, one being a network semi-procedural. But they share a big similarity: each is set in a white-collar, profit-driven workplace with a partnership structure and a hierarchical pecking order. And–as last night’s episodes emphasized–each is unusually blunt in showing that, seen from outside the glass walls of the partners’ meeting, it is not always a benevolent setup.

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Lockhart Gardner do very good work. (Good in the sense of quality, not necessarily morality; one firm has taken tobacco money, the other gang money.) But they don’t just make a profit off ingenious pitches and scintillating legal arguments. They’re also businesses, built on extracting the maximum output from their employees, often–especially in the case of lower-tier workers–in exchange for as minimal compensation as they can get away with.

The partners at each firm are the characters we’re attached to and come to care about. We’re invested in Diane’s love life and Supreme Court bid; we sympathize with Roger Sterling’s crisis of mortality. But they can also be self-interested, greedy, callous, backbiting, and insulated in a bubble of privilege. They worry not just about keeping the business afloat but making sure that their larger share of the pie stays intact. They cut shady deals, they practice divide-and-conquer, they pass over the deserving. They can be brilliant, wise, and loving to their friends. But when it comes to the bottom line, they can also be real assholes. In fact–and this is one of the most distinctive things about both shows–Mad Men and The Good Wife suggests that assholishness may be baked right into the system.

For all we know, this was also the setup of every legal and other office drama we’ve ever watched. Usually we don’t see this kind of granular attention to who makes how much, which staffers get what sort of benefits, how the pyramid structure is actually diagrammed. We don’t generally see paystubs or linger on workplace negotiations; it’s just sort of assumed that the work of our heroes floats along, carried by the support of professionally satisfied underlings.

Last night, though, Mad Men’s “To Have and to Hold” and The Good Wife’s “A More Perfect Union” looked at the possibility that both workplaces are unfair toward the deserving–and that the partners we identify with accept it, or even like it that way.

The Good Wife was the more explicit about the theme: Alicia took on a case for a group of software coders being pushed into an exploitative arrangement by their boss, and accidentally set off a rebellion among Lockhart Gardner staffers being exploited (or at least shorted on pay and benefits) by her own firm. The show has for a while focused on tension between the haves and have-nots at the firm, with the storyline about the simmering mutiny among the four-years passed over for partnership.

But really that’s a divide between haves and have-a-lot-mores. “A More Perfect Union” revealed that the support staff is paid far less that counterparts at big Chicago firms and that the kind of work-life flexibility that Alicia enjoys (not without stress, of course) is not exactly universal among the workers who do the grunt work.

Could Lockhart Gardner treat its workers better? Depends how you define “could.” When Alicia–who serves as our representative inside the partner room–says that the firm could afford raises if the partners gave a little back, Diane clings to “precedent” like a magic word. (David Lee is, hilariously, a little less diplomatic.)

Like many Good Wife episodes, this one uses the courtroom procedural to set up Lockhart Gardner as the good guys, while using the ongoing serial story to complicate the question. Yes, it’s satisfying to see Alicia and Cary protect the coders–briefly–from immolation by Blowtorch. But what underwrites their whole enterprise is an office whose culture is much the same, if slightly more passive-aggressive.

If Blowtorch tries to sweet-talk its “artists” into giving up basic protections, is that any worse than Will trying to talk Kalinda out of asking for a raise because her office should be her family? Faced with rebellion on the staff, Diane quickly settles on a divide-and-conquer solution just as Blowtorch does (and just as the firm already did by giving Alicia the only partnership). And in a chilling final twist, it appears that Diane and Will sold out the Blowtorch workers in interests of deep-pocketed client ChumHum, answering Alicia’s outrage with a mealymouthed non-denial denial.

The Good Wife has to walk a fine line here. As a big-network drama, it can’t just made the partners in the firm downright despicable or morally bankrupt. We have to be able to root for Will, Diane, et al., even if they don’t always do admirable things–and yet the result of this balancing is a more sophisticated drama than any other now on broadcast TV. The same people we cheer in the courtroom are not always likable in the conference room, and yet the two can’t easily be separated; each finances the other. The partners of Lockhart Gardner are great lawyers. They’re sympathetic people. But they can be kind of crappy bosses–or, at least, they’re simply like real-world bosses, whose generosity to their workers if mainly transactional and based on leverage. We, like Cary and Kalinda, are left to decide if that tradeoff is worth it.

Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) - Mad Men - Season 6, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Michael Yarish/AMC

Mad Men’s “To Have and To Hold,” meanwhile, covered a lot of territory, including Don and Megan’s marriage and Dawn’s life outside the office. But it was a very work-centric episode, with special attention to the reward system at SCDP, and whether the spoils always go to the deserving, or to the right people for the wrong reasons.

As on The Good Wife, there was out-of-office and in-office drama. Outside the office, the SCDP pitch team had a surprise encounter with Ted Chaough and Peggy, who it turns out, took a couple things with her from her old job: Stan’s intel on Heinz, and Don’s “change the conversation” line. Peggy, you could say, actually took the leap that Cary is planning and Kalinda is considering: knowing she’s talented and believing that there was a ceiling on how well SCDP was willing to reward her talent, she jumped ship. It makes for an awkward encounter, and one that Stan takes personally, as his middle finger testifies. But can you blame her? As SCDP demonstrated to her during her time there, it’s just business.

Back at the office, while no one unionizes, we get a glimpse of how precarious life is at the bottom rung of the SCDP hierarchy, as Joan fires Scarlett–briefly–for faking her time card, and Dawn nearly loses her job for assisting. That’s office life: at a certain level, you can duck out to movie matinees and puke into as many umbrella holders as you want and stay secure. (The line may be drawn at peeing yourself drunk during an office meeting. Maybe.) But at another stratum, one afternoon of hooky and you lose your income.

The incident leads Harry–remember him?–to explode in petulance for at least a couple of reasons. First, it’s suggested that he has something going on with Scarlett (and thus, that nooky trumps hooky). Second, he resents that, though he brings in a pile of money through his TV accounts, he hasn’t been made partner–and that Joan has been. He reacts in the ugliest way, publicly complaining that he hasn’t been recognized because “my accomplishments happen in broad daylight,” unlike Joan’s bargain for power last season.

Like a lot of things in Mad Men, this conflict is  complicated by gender politics. Harry, it seems, is not defending Scarlett out of any actual sense of justice or fairness but because he likes her. And he clearly feels comfortable lashing out against Joan, the only female partner, personally. (And while he’s clearly willing to pitch a fit to Roger and Bert, there’s a difference of tone when he yells at Joan—he still treats her as an underling, though she outranks him.)

We’re set up in the scene to take Joan’s side, because Harry is using an awful incident as a weapon against a character viewers love. And yet it’s possible that Harry can be both wrong and right here. If his sexism is indefensible, Mad Men has, for several seasons, been developing the case that he is badly under-rewarded at the firm. He’s almost a comic-relief figure, but he also saw the value in television way back when no one else at then-Sterling Cooper did. The income he’s bringing in is the future of advertising, but SCDP’s DNA is still backward-looking–TV, and Harry, are still perceived as unserious. If pushed, Roger and Bert will reward him with money; they still can’t take him seriously enough to reward him with equity. The question is whether he has the guts, as Peggy did and Cary might, to test out his real value somewhere else.

Meanwhile, Joan may have gotten the better of SCDP’s reward system, but not, we’re reminded here, without a cost. We’ve seen time and again how capable she is, and given the same opportunities as Harry, who knows how well she’d have done with them? (Remember season 2, when she briefly and brilliantly worked as his assistant, but he couldn’t even seriously entertain the thought of keeping her in the job?) Over 15 years, she’s often carried the firm on her back, and yet it would only give her a share of the business for lying on her back. That she deserved far more than she would have gotten as office manager doesn’t ease the sting of having gotten it for the wrong reasons. She knows it, and though there is usually a polite agreement not to mention it, she knows that others know it.

There’s a kind of parallel between Joan’s being made partner and Alicia’s. They’re both amazingly capable women. They’re both an asset to their businesses. And yet they ultimately get their reward because of their relationship with a man: Joan for her assignation with the Jaguar sleaze, Alicia for her connections with Peter. (It’s not a perfect parallel, obviously, since Alicia does prove herself over and over in the courtroom; but neither is Lockhart Gardner’s motivation here exactly a secret.)

For both women, the reasons they get rewarded by the system are not necessarily fair, and yet they are just. In any case, both of them now have to accept that that’s the way it is and find a way to move forward without guilt. Sometimes people do the right thing. And sometimes people act for the right reasons. If you wait for both to happen at the same time, you can wait for the rest of your life.

Joan and Alicia both got what the system would give them, the way that it was willing to. It wasn’t perfect; it never is. The question going forward is: now that they’re on the inside, will they redefine the role of partner, or will the role of partner define them?