An interview with Kara VanderBijl
Bright Wall/Dark Room: How did you first come to Mad Men? Were you there at the beginning, or did you jump in later?
Kara VanderBijl: I started watching Mad Men in the fall of 2009. Before that I lived under a rock (read: I attended a very religious college, where I didn’t have access to cable TV) and hadn’t heard of the show. One day I saw a quiz on somebody’s Facebook page — something like, “Which Mad Men character are you?” and I was intrigued, so I pirated the first few episodes (sorry, AMC). I got hooked immediately.
BW/DR: So, which Mad Men character were you?
KV: I can’t remember. Maybe Pete, but that’s because we were both snobs back then.
BW/DR: And you’ve both aged into self-aware, humble, genuinely good people who realize that true happiness is living in Kansas?
KV: Obviously. I mean, I do live in the Midwest, so I guess I’ve got that part down.
BW/DR:After watching seven seasons of the show, which character did you identify with the most?
KV: Anna Draper. She has an intuitive clear-headedness that I appreciate in myself, too.
BW/DR: Interesting. Say more about that - she’s not a character that all that much gets said about, especially over the past few years.
KV: I’m not sure I am like Anna as much as I want to be like Anna. She has this charming little house and a heart full of love for the people in her life. In her words, she knows everything about Don and still loves him. I want to be able to say that about myself. I think it’s more admirable than professional ambition or the unending pursuit of personal happiness and pleasure, both of which seem to drive most of the other characters.
BW/DR: And is there a "quintessential Mad Men episode" for you? One that best captures what you love most about the show?
KV: “Guy Walks into An Advertising Agency,” although I know that’s a cliche answer. I think I both giggled and gasped when Guy’s foot was cut off. And then I screamed and applauded for Joan. Actually, I loved all of Season 3. “Souvenir,” the episode where Don and Betty visit Rome, holds my heart. Sally starts fighting for herself. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is born. A lot of things peak in Season 3. It feels like Act III of a tragedy, when everything’s coming to a head — when you can’t wait to see how everything will fall apart.
It was the season when Mad Men felt most brilliant, most unpredictable, most foreshadowing, most on edge. It was infectious. I couldn’t wait for Sunday nights.
BW/DR: I don’t think it’s a cliched answered at all - I’ve been asking a whole lot of people this question and, actually, you’re the first one to mention that episode. In fact, every single person has picked a different episode - no one episode has emerged as a clear cut favorite. Which I think speaks to Mad Men’s special appeal to those of us who love it so dearly: it was so many things to so many people, for so many different reasons.
So what has the show meant to you on a personal level? And how do you feel about it all being over?
KV: Too soon. Way too soon.
BW/DR: Too soon to answer the question? Or the show ended too soon?
KV: I’m sad it’s over, but if we’re being honest, I don’t think it could have gone on for much longer. Don can only escape across the continental United States so many times.
I don’t really know how I’ll feel about it this Sunday when there isn’t a new episode. Probably the way Don feels when he walks into his apartment after Megan takes all of his furniture: a little unmoored.
BW/DR: To be fair, Megan didn’t take all of his furniture - her mom had those guys get rid of all of it! I’m not entirely sure what the draw is there for Roger, she clearly still has some issues to work through. Or maybe that is the draw for him? But it’s Don’s ex-wife’s Mom! What is happening? Anyway. Speaking of relationships, which relationship on Mad Men feels the most important to you?
KV: Sally and Don. I’ve loved watching their evolution: Sally’s little-girl adoration of her father in the beginning, then her disillusion, then the hesitant, adult friendship we begin to sense near the end of the series.
Don has a lot of foils, but to me, Sally is the most interesting one. She’s unapologetically herself, but she also knows how to take care of other people. Sally is the most important woman in Don’s life. Their relationship allows me to believe that Don can be genuine.
BW/DR: She certainly seems to be the one who most fully sees and understands him, for better or for worse. It’s amazing that two such damaged people (Don and Betty) produced such a remarkable daughter. In a world where Mad Men continues forever on, what do you think happens next for Sally?
KV: Sally will have a lot going for her. She’s growing up in an era where women are getting unprecedented opportunities, and she’s smart as a whip. If Peggy’s going to be a creative director by 1980, Sally’s going to be a CEO by 1990. She’s smart and takes charge. Betty’s death will put her back for a little bit, but she won’t flounder for long. Basically, she will get stuff done.
BW/DR: You don’t think she ends up raising her brothers and never getting to Spain then?
KV: I don’t. I mean, she’ll definitely advocate for her brothers and make sure they’re taken care of, but so will Betty. I think Betty will do everything in her power to make sure her kids have the care and opportunities they need — she has softened, you know, at least a little, plus Henry’s around, too.
BW/DR:Are there any criticisms of the show that particularly bother you?
KV: I can’t think of any.
KV: Not really. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and most of the criticism—or at least the criticism I read—was fair. Is Mad Men an over-glamorized look at the ‘60s? Definitely. Does it fit into the “We’re So Much Better Off Now” genre of television? Occasionally guilty. Is it soapy? Yes. It’s a show about advertising.
I stand by the valid criticism that Mad Men lacked diversity and did little to address the social upheavals, both racial and demographic, that characterized its era. But I also recognize that it’s impossible to show a complete cross-section of life in any work of art. The camera zeroes in, people get cut out, people whose stories are just as important as, if not more important than, the story in focus. Don is not very interesting: he’s predictable, he’s white, he’s entitled, he never learns. If anything, Mad Men served as a useful reminder—both purposefully and coincidentally—that we still have a long way to go toward upholding and broadcasting everyone’s stories, not just the ones we’re comfortable with.
BW/DR: What kinds of stories would you like to see more of?
KV: I was in a coffee shop yesterday and the woman in line in front of me asked the barista, “So, do you think they should put a woman on the $20 bill?” Of course we all said yes. But then I also remembered that Andrew Jackson, who’s on the $20 bill right now, did things like support and sign the Indian Removal Act and engaged in all sorts of nepotism. But we still put his face on our money, because for better or for worse, he shaped our country.
Women are getting more space in pop culture, and that’s great. We’re learning (and by we I mean, the industry) that female characters should talk about more than men and shopping. We’re starting to allow female characters to be more than virgins or whores. But we’re still lacking so much nuance. I want dramas—not just comedies—about women going through menopause, and about women balancing work and motherhood. I want Girlhood, first period included. Will it make people (and by people, I mean men) uncomfortable? Sure. But it’s time men got used to discomfort. Welcome to humanity. For better or worse, this is what shapes the world.
BW/DR: And what did you make of the finale?
KV: I think it will grow on me. It’s already grown on me since Sunday night, when I threw a remote at the television after it was over. Peggy and Stan still leave me cold, though. And really, Joan is dating another self-centered loser? It just seems cruel at this point. I wanted Stephanie to be part of a weird cult. Roger and Marie were funny, but their relationship didn’t seem finale-worthy to me.
BW/DR: Wait, what’s grown on you then? It sounds like you weren’t much a fan of it.
KV: I loved Pete and Trudy blowing glamorously into their Learjet, and my heart broke when Bobby tried to make dinner and while Sally did the dishes. Don’s “Birdie” killed me, but not as much as Betty’s “I know.” And I loved Joan’s employee answering the phone “Holloway Harris,” because you do need two names to make it official, so why not use two of your own names?
BW/DR: What about Don?
KV: I don’t really have an opinion on Don’s end. I felt hopeful. Whatever happens, he’ll be okay.
BW/DR: You’re actually not allowed to not have an opinion on that ending with Don. It’s an Official Internet Rule this week that you must have an opinion on it. So, does Don make the Coca-Cola commercial? And if so, is that supposed to be genuine or cynical?
KV: I do think he makes the commercial. After all, Peggy says, “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” and it’d be so Don to waltz back into McCann, get yelled at, and then be like, “But wait, I have a brilliant idea.” I say “It’d be so Don” because I don’t believe Don has changed all that much. He’s just more at peace with himself. I don’t think he’ll stop womanizing or disappearing or drowning his sorrows in Old Fashioneds. I do think he’ll stop hiding, though. It’s hopeful because it’s a message of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness.