AMC’s acclaimed drama Mad Men features some of the most morally ambiguous characters on television. It’s hard to devote your sympathy fully to any one person. One minute you’ll applaud someone or pity them, and the next minute you’ll be gritting your teeth in frustration over a terrible decision they’ve made. Part of what makes the show so compelling is that there isn’t a definitive hero or villain.
Because viewers’ sympathy shifts so frequently between characters from season to season and episode to episode, Crushable is introducing the Mad Men Sympathy Rankings. For each episode of season 6 (premiering this Sunday April 7), we’ll reorder the characters according to how much we’re sympathizing with them that week. To prepare ourselves for the premiere, we’ve put together predictions for how the main characters will rank going into the season (from least sympathetic to most sympathetic), based on how things ended for them last season.
WARNING: PAST SEASON SPOILERS AHEAD!
8. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser)
It’s incredibly difficult to sympathize with smug, slimy Pete. From his adultery to his scheming for power at the firm, Pete is downright detestable. Even the show’s characters can’t stop themselves from punching him. In Season five he had a tragic affair with a troubled woman (real-life fiancée Alexis Bledel). Her loss of memory after electro-shock therapy would inspire sympathy if it hadn’t been an extramarital affair, and it’s certainly not Pete’s first one. Wife Trudy’s decision to get Pete an apartment in the city certainly won’t help.
7. Roger Sterling (John Slattery)
Like Pete, Roger hasn’t exactly been the nice guy throughout Mad Men’s run. His cavalier attitude about everything from business to sexism is often repulsive, but it’s also often laugh-out-loud funny. Comic relief will certainly boost a character’s sympathy ranking. Roger ended last season standing naked in front of a window during an LSD trip. As well as being an uncomfortably comic image, it made me feel for him a little bit.
6. Don Draper (Jon Hamm)
It’s hard to be a man on Mad Men and garner sympathy from viewers, which is why the male characters fall onto the bottom of this list. Don is definitely an antihero. Last season he shockingly managed to stay faithful to his new wife Megan. However, season five ended with a now-infamous cliffhanger in which a woman tries to pick him up at a bar… and we don’t see his answer. Because there’s still a (small) chance Don will just say no, he ranks higher than his male associates. Plus, Don consistently shows respect for female co-workers Peggy and Joan, which is a plus.
5. Betty Francis (January Jones)
It’s a testament to how unsympathetic a character is that she can gain weight and suffer a cancer scare and still earn such little emotional investment from viewers. Audiences mocked Fat Betty last season, and her use of daughter Sally as a pawn in her plot to destroy Don’s relationship with Megan didn’t help. I put her in the middle here, because she showed a glimmer of real emotion when comforting Sally during her first period. But it’s still not enough.
4. Megan Draper (Jessica Paré)
Ever since Megan sang “Zou Bisou Bisou” for Don, there’s been something annoyingly childish about her character. The fact that she started season five with a copywriting job at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce because Don wanted to be near her was frustrating. Her choice to pursue acting instead, as well as her strained relationship with her cold mother, earned her some sympathy, but then she counteracted it by using Don’s position again to book a commercial. If Don decides to cheat on her, we could move over to her side, but that didn’t exactly happen with Betty, so it might not happen here.
3. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks)
I’ve had such conflicted feelings about Joan over the years. Her promiscuity at the start of the series was off-putting, but she showed herself to be a vital part of the company, and she finally kicked her disgusting husband Greg to the curb. She was one of my favorite characters the past couple of seasons, but her decision to sleep with a client in exchange for a position as partner is difficult to make sense of. On the one hand, she’s now a powerful woman in a man’s world, and she did it to support her child. On the other hand, the way she got that power was pretty unsavory. It’ll be interesting to see how her storyline plays out this season.
2. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)
Peggy worked her way up from secretary to copywriter without sleeping with clients or being married to Don Draper. Her decision to leave SCDP for another firm was bold, as was her decision to move in with her boyfriend against her mother’s wishes. As awesome as Peggy is, though, there’s always the fear that the power will go to her head and she’ll become unlikable. Nevertheless, I’m betting we’ll stay on her side.
1. Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka)
Sally became quite the fan favorite last season, when she faced Betty’s verbal abuse, got drugged by her step-grandma, witnessed Megan’s mother giving Roger a blowjob, and got her first period during a museum date with Glen. Sally is surrounded by messed-up adults who don’t give her the attention she needs, so her acting out is understandable and often applauded. It’s also interesting that so many of the show’s adults have had difficult childhoods as well. Not only does this predict that Sally could turn out just as flawed and destructive as them, but it also makes us see the adults in a new light. That makes Sally the ultimate sympathetic character.
I would like to add how sad I am to be unable to include Lane Pryce on this list. He would rank high.
Stay tuned each week to see how the rankings change, and watch the two-hour Mad Men premiere this Sunday at 9 PM ET on AMC.