The entertainment industry went through a significant period of change in the past two decades. It had been a long-standing notion that television was a “lesser” art form compared to film. Today, they are almost indistinguishable. Television’s new golden age truly began with “Mad Men,” which began airing its first season on AMC in 2007. “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” (which began airing one year later) proved that network television shows could compete with HBO in terms of quality. The television marketplace became more exciting.
If “Breaking Bad” felt like a Shakespearean tragedy with its five-act structure, “Mad Men” feels like a great American novel. It shows the passing of time from both a nostalgic and critical perspective. “Mad Men” does not idealize the 1960s but shows how this decade of political, economic, social, and cultural change shaped the nation. There’s no better way to understand Americans than to see what they’re buying, and in “Mad Men,” everything is for sale.
“Mad Men” became a beloved show because of its great characters. Although Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the series lead, the entire ensemble gives incredible performances. Here are the 14 best “Mad Men” characters, ranked.
Betty is fascinating, even if she is often the most unlikeable character on the show. January Jones does not get enough credit for the complexity that she brought to the character. Betty was shaped by wealth and privilege, and her marriage to Don allows her to live a life disconnected from reality. However, she’s also a victim of the same sexist environment that all of the other female characters struggle to survive in.
Betty’s low ranking does not mean that she’s any less important to the show. It just means that the characters that rank higher have slightly more interesting narrative arcs. The storylines involving Betty are considerably less compelling after her divorce from Don in the third season. She also slips in the rankings because of how cruel she is to Sally (Kiernan Shipka). When Betty is diagnosed with a debilitating illness in the final season, it’s Sally who has to take care of the family.
Poor Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton). “Mad Men” seemingly enjoys torturing the poor Sterling Cooper account executive whenever it gets the chance. Ken is introduced as a counterbalance to Pete (Vincent Kartheiser). They’re both young, ambitious salesmen who want to rise in the ranks. However, Ken is much more sympathetic. He doesn’t use disreputable tactics to get ahead and doesn’t focus on trying to become a partner. Unfortunately, Ken’s honorable nature is often taken advantage of.
Ken ultimately ranks lower on the list because he is not given as much to do in the later seasons. “Mad Men” is a little bit too cruel to Ken at some points, particularly when he is shot in the eye. However, we do get some rare insights into Ken’s personal interests. He shows a creative side through his science fiction short stories. He’s also considerably less sexist than guys like Don, Roger (John Slattery), and Pete, although that is not saying much.
Megan Calvet (Jessica Pare) has one of the most dramatic character shifts in “Mad Men.” Initially, Megan is indistinguishable from Don’s other romantic flings. She’s the exact type of woman that he is generally attracted to — bright-eyed, cheerful, and just ambitious enough to not threaten his masculinity. Don’s proposal to Megan is surprising. Don thinks that Megan might be a good mother to his children.
However, Megan is ultimately revealed to be just as selfish as Don. As she pursues her career in acting, Megan takes her newfound wealth for granted. Jessica Pare does a great job at showing both sides of Megan. Her Hollywood pursuits are egocentric, but that doesn’t mean that she deserves the way that Don treats her. Megan becomes particularly sympathetic in the sixth season when Don starts having an affair with his neighbor Sylvia (Linda Cardellini). She also serves as a positive role model to Sally, who gets the advice that she never would receive from Betty.
Although all of “Mad Men’s” characters are flawed in their own ways, few are as sympathetic as Pete Campbell’s wife, Trudy (Alison Brie). Trudy is hopelessly sincere, and initially, she’s relatively clueless about her husband’s secret affairs. Brie gives a very empathetic performance. She thinks that she is caught up in a Hollywood romance and only slowly becomes aware of the man that she’s married to. It would have been easy to make Trudy seem clueless to an absurd degree, but Brie does a great job at gradually giving her agency as the series continues.
However, Trudy’s idealistic nature can be slightly grating in the earlier seasons, so she ranks a little bit lower on the list. That being said, there is part of Trudy’s characterization that is satirical. Her ignorance helps show how disconnected the upper class is from reality. Brie shows her aptitude for comedy, which she would later perfect with her appearances in “Community” and “Glow.”
Don Draper’s backstory is slowly explored throughout the series’ run. It is revealed that he stole the identity of his commanding officer in the Korean War. Don is forced to admit the truth to the real Don Draper’s wife, Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton). Anna initially considers exposing Don’s deceit to the authorities, but they ultimately become friends. Their relationship is one of the most complex in “Mad Men’s” entire run. Anna is the only person that Don can really open up to. Surprisingly, Anna and Don are not romantically entangled at all.
Anna is one of the few women Don treats with respect. He promises to cover her financial burdens in exchange for her help in masking his identity. Anna ranks towards the bottom of the list because she simply isn’t featured as often as some of the other characters, but all of the episodes that she factors in are rewarding. Anna’s death in the fourth season is one of the biggest gut punches in all of “Mad Men.”
Christina Hendricks delivers an outstanding performance as Joan Holloway, even when the show saddles her with some uncomfortable storylines. Although “Mad Men” does not shy away from the sexist environment of the 1960s, it has a mostly male ensemble. The female characters are not all granted with the same agency as Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), particularly Joan. Joan grows to become more influential at Sterling Cooper throughout the series, but she ranks slightly lower on the list because “Mad Men” occasionally objectifies her.
Joan is strong-willed and does not put up with harassment from her colleagues. She mentors Peggy during her employment in the first season. In the second season, Joan marries medical doctor Greg Harris (Samuel Page), but ultimately, their relationship collapses. There is a storyline in the fifth season in which Joan agrees to sleep with client Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba) to become a partner at the firm. This subplot is very uncomfortable and sticks out like a sore thumb in the season.
Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) is a titan in the “Mad Men” universe. Bert founded Sterling Cooper with Roger’s father and remains an active part of the firm’s decision-making process up until his death. Robert Morse gives an understated performance. Although he rarely shares details about his personal life with his employees, viewers can understand how Bert’s experiences shape his worldview.
Bert gets the most to do in the final season. As the company heads towards the 1970s, Bert finally finds that he is out of place. He dies during a poignant scene in which he watches the “Apollo 11” moon landing. In his last moment, Bert is left marveling at the heights of human achievement. He later appears as a vision to Don in a wonderful musical number. Bert Cooper only ranks lower on the list because he is not the subject of as many storylines as some of the other characters.
Morse was respected by his fellow actors. When he died earlier this year, Morse’s co-stars reflected on the impact that he left on the show.
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) starts out as one of the most unlikable characters in “Mad Men.” He is rude, vindictive, and entitled. In the series premiere, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Pete harasses Peggy on her first day of work. Despite their initially uncomfortable interactions, Pete and Peggy spend the night together. Pete does not know that Peggy is pregnant with his child until the illegitimate infant is given up for adoption.
Although Pete’s offensive comments are obnoxious, the viewers get to understand why he is so desperate to be taken seriously. Pete does not feel like he lives up to the ideal masculine stereotype that characterizes admen in the 1960s. After failing to land a promotion, Pete blackmails Don with knowledge of his past. He is nearly fired, but Roger saves Pete at the last moment. This humbles Pete, who learns to be more cautious.
Pete slowly matures into a more responsible husband to his wife, Trudy Vogel. In the series finale, “Person to Person,” Pete promises to give Trudy and their child a better life, and for once, it feels like he is being sincere. However, Pete is so irresponsible in the earlier seasons that he ranks slightly lower on the list.
“Mad Men” does a great job of exploring the social stigmas of the 1960s. Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt) is an art director at Sterling Cooper. Due to the homophobic environment, Sal is not able to admit to himself that he is gay until later in the series. However, it’s clear from the beginning that Sal is not entirely comfortable working with serial womanizers like Don, Roger, and Pete. He is uncomfortable discussing sexual topics with his coworkers and shows empathy to the female characters.
Sal is married to Kitty (Sarah Drew) and treats her with kindness. However, Sal harbors a secret crush on his coworker Ken Cosgrove. Batt does a great job at hinting at Sal’s attractions in the first two seasons. Eventually, his feelings for Ken become clear during a dinner at Sal and Kittys’ home. Kitty feels like Sal is ignoring her because she is not “interesting,” but he instantly shows her compassion.
In the Season 3 episode “Wee Small Hours,” Lee Garner Jr. (Darren Pettie), son of the owner of Lucky Strikes, starts hitting on Sal. Sal rejects the unwanted sexual advances. This infuriates Lee, who calls Roger and demands that Sal be fired. Lucky Strikes is one of Sterling Cooper’s most important accounts, so the firm is forced to cut ties with Sal. Unfortunately, this was also the last time that Sal appears in the series, so he ranks just outside of the top five.
“Mad Men” was the launching point for many actors including Kiernan Shipka. Shipka began her career on “Mad Men,” and viewers got to see her grow up throughout seven seasons. As Sally became more mature, Shipka improved as an actor. Showrunner Matthew Weiner recognized what a great performer Shipka is and gave Sally more to do in the later seasons.
Sally is easily one of the most relatable characters in “Mad Men.” She has an unenviable upbringing. Her father is often absent, and her mother, Betty, is dismissive and self-obsessed. Sally struggles to craft an identity of her own as she deals with the dominant personalities of her parents. She is denied the guidance that she needs. At one point, Betty even punishes her for exploring her sexuality. Even when Sally grows more rebellious in the later seasons, she doesn’t feel like an obnoxious teenager. She is only lashing out because her parents won’t listen.
Sally has to discover who her parents really are. She is shocked by her father’s womanizing and even catches him having an affair with Sylvia Rosen. Although she doesn’t forgive Don initially, she begins to understand more about him after visiting his childhood home. The only reason that Sally doesn’t rank higher is that she’s only briefly featured in the first few seasons.
Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) doesn’t show up until the third season, but he instantly became one of the most fascinating characters in the series. Lane is an executive at the British advertising company Putnam, Powell, and Lowe. He travels to America to oversee the operations of Sterling Cooper. During his tenure at the firm, Lane forms a close relationship with Roger, Bert, and Don. They all work together to start their own independent agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, in the Season 3 finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.” Lane is tasked with overseeing the new company’s finances.
Lane is one of the most interesting characters on the show because he is so tragic. Although he idealizes Don, Lane doesn’t possess the same natural charisma. Unfortunately, Lane is caught stealing money from his employers. This turns Lane’s life upside down. He’s fired from the company, which means that he will lose his visa and have to move back to England. Lane has fallen in love with America and dreads having to return to his home country.
Lane tragically dies by suicide. Although his story arc is compelling over two seasons, Lane ranks slightly lower because the other characters are given more time to evolve.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Roger is one of the most entertaining characters in “Mad Men.” John Slattery delivers a very complex performance. There are points at which Roger is fun to hate, but at times, he shows his vulnerabilities. The show does a great job of building empathy for Roger. As he grows older, Roger realizes that he can no longer be the serial womanizer that he had been when he was younger. Roger is ultimately chasing the past when he should be looking toward the future.
Roger is a senior partner at Sterling Cooper, the advertising company that his father built with Bert Cooper (Robert Morse). Roger is proud of his father’s legacy and has a close relationship with Bert. In one of the most emotional moments in the last season, Roger mourns Bert’s death. There’s an unspoken tenderness between the two. Following the death of his father, Roger looked to Bert as a mentor. He is also unflinchingly loyal to Don. Roger feels connected to Don because of their service in the military during the Korean War. The war shaped Roger’s attitude about many things, and at times, he shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder when reflecting on his time in the service.
Roger is a very complex character but not very nuanced. The two characters that rank above him are more developed.
No character in “Mad Men” evolves as much as Peggy Olson over the course of the seven seasons. In Season 1, Peggy is introduced as a shy, unassuming secretary at Sterling Cooper. She instantly feels uncomfortable when dealing with the sexist attitudes of her employers and the harassment in the workplace. However, Peggy does not feel entirely comfortable around her female coworkers, either. She struggles to conform to the standards of beauty that are expected at Sterling Cooper.
While she is working for Don, Peggy gains confidence. She rises through the ranks to become one of the most valuable employees at Sterling Cooper, even if she’s rarely given the credit that she deserves. Over time, Don and Peggy begin to open up to each other. In the episode “The Suitcase,” Don forces Peggy to stay at work for an extended period because he is avoiding a phone call. What begins as a professional meeting turns into an opportunity for the two characters to learn more about each other. By the end of Season 7, they essentially treat each other as equals.
Part of what makes Peggy so compelling is her great work ethic. She is naturally a committed person and prioritizes doing her best work regardless of the circumstances. It is fitting that in the series finale, “Person to Person,” Peggy is last seen working at her desk.
Who is Don Draper? That’s a question that “Mad Men” tries to unpack from the beginning. Don is the most charismatic man imaginable but beneath his winning personality is a tragic backstory. Don’s real name is Dick Whitman. Dick was raised in a poor community in Illinois and lost both of his parents at a young age. Seeking to escape poverty, Dick enlisted in the military. During the Korean War, Dick accidentally killed his commanding officer, Don Draper. He takes Draper’s identity and starts a new life as a creative advertising director.
Don struggles to hide his secret history from his friends and family. One of the reasons that Don is so interesting is that even when he’s not pitching an advertising campaign, he is giving a performance of some sort. Whether he’s pretending to have confidence or struggling to show empathy, Don is hiding behind a mask of some sort.
Don isn’t an entirely likable character. He’s a serial womanizer, a terrible father, and an abusive boss. However, he is still relatable. Part of the reason that Don seems to enjoy his lavish lifestyle so much is that he knows what it’s like to have nothing. Hamm gives the performance of a lifetime, particularly in the final season. Don suffers an identity crisis and goes on a personal trip to discover who he really wants to be. He is left smiling in the series finale’s last shot.
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