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sarah rodman

The women of ‘Mad Men’

Elisabeth Moss’s character Peggy Olson has had one of the more interesting journey’s of the women in “Mad Men.”

Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Elisabeth Moss’s character Peggy Olson has had one of the more interesting journey’s of the women in “Mad Men.”

The show is called “Mad Men,” but as we eagerly await the sixth and penultimate season, kicking off Sunday at 9 p.m., we got to thinking about the women of the top-shelf AMC drama: Betty Francis (January Jones), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), and Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka).

We love the way creator Matthew Weiner, the show’s other writers, and the actresses portraying them bring such vivid life to this diverse group of smart, talented, beautiful, flawed, and sometimes frustrating, women.

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Since the action this season takes place in the late ’60s, it’s no surprise that each of the women is pivoting in some fashion, taking agency of their lives in new ways whether they know it or not.

No one here is outright radicalized — or at least it seems unlikely that any of these particular women would use that phrase to describe how they’re feeling — and that’s part of what makes the show’s progress so enjoyable. Instead of being mere functionaries to the men on the show or simply employed as symbols of the period, each woman on “Mad Men” has been given a rich world. Sure, all of them exhibit traits or partially adhere to a type that speaks to gender generalities of the time, but the characters are deep enough to transcend the cliches of the era, speaking more to the larger, relatable human condition.

Many TV period pieces, for instance, would be content to have Sally spouting boilerplate rebellion, telegraphing the coming youthquake, and to use her as an “emblem” of times that are a-changin’. But “Mad Men” has never been that straightforward or programmatic.

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In the case of Don Draper’s daughter, this means the little girl who started out idolizing her dad and has slowy grown disillusioned by reality, is heading more deeply into her terrible teens. When we last saw her, Sally was struggling (as almost all of the characters on “Mad Men” do) with her identity. Who is she in relation to her parents? Her peers? Boys? The struggle continues, to her mother’s chagrin, even if we’re starting to see the effect of having a mother like Betty.

Peggy, who left Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce to become copy chief at rival agency Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough, has had perhaps the most interesting journey of all the women.

Kiernan Shipka plays young Sally Draper who, like the other characters in the show, is struggling with her identity.

Ron Jaffe/AMC

Kiernan Shipka plays young Sally Draper who, like the other characters in the show, is struggling with her identity.

Instead of being mere functionaries to the men, each woman on ‘Mad Men’ has been given a rich world.

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Harboring a big secret from her past, at ease in the thick of deadline pressure at work in ways that she never is in her regular life, nursing a restless and brooding spirit, Peggy has always shared a kinship with former boss and mentor Don. In her new role as a manager, she shows off more of her major transformation, how she has incrementally evolved from a meek member of the steno pool to a boss who can bark orders at lazy underlings with the best of them.

As boss, it appears Peggy will emulate Don even more, in ways both professionally creative and personally destructive. She might not identify as a feminist, but she is living the concepts in a way, rising from a position of being ridiculed for her ambition to a place of empowerment and respect.

Joan, perhaps the show’s most obvious archetype — but never simply the bombshell cliché — is the biggest question mark of the first episode, since we don’t get to spend much time with her.

She began the series with a certain confidence about her place in the world, which was eroded by the changing times, a despicable husband, an insensitive work environment, and her own willingness to lean on her surface assets to succeed.

Will her trading on her sexuality last season in order to gain partnership — which benefited the entire agency — help her earn or make her lose respect from the male partners? What will it mean for her own sense of self? How much will she be willing, or allowed, to take on in her new role?

Christina Hendricks plays secretary-turned-partner Joan.

Michael Yarish/AMC

Christina Hendricks plays secretary-turned-partner Joan.

Since January Jones was pregnant last season, her role was reduced, and when Betty was featured she was put in a fat suit and given a boring story arc about “reducing.” So it’s nice to see Betty this season with a larger story line that finds her asking herself questions, pushing her own boundaries and those of others, and maybe, just maybe, being a little less selfish than the chilly, childish, self-centered Betty we met early on in the series. While her character has often been one of the least likable, Betty is also one of the most heartbreaking when it comes to her lack of self-awareness or gigantic powers of denial (depending on how you look at it).

It seems possible that this season Betty will get a good, honest look in the mirror about who she is, who she could’ve been, and why that sometimes makes her sad. And again, the show creates a larger resonance here for ambitious women of her generation without hitting you over the head with it.

Don’s young wife, Megan, is proving to be as complicated as the rest. One minute standing up to Don the way no woman has while presenting herself as an artist with integrity, the next stealing a job from a friend and calling in favors from Don to fulfill her desire to become an actress. Megan is at once a gracious stepmom, a damaged daughter, a selfless caretaker, and a spotlight seeker.

It is a credit to “Mad Men” that the show can offer a vision of history that’s not simply a series of discrete events and advances, but a messy, often uneven lurch forward. The allure of the women of “Mad Men” isn’t just that they show where we’ve been, but they highlight where we are.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.
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