"The New Girl" is the single best episode that I've seen of Mad Men. It follows Don Draper's descent into self-destruction, as he extends his affair with Bobbi Barrett, and ends up in a drunken car wreck. There are so many great lines in that one. Bobbi is querying a poker-faced Don, and trying to get him to reveal something. She asks him what he wants, and Don responds, The answer is huge. Not big, not enormous, not great--but huge. This is, to me, an incredibly precise use of the human language. That line says so much to me. One day I'll explain.
But for our purposes, the relevant scene takes place much later--after Peggy Olsen has rescued Don and Bobbi from the police station, and is in the midst of a cover-up. Don is an unrepentant sexist. He once almost refused to talk to a client, because she was a woman and spoke out of her place. But he has a special, almost father-daughter, connection with Peggy--one that stands in contrast with his tense relationship with Pete Campbell. You'd think Don would favor Pete, as a fellow member of the good-old-boys network. But then you'd be writing theory. You wouldn't be writing about people. You wouldn't be writing stories.
Throughout the episode Bobbi wonders why Peggy is covering for Don. She isn't in love with him. She's not his secretary. What is she getting out of it? We (but not Bobbi) are given the answer in flashback--Peggy ended last season in labor, having a baby, after not even knowing she was pregnant. She'd just been promoted and become the first woman copywriter at the agency since the War. In the flashback we see she's been committed, and it seems no one can reach her. Don, having done some detective work, tracks her to the hospital. He then pulls from his own tangled history, and heals her. He is not kind. He is not loving. He is not "good." He is as sarcastic and cold as ever. But he tells her the truth that she needs to hear:
Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.
This is not good advice for being a better person. But Peggy doesn't want to be a better person. She wants to be equal. Equality, for her, is the right to be as craven, as ambitious, and power-hungry as any man. In that business, forgetting is essential. Don is a sexist. But his sexism is not the end of his humanity. His humanity relates to Peggy, as someone on the come-up. His humanity allows him to dismiss women as a class, and yet respect Peggy's ambition, even become the primary agent of it. Consider that here you have a sexist, unwittingly striking a blow against sexism.