‘Mad Men,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Americans’: Reading Prestige TV Dramas as YA Fiction
Alyssa Rosenberg on how the struggles of teenage girls enable television dramas to be read as YA fiction.
On Sunday’s season premiere of Mad Men, Sandy (Kerris Lilla Dorsey), the Francises’ teenage violinist houseguests sits down with Betty (January Jones) over a midnight snack, telling her what it’s like to live on your own as a young person in New York City. “The kids are just living. It’s beautiful. People are naturally democratic if you give them a chance,” she says, without a trace of irony. “Are you on dope?” Betty asks her, suspicious of anyone who’s that enthusiastic about human nature. It’s a sharp, funny exchange that illustrates Betty’s strange attraction to Sandy and her cynicism.
But it’s also a reminder that there’s another show lurking in Mad Men behind the façade of Don Draper’s suits and scotches. Like almost every major anti-hero drama on television today, Mad Men is also a story about what it’s like to be a young girl discovering the realities of the world she’s living in. The secret of today’s prestige television is that it can all be read as young adult fiction.
Take Game of Thrones, HBO’s sweeping fantasy epic about ice zombies, adorable baby dragons, and the brutality of medieval warfare. It’s also a show that features four major teenage or pre-teenage female characters: sisters Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who have been separated from their parents by the outbreak of war, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who started out as a teenaged bride to a Mongol-like warlord before rising to power in her own right, and now Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), who’s already lost one husband—challenger to the throne Renly Baratheon—and is preparing to marry again, this time to Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the brutal boy-king of Westeros.
Each girl represents a different kind of fantasy YA archetype. Arya’s always been a tomboy, and at the end of the first season of Game of Thrones, she escaped from the capital city of King’s Landing after her father’s execution, lighting off into the countryside disguised as a boy like a Westerosi Huckleberry Finn. This year, she and the friends she made on the run have hooked up with a group of outlaws called the Brotherhood Without Banners, but not before Arya tried to scare of Thoros (Paul Kaye), one of their leaders. “You’re a dangerous person,” the middle-aged priest beams at her. “I like dangerous people.”
Sansa, her older sister, started the series as a romantic, but has become progressively disillusioned. “The truth is always either terrible or boring,” she tells her maidservant Shae (Sibel Kekilli) earlier this season. But she’s still got some hope, particularly when Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), the court treasurer, expresses interest in her, and Margaery Tyrell and her grandmother give Sansa her first sense of safety since she saw her father executed before her. Daenerys, by contrast, began as a prototypical abuse victim who was at the mercy of her vicious brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), who sold her to her husband, Drogo (Jason Momoa), in exchange for an army. But over time, she’s overcome the physical and sexual violence she suffered to become the Mother of Dragons, if not yet the queen of Westeros she dreams of being.
And Margaery is the preternaturally mature operator, a girl who survived the assassination of her first husband, and once she’s betrothed to a second one, smoothly moves into flattering his ego. She gets the truth about Joffrey out of Sansa, whom he ordered beaten and terrorized when the younger girl was engaged to him, and doesn’t let it intimidate her. Margaery may dress like a girly girl and simper like a cheerleader, but she’s a medieval badass, hiding the political equivalents of throwing stars in her cleavage. Taken together, these four girls represent very different teenage experiences, and very different responses to the pressure to grow up into a lady in a time and place where marriage was a form of chattel slavery.
Closer in both time and place, both Showtime’s terrorism drama Homeland and FX’s period spy thriller about Soviet spies in the United States, are deeply tied up in their main characters’ teenaged daughters.
In Homeland, Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), the prisoner of war who returns home after years of captivity by the terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban), reconnects most easily with his daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor). She’s pulled into her father’s plan to become a suicide bomber and the CIA efforts to stop him when agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), deep in a bipolar episode, asks Dana, in desperation, to help stop him. Dana insists that she doesn’t believe he could possibly be a terrorist, but calls her father anyway. A year later, when Carrie is interrogating Brody, she tells him, “It was hearing Dana’s voice that changed your mind, wasn’t it?” Dana, whether she intended it or not, has become a full participant in the moral world of grown-ups, due to her father’s plot. And she finally reaches maturity in the second season, when she realizes that Carrie was right, though for the wrong reasons—she’s finally capable of seeing Brody independently, rather than through the haze of daughterly love.
And Brody’s involvement in Washington intrigue also colors Dana’s first romance. She meets Finn Walden (Timothée Chalamet) after her mother is pulled into the vice president’s circle, and artlessly tells him, “I like you,” when he sneaks her into the Washington Monument. But their attempts to outrun his Secret Service detail end in disaster when Finn hits a woman and flees the scene. Dana proves herself different not just from her family but from the Washington consensus, when she insists on finding out what happened to the woman, and then on trying to report her death to the police. For the same reasons Dana ends up able to see her father clearly when so many other people can’t, she refuses to participate in Finn’s evasions.
“Whatever we felt, we broke it,” Dana tells him when he asks her if they could go back to being normal, aided by his family’s money and power. “We killed it, just the same way we killed that woman.”
On The Americans, Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) is much further away from deducing that her parents, Phillip and Elizabeth, are actually KGB agents rather than the proud proprietors of a suburban travel agency that provides their cover. But the show is deeply concerned with her growing up as a proxy for American capitalism and licentiousness. And her adventures with her brother Henry (Keidrich Sellati) demonstrate how children, before they can be admitted into the realm of their parents’ secrets, learn to keep their own.
In the pilot of The Americans, Phillip (Matthew Rhys) was rattled when, while shopping for shoes at the mall with Paige, an adult man told Paige "Whoa, I like that. You look nice, darling. Want to come with me and Dee to shop after you pay for those?" When Phillip, who’s more attracted to American luxuries than his wife, protests that his daughter is far too young, the man tells him, "Thirteen. I don't know, Daddy. She sure looks ready to me." In the next episode, Elizabeth (Keri Russell)—who sees an affection for consumer goods as a sign of weakness—notices that Paige is sporting an exposed red bra strap. "Where did you get that?" she wants to know. "The mall. It's just a bra. I'm 13,” Paige tells her. “Things are different than when you grew up. People are, like, freer.” In the third episode, over breakfast with Paige, Phillip notices the headline on her Girl’s World Magazine. “Bath to babe in under a minute?” he remarks. “Now I know why your mom hates those magazines.” The message is clear: the road to consumerism leads to the loss of innocence and sexual autonomy.
And it isn’t just the mall that’s a risky place. When Phillip and Elizabeth are detained by their KGB colleagues as part of a loyalty test, and miss picking up Paige and Henry, leaving them stranded far from home, Paige insists that they hitchhike home. In a riff on Joyce Carol Oates’ famous short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” the man who picks them up initially seems friendly, but ends up, both intentionally and unintentionally, giving Paige a lesson in the larger world that she’s headed into. "You know, you're definitely going to be a knockout in a couple of years,” he tells her. “I'm not hitting on you or anything, but you're definitely going to break some hearts. You know how dangerous it is to hitchhike? You're lucky you ran into me and not some lunatic." As Paige and Henry feel increasingly threatened, Henry creates a moment for them to escape, hitting the man over the head with a bottle.
"What if he wasn't going to do anything bad to us?" Henry asks her fearfully when they get home. "He was a creep, Henry. What you did today took courage,” Paige tells him. "What happened today has to be our secret, okay?"
Mad Men has always had Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), who was a little girl for much of the series, but one with secrets of her own, including her relationship with Glenn Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner). But this year, she is growing into maturity. After Betty’s cited for reckless driving, Sally tests her mother’s limits, announcing to Henry, “Isn’t somebody going to say something? Betty got a ticket.” She may have rushed home after getting her period last season, but now Sally’s shutting the door on Betty’s face to have some privacy on the phone and asking to go to New Year’s Eve parties.
And she’s not the only one who’s growing up. Her friend Sandy is pushing boundaries even further than Sally is. “There are people in the Village. I read about it, and I even visited them,” Sandy tells Betty during their midnight conversation. And after she confesses that she lied about being accepted to Julliard, Sandy disappears, and Betty tries to track her down at an address at St. Mark’s Place that the girl had mentioned. It’s there that she finds herself an interloper in a rather less idealized young adult novel. “I don’t want to have to lay the regular rap on you, but I am exhausted from having to tell people like you that I haven’t seen people like her,” one of the grubby denizens of the squat tells Betty, before finding himself softened by her obvious anguish. “Do you know how to make goulash?” he asks her. “Because I’ve got pork butt, two onions, and lentils, and I’m pretty sure that’s what’s in it... And paprika. I know that’s what’s in it.”
Betty is often criticized as emotionally childish, but in this scenario, she’s more grown-up than anyone else. And Sandy’s disappearance has set her on a heroic adventure of her own. Betty may have rejected the narrative Sandy laid out for women of Betty’s generation—“You go to college. You meet a boy. You drop out. You get married. Struggle for a year in New York while he learns to tie a tie and then move to the country and just start the whole disaster over”—as “an arrogant exaggeration.” But in chasing after Sandy, she’s acknowledging that she wants something more. “I’m came here because I’m looking for somebody that I do want,” Betty tells the young men in the building. “I did not throw her away.”
And Betty’s learning through Sandy’s example the lesson that teenaged girls across television have been quietly absorbing while the grown-ups have been catching terrorists, starting advertising agencies, stealing missile blueprints, and fighting over the Iron Throne. Sometimes you have to strike out on your own to discover who you really are, and what you really want.