Mad Men is a show built almost entirely on the solid concrete foundation of its stellar character work. Sure, the dialogue is as sharp as a man in a grey flannel suit, and the metaphorical portents thrum like elevator winches—but when it comes down to it, Matthew Weiner’s dense, literary series rises and falls on the strength of the people inhabiting its world, particularly those scuttling down the corridors of Sterling Cooper Draper Price.
So naturally, when you see a headline like the one above, you might think, “No, dummy, obviously Don/Peggy/Sally/Joan/California Pete/Ginsberg’s nipple is the best character of Mad Men!” You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But while Ms. Olsen will always be series MVP to me, this past season belonged to Roger Sterling, SCDP’s preening cock-of-the-walk.
Roger has always been one of the show’s brightest spots, sashaying in with his half-inebriated insouciance and a fistful of sardonic one-liners. Roger’s self-ascribed lot in life is to stay on the sidelines, skating through in the wake of his father’s influence and looking at the world as one big variety show he can have fun watching, even if he never feels the need to jump onstage.
After getting divorced from Mona and becoming partially estranged from both his daughter Margaret and his son with Joan, Roger further retreated from reality, sampling the pleasures of hippie hedonism and its emphases on sex and drugs (although probably not so much rock-and-roll). But season seven saw a turning point for him: Margaret abandons her husband and son to join a commune, changing her name to the more nature-attuned Marigold. It’s an act that mirrors Roger’s own abdication of responsibility. When he joins Mona to track down their daughter and bring her back, it’s clear he has a much better perspective on these sorts of things than his ex-wife does. Roger ends up sharing a moment of wonder and genuine understanding (as well as a joint) with his daughter as they stare at the stars through a hole in a barn’s roof. Of course, by the next day, that understanding has dissipated with the pot smoke—and Margaret hits Roger hard with a “I learned it from watching you, Dad!”
It’s unclear how much this experience has affected Roger, if at all, until season seven’s midseason finale. A brief, meaningful shot of Roger watching the moon landing with his son-in-law, grandson, and Mona brings the arc to a close—they’re a fractured family brought back together by an absence. It took someone else’s lack of responsibility to force Roger to finally step up and accept his own. And when his partner Bert Cooper gives up the ghost, it hits Roger hard. He’s still the same old Roger in a number of ways—but his losses have changed him, and that change is why this was his best season so far.