This morning I read a rich and provocative essay by Bruce Robbins on television and the image of work. Robbins’s piece bounces captivatingly around among dozens of television shows, and it is therefore probably better that you read it than that I summarize it, but one of the elements that I would like to riff upon a little here is his take on what is a rightfully standard critique of a depressingly pervasive trope in television—the plot development (or just general theme) that prevents professionally competent women from having emotionally satisfying family lives or even agreeable romantic experiences. Robbins’s piece acknowledges that this “punishment” is undeniably the fate of Peggy Olson from Mad Men, among others, but argues that “from the perspective of work, the punishment of women is not really the point.” Robbins argues that the question raised by Peggy is not “can women have it all?” but rather, “is work meaningful in the first place?” Robbins writes “Even viewers who have rooted whole-heartedly for Peggy through seven seasons would be hard-pressed to argue that her success in her work, with or without the final reward of a boyfriend, has much to say about the meaning of life. It doesn’t quite reassure us that advertising, or perhaps professional success at all, is worth the costs” (italics added).
I would argue that it is not so easy to isolate the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of work in this manner—at least it is almost never isolated in this way on narrative television. Robbins identifies the crucial point in passing, right before arguing against tying the questions of fulfillment in the workplace and fulfillment at home together:
TV’s strong women pay a high price for the positions of responsibility and power they now increasingly occupy. In these shows, a woman can be a doctor, a lawyer, a detective, a POTUS. But can she do so and have kids? Not according to Mad Men. Don’s talent in advertising is part and parcel of his being good with children… Peggy seems to have much the same advertising talent as Don. Why, then, is she portrayed as someone who doesn’t like kids and is awkward with them? Like Carrie in Homeland and Sarah Linden in The Killing, Peggy is punished for her extraordinary public competence with some degree of private unhappiness, or at least ineptitude.
The question of competence is absolutely central. But where Robbins accepts that the scriptwriters are punishing Peggy for her professional acumen and argues that it isn’t that important, I would argue that this logic of trading off between the personal and the professional is extremely important, but that it is not based on punishment but rather compensation. For, while work is topically dominant in Mad Men and Scandal and many of the other shows that Robbins looks at, I would argue that family still is the foundational narrative framework and core emotional element of most of these shows (an argument that is less challenging to sustain in the cases of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos). What we see in Peggy, then, is not a woman being punished for her professional success; what we see instead is a woman being compensated in the coin of professional competence for romantic/familial “failure.” Peggy, in that sense, is exactly like Don, who may be charismatic to children but is a terrible father and husband. The screenwriters grant or gift them competence at work to make up for and balance out their incompetence at home.
Consider where we find Peggy at the beginning of the series: she is simply a part of the stenographer pool, and is meant to be read as physically plain. She does not demonstrate her advertising talent until the sixth episode of the first season (almost halfway through), and when she does, it is relatively undramatic and her change in station significant but modest and seemingly precarious. On the other hand, what remains the focus throughout the first season is her disappointing romantic life, culminating in an unwanted pregnancy. Over the course of the show, then, Peggy grows into professional success as a relief from failure to find satisfaction personally.
That logic is more pervasive than we might expect, and shows up in surprising places among both men and women. One of the most remarkable (but unremarked upon) aspects of The Office is that, after all, Michael Scott’s branch of Dunder Mifflin is, despite his antics and his interpersonal incompetence, consistently one of the more profitable in the company. (Recall that Andy Bernard comes to Scranton because his branch closed due to its unprofitability.) Even if Michael is not a good office manager, he is evidently talented at keeping up the bottom line, and I don’t think that we can simply write that fact off as an artifact of the narrative necessity of keeping the Scranton branch open. (There was little reason why some kind of restructuring could not have occurred that would have taken the core cast to a different locale, for instance.) What is absolutely consistent throughout the show until the very last episode is Michael’s desperation regarding his desire to be a father and a husband and his inability to find someone willing to accept him in either role. Michael’s success in keeping the Scranton branch open is, therefore, compensatory in much the same way as Peggy’s advertising brilliance.
Further examples could be adduced, although adjustments might need to be made. We only find out gradually how Scandal’s Olivia Pope’s bulletproof professional life is grounded in not only an impossible romantic position but a clusterbomb of a family life as well, making it seem as if Olivia is being punished for her professional success rather than that compensated for private heartache. And we often forget, I think, just how incompetent characters like Walter White or Tony Soprano are as fathers and husbands, and how foundational that incompetence is to the shows’ emotional resonance and narrative structure. Work is a space in which they are given a break from being crummy family men. These “difficult men” and their obsession with being “providers” should not distract from or mitigate the basic fact that they are, after all, terrible at being fathers and husbands. If they are effective at other things, it’s a way to soften that irremediable judgment.
We would, of course, never think that Walt’s marital troubles with Skyler are punishments for being a good drug dealer, and there is undeniably a severity to the personal indignities women are put through in order to establish them as failures in their personal lives that is not the case for men (Peggy’s pregnancy being a very good example). But figures like Walt or Peggy are attractive to viewers because both hold out the hope that one can actually be competent at something, even if one is not very “good at relationships.” Moreover, both seem to suggest that raw determination (aided by natural intelligence) can overcome obstacles in one’s professional life, even as both demonstrate that this is probably not the case in one’s family life. “You can figure this out,” they seem to tell viewers, but only in the domain of work.
 I haven’t finished the series, so if this changes in the last couple of seasons, don’t tell me!
 Frankly, I think that may be a totally valid way of reading the show; I’m unsure how much of the “Papa and Mama Pope” storyline Shonda Rimes had in mind at the outset.