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Mad Men TV Club: Rachel Menken as a Symbol of Difference

I, too, was thrilled at the return of Rachel Menken on the Mad Men Season 7 Part 2 premiere. The pleasure was all too brief, however, as it was soon revealed that Rachel had died. Tara described Rachel as “the one who got away,” and I’ve always felt that she was the one who got away from the viewers as much as from Don. From the moment we met Rachel, I wanted more of her—she was smart and elusive; beautiful and guarded; speaking her mind but in some way holding the viewer at arm’s length.

I’ve been re-watching the first season of Mad Men in anticipation of the show’s finale (though I’m still in denial that it’s really coming to an end!), and I have been delighted to rediscover Rachel Menken and to recall just how Jewish that first season really was. In fact, it reminded me that during the first season—before we learned about Dick Whitman—there was a popular conspiracy theory that Don’s secret was that he was Jewish! While that seems implausible and somewhat naive now, it further demonstrates how much Matthew Weiner has made Jewishness a metaphor for Don’s sense of otherness and dislocation.

Season 7 Part 2 begins with Don firmly in control (at least on the surface). In just the first couple of scenes we see him in the director role at work and seemingly casually sharing stories from his childhood—something we never would have imagined just a few seasons ago! And yet, even at this moment, Rachel Menken reappears, like an apparition of Don’s lost self.

To me, Rachel’s appearance in this episode signaled not only Don’s romantic lack of fulfillment and the sense that she was “the one who got away,” but also his lingering feeling of not belonging, of being different. Of course, his experience at Rachel’s shiva only reinforced this feeling—though he knew well enough to bring a cake, he didn’t belong there, as Rachel’s sister sharply reminded him and the others, cutting off the invitation to help make a minyan, while Don looked longingly into the room of Rachel’s family and friends.

I love the Jewish-woman-as-embodiment-of-the-show’s-theme not only because I love the character of Rachel Menken but also because it captures one of my favorite ways to approach Jewish women’s history: to look at how the historical narrative changes when we see the story from their perspective, when we place Jewish women at the center. Of course, Rachel was never really at the center—she’s more of a foil for or symbol of Don—but her experience as a doubly marginalized yet privileged character becomes a scrim through which to view Don’s character and experience.

One of the unanswered question for me about Rachel Menken is whether she really did, as her sister insisted, find everything she wanted. I wasn’t sure how to read the scene in Season 2 in which Don bumps into her and her husband, Tilden Katz. It’s clear she’s made a decision to choose the life she was supposed to want: marriage, and to a fellow Jew. But it was not clear to me whether we were supposed to infer that she was happy with this decision or whether she had settled. When Barbara tells Don, with some angry satisfaction, that Rachel “had everything she wanted,” are we meant to believe her, or doth she protest too much? Was Don, to Rachel, “the one who got away”?

And I’m also left with the question: will Rachel appear again on the show, or has she once again gotten away from us, too?

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Rachel Menken from Mad Men
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Rachel Menken from AMC's Mad Men.
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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Mad Men TV Club: Rachel Menken as a Symbol of Difference ." 12 April 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 12, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/mad-men-tv-club-rachel-menken-as-symbol-of-difference>.

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