Mad woman: Jessica Paré on being Don Draper’s latest squeeze

Mad Men fans gasped when Don Draper proposed to his secretary. Sarah Hughes meets the actress ahead of the new series, while Gerard Gilbert looks at why it's the ultimate workplace drama.

When Mad Men's fourth season came to an end all the way back in 2010, loyal fans were left reeling by Don Draper's surprise proposal to his young secretary Megan Calvet, a decision which to many viewers came entirely out of left-field.

In truth, as Jessica Paré, the likeable 29-year-old Québécoise actress who plays Calvet, explains ahead of the show's long-awaited return at the end of March, Draper's decision was not as out of the blue as it seemed.

"I think the thing about Megan is that she says to Don, 'I don't care, I love you'," says Paré. "I can certainly see why Don asks her to marry him. She's good with his children. She's also young enough that she is willing to accept him, both the good points and the bad. He might not be perfect, but he's perfect to her. I think that level of unconditional acceptance is a wonderful feeling for anyone."

Put like that it, also makes sense that ladies' man Draper would prefer to marry a much younger, possibly naive, girl, instead of committing to Faye Miller, the doctor who knows the truth about his hidden life. As the ever-wonderful Joan Holloway icily remarked on hearing the news: "He's smiling like a fool, like he's the first man who ever married his secretary." Show creator Matthew Weiner put it yet more succinctly at a recent press conference: "She's 25 years old. He gets to go back to being married to a person who sees him as he wants to be."

It's a decision that feels true to Draper's character. Anxious viewers may wish Draper would make mature relationship choices, but the reality is that asking his much younger secretary to marry him after a surprise holiday in California is exactly what the twice-married ad exec would do. It's a decision that feels both rooted in its time and in the character, and yet another reason why Mad Men remains so compelling to watch.

Where lesser shows would probably have moved to solidify Draper and Miller's relationship, Weiner instead chose to illustrate why the Don Drapers of this world prefer to plump for the easier option.

"I think a lot of people were definitely disappointed that he picked the easier woman," admits Paré with a laugh. "Faye was challenging and demanded the best version of him. She wanted him to grow up and evolve but then Faye was also the person who foreshadowed the whole proposal to Megan when she said, 'you'll be married within the year'. She might hope that Don would become his better self, but she knows him."

There are those who felt Calvet waged a stealth campaign to win Draper's hand, arguing that she's more like Roger Sterling's manipulative young wife Jane than might first appear. "I don't think that's true," says Paré. "She doesn't seem to me to be conniving or manipulative or have an agenda... of course that could all change."

Certainly Draper's decision to marry her looks set to drive the new season's plot in multiple ways. For, as the final episode of the last season made clear, while Draper sees the chance to start afresh with an uncomplaining young wife, Sterling sees Draper becoming more like him, and Peggy Olson and Holloway see a declaration of war. The last season ended with an increasingly disillusioned Olson wondering what was wrong with a world where Draper's proposal was celebrated more than her saving the business. Weiner has stated that the new season's theme is 'every man for himself'.

As to whether Calvet actually becomes the second Mrs Donald Draper (and the third Mrs Dick Whitman), Weiner was at pains to stress that the couple have not yet married, and Paré remains tight-lipped despite leaked paparazzi shots of the two together. "I can't confirm or deny anything about the new season," she says. "They're engaged but I can't tell you if the wedding has [happened] or will actually happen."

Such on-set secrecy is nothing new for Paré, who admits that one of the bigger challenges of working on Mad Men was being given no back-story for her character ("It was interesting, I didn't really know where she was going and I didn't want to act my way out of a job and do more than was on the page") and says that she was as surprised as anyone to see Calvet elevated from front-desk receptionist to secretary to love interest.

"Surprised is actually putting it mildly. There was a joke on set because someone from costume had read the next script, and it said, 'Megan kisses Don', so everyone was saying, 'you're on the way out then', because the women Don kisses don't usually have a great shelf life," she says. "Everyone kept saying, 'well it was nice working with you'. To be honest I was just pretty excited to have any kind of story-line at all... when I first auditioned all that they really knew about Megan was that she was this sort of vague dark-haired character."

The dark-haired reference is interesting because thus far Calvet appears to stand in relief to Draper's icy blonde ex-wife Betty, a woman for whom the word "froideur" is almost too friendly. Where Betty is openly contemptuous of her children, Calvet is easy-going around them. Where Betty craves Draper's approval, Calvet sunnily expects it. Where Betty is desperately grasping for her position in the world, Calvet seems assured that she has one. The age gap between the two women is both a few years and a generation.

"It's telling that when Don and Megan kiss, she [Calvet] says, 'I'm not going to run out of here crying tomorrow', and she means it," says Paré. "There's no agenda, she's more a modern girl in many ways – I think that she fully expects to have a career and that the secretarial job is a step on the way to that. She shows an interest in advertising, she's not planning to be a career secretary. I do think there's a suggestion that, because she's that little bit younger, she's that little bit more free than Peggy, Joan and Betty. She's wide-eyed and gung-ho but there's a confidence there."

Paré herself is refreshingly realistic about her role on the show, admitting, 'I could be gone by the next script'. She knows both what it is like to be hailed as the next best thing – as a wide-eyed 18-year-old she had the lead in respected French-Canadian director Denys Arcand's film Stardom – and to spend long periods of time supporting yourself with television guest appearances (after Stardom she had an eye-catching turn in 2004's Wicker Park followed by bit parts until landing 2010 comedy Hot Tub Time Machine and Mad Men).

"Just having this job is more than I've been able to say for a long time," she says. "What I learnt after Stardom was that making it in acting doesn't take one big break, it takes a series of them. For people who don't have to audition and can finance their own projects it must be a lovely place to be but that's only a very small percentage of acting people.

When I wasn't working I knew I had to keep doing things, so I spent a lot of time trying to write, although I'm not very good at it, then I took up knitting, I painted, I taught myself to crochet and tried gardening, took up cooking... it was good but obviously I don't like being unemployed." And if Calvet's future does turns out to be short-lived, Paré remains grateful for her time on set.

"I'm actually just thrilled to be a part of this show, working with an actor who's as generous and conscientious as Jon Hamm. There's no real downside for me. It goes without saying that I am incredibly lucky not just to be working but to be working on Mad Men. It's one of those things that will always be a feather in your cap."

Season five of 'Mad Men' starts on 27 March on Sky Atlantic

Why the words, not the clothes, are the secret

"Well, I gotta go learn a bunch of people's names before I fire them". Like all the funniest lines in Mad Men, this wisecrack was delivered by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's very own Silver Fox, Roger Sterling (John Slattery). The gag punctured the tension in season four's penultimate episode, "Blowing Smoke", in which the unfortunate recipients of Sterling's marching orders – in the aftermath of losing the Lucky Strike account – started clearing their desks, gathering in tearful huddles, boxes of belongings in hand, near the reception area of the Madison Avenue advertising firm.

It was horribly-well portrayed (in an episode directed by Slattery, coincidentally), and will have struck a chill note of recognition for many people in these downsizing times.

But then that's the point about Mad Men – in all the jabber about the wonderful retro-fashions, the casual smoking and sexism, and the significance of its historical overview, one truth tends to get overlooked, and that is that Matthew Weiner has crafted a cracking workplace drama. Mad Men contains the most lifelike depiction of office life since, well, The Office, which was, of course, a sitcom. But then comedies, or quasi-comedies like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal, seem to make a better fist of the workplace than dramas. Perhaps there is something inherently funny about the spaces where most of us spend most of our days, but one of the many reasons why I love Mad Men is that this is a serious workplace where serious work gets done by serious (well, except Roger) people. The show manages to make a pitch for Playtex or Clearasil seem – quite rightly – like a matter of life and death. And Don Draper isn't impressive because of his sharp suits or his prodigious secretary, and whisky, habits, but because he's good at his job.

There are the usual office politics, paranoia, back-stabbing, ambition and lust, of course, but Mad Men manages to make the toiling itself seem interesting. This it shares with The West Wing, but precious few other TV dramas if you discount the usual police procedurals and medical shows – working environments that very few of us of will have actually experienced.

The cut and thrust of the surgeon's knife or the police interrogation is the stuff of timeworn televisual cliché, unlike the cut and thrust of business – a vacuum that partly explains why reality shows like The Apprentice and Dragon's Den have found the space to thrive.

Workplaces don't have to be white-collar. The seminal sitcom Taxi, set, like Mad Men, in Manhattan, but socio-economically continents away, captured the banter, dynamics and delusions of cab-company employees, while in Britain we got the short-lived and now unfairly forgotten 1980s Midlands garment factory saga Connie, which may have only lasted 13 episodes, but was enough to alert the makers of Dynasty spin-off The Colbys to Stephanie Beacham's talents for being acerbic.

Americans tend to take work more seriously than the British – perhaps that's why they often make a more rewarding workplace drama than we do.

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