CASTING KIDS IN A TV show is always a crapshoot. Most parts for children involve a lot of playing with toys, bursting into fake tears, supplying rejoinders, and overreacting to parental drama. Many ho-hum child actors are able to pull that off decently enough to land jobs (see also: the entire wretched cast of Jessie). But how to tell if an actor who is barely old enough to read will eventually develop legit acting chops? You can’t; it’s luck. Jamie-Lynn Sigler was cast as Meadow Soprano when she was 16. She never got any better as an actress and was the weak link in an otherwise unbreakable dramatis personae chain. The show suffered for it. The Sopranos might have gone in entirely different directions had Sigler been up to the task. Meadow Soprano should have taken over the family business—this was planted early and often on the show, most notably when Tony visits Naples and is surprised that the head of the family there is a woman—but the mediocrity of the actress playing her made this impossible. Disbelief can only be suspended so far. (Cue “Don’t Stop Believin’.”)
Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sally Draper on Mad Men, is somehow just 15 years old—younger than Sigler was when The Sopranos first aired. She was eight when she landed the part. Matthew Wiener may be a genius, but he cannot predict the future, and there’s no way anyone could have foreseen just how superb an actress Shipka would turn out to be. She’s every bit as strong as Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss, and orders of magnitude better than January Jones, with whom she’s had to play a vast majority of her scenes. And she needed to be that good, because if she wasn’t, we wouldn’t believe this was Don Draper’s daughter. Without Shipka, an entire dimension of the show simply isn’t possible. Don is special, and if his sons are sticks like their mom, the little girl has to be the chip off the old block. Can you imagine the long chances of finding a freaking eight-year-old who can be a mini, female Jon Hamm? And yet that’s what Wiener got with Shipka. It’s like a gift from the casting director gods! So let’s begin there, with Shipka’s precociously superb and perennially underrated performance. Thanks to her artistry, we are able to relax and fully believe, and believe in, Sally—something we could never do with Meadow.
If we’re breaking down Mad Men like it’s a Joyce novel—which is what Wiener et al want—Sally represents, among other things, a prism through which Don can look back on his own upbringing. His sad, fucked-up childhood was so integral to his development, informing his adult persona in ways he himself struggles to understand. Unlike Pete and Roger, scions of blue-blooded families, Don is a creature of his own invention; his daddy issues don’t stem from having too successful a father, but rather from not having one at all—a situation he passes down to his own children when he more or less abandons the family after the divorce.
But Sally Draper is not just Don’s daughter; she’s her own inchoate person, one we’ve watched grow up these last seven seasons. Perhaps because of this, she commands our emotional attention more than any other character, excepting perhaps her father. Given her relatively rare appearances, she is at the center of a disproportionate number of memorable Mad Men moments: comforting her brother from Betty’s cruelty; watching Megan’s mother suck off Roger Sterling; passing out under the couch with Pauline; calling upon Glen to save her at boarding school; smoking cigs with Betty; walking in on her dad and the doctor’s wife. And one of my favorite parts of the entire series, when Don brings her to the decrepit house where he grew up, and she looks at him like, Holy shit, I don’t know this guy at all.
More than anything, though, Sally is about the future. She is about hope. She is about emerging from the wreckage of her childhood—not as wrecked as the wreckage from which her father emerged, but wreckage just the same—having not just survived the experience, but been made better by it. Sally will take the awesomeness she inherited from Don, and the survival skills bequeathed her by Betty, and she will pound on doors opened to her by pioneers like Joan and Peggy, and Sally Draper will succeed! When Miss Blankenship dies, Bert Cooper says (in one of the best lines of this or any TV show), “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.” Sally Draper is Miss Blankenship 2.0, she’s Sally Ride, and she will boldly go where no man has gone before. Not even Don.