Mad Men is as much Peggy’s story as it is Don’s. She’s not just his protege. She’s both his conscience and his opposite. Don is ultimately a negative, defined by a void filled with all the things he is not, a pantomime of a kind of Scotch-swilling manliness rapidly becoming extinct. Peggy is the positive image, a vivid Kodachrome snapshot of a woman shaped by the emerging feminism of the times.
At the beginning of the series, Peggy is Don’s secretary, a wide-eyed, pony-tailed girl from a strict Catholic family. She tries to want what she’s supposed to want — basically, a job until she snags a husband — but it isn’t enough. Peggy is ambitious, but she’s so naive that she doesn’t understand what that feeling is, bottled up inside and clawing to get out. She mistakes it for sexual hunger, and has a tryst with a drunken Pete that leaves her cluelessly — and secretly, even to viewers — pregnant. As the first season continues, Peggy begins speaking up with ideas for tag lines, and guilelessly tells Don that she wants to do what he does. When the baby is born in the final episode of season one, Don counsels her to give up the kid for adoption, to “pretend it never happened.”
That episode, “The Wheel,” was also the episode where Don promotes her to junior copywriter after she shows her skills behind the scenes on the Clearasil campaign (which Pete steals). In a sense, her pregnancy was like a chrysalis, and out of it emerges a tougher, more assertive Peggy. She gives up her son for adoption (her married sister initially takes him, but then he’s adopted out), and refuses to be shamed by the disapproval of her mother and their priest. Like Don, Peggy sees a clear path to reinvention and grabs it.
As she grows into her career, Peggy inevitably clashes with Joan Holloway, the highest ranking woman at the agency. Joan was “raised to be admired”; she’s beautiful and smart, but she’s disastrously slow to change with the times, still using her looks and “feminine wiles” to go after what she wants, asking rather than taking, pinning her future on the whims of powerful men.
Both women assert their ambitions in the season five episode “The Other Woman,” both come up against entrenched sexism. Joan agrees to have sex with a sought-after Jaguar client in exchange for a partnership in Sterling Cooper; in the saddest scene in the series’ entire run, she undresses for the piggy client, he puts a jeweled necklace around her throat, and we see in her eyes that she knows exactly what she has become.
In the same episode, there’s a horrifying moment when Peggy clashes with Don over her request for more autonomy and he responds by throwing cash in her face. By the end of that episode, Peggy has accepted a copy chief position at a rival agency for more money, and Don is kissing her hand, with tears in his eyes. It’s a courtly, almost fatherly, gesture. But as poignant as their truce is, it’s also another signal that Don is out of step with a changing society. He is unable to relate to women as equals. And it’s clear (to both of them) that, in ambition, creativity and nerve, Peggy is his equal. There is only room for one of them at Sterling Cooper. But in moving on to a newer, younger, agency, Peggy outstrips Don. He’s the relic, and time is increasingly catching up with him. Peggy is the future.
That future comes to fruition in the beautiful, brilliant ad campaign she devises for Burger Chef in “The Strategy” from the final season. All of the previous Burger Chef ideas, including Don’s, were rooted in shame, fixated on masking uncomfortable truths about societal changes pulling at American families. Who resorts to fast food for dinner? Working mothers. And whatever happened to the ideal of a family sitting down together, without Dad working late or the kids glued to the TV? Peggy’s breakthrough on the campaign comes when she stops trying to shoehorn the family reality of 1969 into nostalgic ideals of the past. She creates a campaign revolving around the notion that every table at Burger Chef is “the family table” in an oasis of calm. She takes what was once looked down upon as a sign of slovenly housekeeping and turns it into a positive. These families are not “broken.” Our idea of what constitutes a family is.
As a woman who has chosen work over motherhood, but has a psuedo-mother-son relationship with a little boy in her apartment building, Peggy gets it. Family is where you find it. And the episode’s last pullback shot of Peggy, Don and Pete sitting down to a meal at Burger Chef glows with the prescience of Peggy’s vision: Work families, friend-families, unconventional families are no less a family.
In the episode “Lost Horizon,” Peggy and Don have parallel moments where they face down their secrets and make peace with them. Peggy tells Stan, her platonic friend, about her out-of-wedlock child; she may never have another, and it hurts, but maybe not every woman has to be a mother to be fulfilled. Maybe there’s no such thing as having it all. Meanwhile, Don is in the process of shedding the armor of his false identity. On the same night, Don has a ghostly visitation from the deceased Bert Cooper, while Peggy has a surreal encounter with Roger Sterling in the emptied, half-dismantled offices of Sterling Cooper. The founders are passing their respective torches, and it’s fitting that Don appears on his way to disappearing, while Peggy, after an inebriated pep talk from the non-conforming Sterling, emerges as the surviving soul of the defunct firm.
In an indelible scene (Elisabeth Moss absolutely nails it), Peggy shows up for work at McCann-Erickson the next morning, wearing dark sunglasses to hide her Sterling-sized hangover, a cigarette dangling Draper-like from the corner of her mischievously grinning mouth. Her hips sway as she strolls down the corridor holding a cardboard box of her possessions, with Bert Cooper’s prized erotic Japanese painting of a woman being pleasured by an octopus under her arm. Peggy is the unconventional creative spirit of Sterling Cooper gearing up to raise hell inside the advertising factory that is McCann.
What’s ahead for Peggy in the series finale? I’m betting that there’s a jump in time and when we next see her, she’ll be running her own agency. Olson, Holloway anybody?
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015