Peggy Olson in the Age of Don Draper
Despite its title, Mad Men has always been about Peggy Olson. In a New York Magazine profile last year, Elisabeth Moss pointed out that her name is second in the opening credits to Jon Hamm’s. While focusing mostly on Don’s exploits, failures, and successes, the show is really about the naive secretary/assistant turned copy chief who has potential for so much more.
We found Peggy at that point at the end of last season as she sat in Don’s office. He had been forced to take a leave of absence, so there she sat, swiveling in his abandoned chair, looking out at the city. We were giddily left with the the promise of the reign of Olson, but that was wiped away during the premiere of this season when we saw her answering to Lou Avery and walking back to her office. But there is slight change, and she has some rank. She becomes in charge of Don, her new next-door office neighbor, but she does this uneasily.
Even though it was originally Freddy Rumsen that pushed for Peggy as a copywriter, it’s Don that motivates her, it’s Don whose approval she needs and yearns for, even if she wishes otherwise. It’s under Don’s tutelage that her confidence begins to grow, but it’s under Don’s neglect that she becomes defiant and the person she was meant to be: A leader.
Don and Peggy both seek out versions of each other in other people. Ted is Peggy’s Don, the higher-up mentor that stirs her creative and otherwise juices (Duck is a lesser version of Don), and Megan is Don’s Peggy, the secretary turned copywriter…with benefits. The reason Don was so upset when Megan quit was because it felt like he, and in turn, Peggy was rejecting him, which eventually does happen. When Don realized that Peggy and Ted were a thing, it bothered him deeply, in a way I think a father would feel about his little girl dating someone.
Now, in this new season, their roles are reversed. Don is the cautious one, unclear of how to act as an underling, and Peggy has the power, though she isn’t sure how to use it. It’s that new dynamic that makes the Suitcase Part II: The Dance so powerful. Now it’s Peggy lying down on the sofa, drink in hand, and Don reassuring her, and brainstorming ideas. That sweet moment of dancing, appropriately to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” the way she leaned her cheek against his chest, and the way he kissed the top of her head made my heart swell.
Peggy and Don need each other in a way rarely seen on TV or in movies; they do great work together and they really understand each other, without a hint of romance. Don is the one that makes Peggy rethink herself and question herself, in a good, nagging way. Her new pitch for Burger Chef is even better than her old one, and it’s thanks to Don. They know each other’s secrets, though some more explicitly than others. Peggy is the one Don calls when he’s in the drunk tank, and Don is the one that comes to Peggy’s bedside after she gives birth.
Now that Peggy and Don are over their tiff, hopefully, and back in a functional working relationship, I’m hoping it leads to the actual rise of Peggy in the world of mad men and less-crazy women. Let Peggy grow more self-assured and do things the way she wants to do it, as Don told Pete. Then, one day soon, they’ll be working for Olson & Associates.
Nadia Chaudhury wants a Peggy/Don relationship for herself, minus all of the dysfunction.