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Why Peggy Olson is the biggest badass on Mad Men

Maybe we should stop asking “Who is Don Draper?” and consider Peggy Olson.

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- Commentary

What is Mad Men really about? The series opens (“Smoke Gets in your Eyes”) with handsome, duplicitous, womanizing, alcoholic Donald Draper (or Dick Whitman) alone in a bar, observing patrons through smoke, seated exactly like the opaque window-jumper from the series credits.

However, the unique event which propels the first episode, and the brilliant series that follows, is Peggy Olson’s first day of employment at Sterling Cooper. And what a remarkable day it is. What begins with an awkward elevator ride with Ken Cosgrove (version 1.0), leads Peggy to personal and professional life lessons from Joan Holloway (later Harris), who sends her to a condescending, slut-shaming (and probably ex-lover) gynecologist where she scores her first birth control prescription. From there, we witness a terse Don Draper rebuff Peggy in a cringeworthy exchange, and watch her momentous day end as she guides drunk vulture Pete Campbell into her apartment for a one-night stand.

There were other situations which make the pilot memorable. Don’s first meeting with Rachel Menken, his Lucky Strikes pitch, Pete’s impending nuptials and gross bachelor party behavior, and the ending reveal that Don is a married father who resides in the unassuming suburbs. But the story of the first episode is told around Peggy’s experience. As the series meanders through the 1960s, its arc works in tandem with Peggy’s, both private and professionally. She is the audience’s shepherd through the tumultuous decade. We are with her as she begins her career an earnest virgin, and we follow her foray into adulthood, in and out of dark places as she comes into her own, a polyester-clad representation of the American dream.

Don, reluctant patriarch and Madison Avenue maverick, is clearly the protagonist of Mad Men, but he never really evolves. In the penultimate episode which aired last week, Don is still the rich, lonely lech, negligibly concerned about his family, who finds solace for his childhood trauma inside a bottle and/or by running away. He’s still looking over his shoulder for fear that his deceit will be recognized and he’ll be held accountable for Dick Whitman’s actions.

Starting with her first day of work, the series observes the greatest evolution in Peggy (and the other indomitable women who occupy Draper’s orbit). In fact, Mad Men has brought us some of the most complicated, brave, incontrovertible ladies in TV history. So maybe we should stop asking “Who is Don Draper?” and consider “Who is Peggy Olson?” Peggy Olson is a badass.

For Don, Peggy has been many things: secretary, protege, approximation of a daughter, friend, punching bag, and boss. Initially demure but inscrutable, the catholic girl from Brooklyn (“are you Amish or something?”), transforms over the course of seven seasons into a forthright, uncompromising copy chief. She’s determined and demands recognition. She smokes joints and gives handjobs to strangers in movie theaters to blow off steam. Peggy can go toe-to-toe with Don Draper ( “I did everything right and I am still getting it from you. You are not mad at me so shut up.”),  and though it was a promotion motivated by spite from paranoid wet-blanket Lou Avery, Peggy becomes Don’s supervisor when he returns from his involuntary sabbatical in the seventh season. Peggy began the 1960’s a bright-eyed secretary shell-shocked by an unexpected baby, and finishes the decade a sought-after creative professional, headbutting the glass ceiling.

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Beginning her career in creative with a “basket of kisses”, Peggy proves herself as a copywriter with the vibrating diaper she renames “The Rejuvenator” (“You’ll love the way it makes you feel”). As she ascends the creative ranks, she continues to endure the sexism and social constraints reinforced by her colleagues, clients, and paramours. But how does she handle it? Like a BOSS. When the firm’s newest art director, Stan Rizzo insists that she’s a prude, espousing the virtues of nudity instead of contributing work as a deadline looms, Peggy calls his bluff, strips her clothes off, and returns the male gaze Stan had subjected her and Meaghan to (“You’re chicken shit. I can work like this. Let’s get liberated”). Eccentric applicant Michael Ginsberg trivializes her role in the interview process, but Peggy readily puts him in his place “I’m the person you need to impress right now!”. Peggy tells obnoxious little shit, Joey Baird, to apologize to Joan for the offensive illustration of her fellating Lane Pryce which he taped to her office wall, to which he patronizingly responds  “See, this is why I don’t like working with women, you have no sense of humor.” Peggy retorts “you’re fired.” In the captivating episode “The Other Woman,” Don projects his anger at the prospect of Joan prostituting herself for SCDP, and  throws cash in Peggy’s face. Old Peggy would have remained subservient and suffered the indignity. 1967 Peggy moved on, accepting an offer from rival firm CGC as copy chief.

Elizabeth Moss describes her character’s particular approach to sexism as a sort of practical feminism:

She’s a different kind of feminist. She’s the one who works really hard, and concentrates on her job, and wants to move up in the world of her business. And her progressiveness and her brand of feminism — it comes in probably a bit of a more realistic way, you know? Those were the women …  going in and asking for equal pay, and asking for equal rights, and demanding to be treated better in the workplace. That’s who she is.

Some examples of Peggy’s feminism are more overt. In an intimate conversation with Stan, Peggy addresses her and Pete’s secret love child, and the gendered double standard of redemption: “Maybe she was very young and followed her heart and got in trouble,”she suggests, a veiled confession. “No one should have to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life just like a man does.” Peggy and Joan’s camaraderie ebbs and flows over the series, but it’s delightful to watch them shut Joan’s office door, light their cigarettes and vent. Megan and Don return from Disneyworld and announce their whirlwind engagement, prompting Peggy to find Joan: “I just saved this company” Peggy grouses. “I signed the first new business since Lucky Strike left. But, it’s not as important as getting married. Again.”

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Perhaps the most compelling thing about Peggy Olson is that everyone has had their own idea of exactly who Peggy should be. Joan, her priest, her family, the packs of hyenas at Sterling Cooper, even Don, but Peggy never concedes to their unsolicited expectations. She chooses to forgo church when Father Gill attempts to persuade her. She works rather than attend a birthday party thrown for her (it was an insensitive move, but everyone is entitled to birthday tyranny), in arguably Mad Men’s best (bottle) episode, “The Suitcase.” Peggy moves in with Abe, despite her mother’s protestations (“Because I’m not givin’ yas cake to celebrate yas living in sin”). Her pushy realty shows her upper east side apartments, the kind of dwelling she’s supposed to aspire to (like Don and Megan’s place), but Peggy opts (with lefty boyfriend Abe’s input)to buy a run-down building on the west side (in which she accidentally stabs Abe) which she fixes up. In “The Rejected” Pete Campbell learns and announces his wife’s pregnancy, which Peggy responds to with a “congratulations” and them privately knocking her head on her desk. But that is the life Peggy chose not to take. The final scene of the episode finds Pete in the SCDP lobby with his colleagues and clients, “the establishment,” the full-suited old regime. Peggy observes  she waits for the elevator with her new counter-culture friends.

Music is used effectively, throughout Mad Men, an omnipresent character guiding the show. One of the most touching scene of the series, but also between Don and Peggy, is their slow dance to “My Way.” It’s not sexual or euphemistic, just a moment of tenderness between two friends as they lament the family dynamic of yore, while prepping for their Burger Chef pitch. “I looked in the window of so many station wagons…what did I do wrong?” “My Way” begins to play and Don asks “you think that’s a coincidence?” and they start slowly start to dance,  a pair at a father/daughter dance. She may have been insentive, selfish with her priorities, Peggy did things her way. Successul, house owning- career controlling, incontrovertible Peggy did things her way.

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