In the week leading up to the Mad Men premiere The Wire will be revisiting some of the show's most important characters. Today it's Peggy Olson, secretary turned copy chief and the show's not-so-secret protagonist.
Where She Was
Peggy has always been our Virgil guiding us through the Hell of Sterling Cooper. Joan may initiate Peggy—telling her to evaluate her body, showing her how to butter up the switchboard ladies—but Peggy is the character with whom the audience can relate. Though she is a Madison Avenue neophyte, chided for dressing conservatively, she is certainly not an innocent. Peggy wants to play the game that is expected of her by people like Joan, but it is evident early on that she will not achieve success in the manner that is expected of a secretary. She is rebuffed when she puts her hand on Don's to ostensibly thank him for defending her to Pete Campbell, the man who she later invites into her bedroom when he shows up at her door drunk. Why does Peggy invite Pete in? Does she see another strange, lonely kindred spirit in creepy Pete? Is it attempt to stand up to his earlier taunts, putting herself on the same playing field as him? Is it her way into the sex culture of the office? Is it simply that Peggy is more adventurous than she let on?
Season 1, Episode 6, Babylon: This episode is the first time it becomes absolutely evident that Peggy's fate is not as a secretary. When the creative team needs inspiration for the Belle Jolie lipstick campaign, they have the women of the office brainstorm by testing out the product. Peggy is the thoughtful outlier, and after she hands Freddie Rumsen a "basket of kisses," she is assigned to write copy for the campaign.
Season 2, Episode 5, The New Girl: Peggy puts up Bobbie Barrett, Don's current fling, when Bobbie and Don are involved in a car accident. When Bobbie inquires as to why Peggy is putting up with her, we learn, via flashbacks, how Don helped her after she unexpectedly gave birth at the end of the first season. While Peggy is in the hospital, suffering from the psychiatric fall out from being unaware she was pregnant, Don visits and tells her to move forward, saying her "it will shock you how much it never happened."
Season 4, Episode 6, Waldorf Stories: Art director Stan Rizzo eventually becomes one of Peggy's best friends, but here they bicker while working on a campaign for Vicks. At the behest of a drunk Don, Stan and Peggy are sentenced to work on the campaign in a hotel room. When Stan continues his loutish behavior and criticism of her perception of her body, she strips, challenging him to do the same.
Season 5, Episode 11, The Other Woman: Perpetually frustrated by the way she is treated at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce—where Don has literally thrown money in her face—Peggy, encouraged by Freddie, explores other options. When she is wooed to join Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough by Ted Chaough, she finally tells Don she is leaving. She refuses his financial offers and reaches out her hand to shake. Don takes and kisses it.
Season 6, Episode 9, The Better Half: At work, Peggy is put between Don and Ted, the latter of whom is clearly still struggling with his feelings for her. At home, she is frustrated with her dangerous neighborhood and her boyfriend, Abe, who refuses to talk to the police after he is stabbed in the hand. She later accidentally stabs him with a homemade bayonet after he surprises her in the night. Abe, who began his relationship with Peggy in contempt of her profession, breaks up with her in the ambulance.
Where She Is Now
There's a school of thought that while Don may be the face of Mad Men, the show is truly about the ascension of Peggy Olson. As Willa Paskin wrote in a New York magazine profile of Elisabeth Moss: "When the show returns for the first half of its seventh and final season on April 13, it will be as much Peggy’s story as Don’s." It makes sense: Don's curse is that he is fated to become a relic of the past. Peggy always represented the future and the future has almost come to Mad Men.
Peggy ends the sixth season on a triumphant note, sitting in Don's chair, essentially recreating his iconic silhouette. That moment, however, was born out of a personal defeat for her. Though she and Ted finally slept together and discussed plans for a future together, Ted panics and decides to go to California to keep his family together. She snaps at him: "well, aren't you lucky, to have decisions."
As the season opens, Peggy is, once again, in a frustratingly familiar place. She is the most competent person at the firm, but deeply undervalued. Meanwhile, she is still dealing with the emotional repercussions of her relationship with Ted. On Slate today, Paskin wrote: "As far as I’m concerned, Don can die a thousand deaths if it means [...] Peggy Olsen gets to be a creative director somewhere." Mad Men can conclude in a number of different ways, but for a contingent of fans, The Wire included, an ending that doesn't involve Peggy getting her due ahead of all these guys will be highly disappointing.