Mad Men S5: Everything I Learned from Peggy Olson

“I can work like this, let’s get liberated.”

Now that Mad Men’s dynamic and powerful 5th season has come to a close on AMC, Cinedork writers take a look back at one of TV’s most brilliant dramas to analyze where Matthew Weiner chose to take his characters, and as a result, where the Mad Men creator chose to take us as an audience. Chris Blondell already looked back at the demise of Lane Pryce as well as the emergence of Megan Draper, but in this Season 5 reflection, Caleigh Flynn looks back on the increasingly dynamic Peggy Olson.

Caleigh Flynn

I had always liked Mad Men’s trailblazing female copy writer Peggy Olson. She was smart, insecure, subversive, well-mannered and was more often than not, the only girl in the room. For the first time in my experiences with television, I found a kindred spirit who was A.) a female close to my own age and B.) didn’t have magical powers or something else that made their ordinariness “special.” But it wasn’t until Peggy Olson removed her bra in front of her chauvinistic male coworker and dared him to step up to the plate, as a writer and as a man, I realized that not only did I like Peggy, I wanted to be her.

Okay, not specifically or literally, of course, I have no desire to be in advertising, but watching Peggy’s career rise from the meager secretary who almost cried on her first day of work to the woman to whom Don Draper swears “I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you” was not just thrilling television, but deeply personal, for someone who wants to make a living off of their own ideas. But during the course of Mad Men’s fifth season, my heart sank a bit. Peggy seemed to be stuck, she seemed to be faltering, and those brilliant little sessions between her and Don, where he would make a suggestion and she would spin it into advertising gold (often to the chagrin of other copywriters, Paul Kinsey in the earlier seasons, and later, Stan) were all but gone. She was getting mired in a horrific Heinz account while newbies like Michael Ginsburg got a chance to shine. It was disheartening.

Don, Peggy, and Ken test out Cool Whip in the episode "Lady Lazarus"

And then came the (lesser) bombshell of the fifth season: Peggy decided to leave Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It wasn’t that much of a shock. She was in a rut and her boss, confidante and mentor was treating her like an old workhorse while his freelancers, the men who got to work in the perilous, poisonous Jaguar account, were given lobsters for lunch. And once he threw money in Peggy’s face after she tried to tell him about her good work on an account, it really felt over. If there’s anything I’ve learned about Peggy Olson, you can knock her down but you can never count her out. She saw her window of opportunity closing. So she went to lunch with Freddy Rumsen, and made her move. Later, she met with Don’s nemesis Ted Chaough, and he not only offered her a higher salary than what she was prepared to ask for, she landed the prized job of Copy Chief. Peggy Olson is going to do big things, but not for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and perhaps not on our TV screens.

When she gives Don her two weeks, he does all the wrong things: reminds her that he gave her everything, shows open contempt for her new workplace, and offers her a raise, as if it were just about the money… But as she leaves, he kisses her hand. “Don’t be a stranger.” she says, before disappearing for what seems like forever. She and Don are so thoroughly linked, emotionally and professionally. They know far too much about each other. They mistreat each other. But the idea of them no longer working together was heartbreaking. But as Peggy waited for the elevator and that smile hit her face, I realized that I’ve never been so excited for her character. Peggy Olson is going places because she earned it.

Elizabeth Moss has been quoted as saying “Peggy has the capability of being Don Draper and there can’t be two of them in the office.” She may have started as a mere secretary, but Peggy has always known when to make the right moves, at least in her career. In the second season, after surviving the setback of being pregnant with Pete’s baby, she withstands her emotional turmoil (or lack thereof) of putting it up for adoption and demands her own office and equal pay. “What if this is my time?” she asks of him when he tries to skirt the issue of equal pay for women. One could think of a worse motto than “if Peggy could do it, I can do it.”

Peggy, with her mentor Don, who may now be more of an equal

Peggy is not perfect. She has questionable taste in men (Pete Campbell, Duck Phillips, etc.) and sometimes forgets that her coworkers will never be as friendly to her as she is to them. She has a temper that can bleed into her work. When she gave a complete stranger a hand job at the movies (while being in a committed relationship with her journalist boyfriend Abe), I felt slightly skeeved, not by the act itself, but because it seemed like something Don Draper, the loathsome side of Don Draper, would do. But Peggy’s quiet, capable adversity is something rare in television characters. When she tries to tell her mother that she wants to move into the city and her mother spits back “You’ll get raped”, Peggy moves anyway. When a priest tries to get her to confess the “sin” of giving her child away and threatens that she may go to hell if she doesn’t, she responds, without anger, saying, “I can’t believe that’s the way God is,” then walks away. She takes care of herself and her career, and it is what she’s best at. “I wanted other things,” she tells Pete, as the reason for giving their baby up for adoption. If she falls apart, she pulls herself together. She fights against the brazen sexism of her era, in her own way, and mostly by merely existing and excelling in her position.

So what have I learned from Peggy Olson? Mostly fighting’ words, so to speak. To watch Peggy excel as a woman writer in a tumultuous, perilous time is a reminder that things have really changed, but also that things may never change. The “old boy” system is alive and well in most aspects of working life in America, but Peggy’s brand of self-reliance is a happy reassurance, even if she is fictional. And if Peggy Olson is never seen in the unhappy halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce again, that’s fine with me.


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