Over six seasons, the rising copywriter has been one of the show's greatest creations. Who is the basket case we're seeing now?
Spoilers through the first three episodes of Mad Men season 7 follow:
The first scene in season 7 of Mad Men is of Freddy Rumsen pitching an Accutron watch campaign to Peggy Olson. The scene sets up a twist at the end of the episode (Freddy, it turns out, is acting as sock puppet for a still-on-leave Don Draper), but it also suggests how Peggy has risen in the world. Late in season 6, we saw her in Don’s office after he’d been displaced, shot from behind in the classic Draper pose of regally surveying the view out the window. Now, Don (through Freddy) was pitching, and Peggy was judging. She may never have ended up writing copy for Virginia Slims, as had been hinted in an earlier season, but baby, she’d come a long way.
It turned out to be more complicated than that, of course. Peggy, we quickly saw, still had a creative director above her–this time, Lou Avery, who was at least as casually dismissive of her (or her writers’) ideas as Don could be and showed even less respect. But with Don out of the office, it looked like Peggy–who, as Willa Paskin noted in New York magazine, is in many ways the secret protagonist of Mad Men–would have a central role in the doings at SC&P.
But beginning with that premiere episode, Peggy’s story has taken a strange turn. Since the beginning of the series, she’s often seemed to be a kind of mirror, alternative Don, and we soon saw that she, like him, was unmoored in 1969–except that her unmooring, apparently, was all about a man, Ted Chaough. The premiere found her awkwardly encountering her awkward ex-boss and -lover in the SC&P kitchenette, and ended with her sobbing, alone, by the door of her empty apartment. Come Valentine’s Day, a case of mistaken identity regarding a bouquet of roses sent her into an unfocused rage, leaving an angry message for a puzzled Ted and yelling at her secretary Shirley for “embarrassing” her in an it’s-all-about-me tone that would do Hannah Horvath proud. Episode 3 showed her only briefly, as she icily told Don, “Can’t say that we missed you,” her hostility, seemingly, driven largely by Don’s having yielded the job in California to Ted.
Where have you hidden our Peggy, Mad Men? And how did you replace her with this hostile, unpleasant basket case, lashing out at everyone in sight and pining over a long-lost married man?
It’s not implausible or belittling that Peggy should be a wreck, even months later–any more than it was, say, for Don to fall to pieces over his rejection by his neighbor Sylvia last year. One great aspect of Peggy as a character, and Mad Men’s treatment of her as a character, is that she’s an individual, not a composite, not a stand-in for womankind, not an icon. It’s to the show’s credit that it has always drawn her from the perspective of what she as a person would want, not what we as the audience need her to be. You can relate to her wit and ambition and yet see that can she sometimes be cold, self-centered–human.
There problem here is that right now Angry Lovelorn Peggy is all the show is giving us. Don can be fighting for his professional life and yet still struggle in his marriage and with his kids–hell, that’s sort of what he’s for. And Peggy, conversely, has wrestled with personal issues–Abe, her pregnancy, her mother–and thrown herself into her work at the same time. Right now, though, the balance seems badly off; what we see of Peggy at the office is refracted almost entirely through reminders that she’s shattered over Ted to the point of seeming like a different person. (All of that, of course, complicated by the fact that Ted was not just her lover, but the best, most encouraging boss she’d had.)
It isn’t about the show being obligated to make Peggy perfectly likeable, or empowered, or happy. It is about maintaining the complexity of a character who, over six seasons, has become the de facto female lead; or, at least, if her character radically changes, providing a reason beyond, “She went through a really bad breakup last season.”
I write all this, of course, with the knowledge that this is very early in the season, and episode four could entirely turn me around on Peggy and whatever’s eating her this year. (Episode three or four of a season is also often where fans begin grousing that Mad Men is going nowhere, just before it achieves liftoff.) But I worry. As we’ve seen with Don, Mad Men can be captivating when a character is losing his sense of himself. I just hope, with Peggy, that the series isn’t losing its sense of her.