Mad Speculation – Don Draper and Peggy Olson
At first glance, Don Draper’s fractured identity and his attempts to reinvent himself by abandoning Dick Whitman form the basis of Mad Men. His story, however, unfolds alongside Peggy Olson’s whose identity also takes shape throughout the series. It is the relationship between these two characters as well as the chemistry between Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss that gives Mad Men its poignancy and depth. Matthew Weiner has crafted a story that is as much Peggy’s as it is Don’s.
Whether they are working together or on opposite sides of the table these two fully understand one another, often without words. For Jon Hamm, acting comes from a “place of pain;” he endears audiences to Don Draper even when we find the character’s behavior repugnant. For her part, Elizabeth Moss’s wide-eyed performance balances Peggy’s innocence – “I always try to be honest” – with her ambition.
Peggy and Don have come a long way since she made an awkward pass at him on her first day of work as his new secretary. Don, head of creative at Sterling Cooper, admonishes, “Peggy I’m your boss not your boyfriend.” This line is one the two, thankfully, have never crossed.
He has more respect for Peggy than for any of the women he takes to bed. Don has demonstrated a complete inability to remain faithful to one woman [I am sure you would like me to include a photo montage here but I simply do not have the space for Betty, Midge, Rachel, Bobbie, Miss Farrell, the secretary who threw a vase at him, Faye, Megan, and Sylvia.]
Peggy’s romantic track record is not much better. Miss Deaver’s secretarial school taught her how to type but neglected to impart in her any fashion sense or the ability to choose a decent man. Her taste in romantic partners runs from bad
And also this guy.
The best man she ever dates, Abe, loves Peggy more than she loves him – this is not a crime though it results in a stabbing.
Don takes Freddie Rumson’s advice and recognizes Peggy’s talent as a copywriter.
He promotes her and trusts her with his secrets.
And she trusts him with hers.
Don rarely thanks Peggy for her good work, instead he imparts to her the important “that’s what the money’s for” lesson. When his tendency to disregard her talent and treat her “as an extension of [him]self” backfires in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” he humbles himself and asks her to follow him from Sterling Cooper to SCPD. Peggy worries how he might react if she says no. His reply, “I would spend the rest of my life trying to hire you” beautifully summarizes the important place she holds in his life.
Eventually Peggy leaves SCDP in an attempt to step out of Don’s shadow.
She takes a job with competitor Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough, only to find herself back in Don’s orbit when he proposes a merger between the two agencies. Since Peggy works in a man’s world she often has difficulty maneuvering as a woman despite Bobbie Barrett’s advice.
She lacks Don’s natural ability to read a room. For example, Peggy asserts herself in the Heinz pitch with disastrous consequences.
Don’s world spins out of control in Season Six amidst a haze of affairs and alcoholism fueled by his ongoing Dick Whitman/Don Draper identity crisis. Peggy momentarily usurps Don, even taking over his office, when the partners eject him from his own agency.
Don takes this humiliation as a sign to open up to his children about his past.
Later he gingerly works his way back into the agency and into his children’s lives.
Peggy, disgusted by his earlier selfish behavior, has a difficult time warming up to him again. Their collaboration on the Burger Chef campaign and Don’s gentle advice and confidence in her ability lead to a reconciliation.
Don has always fashioned himself as Peggy’s mentor but it is not until he puts Peggy ahead of himself with Burger Chef that he fully earns the title. The look on his face as she delivers her moving pitch to the clients illustrates his pride in her talent and accomplishments.
Peggy chooses work over motherhood – “I wanted other things” – early in her career. Her recent friendship with ten-year-old Julio is evidence that she yearns for a family. There is a chance that she will find love and combine a family with work as she moves into the era of women’s liberation.
Don has yet to reconcile his past and as a result his fate is difficult to predict. He has a dismal history of learning from his mistakes. Yet he is a good man, a faithful friend and a loving father. These qualities should lead him to find peace of mind and a measure of happiness. I doubt he will find it in the advertising business, with its hollow “reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay.”
Don and Peggy have both found relief and emotional sustenance in one another. Their friendship has the potential to heal and revitalize Don. Unlike Betty and Pete, Don and Peggy have demonstrated their ability to adapt. It is time to find out how they will “change the conversation.”