“Mad Men” Season Four in Review: The Women (Peggy Olson)

by M.C. Antil on October 27, 2010

While Season Four of Mad Men was clearly the Season of Who is Don Draper?, it was also, in a very meaningful way, the Season of the Woman.  Because once again creator Matthew Weiner provided an historical backdrop to his narrative that was nearly as compelling as the narrative itself.

In Season Three, Mad Men’s real-time backstory was the growing influence of television on American life, and by extension, Madison Avenue. 

This season it was something clearly closer to his heart.  As background to the season’s riveting storyline — a 13-episode narrative arc that called into question the very future of Don Draper, and suggested that the stylized character that Dick Whitman created to land the life and corner office he’d always dreamed of having may just be more of a burden than he’s worth — Weiner offered up a steady stream of rich and textured vignettes that shadow-danced with the single most overlooked and under-appreciated aspect of the Mad Men decade: the emergence of the modern American woman, and her uneasy relationship with her rapidly changing place in the world.

Peggy Olson

Indeed, if one wanted to see the seeds of the Women’s Movement of the 1970’s being sown, or to peek into the world that inspired such feminist icons as Gloria Steinem, Helen Gurley Brown, and Billie Jean King to steel their resolve, one need look no further than Season Four of Mad Men.  The America of 1965, at least according to Weiner, may have still been a man’s world, but whatever sense of order it possessed, or whatever chance it had of not spinning out of control entirely, was a product of the strength, wisdom and instincts of its women.

The following is Part I of a six-part series on the fascinating women of Mad Men, with an analysis of what we learned about each in Season Four. 

Look for Parts II through VI in the weeks ahead.

Peggy Olson
One thing we learned this season is that Peggy just might be better at her job than Don is at his.  (And given that they’re both working on the creative side of a relatively small agency, that could spell trouble down the road.)

For example, in advance of Don’s drunken binge the night of the Liston-Clay rematch, and with the Samsonite account hanging in the balance, Peggy brought him a storyboard of a TV spot in which an elephant shows how durable a Samsonite suitcase is by standing on it.  It was a terrific idea, especially given the fact that less than a decade later American Tourister produced a real-life ad using an animal — a chimpanzee — to prove the toughness of its luggage.  What’s more, American Tourister’s chimp spot not only proved to be a home run, it became one of the most effective and talked-about ads in the history of television.

All Don could come up with, meanwhile, after rejecting Peggy’s idea out of pocket, was a print ad using a suitcase posed to look like the victorious Cassius Clay standing in exultation over a second piece of luggage posed to look like the vanquished Sonny Liston.  It was a sophomoric, embarrassingly bad concept that would have had the shelf life of day-old fish.

We also learned, somewhat surprisingly, that the Clio Award-winning Day-Glo spot, which was regarded as so edgy and ground-breaking, and which cemented Don’s rep as a creative genius, was actually Peggy’s idea.  It was Peggy’s somewhat daring idea to lock a child in a closet while his mother’s freshly waxed floor was drying.  All Don did was put the kid under a table and dress him in a cowboy hat.

Peggy: Better than Don?

But perhaps most important, Peggy quickly embraced the all-new concept of psychographic research, which Faye brought to the agency.  Don, on the other hand, believed it to be just so much psycho-babble.  The fact that today no agency would think of developing a major campaign without first considering the mindset of its target audience only further supports the notion that when it comes to creating effective advertising, Peggy can consistently kick her boss’ ass.

We learned as well what we had always suspected; that Peggy is utterly torn between the expectations of her family that she marry and have children  — expectations which, despite the fact she’s already given a baby up for adoption, remain deeply embedded within her as well — and her growing ambitions as a Madison Ave professional. 

The scene was a little heavy-handed, given the subtle way Weiner usually makes a point, but the overt juxtaposition in Episode Seven (“The Suitcase”) of the two women who chat with Peggy in the ladies room on her birthday, one right after the other, framed Peggy’s conundrum perfectly. 

First Megan comes in and asks how old Peggy is, and then remarks with a combination of awe and genuine envy how far she’s climbed for someone so young.  Then moments later a very pregnant Trudy enters — Trudy, who is carrying the child of the same man who fathered Peggy’s baby — and assures the aging birthday girl not to worry, it will happen for her soon enough. 

Peggy and Pete: Divided by a glass wall

Of all the characters in Season Four, none was involved in as many memorable scenes as Peggy.  And the greatest, of course, was her fight with Don in that very same episode (for my money, the finest written and directed television episode I can ever remember). 

At that point in the season’s story arc, Don’s life is spiraling out of control.  He lives alone in a small, dumpy apartment, his company is floundering and he’s drinking himself into oblivion. 

What’s more, you get the sense he’s starting to feel that the demands of playing Don Draper are becoming too much for him to bear.  Then, to make matters worse, he’s just learned the only person in the world who loves him for who he is, and not the man he’s invented for himself, is not only dying, she may in fact be dead.

Peggy, meanwhile, is coming to realize she’s hopelessly wedged between a personal rock and a professional hard place — and she’s not getting from either side of her life the one thing she craves most; a sense of belonging.  She doesn’t love her fiancé — in fact, she might not even like him — and she’s being so taken for granted at work that deep down inside she secretly fears for her job. 

Peggy is not getting from either side of her life the one thing she craves most; a sense of belonging.

So one evening in the office, as Don sits there drinking and trying to try to come up with some new ideas for Samsonite, all hell breaks loose.  Don is in the darkest place he’s ever been in his life and Peggy is stressed to no end, knowing she’s blown off, not only her “surprise” birthday dinner with her fiancé and her family, but her impending marriage.  What’s more, she’s starting to realize she’s working for a cold-hearted functioning alcoholic who, much to her chagrin, is a shadow of the man the rest of Madison Ave believes him to be.

Directing vs. Acting
Many times people find it difficult to determine the difference between a director’s directions and an actor’s choices.  Two moments in “The Suitcase” are terrific examples of the difference. 

In the first, Don and Peggy’s fight scene, listen to their two actors’ vocal levels and their cadence and how the scene builds as their anger does.  Listen to the quickening pace as the demons within each character start working their way to the surface.  Watch how the scene is edited, tighter and tighter as their anger and frustration mounts.  Then finally, watch as they reach the scene’s inevitable conclusion; an explosion into rage that leaves Peggy emotionally beaten up and crying  in the ladies room.

That’s great directing.

Later, watch when Don is seated at his desk sobbing over the death of Anna and Peggy asks him what’s wrong.  Don tells her it’s because the only person in the world who truly knew him has died.  Watch how Elisabeth Moss, as Peggy, goes to him, touches him softly on the shoulder and tells him gently, “That’s not true.”

In the hands of a lesser actress, the line “That’s not true” could have been read as though Peggy were taking exception to Don’s contention that no one knows him, and was arguing that he was crazy; a lot of people know him. 

But the way Moss delivers the line, “That’s not true” means so much more.  It  means, ” I know you.”  And it means,  “I hurt because you do.”

That’s great acting.

A few moments later Weiner then does something particularly wonderful.  He completes an open circle he created in the pilot when he had Peggy, believing it was part of her job as Don’s secretary to sleep with him, clumsily place her hand on top of Don’s as it rested atop his desk. 

In “The Suitcase” what Weiner does is, the morning of Anna’s death, while Don and Peggy are viewing some ideas Don has hastily pieced together for Samsonite, he has Don thank Peggy for her compassion and understanding by not saying a word, but gently placing his hand on top of hers, just as she had once done to him under very different circumstances. 

A lasting peace?

It’s a stunningly tender moment and a visual symbol of just how far Don and Peggy have traveled in such a relatively short period of time.  It also represents the point at which their personal circle becomes complete and they can finally bury both their hatchets and their differences.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether or not that peace will prove to be a lasting one.

Two Stunning Visuals
There were some visually compelling scenes with Peggy this year, but two in particular stood out for me for the sheer poetry of their composition. 

In Episode Four (“The Rejected”), Peggy and her new downtown Bohemian friends ( including the fascinating, out-and-proud lesbian, Joyce) are headed out for an impromptu lunch, while Pete and a brigade of the office’s white boys of privilege are doing the same with Pete’s father-in-law, Tom, who holds the key to millions in new business. 

As Peggy and her colorful, artsy friends await the elevator just outside the glass wall of the reception area, on the other side of that all that glass we see Pete with his Brooks Brothers-clad gang of Hamptons-going, Upper East Side-aspiring, wannabe titans of industry. 

The “glass ceiling” is certainly one of the most abused, even trite, conceits in corporate America, used to represent the limitations certain people  — most often women– encounter on their way up the corporate ladder (another metaphor over-used to the point of distraction.)  But what Weiner offers up in “The Rejected” is a fresh new take on the glass ceiling — the glass wall — which divides Peggy in so many different ways from her colleague and one night lover, Pete. 

The two may have shared an intimate night, may have conceived a child together, may even work in the same space and interact with the same people — hell, they may even still have feelings for one another — but none of that matters.  They are two different people from two incredibly different worlds.  And, truly, never the twain shall meet. 

And the blank looks Pete and Peggy give each other from opposite sides of that glass wall is a sign that both of them have now resigned themselves to that fact.

But the glass wall also signifies the two sides of Peggy’s id.  On one side is tradition and a flesh-and blood-incarnation of a class of people her mother told her to aspire to, while on the other is a side of life — and a side of her — she is just coming to realize even exists. 

This much is becoming clear: for Peggy Olson that pane of glass will remain for the foreseeable future both a window and a wall.

Her new friends, including Joyce, interest Peggy, maybe even excite her.  And while they may not be her future, she thinks, who knows, maybe they are?  And who’s to say for sure, particularly at this point in her life, when the questions so far outnumber the answers? 

Nevertheless, as much as that big sheet of glass will continue to provide her with a clear view of the aspirational world her mother helped sear into her brain, this much is becoming clear: for Peggy Olson, that pane of glass will remain for the foreseeable future both a window and a wall.

The second scene — or scenes, as the case may be — that I loved for their visual composition took place in Episode Six (“Waldorf Stories”).  And it was not so much either one scene that I loved as much it was the juxtaposition of the two.

In the first, Peggy has confronted Stan, the Neanderthal art director who is always reading Playboy and talking about his carnal appetites and sexual open-mindedness, by challenging him to take off his clothes.  He has just told her she’s insecure about her body, which she probably is, but rather than running from something that terrifies her, she confronts it. 

And him.  Head on.

She tells Stan he’s lazy and has no ideas and she dares him to strip, if that’s what he wants, so both of them can work naked. 

He thinks she’s kidding, but before he knows what’s happened she’s standing there in front of him dressed in only her bra and panties.  Peggy simply stares at Stan and doesn’t blink.  (Moments, of course, after having just castigated him for reading Playboy and “staring at women who can’t stare back.”)

Stan eventually strips, gets a hard-on, becomes embarrassed and retreats to the bathroom beaten, battered and emotionally emasculated. 

It is a moment of great triumph for Peggy, a tremendously courageous young lady, and she plays it out face-to-the-camera, wearing nothing more than some rather unflattering and utilitarian underwear.

In the second scene, which happens just a few moments later, Don is at the tail end of a lost weekend.  He’s gone to bed with two different women on successive nights, and in both instances ends up so drunk he can barely function.  Weiner has some fun showing Don stumbling into bed with the first of the two ladies and then waking up with the other. 

Unfortunately for him, the thing that wakes him up is call from Betty.  He’s been so drunk all weekend, he’s forgotten his Sunday morning appointment to take the kids for the day.  He then looks over and realizes he cannot remember the woman’s name lying in the bed next to him. 

His life is now officially off the rails and when he stumbles into the bathroom in his underwear, you see a man who’s drowning in a sea of his own making.  And when he closes the door, he stands there facing the camera, clad only in his boxer shorts.  

The only difference is, where an underwear-clad Peggy stood facing her fears head on, Don — in his underwear — stands with his back to his, unwilling or unable to confront the specter of what he’s let his life become.

It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of images and an imaginative use of  wardrobe.  What’s more, the moment lends credence to any suspicions anyone might have already been harboring about the relative strength of a rather quiet and unassuming former secretary and copy writer and a man so much of Madison Ave believes can walk on water.

A Thing for Don
One last thought about Peggy and Season Four.  A number of people told me they wondered why Peggy reacted like she did when she heard Don was engaged to be married.  ‘I think she’s got a thing for Don,” a few of them said. 

I could not disagree more. 

Peggy thinks of Don as a mentor, perhaps even a friend, and she’s bonded with him in a way that is truly meaningful to her.  But when she reacts like someone has punched her in the stomach, and then marches into Joan’s office to light up a cigarette and commiserate, it has nothing to do with her feelings for Don.

It is because, just as Weiner had spent the entire season showing us, back in 1965 there was nothing quite so daunting for a woman than the challenge of trying to balance her primal desire to find out who she is as a person with society’s centuries-old mandate that she stay at home and make babies, meals and cocktails for her husband. 

Mad Men Season Four: Season of the Woman

And what’s more, she is trying to navigate a dark and lonely path without so much as a road map.  The career woman in 1965 was a virtual pioneer.  No generation of American women had ever done anything resembling what she was trying to do.  So for someone like Peggy, every time she starts feeling secure in the choice she’s made, or good about some professional victory she’s achieved, some little moment of reality comes along and turns it all inside out.

What’s more,  the women who held tightest to their dreams of a place of prominence in Corporate America were the ones who ended up having the toughest of all.

Believe me, Peggy didn’t sit down and have that cigarette with Joanie because she has a thing for Don. 

She did it because she has a thing for marriage.  #  #  #

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