The Internet’s collective consciousness expressed grave concern when Peggy Olson stepped onto the elevator of Sterling Cooper Draper Price for the last time. Would this descent also represent her exit from Mad Men? To which I replied, “no, Internet, no.” This concern was not unfounded because the show has been known to discard or greatly diminish the screen time of seemingly essential characters (e.g., Sal, Paul, even Betty). Nevertheless, I doubted that Peggy would vanish or pop up as a Hari Krishna because she is central to the show’s understanding of mid-century American culture. While Don embodies the American desire for reinvention and illusion, Peggy represents the hyper-ambitious spirit and transitional energy of the late sixties far more than any other character—particularly more than the woman who replaced her for much of this season, Megan.
The Internet also seems fairly certain that the “lady’s cigarette” Peggy is testing will become Virginia Slims with the infamous tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Due to Matthew Weiner’s scrupulous attention to period detail, I doubt the show will actually have Peggy create this campaign because, in real life, it was written by a man. This shouldn’t be surprising, for what workingwoman would have considered 1968 a watershed moment in women’s liberation? You were still fired if you got pregnant and couldn’t charge a husband with rape in most states. You could wear Go-go boots though.Mad Men will still likely use a Virginia-Slims-type product and the attendant campaign as the turning point in Peggy’s career. Even though it will be her first Draper-less success, the fact that it is a cigarette campaign still ties her to Don. Outside of his penis, the cigarette is Don’s most character-defining prop. Lucky Strike—a cigarette manufacturer—is also the company that financed Don’s agency and subsequently almost caused its downfall. And it was Don’s letter to the cigarette industry that made public his core belief in the illusory nature of mid-century happiness: happiness as endlessly consuming something that kills you.
It is certainly not coincidental that Don encounters Peggy in the movie theater after his tooth extraction—an operation that leaves him, for the first time in series history, unable to smoke. After the incredibly obvious “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten” Adam hallucination, I appreciated the more subtle image of an empty handed Don approaching a smoking Peggy. As Don walks into the theater, Peggy’s arm is strewn across the seat (semi-Draper style) as she takes a drag. Even though Peggy is a nonsmoker and only trying out the product to stir her creativity, the cigarette emphasizes the change in her relationship with Don. She is now holding the stick while he is fumbling with his hands. Their encounter is sweet, but Don is noticeably uncomfortable, and I doubt this is the effect of the anesthesia wearing off. Don doesn’t quite know how to speak to Peggy as an equal or, most frightening of all, as someone who could eclipse him.
Peggy, also nervous, mentions Megan’s name about five times in two minutes. While this could merely be symptomatic of Peggy’s unease at being alone with Don without a professional veneer, I also wonder if Megan’s name comes up because she has served as a proxy figure in the Don/Peggy pairing that will never be. Megan always appeared to be a more fuckable version of Peggy—not because she was more beautiful but because she was less threatening and more conventionally feminine even as she evinced a brain and a creative streak. Don will almost certainly never have a sexual relationship with Peggy because he respects her too much. She is also incapable of playing the maternal figure he never had and thus desperately needs. In Megan, Don had seemingly found an amalgamation of the smart, equal partner (the type of woman he needs) and the erotic mother (the type of woman he desires). Unfortunately, Megan turns out to be neither. She is another spoiled, whiny Betty Draper, albeit nicer and with cuter pants.
When Don witnesses the confident, independent Peggy succeeding without him, he sees a sharp contrast with his child bride—drinking and sobbing in her underwear. Although some may have found Megan’s mother harsh, I thought she was correct to point out her daughter’s immaturity and selfishness. It is clear that Megan’s mother abandoned her own creative pursuits when she had children (thus, Megan’s “Is that what you tell yourself?” line). Megan’s father also has a creepy, unfatherly interest in Megan while he ignores her mother. Consequently, Megan’s mother does have ulterior motives when she crushes her daughter’s dreams. She doesn’t want Megan to achieve more than she has, yet she also doesn’t want Megan to waste her life. Amidst this unsettling mixture of maternal love, jealousy, and hatred, she judges Megan’s childishness most harshly. When Megan’s mother tells Don she is no longer responsible for her daughter’s actions, this may sound selfish, but Megan is a married 26-year-old. Mrs. Calvet may be a bitch, but she is also correct.
Throughout this season, Megan has revealed an increasingly immature nature. Although the show does not allow us to see whether Megan is actually a talented actress, it suggests that her desire to act is less about producing art and more about being seen. Megan claims to be working hard perfecting her creative tools, but she seems to have done little more than take a few classes and complain to her underemployed friends. Don understands that his advertising campaigns are creating illusion, yet his commitment to his craft feels more like art than Megan’s amateurish pursuits. When Megan asks Don to get her an audition for the shoe commercial, he says she should be someone’s discovery, not someone’s wife. He doesn’t understand why she would want to be in a cheap commercial when she could be aiming higher. What he fails to see until the moment he watches Megan’s tape is that she doesn’t want to be an actress. She wants to be a product. She wants to be featured in anything—even a rapey advertisement for stilettoes—because she wants to be looked at and desired like the countless disposable products Don hawks everyday.
It is significant that Don and Peggy watch a movie together on the same side of the screen, whereas Don watches Megan’s screen test alone. Don and Peggy are equals; Megan is a powerless visage. As she smiles, simpers, and turns to let the camera catch her profile, it is clear that she is a commodity, albeit a very pretty commodity. Unlike Joan’s commodification of her beauty, Megan does not get anything out of her endeavors. Although she showed real promise as a copywriter, her desire to be a beautiful set piece superseded any authentic creative yearnings. The ridiculous costume Megan dons on the commercial set is not only tacky but also makes Jessica Paré look cheap. With this obvious allusion to SCDP’s advertisement for panty hose featuring a “cheap woman,” the show highlights Megan’s decreasing value in Don’s eyes. Even her effusive display of gratitude only emphasizes how pathetic she has become. She is still a beauty, but this beauty now appears to be little more than rouge and polyester.
I believe the season’s last shot should have been the scene of Don departing the soundstage. This brilliant image exposes the sad underside of American glamour—of everything Don and Madison Avenue represent. As the set fades into the background and the music swells—whether from the commercial set or the larger set of the show, one can’t tell—we see not only the end of Don’s love affair with Megan but also his unfortunate discovery that no one will ever offer him the salvation he craves. Megan was the hope he desperately clung to, believing she could save him from himself. Peggy represents a different kind of hope—a hope for actual connection. But Don can no longer possess Peggy.
Peggy’s future is also uncertain. The image of her spying on copulating dogs before going to bed alone suggests that, like Don, she may find that there is no such thing as complete satisfaction. However, Peggy is a woman and likely learned this lesson at age twelve when she discovered that life is rarely fair or without sacrifice. Although Don will almost certainly cheat on Megan next season, I doubt he will simply return to being the old Don Draper. I’m also sure he will continue to cross Peggy’s path, but I don’t think she will go back to being his girl. Peggy is now capable of smoking and, more importantly, of lighting her own cigarettes.