Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

lyons on mad men

The Complete History of Don and Peggy’s Relationship on Mad Men

Mad Men's half-season finale is Sunday, wrapping up a run of seven episodes that have started to bring the show's guiding themes into sharper focus: mortality, morality, companionship, self-regard. This season has revisited ideas and characters from early on, retold stories from other episodes, and found many of our characters in uncannily familiar situations. Don and Peggy exemplify that same-but-different feeling of this season, with last Sunday's "The Strategy" using many of the same ideas from season four's "The Suitcase" — Peggy's birthday, office drunkenness, the frustration of trying to wring an idea out of thin air. Don and Peggy's relationship goes way beyond these thematic echoes, though; it's the definitive relationship of the series, one that reflects and metabolizes both characters' interactions with all the other characters on the show. More so than with any other pair on Mad Men, the story of Don and Peggy pokes at the show's central question: Who am I? Don and Peggy ask and answer that question together, and even as their relationship has grown and changed over the course of the show, the mirror they hold up to one another remains as inspiring — and unflattering — as it ever was.

Don and Peggy meet on the pilot, which is Peggy's first day at Sterling Cooper. If you haven't rewatched the first season in a while, do so: It'll make Peggy's eventual ascension seem even more impressive because she faced an appalling level of constant sexual harassment from day one. (Particularly, though not exclusively, from Pete.) Don initially walks right past Peggy, instead greeting only Joan, so the first time Don and Peggy talk, she's waking him up from a nap. Everyone in the office spends the rest of the episode encouraging Peggy to be sexier, to show off her legs, to capitalize on her "darling ankles," to flirt more with Don. He tells her to "entertain" Pete, and she asks, meekly but with the kind of internal steely disposition we come to recognize, "Do I have to?"

Do I have to? It's something Don Draper wonders about a lot. It's also something that Mad Men spends a great deal of time acknowledging: We all have to do a lot of shit we don't want do, and this is called "society." That pressure is bad for almost everyone. Later, when Peggy awkwardly tries to flirt with Don by placing her hand on his, she's not flirting because she's actually into Don. She's doing it because she thinks she has to, and Don's rebuff is embarrassing but also a huge relief. Don's someone who knows that you actually don't have to do everything you think you have to do; sometimes this is bravery, sometimes this is assholery.

There's not another important Don and Peggy moment again until episode five, "5G," in which Peggy accidentally discovers that Don has a mistress. She's horrified by Don's deceit — made all the worse by the fact that Don dashes off to meet Midge while Betty, Sally, and Bobby are at the office waiting for him to take a family portrait — and she's horrified by having to lie for him. Yet as prim and proper as Peggy seems, it's only three episodes later, in "The Hobo Code," that Peggy and Pete are getting to the office early to have sex before the workday starts. Don notices and mentions Peggy's ripped blouse collar, thus inducting her into the glass house club, where it's never okay to throw stones. This is also the episode where Peggy sells her first campaign, Belle Jolie's "Mark Your Man" slogan. You don't have to be like Don to be successful, but it helps.

Over the next few episodes, Don and Peggy develop a solid rapport, decent but not extraordinary. But then in episode 11, "Indian Summer," Don stands up for her in the vaguely embarrassing Rejuvinator meeting. She doesn't want to explain that the "weight loss" belt is actually a vibrator. Don steps in, demurely covers for her, and praises (but corrects) her copy work. Later, Peggy asks Don for a raise, which becomes a recurring act in their relationship. He's surprised by how little she makes, and eventually agrees both to a raise and to removing some of her secretarial duties while she's working on campaigns.

Season one's most important Don-and-Peggy moment comes in episode 12, "Nixon vs. Kennedy." Peggy's heartbroken when two service workers are fired after she complains about money being stolen from her locker. (It wasn't them.) She hides in Don's office to cry, and when he finds her, she breaks down. "I follow the rules and people hate me," she sniffs. "Innocent people get hurt, and, and other people — people who are not good— get to walk around doing anything they want. It’s not fair." Peggy's mostly talking about Pete, a guy who has harassed her, then seduced her, then been awful to her, rinse, repeat, but she could also be talking about Don. We see this recognition wash over Don's face as he simultaneously feels bad for Peggy, respects Peggy, understands what she's talking about, and finally lets her perspective influence his actions. He decides right then not to play along with Pete's blackmail scheme. "I thought about you and what a deep lack of character you have," he tells Pete. Is that Don talking, or Peggy?

On season one's finale, "The Wheel," Don promotes Peggy — though this is less of a reflection of her skill and value and more a reflection of how badly Don wants to stick it to Pete. In fact, most of what we learn about Don and Peggy in season one isn't through their relationship, it's through their respective relationships with Pete. Pete's a slimeball, Pete's a villain, Pete's a petulant little boy — but Pete is not actually worse than anyone else on this show. A womanizing secret-keeper whose thirst for professional success is rivaled only by his desire to be fawned over? Join the club. But Pete's crime isn't treating Peggy badly, although that's awful; his crime is that he treats her differently when it's just the two of them and when it's the whole gang all together. Don and Peggy are how they are with each other. Period.

That becomes more true in season two, as Peggy and Don work closer together. "What did you bring me, Daddy?" is the tag line she comes up with in "For Those Who Think Young," and it's one of the clearest moments of Peggy/Don mind meld. Peggy and Don have very little in common in their regular lives, but they're able to speak in each other's voices with surprising regularity. Peggy doesn't wonder what her dad's bringing her — it's Don who's wondering what he's bringing Sally.

We learn more about the source of this developing bond in episode five, "The New Girl." Don calls Peggy to bail him out of jail after he and Bobbie Barret drunkenly crashed the car he was driving. In flashback, we see that Don was the only person who visited Peggy in the hospital when she (surprisingly) had her baby. He's incredibly non-judgmental about it, which brings up one of the series' more enduring lines: "This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened." Don's advice is presented alongside Bobbie Barret's advice to Peggy, as Bobbie tells her "you have to start living the life of the person you want to be." Bobbie's advice is probably better as far as helpful things go. It just seems worse because Don and Peggy have an ecstatic secret wavelength that prioritizes their communication over all other communications. That developed in part in season one, but it's codified here; when Don and Peggy communicate with each other, no one else really matters. Not Pete, not Bobbie, not Betty, not anyone.

"Maidenform" finds Peggy still struggling to fit in with her peers, thanks in large part to their ongoing misogyny. They develop a campaign about being a "Jackie" or a "Marilyn." "Which one am I?" Peggy asks, at once indicting the idea that those are the only two ways for a woman to be but also a little hopefully asking if anyone in the room thinks she's attractive. (And thus, by Sterling Cooper standards, worthy of any attention whatsoever.) Ken says she's Gertrude Stein, and everyone laughs. Don suggests Irene Dunn. Don is not someone with a healthy attitude about women, and he probably does see most of the women in his life as either Jackie or Marilyn. Or maybe even with less nuance than that, since Don doesn't have a Madonna/Whore complex — he just has a Whore/Whore complex. But he sees Peggy as outside of that, as not part of his weird crazy attitudes about potential sexual partners. That might not be the prize Peggy's looking for, but it's a good prize nonetheless.

The idea of Peggy and Don mirroring each other is another that bubbles up again and again, and in "A Night to Remember," the dynamics between Don and Betty and between Peggy and Father Gil are very similar. Don and Peggy have extremely clear — harmfully clear, really — ideas of what they want other people to do and be, and when others don't live up to those (largely unspoken) expectations, Don and Peggy get furious. Don's selfishness sometimes comes across as swagger, where Peggy's selfishness sometimes comes across as immaturity, but that's just rank enculturated gender roles showing: Both of them are selfish because they prefer themselves to other people.

In "Six Month Leave," Freddy Rumsen — Peggy's original and ongoing champion — is forced out of his job due to alcoholism, and Don gives Peggy his accounts. "I wish it hadn't happened this way," Peggy sighs, but Don's not having it. "Don't feel bad about being good at your job," he insists. She talks it over with Pete, then, and Pete has a similar response. "I refuse to feel bad. We’re going to get raises," he says. "You could get [Freddy's] office." Peggy does eventually get Freddy's office, but yet again, Pete and Don saying the same thing makes Don seem valorous and Pete seem villainous. By the end of season two, Don's impressed by Peggy's rise (he beams when she tells him she landed the Popsicle account), but we also know that neither Don nor Peggy is very good at being around other people. He masks it better than she does, but they both find social performance exhausting.

In season three, Peggy and Don have settled into a pretty comfortable rhythm, enough so that they can be a little bit snappish with each other without risking anything. She thinks the Bye Bye Birdie–themed Patio campaign is off base, and Don disagrees. "You're not an artist, Peggy; you solve problems," he says sternly. "Leave some tools in your toolbox." The two don't have a significant moment until episode five, "The Fog." Peggy asks for a raise — everybody drink! — and Don tells her the company can't afford it. She's crestfallen. "I look at you and think, I want what he has," she says. (Don's response: "Really?") "You have everything and so much of it." Don plays it cool. "I suppose that's probably true," he deflects, but it's a big statement from her and he knows it. And it freaks him the hell out, which is why two episodes later, in "Seven Twenty Three," he lashes out at her when she tries to get on the Hilton account.

"What do I have to do for you? Every time I turn around, you have your hand in my pocket," he screams. "There's not one thing you've done here that I couldn't live without." She's stunned. "Stop asking for things," he says. Don's not really mad that Peggy's asking for things, though; these are his inner fears talking. If he has everything and so much of it, why does he still want more? (Because advertising is pernicious.) What if everything he's done is something the rest of the world could live with out? (It is; that's true for most of us.) Why can't he stop asking for things? (Because his family never loved him.) That night, two hitchhikers beat Don up, and Peggy spends the night at Duck's; the next morning, they both get to work looking pretty decrepit. They look at one another, and silently seem to agree to just move on.

They riff together in "The Color Blue," leaving poor Paul Kinsey in the tall grass, and they commiserate in "The Grown-Ups" by being the two people who decided to go to the office the day of JFK's funeral. "My roommate invited over half the building, so they could watch TV and write condolence letters to Jackie," Peggy says. "Then I went to my sister’s, and my mother was crying and praying so hard, there wasn’t room for anyone else to feel anything." So she came to the office, where there's plenty of room for her to feel things. Don gets it, too, that feeling of other people sucking all the oxygen out of a room, how oppressive it can be to have to behold other people's emotions.

Mad Men likes a big season finale, and season three's "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." is a heavy hitter. Don and Betty decide, finally, to divorce, but it's Don and Peggy who have the really hard conversations. Don assumes that Peggy will eagerly join him at the new agency, but she's not so sure. "I'm not going to beg you," he spits. "Beg me? You didn't even ask me," she says, sounded wounded. "Everyone thinks you do all my work. even you. I don't want to make a career out of being there so you can kick me when you fail." For once, Don takes someone's criticisms of him to heart. However often Betty told him how much his actions hurt her, he never really did anything about not — nothing meaningful or lasting, anyway. He can't do it for Sally. He can't change for Roger. But he's struck by what Peggy tells him, and he comes to her apartment to apologize.

"I've taken you for granted, and I've been hard on you," he says. "I see you as an extension of myself." He pauses. "And you're not." (He's an extension of her as much as she is of him, though Don doesn't see it that way.) "There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone," Don pleads. "And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable." He's theoretically talking about the Kennedy assassination, but obviously he's talking about the fact that he and Peggy both have two lives: Their lives before, and their lives after their big, secret decisions. He doesn't just want Peggy to work with him because she's good at selling things; he wants to work together because he can relax around her. Pete and Bert know the facts about Dick Whitman, but only Peggy can really understand what it takes to decide, through hardship, exactly how you want your life to be. "What if I say no," a teary Peggy responds. "You'll never speak to me again." Don't even think it, Don says. "I'll spend the rest of my life trying to hire you."

When we open in season four, it's Thanksgiving, and Peggy and Pete come up with a staged scuffle to raise interest in hams. It goes awry, and Peggy needs money to bail the actresses out of jail. She calls Don, and he's really grouchy about it. "Do you think you're my first call?" Peggy shouts, and it's our first clear sign that Don is in descent. Later, after yet another scolding, Peggy lashes back. "We are all here because of you. All we want to do is please you," she says, and that sets the idea for a lot of what happens in the rest of the season. Don's an unappreciative wreck, while Peggy continues to have her shit together and to resent Don's dismissiveness. If the earlier parts of their relationship were defined by Don seeing Peggy, then this era's defined by him ignoring her. Don's in a state of grief for the fallout of his marriage, and taking Peggy seriously means taking everything seriously, something he doesn't have the emotional resources to do. He hates himself, so he hates Peggy. He's keeping everything at arm's length, so to with Peggy.

People often mistake Don and Peggy's relationship for a sexual or romantic one; many Sterling Cooper employees assume Peggy slept with Don to get her big break, particularly considering Don's track record of having sex with his secretaries. In "The Rejected," that comes to a head, with Don's seduced-and-abandoned secretary Allison weeping in a focus group. Peggy tries to comfort her, but when Allison suggests that Peggy must understand, Peggy's horrified. "Your problem is not my problem, and honestly you should get over it," she says, nastily. She's wrong, though, because they both have the problem of trusting Don, and in much of season four, Don is not trustworthy. "I don’t say this easily, but you’re not a good person," Allison screams at him, and it could just have easily been Peggy.

"Waldorf Stories" is in a lot of ways rock-bottom for Don and Peggy's relationship. Peggy's livid that she's not invited to the Clios, even though the Glo-Coat commercial was her idea, and Don's a drunken mess; sweaty, greedy, and so inebriated he doesn't know what day it is. At one point he yells, "I'm not the problem!" but again, we know Don likes to project his dark fears onto Peggy. Of course he's the problem.

Which brings us to "The Suitcase." It's arguably the best episode of the show, and definitely the most significant Don and Peggy episode (until, maybe, "The Strategy"). Don spends the episode berating Peggy and getting drunker and drunker. Peggy's still hurt about being shut out of the Glo-Coat glory, and Don's having none of it. "I give you money, you give me ideas," he bellows. "And you never say thank you," she spits back. "That's what the money is for! You should be thanking me every morning when you wake up, along with Jesus, for giving you another day!" Don hopes that's true, that money's more important than gratitude, because he's a pretty rich guy that no one much loves. But they hit a turning point in the episode, and eventually Peggy admits, "I know what I'm supposed to want, but it never feels right. Or as important as anything in that office." Who understands that better than Don?

"The Suitcase" is probably the clearest embodiment of Peggy and Don's non-sexual chemistry. These are people for whom sex is almost never a net positive; their sexual histories only barely overlap with the people they've loved. We see Anna Draper's ghost briefly at the end of the episode, and she's the only other woman Don loved, deeply and honestly. Not for nothing, but they didn't have a sexual relationship, either. Peggy's Catholic guilt around sex and sexuality is an obstacle for her in general, and until Abe, who doesn't show up until later, the guys Peggy dates are dolts. Many people think the most significant moment in "The Suitcase" is when Don and Peggy hold hands briefly at the end, echoing the pilot, and that's a good moment certainly. But the bigger one comes before that. Don calls Stephanie in California, and she tells him that Anna died. He's crushed, and when he looks up from hanging up the telephone, he sees that Peggy is awake. He didn't expect to make eye contact with her, but he does, and his guard is completely and totally down. He starts crying. He tells her someone died. "Who," she asks. "The only person in the world who really knew me." And then she stands up as he curls into a ball, pats him on the back and says, softly and sincerely, "That’s not true."

This is when things start to change for Don. He cleans up a bit, sobers up a bit, starts being nicer. When he tells Peggy in "The Summer Man" that if she wants respect she should "go out there and get it for [herself]," it's more encouraging than spiteful. In episodes 11 and 12, Don confides in Peggy, counts on her, tells her that the business is struggling but that she's essential. They tease each other a little bit about Don's big, fancy tobacco letter. "I thought you didn't go in for those kinds of shenanigans," she says, quoting Don's criticism of her earlier ham fiasco from the beginning of the season.

Peggy helped Don crawl out of his hole, Leo McGarry style, and then in "Tomorrowland," Don impulsively decides to propose to Megan. "She reminds me of you," Don tells Peggy. "She's got the same spark. I know she admires you just as much as I do." Megan is many things, but she is not reminiscent of Peggy, and even if she's a talented copywriter, she hates it. That's not Peggy's spark. It's not clear exactly what spark Don is talking about here, but it seems to be the spark of someone Don thinks he can be honest with. He might be more candid with Megan — she knows who Anna Draper and Dick Whitman are, for example — but Don's more honest with Peggy.

Which is maybe why Megan is the only one who thinks throwing Don a surprise party is a good idea in season five's premiere, "A Little Kiss." Peggy's unconcealed horror at the idea hurts Megan's feelings, and Peggy still hasn't quite figured out how to navigate Megan and Don as a unit. Even as the dark mortality themes start to creep in on season five, Peggy is pretty immune. She takes a page from the Don Draper playbook and snaps at a client and then heads off to the movies for an anonymous sexual encounter in "Far Away Places," so it's not until "Lady Lazarus" that we see any tension between Don and Peggy. When we do, however, we see a great deal. Megan doesn't want to work in advertising anymore, so she quits — which hurts Don's feelings but also destabilizes his sense of power and control. He takes it out on Peggy, enough so that she answers her phone "pizza haus!" to avoid another Don phone call. Because Megan dropped out, Peggy has to stand in for her at a Cool-Whip meeting, and it doesn't go well. She's no good at pretending to be Don's wife. Get it? "You were threatened by everything about her," Don says accusingly. As always, his anger at Peggy is — all together now — his anger at himself! "She thinks advertising is stupid," Peggy replies. "No, she thinks the people she worked with are cynical and petty," Don replies. What he neglects to mention is that Megan thinks he's cynical, at least according to what she told Peggy in "The Little Kiss." But now Peggy's hip to Don's bullshit. "You know what? You are not mad at me, so shut up," she tells him. Ah, our Peggy, all grown up.

That wound, caused by Don's insecurities around Megan, starts growing. Don accidentally-on-purpose throws away Ginsberg's pitches so they won't compete with his, and Peggy notices. By the time "The Other Woman" rolls around, Peggy knows Don is heading back to a dark bad place, one she's not interested in revisiting. She feels left out, and when she mentions it, he literally throws money at her. By the end of the episode, when she quits, he slowly realizes what he's done. "Frankly, I'm impressed," he says, before the gravity of the moment sinks in. "You finally picked the right moment to ask for a raise." But when she tells him "there's no number," he gets choked up. He kisses her hand and they both get a little weepy. "Don't be a stranger," she tells him. Yeah, Don. Don't be a stranger, particularly to yourself and your wife, and not to other people, either. Luckily Don bumps into his protégé at the movies in the season finale. "I'm proud of you," he tells her. "I just didn't know it would be without me."

Season six finds Peggy working at CGC, and she doesn't cross paths with Don until episode four, when Don overhears her use his favorite "change the conversation" line. He's pissed, and also a little proud. He avoids her at the awards show in "The Flood," but screws with her a little in "For Immediate Release" by joining forces with Ted and sucking Peggy back into his orbit. She's surprised, and not pleasantly.

Don doesn't know how to talk to Peggy about how sad he is that she moved on, so instead, he decides to take out his frustrations on Ted by getting him stinking drunk and having a dick-wagging contest. Don's even more annoyed when he sees a gently affectionate gesture between Peggy and Ted in "The Crash." His anger doesn't bubble over until "The Better Half." Ted and Don want Peggy to decide whose campaign they like better, but of course they're really asking her to whom she is more loyal. "There's a right and a wrong!" Don claims. "How could that be? What you’re really saying is that there’s you, and there’s him," Peggy replies. "You're both demanding, and you're both pig-headed. The difference is he's interested in the idea, and you're interested in your idea." Peggy lionizes Ted's behavior because she's falling for him, and Don's insanely jealous — not because he wants Peggy to be in love with him, but because Don has to be the north star. Don continues to go back and forth with Peggy about his and Ted's respective virtues, and she says boldly, "He never makes me feel this way." Don's almost proud of how much he can hurt Peggy's feelings. "He doesn't know you," he says. Eesh.

Don's self-righteousness stinks in God's nostrils, of course, because he's aggressively cheating on Megan for all of season six. His guilt — some of which is guilt over not feeling guilty enough — makes him project, yet again, onto Peggy. If Peggy can have two bosses, maybe he can have two lovers? If Peggy gets to have someone she loves, plus someone who really knows her, can Don have that too, preferably in the form of two brunettes who won't judge him, ever? Don wants Peggy all to himself because he wants to prove that it's possible to have a singular devotion. And if he can demonstrate proof of concept with Peggy's affection, then maybe he can have a more meaningful role model for sexual monogamy.

Come "The Quality of Mercy," Don's happy to split his aggression between Peggy and Ted, particularly after awkwardly running into them at the movies. "Your judgment is impaired," he tells Ted, angrily, as if lust would be the only reason someone might believe in Peggy's talents. "You hate that he's a good man," Peggy says to Don, even though Ted's cheating on his wife with her. "He's not that virtuous — he's just in love with you," Don says back, incredulously. Don does not have a concept of "enough." He goes overboard in the Rosemary's Baby aspirin pitch, playing a cruel emotional card that he knows will sadden Ted — claiming the idea was CGC's dead partner's final idea. "You killed everything," Peggy says. "You can stop now. You're a monster."

Does Peggy really think Don's a monster, though? He's a monster she's been very loyal to for nearly a decade, and he's the monster she embodies in the season finale, standing at his desk, assuming his body language. Don and Peggy are Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis — however much they might hate each other, they're also each other's half.

When season seven starts, Don is persona non grata at SC&P. Peggy doesn't know she's listening to his words from Freddy Rumsen's mouth, and if she did know, she probably wouldn't go for it. She's still incredibly mad at him for letting Ted go to California in his place, thus ruining her budding romance. When she finally sees Don in "Field Trip," she makes a point of saying that they don't miss him. Don retaliates in "The Monolith," blowing off the work she assigned him and refusing to attend the meetings they scheduled. He slowly acquiesces, though, focusing more of his frustration on Lou than Peggy, so by the time "The Strategy" rolls around, we're really due for a big Don-Peggy showdown.

And that's what we get. In "The Suitcase," it's Peggy's birthday. In "The Strategy," she breaks down, confessing her birthday just passed. Just like in "The Suitcase," they get pretty drunk. In "The Suitcase," they confess to one another that they both watched their fathers die. In "The Strategy," they confess that they don't have happy families — and maybe don't even know what happy families constitute. When Don claims that putting working moms in an ad is "too sad," Peggy scoffs. "You are surrounded by all kinds of mothers who work, Don," she says pointedly. It's just another indication that Don is not that interested in other people's lived experiences. He's interested in the images of those experiences, but in Peggy's case, he's had a hand in crafting both her actual and the perceived life. "You're doing great," he tells her, and it's a big comfort. He's not just saying it for her, though; he's saying it for him, too, because if Peggy's doing awfully, that's in part due to him.

"What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons," Don says in the very first episode of the series. Sometimes it seems like he believes that. Don's version of love is not a great kind of love. It's petty and nasty, and he can be capricious, withholding, violent, and dishonest. And that's just if you marry him! Don and Peggy love each other, but they're not people who are good at giving or accepting love. More important than their love, then, is simply their bond. These are people who are attached, for better or worse, for forever, in a relationship that's not sexual, not parental, but not quite student-teacher, and not really mentor-mentee anymore. They're not best friends. They're not even always co-workers. Parents die, people divorce, they move to California, they die in childbirth, they place their children for adoption, they flee the borough, they change their name, they have anonymous sex. People come and go, even people you're supposed to love who are supposed to love you. Peggy and Don are people with abandonment issues, and love does not preclude abandonment.Togetherness does. And Peggy and Don? Boy are they together.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by AMC