mad men

The Evolution of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson

As Mad Men barrels into the sixties, no character has evolved more than Peggy Olson. As played by Elisabeth Moss, Peggy was a buttoned-up, Brooklyn-born-and-bred 20-year-old Catholic secretary in season one. Now it’s 1965 and she’s a pot-smoking, stripteasing, bohemian-befriending senior copywriter—and sort of, kind of, a heroine. How’d that happen? As this last episode dramatically rejiggers her arc on the series (spoilers, ahoy!), we look back at how far she’s come.

“What are you, Amish or something?” Pete Campbell asks, mocking Peggy’s prudish ensemble in the series premiere. By the episode’s end, though, he’s booty-calling her after his bachelor party. Post–one night stand, she tells him, “I understand. It never happened.”
Adman–old fart Freddy Rumsen notices Peggy has a way with words when she dubs a dustbin of lipsticked tissues a “basket of kisses.” (He says her talent is “like watching a dog play the piano.”) She soon has drunken, pants-pissing Freddy’s job—and his office. She begins to take her career more seriously.
How does a smart woman fail to connect weight gain to her tryst with Pete? The pregnancy is so at odds with Peggy’s ambition that she has a nervous breakdown. Only Don knows the secret of her mental-home stint, and he assures her that “it will shock you how much it never happened.” Devastatingly enough, she takes his words to heart, gives the baby up for adoption, and goes back to work in season two, a different woman, less naïve and more determined, and never speaks of the baby to anyone … until she finally confesses to Peter.
Peggy tries to be one of the guys, even throwing back whiskeys in her office. But her transformative moment is a humiliating challenge: pitching sex to an all-male room. She picks up a vibrating exercise belt and rechristens it “The Rejuvenator”—earning compliments from even her most ruthless teasers, Ken and Pete. Hello, onanism!
Peggy has been eagerly seeking a female role model, and Joan has never been quite the right fit. She finds a more appropriate one, quite by accident, in Don’s mistress Bobbie Barrett , who rocks her world by telling her to “start living the life of the person you want to be … be a woman. It’s powerful business when done correctly.” Hereafter she calls Mr. Draper “Don.”
Peggy becomes Sterling Cooper’s first PFLAG member, befriending gay Kurt, who gives her a much-needed makeover (snip goes the infantilizing ponytail!). While Kurt doesn’t magically transform her into a Joan—this is Mad Men, not Grease—Peggy’s new sexy, sassy librarian is no less hot. Now she’s ready to declare: “My name is Peggy Olson, and I’d like to smoke some marijuana.”
Being a good writer is one thing, but breaking into the boys’ club is another. Peggy tries straight-up sex-appeal, arming herself with red lipstick and heels as she crashes a strip-club after-work party, and stuns the Sterling Cooper boys with a near lap dance for Mr. Playtex.
Nothing builds Peggy’s confidence quite like her affair with smarmy Duck, who claims he’s attracted to her brains. She’s gotten so cocky by the dramatic season-three finale that she’s finally unafraid to leave Don. In her dramatic season-three finale confrontation with Don, she not only elicits a compliment from her determinedly uneffusive mentor (“I’m hard on you because I see you as an extension of myself”), but brings him to his knees as he begs her to come to his new venture, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
By season four, it’s 1965, and Peggy is the only Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce employee embracing the times. She’s affianced, but goes solo to a proto-hipster loft party (raided by the police), snogs a sexy journalist in a closet, and gets nuzzled by a lesbian photo editor named Joyce, to whom she delivers her best quip: Joyce: “[Your boyfriend] doesn’t own your vagina.” Peggy: “No, but he’s renting it.”
The crowning moment of Peggy’s transformation: She challenges her loutish, nudist-loving art director to a striptease work session, and thoroughly emasculates him in a devastating pants-off-dance-off battle of the sexes. “You win,” he says. “You win.” As the last episode elegantly clarifies, Peggy has actually become more like Don than anyone else on the show: boldly kinky, obsessed with work and excellent at it, great at keeping secrets, and terrible at handling the world outside the office. The power differential, while significant, has grown dramatically smaller since the first season. We’ll see what comes next.
As the last episode elegantly clarifies, Peggy and Don understand each other like nobody else in the world. They are both boldly kinky, barely have lives outside the office, love their work, and, most of all, have a mature appreciation for each other’s secrets. And the power differential, while significant, has grown smaller since the first season: Peggy’s grown more comfortable confronting Don, but, after seeing him in his most vulnerable moments, she’s learned not to push him too hard as well. There’s mutual affection, shared secrets, attraction, and a base level of professional respect that has grown spectacularly throughout the series. At the same time, their individual lives are in crisis. Can Don really see Peggy as something like his equal? We’ll see.
The Evolution of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson