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Mad Men: Tracing the Troubled History of Peggy and Joan

Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) - Mad Men - Season 5, Episode 5.
Photo: Ron Jaffe/AMC

“I’m glad you’re here.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here.”

Oh, Peggy and Joan, aren’t we all just so glad for one another? A few weeks ago, Peggy and Joan declared their mutual gladness when the SCDP/Cutler, Gleason and Chaough merger reunited them, but it rang just a tiny bit false. Yes, they’ve known each other for years, and have paid mutual witness to some horrible behavior and pivotal days. But there’s also been a chronic animosity between Peggy and Joan, and while they seemed to have reached an amicable new friendship, those lingering insecurities came roaring back in this past Sunday’s episode, when Joan tricked Peggy into helping prevent Pete from taking over the Avon wooing. Peggy thinks Joan belittles her; Joan thinks Peggy doesn’t respect her. A look back through the show’s six seasons is a reminder that both have plenty of evidence to go on.

I went back through all 75 episodes and chronicled each and every interaction between Peggy and Joan, and the picture it paints isn’t one of enemies or even opposites. There’s a lot of jealousy and resentment, but mostly it’s a persistent confusion. Peggy and Joan are both outsiders at Sterling Cooper — they’re not one of the guys, but they’re not ordinary secretaries either. And yet their shared outsiderness does not make them insiders to one another, and it’s that conflict, that why aren’t we alike? that defines their dynamic. Let’s walk back through their whole relationship, shall we?

When the mousy, naive Peggy starts working at Sterling Cooper in the show’s first episode, buxom, confident Joan shows her the ropes (and hooks her up with a doctor who prescribes birth control pills). But in addition to professional advice on secretarial duties, Joan says this: “Go home, take a paper bag, cut some eye holes out of it. Put it over your head, get undressed, and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest.” It’s shockingly cruel, and just the first of many times in which Joan belittles Peggy’s appearance. In episode two, Joan looks at Peggy’s lunch and declares “that sandwich is making me sad.” Joan wrangles the guys to treat the women to lunch, and is shocked when Peggy finds the outing degrading and sexually threatening. “You’re the new girl, and you’re not much,” Joan says. “You might as well enjoy it while it lasts!” And then, off Peggy’s pained expression, “Don’t be that way! I’m just offering some perspective, that’s all.”

In episode three, Joan teases Peggy in front of the other secretaries about not being mature enough to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover; in episode five, Joan forces Peggy to spill the beans about Don’s affair with Midge, but then immediately scolds her for doing so. In episode six, when Joan spots Peggy’s big-break “basket of kisses” conversation with Freddy Rumsen, she steps in and shoos Peggy away. It’s hard to imagine Joan being threatened by Peggy at this point — Joan’s the undisputed queen of the office, and Peggy’s already an object of ridicule for her primness. Later, Joan’s cruelty seems to come from a place of self-preservation, but this early, it just plays as nastiness.

Then comes the big showdown in episode nine, “Shoot.” The episode revolves around how characters present themselves — and how that affects the way they perceive themselves and others. Betty yearns to be a model again, to be beheld and admired, and she’s good at it. But Don hates it, and he gets her fired. (This is the episode that ends with Betty shooting BBs at their neighbor’s pigeons.) Peggy’s rapid weight gain (actually her pregnancy, though she and the audience don’t know that) has caused her to rip her skirt, and a surprisingly magnanimous Joan offers her a spare dress to change into. When Peggy returns it, properly dry-cleaned of course, things get a little heated. Joan tries a few ways to tell Peggy she’s gained weight, and Peggy sort of deflects. Joan asks her if she wants to “do well” at the agency, and Peggy brags that she’s the first female writer “since the war.”

Joan: I heard you were being considered for an account because a client’s wife saw you and thought it would be okay if he worked with you.
Peggy: You know, you’re not a stick.
Joan: And yet I never wonder what men think of me. You are hiding a very attractive young girl under too much lunch.
Peggy: I know what men think of you. That you’re looking for a husband. And that you’re fun. And not in that order.
Joan: Peggy, this isn’t China. There’s no money in virginity.
Peggy: I’m not a virgin.
Joan: No. Of course not.
Peggy: I just realized something. [starts to tear up a little] You think you’re being helpful.
Joan: Well I am trying, dear.

That’s not that great a way to be helpful, but there it is. A few episodes later, Peggy’s out on a date with a Brooklyn bumpkin and wants to seem glamorous and urbane, so she raves about Joan being “a scream” and orders Joan’s favorite drink. (A Brandy Alexander. Yeesh.) Peggy does sincerely want to imitate Joan, but it’s not a very good imitation, and this winds up furthering the tension between the two. From Peggy’s perspective, it’s the little-sister syndrome: Why is everything so much easier for her? From Joan’s perspective, Peggy’s awkward adulation creates frightening reflection. Oh god, is that what I’m like? In the season-one finale, Peggy gets officially promoted to copywriter, and she even gets her own office and secretary. She’s elated, and Joan congratulates her. “Although sometimes when people get what they want, they realize how limited their goals were,” Joan adds. Again, that’s not that great a way to congratulate someone.

In season two, it’s more of the same. Joan puts the new Xerox machine in Peggy’s office — not for any good reason, but just as a sign of aggression. In the second episode of the season, Joan’s humiliated when Paul photocopies her drivers license and hangs it on the bulletin board (also in Peggy’s office), which reveals to everyone that Joan is 30. “People should not bring their personal problems to the office,” Joan laments. “They just want you to be as miserable as they are. I say let them have it.” Peggy just sits there, sort of agreeing, but also wishing Joan would take her own advice.

It’s something Joan brings up over and over — that Peggy must care way too much about the office, but she herself can take it or leave it and doesn’t care a lick about all the internal squabbling. But Peggy’s the one who’s able to eventually leave the agency, and Joan’s the one who’d probably not be able to rise through the ranks somewhere else. “I’ve never had your job. I’ve never wanted it,” Joan spits at Peggy in “Maidenform,” when Peggy comes to ask Joan’s advice on how to make the guys include her more. “Honestly, you’ve never listened to a word I’ve said,” Joan tells her. It’s crazy. Peggy has listened to every mean word Joan has said and filtered them through her Olsen Lens of Niceness. (Only through this lens can one look directly at Pete Campbell without punching him.) Joan tells Peggy to “stop dressing like a little girl,” and of course Peggy does exactly that, and it works out great. Peggy awakens professional anxiety in Joan, but Joan awakens an actual identity crisis in Peggy. In “Maidenform,” everyone’s working on a pitch about how women are either Jackies or Marilyns. Roger says that Joan’s a Marilyn and then corrects himself: Actually, Marilyn Monroe is a Joan. “Which one am I?” Peggy asks the group. Ken tells her Gertrude Stein. Don tells her Irene Dunn. So when she asks Joan’s advice, it’s not just “how do I get what I want?” It’s “how do I get to be who I want?”

Come season three, some of the ice is melting. Peggy feels comfortable enough with Joan to vent about her secretary, and stills sees Joan as the be-all, end-all of charm. In the season’s second episode, she repeats Joan’s chitchat to seem more flirtatious at a bar. In the fourth episode, Joan scolds Peggy for writing such a boring ad for a roommate. “I find your ad unfortunate,” Joan pouts. “It reads like the stage direction from an Ibsen play.” After rattling off new copy for the ad — which Peggy immediately scribbles down and then uses — Joan has one more piece of advice. “Don’t put it up in [the Sterling Cooper break room]. Everyone knows you. Branch out.

And Peggy does branch out. By the season’s sixth episode, “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” Peggy has a new roommate and a new outlook. It’s Joan’s last day (she’s leaving to get married, although she doesn’t stay gone for too long), and Peggy pulls her aside. “I don’t want you to think I never listened to you,” Peggy says earnestly (though Peggy says most things earnestly). “It’s just, we can’t all be you.” Joan takes it as the compliment it is. “Be that as it may, I do take some credit for your success here,” she replies. And just then then Lois runs over Guy’s foot with a riding lawnmower. Joan springs to action, kneeling down, calling for a tourniquet, talking to Guy and eventually accompanying him to the hospital. Peggy faints. We all have our gifts.

We don’t see Peggy and Joan interact again until season four’s third episode. It’s New Year’s Eve, and Joan offers to cover for Peggy, telling her to go home. It’s a sweet little moment totally undercut by Joan pretending she has no idea Peggy has a boyfriend (when it’s clear Peggy has brought him up before). Things reach a boiling point in “The Summer Man,” when freelance copywriter Joey constantly harasses Joan, really getting under her skin. When Peggy tries to cut through Joan’s office — much to Joan’s irritation — Joan snaps. “Take the extra steps! You could use them!” she shouts. Ah yes, never too far from calling Peggy fat. Joan tells Don that Joey’s been telling lewd jokes to some of the secretaries, and Peggy openly calls bullshit on her story. Specifics aside, though, Peggy’s on Team Joan and decides to can Joey. Not that Joan’s grateful.

By the season finale, that’s blown over, and Peggy and Joan are able to commiserate over the absurdity of Don and Megan’s sudden engagement. “It’s bullshit!” Peggy shouts, and the two of them smoke cigarettes and laugh. They both know Don in ways Megan never will, and it’s by far their sweetest moment together.

Come season five, Peggy and Joan seem to be on good terms. After her maternity leave, Joan seems thrilled to see Peggy, and vice versa. In episode four, they crowd together near the speaker in Joan’s office to listen to Lane and Pete’s fist fight. In episode seven, Peggy again seeks Joan’s romantic advice, this time fretting over her future with Abe. Joan convinces her Abe is about to propose, and when he instead just asks Peggy to move in, Peggy’s disappointed — and seems almost reluctant to fill Joan in the next day. But Joan’s oddly supportive, and it’s a huge relief to Peggy, since hours later Peggy’s mother is anything but.

Then Peggy leaves SCDP, and we don’t see her and Joan together again until their exchange of gladness after the merger in season six’s seventh episode, “The Crash.” Finally, in the show’s most recent episode, Peggy and Joan again have a conflict of philosophy when Joan tries to keep a possible account for herself. “Are you trying to intimidate me?” an incredulous Peggy asks. “That’s always been impossible, because that would require respect for me or what I do,” Joan snaps. Joan cannot see her relationship with Peggy clearly at all. She claims she never put Peggy down or tried to dissuade her from copywriting, which is completely false. “Yes you did, every day,” Peggy says. “And it was worse because you made me feel like I couldn’t do it. I know you can do this,” Peggy tells her. Joan accuses her of just riding Don’s coattails, and Peggy’s livid. “I never slept with him,” she insists, which Joan takes as a personal dig. “Congratulations,” Joan says ruefully. “You really are just like them.”

Joan’s supposed to be the sexy one, and maybe even the slutty one. But she’s not the one giving strangers hand jobs at the movies. And Peggy’s the ambitious one, the striver, the professional one. But she’s not the one who’s a partner in an agency. They each think the other has it easier, and they’re each mystified by the other’s choices. Peggy is Don’s protege. Joan is Don’s equal. And what the show sets up, and what their sometimes volatile relationship expands on, is the idea that there are a lot of ways to be Not Don. Much of Mad Men is from Don’s perspective, but the show doesn’t share Don’s worldview. Don sees himself as a singular figure fighting his way through the world; deeply and permanently alone, just him against everyone else. And everyone else just kind of blends together as a benign otherness. We’ve seen Don not recognize women he was having sex with, at that moment. But that’s not how the show approaches everyone. The world contains Jackies. And Marilyns. And Joans. And Peggys.

Mad Men: Tracing the History of Peggy and Joan