Peggy Olson’s Evolution Is the Real Story of Mad Men

A tribute to the secretary turned HBIC. We'll miss you the most, Elisabeth Moss.

How satisfying was that strut? That confident, cool, well-earned strut. You know the one. The one that former secretary turned copy chief/all-around HBIC Peggy Olson (played by the magnificent Elisabeth Moss) confidently walked down the halls of McCann Erickson in the third-to-last Mad Men episode ever, “Lost Horizon.” With sunglasses on, cigarette in mouth, and dirty painting in hand, Peggy let go of who she was so was “supposed” to be in this business which has relentlessly kicked her around, and took charge of her own badass self.

It’s taken a little while for Peggy to get from the naive girl that she was all the way back in Season 1 to the no-nonsense success story that she is now. But Peggy’s story arc, like so many of the women of Mad Men, has been far more thrilling and downright important than that of her male counterparts. Don Draper may be the face of Mad Men, but Peggy will forever be the real heart and brains of the operation. As the series winds down, there’s less speculation about if (and how) Don will die, rather the fate of Peggy’s career and love life. Just like the women around him, fans got tired of Don’s behavior and became far more invested in someone they could rely on: Peggy.

Yes, Peggy has been humiliated, objectified, rejected, hurt, and under appreciated — both in and out of the office — but it’s only made her a stronger, wiser person. As Mad Men reaches its final stretch, I’ve had trouble coming to terms with the idea that I’ll no longer have Peggy Olson in my life. Even if she is from another era entirely, she is as retable as ever. While Peggy never had the same looks that Joan did (though, as the ultra-sexist environment has proved time and time again, Joan’s looks have been just as much a disadvantage), she was able to become a force to be reckoned with because she is whip-smart and focused.


That’s not to say Peggy didn’t deal with her fair share of sexism, mistreatment, and utter heartbreak at work, because, damn, did she ever. Her secret affair with ultra-slimeball Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) ended up in a pregnancy, which she had to try and hide. Her co-workers mostly speculated that she was fat or that her boss Don Draper (Jon Hamm) had knocked her up. Ah, the Sterling Cooper heyday! Peggy gave the baby up for adoption, and while she still dealt with her decision (in the classic episode “The Suitcase” Peggy sadly tells Don that she thinks of her son when she passes playgrounds), Pete got to climb higher on the ladder and leave it all in the past. Granted, Pete is a walking nightmare and Peggy is a bona fide goddess, it still doesn’t eliminate what a traumatizing thing that was for her to not only endure but move past.

Her work-related romances weren’t much better after that, when you consider the failed love affairs with Duck and Ted that followed. (There’s still two more episodes for you to fix this problem, Stan!) Even outside of work, she’s had a series of boyfriends not worthy of her awesomeness. Case in point: Abe. (Sorry, man, you sorta deserved to get stabbed.) Peggy is The Single Girl, which as an easy television trope to fall into, but her ultimate story is so much richer than that title alone. Peggy could have easily married someone and settled down and had kids like most women her age did, but she put her career first, even if her career didn’t give her the same courtesy. But what makes Peggy so deeply human is that she can admit she’s lonely. She wouldn’t mind having someone to share her life with, and dammit, if anyone deserves that happiness, it’s her.

Of course, if there was any relationship that’s dominated Peggy’s life on Mad Men, it’s not a romantic one: it was the complicated one she shared with her former mentor and sometimes-friend Don. These two shared a special, unspoken bond and cared deeply about one another at the core, but as time went on and Don proved himself to be more and more self-centered, the cracks in their foundation only got worse. Peggy will always love Don, and vice versa, but she learned to stand on her own without him, when he relied too heavily on the women around him to be his crutch. Peggy was hurt by Don in the past, but the woman we see now no longer tolerates his attitude or his behavior, and he sure as hell knows it. Peggy is nobody’s fool anymore.

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