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'Mad Men': 'Right now my life is very...'

August 16, 2010 |  9:51 am


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Not so long ago, Peggy Olson was the office square at Sterling Cooper, the one who opted out of work parties and complained the next day about the vomit in her trash can. (Total joykill!)  Even when she was cutting loose, Peggy was uptight about it. She’d say things like, “My name is Peggy Olson, and I’d like to smoke some marijuana,” not, “Hey, man, don't Bogart that roach.”

Sunday night, Peggy-the-office-nerd was nowhere to be found.  In her place was Peggy the hepcat, who in the course of one memorable night 1) smoked a joint; 2) was chased by cops from an illegal loft party; 3) had her first lesbian experience; and 4) made out with a stranger in a closet.  And she did it all wearing a fetching striped turtleneck and headband — not her Lady Bird Johnson pouf. 

How exactly did this happen?  I’m not entirely sure, but I like it.  Peggy used to be alienating and inscrutable; now her breezy attitude makes her just about the most sympathetic character on the show.  She’s become the closest thing the show has to a proxy for the viewer:  she’s thrilled by the changes around her, and nearly as giddy as we are to be transported to a downtown loft party in 1965. (In case you were wondering, the party was in Washington Market, an area that would largely be razed to build the World Trade Center, and the rest of which would come to be known as Tribeca.)

The new Peggy is also quite the comedian.  Her head (literally) pops up during a pivotal dramatic scene, bringing some levity to what was otherwise a heavy-handed moment (Don drinking, again). Later, when Joyce (Zosia Mamet) asks her if Mark owns her vagina, she quips, “No, he’s just renting it.”  Zing!  Even when she finds out that Pete and Trudy are expecting — and is clearly upset by it — Peggy reacts by banging her head into a desk.  Her response is perfectly understandable, and human.  Peggy used to be something of an automaton, so seeing her respond in such an instinctive, physical way is a sure sign of growth.  Not to mention, it’s also very funny. This may be the darkest season of “Mad Men” so far, but in some ways, it’s also been the most comic. 


If Peggy is morphing into the carefree girl in the striped turtleneck, Pete is turning into a family guy. Pete is one of the more reviled characters on “Mad Men,” but I must say he and Trudy grew on me enormously last season.  Their relationship used to be a farce, but I now find myself utterly convinced by the bond between them. Could Matthew Weiner be suggesting that marriage is actually good for some people? That seems to be the case with Pete, his dalliances with various nannies notwithstanding.  His love for Trudy is genuine, and he's thrilled to discover that he's going to be a father.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Matthew Weiner is deeply pessimistic, or hopelessly optimistic.  

Pete has also matured professionally.  His greatest attribute as an employee used to be his indefatigable willingness to suck up, but Pete’s developed real business acumen.  Yes, he still complains endlessly about clients — this week, he griped to Harry about a hilarious-sounding printing mix-up on the Playtex account — and clings to grudges like his life depends on it.  But he’s managed to become a master negotiator.  Witness the Clearasil matter: Pete managed to find a way out of a terribly sticky situation that not only salvaged his relationship with Tom, but was also a boon to the agency.  The substance of the conversation was the same — SCDP was dropping Clearasil — but Pete switched the focus.  He’s not being disloyal, only asking for more business for the agency.  It was a brilliant pivot by Mr. Campbell, who’s ever so slowly earning the respect of his partners.  So maybe next time, they’ll let him in on the Lucky Strike conference calls. 

As much as I like seeing Pete and Trudy happy together, the lingering whatever-it-is between Pete and Peggy still tugs at my heartstrings.  The ending of this episode was not too subtle: Peggy meets up with her cool, bespectacled friends in the lobby while Pete huddles with the agency’s gray hairs, congratulating himself on the Vicks triumph.    They’re both becoming more powerful in their jobs, but in every other way, Peggy and Pete are becoming different people. Peggy’s embracing the counterculture, while Pete’s embracing the Establishment.  Still, there’s something that ties these two forever.  I wouldn’t say they have a bond, exactly; it’s more like each has an omnipresent, almost subconscious awareness of the other. So when Peggy looked over at Pete at the end of the episode, I was rooting for him to meet her gaze.  He did. 

Many observers (and some commenters on this blog, for that matter) think Peggy is becoming more and more like Don. Like him, she has a secret past and lax attitudes about sex and fidelity, but I don’t think she is trying to emulate him, exactly -- at least not in her personal life. This week, Don caught Peggy trying on -- and gazing quizzically at -- Faye’s wedding ring.  She seemed embarrassed, almost as if Don would object if she opted for a more traditional life path.  There’s no doubt that his approval is important to her, and she feels abashed whenever she accidentally reveals her more girlish side to him.   But unlike Don, Peggy is growing to be more in touch with her own feelings, more in command of her own choices.  Her partying is fun and exploratory—not a desperate escape from her past. 

Speaking of which, the tension between Allison and Don finally erupted this week.  Allison flees the focus group in tears and Peggy, saying she feels responsible (oh, the irony) for the breakdown, goes to check on her.  The act of kindness backfires.  Allison badmouths Don — “He’s a drunk and they get away with murder because they forget everything” — which is already a big no-no with the steadfast Peggy.  Making matters worse, Allison also assumes that Peggy has slept with Don (Bobbie Barrett also said virtually the same thing to Peggy back in Season 2).  Peggy tells her to get over it, but Allison does no such thing.  She lobs a paperweight at Don, who’s too lazy to even write a recommendation letter for her.  The confrontation between Don and Allison was necessary, perhaps, but it also seemed forced. On a show that thrives on ambiguity and leaving things unsaid, it's uncomfortable to have Don's drinking become such an obvious "issue." 

It was heartening, at least, to see that Don was upset by it all, even if he didn’t follow through with the letter he began to type to Allison. What would he have said, after all?  Right now my life is very ... messy? Depressing?  Lonely?   It was another moment of obvious irony: Don has sunk so low that he’s now drunkenly typing apologies to his secretary, and, it must be said, doing so with remarkable proficiency — not a single typo!

Joan, of course, knows exactly what happened between Don and Allison without ever having to ask.  That’s why she brought Mrs. Blankenship “out of mothballs” for Don.  There’s an adage about “Mad Men” that nothing ever happens without a reason, and I think that applies in this case.  I have a feeling that if anyone at the office can — and will — confront Don about his bad behavior, it’s Joan. 

A few other questions/observations:

--This episode explicitly dealt with the new ad restrictions places on tobacco manufacturers by the surgeon general in 1964.  You can bet this won’t be the last time we hear about this.

-- The focus group only used women from the agency, yet Faye changed her outfit, took off her wedding ring, and wanted her name tag misspelled.  Who is she fooling, exactly?

-- Don and Faye really don’t like each other.  I’m with Don on this one, but I’m betting they will be sleeping together within a few weeks.

-- John Slattery directed this episode.  What did you think?

-- This episode marked the return of the two-way mirror, used so memorably in season one’s “Belle Jolie” campaign.

-- Freddy tells Don, “Your financial future’s in the hands of a room full of 22-year-old girls,” to which Don replies, “Not mine.”  What did he mean by that?

-- The eccentric design and limited space of the new office is a continual source of jokes — and frustration — for SCDP employees.  Pete’s office has a weirdly placed column, Joan has to give up her office during the focus group and doesn’t seem thrilled about it.

-- Ken Cosgrove is back.  Yay?  Though it’s nice to see an old face, he wasn’t exactly at the top of my list.  I am hoping we get to see more of the Sterling Cooper gang — especially Sal Romano and/or Paul Kinsey.

-- Betty's absence this season has been conspicuous, and I for one am excited about her (apparent) return next week. 

What did you think?

-- Meredith Blake

Photo: Peggy, right, tells Allison to get over it already. Credit: Mike Yarish /AMC

twitter.com/MeredithBlake


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