One of the greatest joys of watching an 8-year-old television show from the beginning is observing the natural progression of characters who become different people by the series end. Peggy Olson is one of them–it’s hard to reconcile the Peggy who strutted into McCann with octopus erotica tucked under her arm with the meek, ponytailed Peggy who made an awkward pass at Don.
This awkward pass is how we are first introduced to Peggy and Don’s relationship and the intrinsic level they understand each other on. On her first day at Sterling Cooper, Peggy is inundated on all sides by condescending sexism and an intimidating new female boss who tells her to try and find a way to “make those darling little ankles sing.” Resigned to a fate of having to forever use her sexuality to get ahead, Peggy makes that awkward pass at Don, and he turns her down gently. It’s not that Don finds Peggy unattractive–it’s only that he gets that she isn’t into it. Peggy is destined to climb the ladder another way, and later, after being an astute observer of women trying on lipstick, she takes that first step up.
When Peggy gets pregnant and enters a state of depression after giving birth, her disappointed and judgmental mother and sister admonish her. Don is the only person from the office who visits. “This never happened,” he says. “It will shock you how much it never happened.” Don recognizes another person who wants to run and reinvent themselves, and makes it clear that there is a part of himself he has abandoned. In doing so, he gives Peggy the gift she needs right now: the realization that it’s okay to abandon this part of herself to become the Peggy we know and love now.
Peggy and Don’s relationship remains nonsexual, and again, it’s not because of attraction. “You know you’re cute as hell,” Don reassures a maudlin Peggy in “The Suitcase,” one of the best episodes of the series. Don uses sex compulsively to avoid feeling empty, and Peggy has a superiority complex that prevents her from deriving long term satisfaction from a partner. She takes moral high grounds. Her breakup with Abe, her only long-term boyfriend, drew from her disdain at his political activism, which she found naive. Peggy ultimately didn’t respect him, as Peggy hasn’t respected anyone she’s slept with. Neither has Don–women represent concepts to him, vague daydreams of running away somewhere and forgetting his troubles in their arms until they become real people, and he bails in fear. Peggy and Don respect each other, and their relationship stays platonic. They are both lonely people who can’t get satisfaction from love or family, but bond together over the search for the perfect pitch. It’s their creativity that draws them together.
In “The Suitcase,” Peggy becomes resentful of Don, who pushes her to come up with better and better ideas for selling Samsonite suitcases. She ends up missing her birthday dinner with her boyfriend, another whiny guy who doesn’t get her drive for success. After a big blowout in which Peggy admits to her frustration with never receiving recognition for her ideas, she and Don bond over Roger’s weird memoirs, Peggy’s dissatisfaction with the whiny boyfriend, and finally, get right back to the pitch. As much as she resents it, Don knows her resentfulness is only half-hearted. She is the only person in the office who loves the creative process as much as he does.
The rest of the episode is like an extended play starring these two people drinking, frank admissions, and having to fight off a plastered Duck Phillips. In the morning, Don receives a call that Anna Draper, the wife of the original Don Draper, has died. When Don breaks into uncharacteristic tears, Peggy, shocked, asks him who’s died. “The only person in the world who really knew me,” Don says, and Peggy assures him that this isn’t true.
Peggy doesn’t know about the Dick Whitman thing, but she knows who Don is as a human being, the weird Dick/Don life he has made for himself. Peggy understands what it’s like to throw yourself fully into work instead of other people; to seek love and companionship, but never really find it; to defend a creative work with passion and angry defensiveness. Most importantly, Peggy knows what it’s like to forget.
Images courtesy of AMC; AMC via here.