Peggy Olson Is the Primary Conduit for Social Issues
And then there’s Peggy Olson, the 25-year-old female copywriter. Her first season fling with Pete Campbell quietly rears its head when she learns that Pete and Trudy are having their first child. Her personal life expands this season, as she makes friends in the office building and courts boyfriends outside the office. “I have a boyfriend,” she says to deny another woman’s advances at a party (Episode Four, “The Rejected”). Met with the response, “He doesn’t own your vagina,” Peggy, over the loud music and crowd chatter, answers, “No, but he’s renting it.”
When she meets Abe Drexler (Charlie Hofheimer), a writer with a vigorous political and social viewpoint, she is attracted to him but is challenged by his pro-Civil Rights leanings and his anti-corporate stance. It’s not that she’s challenged in the way that Roger Sterling might be—let’s not forget he once dressed up in blackface at a party—it’s more that Peggy has become increasingly mindful of her position in the corporate world, dealing everyday with men who unabashedly flaunt their maleness and their contemptible opinions of women.
Her working relationship with Don Draper is a factor in this, which is explicitly brought to the fore when Draper wins a CLIO Award for the Glo-Coat commercial. She contributed to the project but received none of the accolades. Feeling pressured to work late, on her birthday, she raises this point with him. Draper’s response is explosive but instructive, “It’s your job! I give you money, you give me ideas.” A woman, it seems, must be a team player, if she wants to play at all. Men get to dictate the terms of play.
In another example, Peggy and Pete orchestrate a stunt to stir interest in a client’s product, a brand of baked hams. Their scheme is to pay actresses to stage a fight over the last ham at a particular store. The fight becomes personal, and the actresses land themselves in jail, demanding bail and hush money, to which Don Draper reacts to Peggy, “I try and stay away from these kinds of shenanigans. But I guess you knew that or you would have told me.” Yet, when courting the Honda account, Draper has no problem employing trickery to give himself an edge against a rival. As a side note, it’s a curious tidbit that Peggy Olson still doesn’t know the truth about Draper’s past, compared to the coworkers who do.
The show has always used real events as the backdrop to the onscreen action. Such events have included the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Medgar Evers. Along these lines, two of season four’s bonus features delve into iconic historical moments. One involves the Ford Mustang. The other provides actual footage from the 1964 Presidential Campaign trail, associated political commercials, and President Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration.
This season, Peggy is the primary conduit for social issues, particularly on the topics of race, gender, and sexual orientation. In the background, when the true focus is plot development and character shaping, Mad Men handles these issues relatively well. The show’s DVDs have included smart and pertinent historical extras. But when the issues are thrust to the foreground, the results are not always stellar.
I like Peggy Olson, the character and the actress who plays her, which is why I choose to see her spat with Abe as her attempt to sort out her identity, as a corporate woman, not so much as an argument about the merits of Civil Rights. “Most of the things Negroes can’t do, I can’t do either and no one seems to care.” She also feels like Abe is being condescending. “There’s no Negro copywriters, ya know,” he tells her. Later, he adds, “I’m just sayin’, they’re not shootin’ women to keep ‘em from votin’, that’s all.” Clearly, they weren’t having a great date.
I can’t help but acknowledge the authenticity of their exchange, even as it jolts me out of the fictional world and into the real world consequences of realistically portraying this show’s time period. Their discussion brings to mind the fact that the show doesn’t really have recurring “black” characters. As of season four, the “Carla” character (Deborah Lacey), the longtime maid for the Drapers, has come the closest to presenting a real black character on Mad Men, and she hardly has much to do, despite being quite good in her scenes. The show handles issues of sexual orientation far more often, and with richer complexities.
Much discussion has been generated about why there is so little diversity on Mad Men. A plausible explanation is that “diversity” isn’t a reality in the world inhabited by these characters, and not completely in ours. That’s fair enough, I suppose, except that this “world” is fictional, created, so we naturally want to say, “Hey, you’re not making a documentary. Use your imagination.” It’s like when Dennis Haysbert played “President David Palmer” on 24, the reality was that there hadn’t been a “black” United States President. There are arguments that Haysbert’s portrayal made an impact in this regard. What if the show had conformed to the “reality”? We would have missed out on Haysbert’s gripping performances.
On the other hand, maybe it’s too daunting a task to incorporate this material, which isn’t meant as a slight. Rather, I mean to emphasize that race, gender, and sexual orientation are tricky, thorny subjects that are often difficult to handle in fresh, but believable, ways. It’s kind of like Draper’s response to Peggy’s inquiry about doing business with a company refusing to hire black employees, “Our job is to make men like Fillmore Auto, not Fillmore Auto like Negroes.” The task is to craft credible and compelling stories. Doing so will make viewers take notice of any number of important issues. Or, at least, that’s my theory. So, are we talking about increasing the nonwhite representation on this show, and many other shows? Or are we talking about the presentation of issues? Maybe it’s less complicated than all that—maybe TV writers haven’t been any good at writing diverse characters, specifically “black” ones, so they shy away. At any rate, there’s a perfectly adequate “black” mugger in Episode Nine.
But, we have to ask: is “diversity” something the show really needs? Even if it is, would it work? Consider the side story with the ever-prudent Lane Pryce. Split from his family by an ocean and marital trouble, Pryce sparks a relationship with a “bunny” at a Playboy Club, “Toni Charles” (portrayed by Naturi Naughton, an R&B singer in the group 3LW who also played rapper Lil Kim in the Notorious B.I.G. biopic). Pryce’s father Robert has come to town to reunite his son’s family, to help him put his “house in order.”
For some reason, Pryce thinks it’s a good idea for his father and Toni Charles to meet at the Playboy Club, amongst liquor and the club’s flirtatious atmosphere. Why he thinks this, I can’t figure, but when he later challenges his father, “Are you more distraught that I found someone I love, or that she’s a Negro?”, I laughed when his father whacked him in the head with a cane. The same man who is so careful about wasting office supplies is suddenly so careless about introducing his father (and the audience) to his mistress? And Toni Charles calls him “dashing”!
Aside from some nightlife influence on Lane Pryce from Don Draper, this is odd behavior, mainly useful to illuminate Pryce’s upbringing. The episode commentary suggests Lane Pryce is “acting out”. But, ultimately, Toni Charles operates within Lane Pryce’s fantasies and processing of the world, as nonwhite characters so often do for their counterparts. Also, the normally crisp and snappy dialogue felt a bit flat and unnatural in this storyline. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s commentary reveals that there was a deleted scene with Toni Charles and Lane Pryce interacting without revealing her occupation, and prior to Pryce’s father’s involvement. Such a scene might have helped.
Shows have crashed and burned trying to force “important issues” into storylines that were organic and plot-oriented at the outset. I am, however, intrigued that season four raises Peggy’s awareness of multiple issues simultaneously, and with varying degrees of intensity. Depictions of these issues are not always overlapping. This, in spite of the fact that, in her haste to compare gender issues to racial ones, she takes the common position of ignoring the dual identity of being both “nonwhite” and “female”, not just one or the other.
Season four’s focus on identity bodes well for season five. When Anna Draper first met Dick Whitman/Don Draper, he was just a car salesman using her husband’s name. They later became close friends. In the flashback of Roger Sterling’s first meeting with him, the Ad Man Formerly Known as Whitman was selling fur coats (Season Four, Episode Six, “Waldorf Stories”). How removed is he from his humble and meager origins? How does he move forward with his business? How should he resolve his tumultuous relationship with his recently remarried ex-wife?
In the past, Draper’s sexual dalliances touched his workspace, but it was usually tangentially, like when he cavorted with a female client (“Rachel Menken”, played by Maggie Siff of Sons of Anarchy) or the wife of a client (“Bobbie Barrett”, played by Melinda McGraw). This time around, he’s sleeping with his secretaries (but not Miss Blankenship!). He’s also sleeping with business associates, like “Faye Miller”, from whom he expects a windfall of fiduciary information, further blurring the boundaries between home and work. All of this sets up a finalé in which he proposes marriage to his secretary, “Megan” (Jessica Paré). His engagement is to the woman as well as to the stability married life represents, although the significance of him proposing with the deceased Anna Draper’s ring might evoke less optimism.
That’s the question we’re left with when season four ends: can he truly be happy with stability, or is Dick Whitman, a.k.a. Don Draper, destined to be a man in flux? At his core, is he the man in Episode 10 who’s sick to his stomach with terror that the government will figure out who he is and punish him for his transgressions? Is he the super-confident advertising man who, upon his client’s rejection of his campaign for a two-piece bathing suit (“So well built, we can’t show you the second floor”), abruptly ends the meeting and orders his guests out of his office immediately (“You were wondering what a creative agency looks like. There you have it. I hope you enjoyed looking in the window”). Or maybe he’s the season finalé‘s passionate, attentive lover who proposes to Megan, confessing, “I don’t know what it is about you, but I feel like myself when I’m with you—but the way I always wanted to feel.”
We will have to keep watching to see if he knows what the truth is and, if so, whether he’s telling it. We’ll also find out how his truths affect the people around him.