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Everything Peggy can’t say to Lou, or to the male co-workers, she loads onto Shirley. (Michael Yarish/AMC)

Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 2: Nasty Bitter Career Gals

Peggy Olsen has been through a lot—but when she bullies the show’s most marginalized characters, she deserves to lose our sympathy.

BY Sady Doyle

Every once in a while, it is necessary for us to see the ugly side of Peggy Olson—the self-aggrandizing, self-pitying, casually racist side—simply to remind us that 'women’s empowerment' is not something we can put entirely on the shoulders of one professionally successful white woman.

On Mad Men, there is no such thing as an unmitigated triumph. 

The show’s commitment to something like “realism”—which can dip, at times, into self-indulgent misery for misery’s sake—means that we will almost never get a moment where we can simply stand up and cheer for a character’s good fortune. When Joan became a partner in the firm, she had to do it by agreeing to sleep with the world’s least likable client. When Peggy became a copywriter, she had to have an unexpected Pete Campbell baby during her lunch break. And in this week’s episode Dawn, a woman that most of us have been rooting for since she took the unenviable position of being the first black employee at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, finally gets to graduate from put-upon secretary to office manager. But predictably, she can only get there by wading through a waist-high pool of nastiness. And this occurs in an episode where some of the show’s most beloved characters are doing their level best to make us hate them. It’s a long slog, to get to one only somewhat happy ending.

But, hey, there’s a Sally plot line! That’s always fun.

Let’s catch up. Don is still doing the Unemployment Tango: Waking up late, eating Ritz Crackers in front of “Little Rascals,” and contemplating how best to please his new boss, Mr. Gigantic Bottle of Whiskey, with whom he has developed a very close relationship. (“Don! I’m going to need you to submit the ‘chugging me in front of the TV’ project right away!”) He’s taking lunches around town, and even getting a few bites, but seems reluctant to give up on Sterling Cooper & Partners (formerly Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, formerly Sterling Cooper, currently just SCP to save your humble recapper time and typing effort) as an option. His only friend in exile is Dawn, who is willing to come to his house and update him on the doings at SCP, so that he can plot his re-entry more effectively. Dawn refuses to take money for this service, partially because Dawn is a little too good for her own good—but also, I suspect, because her main job is serving as secretary to the abominable Lou Avery, and she needs to have some non-Lou-related work in order to preserve her mental health.

If it’s easy to feel sorry for Dawn this week, it is remarkably hard to summon up any empathy for Lou’s chief target, Peggy Olson. After having a meltdown about her personal and professional stagnation last week, Peggy has veered, hard, into self-pity and misdirected anger.

It starts with something that looks for all the world like a 30 Rock plot: Roses have been delivered to Peggy’s desk! On Valentine’s Day! Whoever might they be from?! Peggy, naturally, assumes that they have been sent to her by Ted Chaough, attempting to win her back to his perpetually-sweater-clad arms. She therefore sends Ted a series of angry yet inscrutable phone messages about how “the client” is “not interested.” These messages make even less sense to Ted than you’d imagine. For, truly, not only did Ted not send the roses, they’re not for Peggy in the first place. They are for her secretary, Shirley, who is (1) engaged to a man named Charles, (2) the second black employee at SCP, and (3) utterly delightful. We get a wonderful scene of her bonding with Dawn—they have a running joke of mistaking each other’s names, which instantly makes it clear how they’re treated by the other employees—so that we can get a sense of how much both women need each other, and  that Shirley might be the best friend a girl like Dawn could have. While Dawn is so self-effacing that earning extra money for extra work feels “wrong” to her, Shirley is utterly unwilling to let someone else’s neediness define her life and is very aware of how offensive it is that Peggy, knowing Shirley to be engaged, would not contemplate for one second the idea that Shirley is the obvious candidate for that bouquet.

When Peggy starts in on a patronizing attempt to create Galentine’s Day 40 years early—“I should have bought YOU flowers! Out of RESPECT! NOT because of some holiday,” Shirley sets her straight. And in response, Peggy promptly screams at Shirley, venting years’ worth of disappointment right into her face. Peggy becomes a bully: Everything she can’t say to Lou, or to the male co-workers who joke about her masturbation habits, she loads onto Shirley, passing her own oppression and trauma right on down the line.

Under normal circumstances, I would object, strongly, to a plot line about Peggy as a Nasty Bitter Career Gal With No Love Life. We’ve seen enough of those stories in media, and I would assume that we’re all aware of how they’re used to scare women away from professional achievement, or from being single in general.  “Never love your job more than you love having a boyfriend, or you’ll become a miserable bitch” is the message usually conveyed by the Nasty Bitter Career Gal. But the fact is, this has always been an unpleasant facet of Peggy’s personality: She’s bought into the myth of herself as a self-made woman, an oppressed Other who pulled herself up by her bootstraps, and this narrative has routinely rendered her oblivious to the fact that there are people in this world who do, in fact, have a tougher time of it than she does. And because we spend so much time seeing the world through Peggy’s eyes, we run the risk of becoming similarly oblivious. We’re so used to seeing Peggy portrayed as an avatar for women’s empowerment that it shocks and hurts us when we see her suggest that black people don’t need civil rights marches because she did everything by herself (which she has done), or when she assumes Dawn will steal her purse (which she has also done), or when she screams at Shirley for having the gall to be less lonely than she is at the moment.

Every once in a while, it is necessary for us to see the ugly side of Peggy Olson—the self-aggrandizing, self-pitying, casually racist side—simply to remind us that “women’s empowerment” is not something we can put entirely on the shoulders of one professionally successful white woman. Women’s empowerment looks like Shirley too, and it looks like Dawn. And sometimes, women who look like Peggy are a part of their problem. 

Of course, sometimes the problem really is just the white guys. For here comes Sally Draper—one of Mad Men’s many secret MVPs—on a day trip to Manhattan, ostensibly to attend the funeral of her roommate’s mother, but actually to hang out in head shops in Greenwich Village. She loses her bag, and high-tails it to the offices of SCP, where she assumes her father will be working, in order to get a ride home. And yet: Her father is not present. And, when entering his office, she runs head-on into Lou. Who does not even bother to sugar-coat the “Don’s gone” situation.

This means that Sally is now the first and only person in her family to know about her father’s unemployment, and it also means that Sally is being put in the position to lie for her father, again. She confronts Don in his apartment, and he tries a little victim-blaming to get out of trouble—“Why would you just let me lie to you like that?” quoth Don, summing up his entire relationship with Womankind in 140 characters or less—before finally telling Sally that he got in trouble at work because “I told people the truth about myself,” and teaching her how to execute a dine-and-dash. Sally’s future relationships are going to be marked by trust, healthy boundaries and the deep intimacy that only comes from total emotional honesty, I’m sure.

Oh, no, wait: She’s going to associate “truth” with “being hurt or rejected” for the rest of her life, assume 15 layers of deception operating underneath every seemingly benign action taken by another human being, and basically spend the rest of her life assuming that “love” means “being let down.” This scene is Don trying to convince his daughter that she likes that feeling—See? Daddy will help you steal from the restaurant, if Daddy told the truth all the time we couldn’t have fun—and her “I love you” ranks among the saddest things I’ve ever heard. But hey: At least Future Sally will save a ton of money on dining out.

But let us now proceed beyond the increasingly warped psyche of Sally Draper. For Lou, monster that he is, blames Dawn for Sally getting into his office, and Peggy blames Shirley for her own shame, and now both of them insist on Joan taking the time out of her day to re-organize the entire office so that they no longer have to behave like professionals toward their support staff. Burt Cooper also insists that Dawn cannot work the front desk, because “people can see her from the elevator.” At which point, it becomes terribly clear to both Joan and Jim Cutler that Joan has about three jobs, at this company, and that there’s a very fit candidate who could take at least one of those jobs off her plate. And so at last, Joan is moved up to the accounts department, and Dawn becomes the new office manager. It’s hardly a glorious victory—Dawn is taking this job specifically because Joan is sick of dealing with it, and Shirley, rather than being rewarded in any way for her composure, is being shunted off to the horror that is Lou. But it is a victory. And, on this show, the triumphs are rare enough that we ought to applaud them, no matter how messy they may be. 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times Staff Writer. She also contributes regularly to Rookie Magazine, and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. She's the winner of the first Women's Media Center Social Media Award. She's interested in women in pop culture, women creating pop culture, reproductive rights, and women's relationship to the Internet and the Left. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady inthesetimes.com.

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