Peggy Olson has long been Mad Men’s Joan of Arc—a trailblazing, career-oriented woman whose personal life has been sacrificed at the altar of sexism.
And nowhere was this iniquity more present than in the third-to-last episode of the AMC series’ seventh and final season, “Time & Life.”
The intrepid Bay Ridge native, embodied by the gifted actress Elisabeth Moss, began her dramatic ascent as Joan’s underling secretary, and, after being taken advantage of by her superior, Pete, on his office couch, begins gaining weight. She’s chastised for her looks by Ken, who says she’s a “lobster” since most of her “meat is in her tail,” and Joan, who says she’ll remain a virgin if she doesn’t get her act together.
We later learn Peggy was pregnant with Pete’s baby (who hopefully has her hairline), and in Season 4’s standout episode “The Suitcase,” that Don was the only one who visited her in the hospital after she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, giving it up for adoption.
Peggy is slandered by her jealous sister, Anita, and harassed by her parish priest until reaching her breaking point and fleeing from the church. If that weren’t enough, she’s been swept up in doomed relationships with the drunken chauvinist Duck, the sexist beatnik Abe, and married philanderer Ted. Oh, she put up with a seemingly endless amount of crap from diva Don.
In “Time & Life,” Peggy’s old wounds are opened. She’s working with the bounteously bearded Stan on casting a Play-Doh ad, and oversees an uber-casual audition, seating a group of kids at a table and asking them to play with the malleable sludge. Peggy has no idea how to act around the kids, leading Stan to snark, “You hate kids.” Pete, passing by the room, stops and gazes longingly at a young girl hugging a bewildered Peggy around the waist—inspiring the walking hair-loss infomercial to warn Peggy that SC&P will soon be absorbed by McCann Erickson, and that they’ll be moving out of the Time & Life Building and into M-E HQ because, well, the rent is too damn high.
One of the tiny tykes in the audition, a gal named Suzie, is left behind by her terrible stage mom, forcing Peggy to watch over her. While she does, the lil one staples her own hand, leading to a confrontation between Peggy and the girl’s negligent mom.
The verbal tussle is revisited later by Stan, who regurgitates his earlier barb that Peggy doesn’t like kids. “Look, you got to a certain point in your life and it didn’t happen,” Stan tells her re: having kids. “I understand you’re angry about it, but you’ve got a lot of other things. I mean it! You couldn’t have done all you’ve done otherwise.” He then makes a crack about possibly having some illegitimate kids out there, leading to this exchange:
PEGGY: “It wouldn’t matter if you did! You could walk away.”STAN: “I had a mother! And she wasn’t great, and I don’t know if she wanted me, so I understand something!”PEGGY: “But you don’t understand your mother! Maybe she was very young and followed her heart and got in trouble, and no one should have to make a mistake just like a man does and not be able to move on. She should be able to live the rest of her life just like a man does. Maybe you do what you thought was the best thing.”STAN: “What did you do?”PEGGY: “I’m here, and… he’s with a family… somewhere. I don’t know, but it’s not because I don’t care. I don’t know because you’re not supposed to know or you can’t go on with your life.”
It’s a stunning admission and a dead-on, balls-accurate evisceration of 1970 America’s double standards for men and women. For six-plus seasons, Peggy’s feminism has manifested itself in her actions—namely, productivity at the workplace—but now, she’s not only walking the walk but talking the talk, too. And it’s a thing of utter beauty.
Elsewhere in the offices of SC&P, Don receives a call from a gloating Lou Avery who announces he’s moving to Tokyo. You see, his comic strip Scout’s Honor has been acquired by Tatsunoko Productions, the Japanese company behind Speed Racer, and is going to be made into a cartoon. “Sayonara, my friend,” declares Lou. “Enjoy the rest of your miserable life.”
The taunting not only lights a fire under Don’s ass, but also plants the idea of relocating, and the partners band together with the aim of re-signing three prestige accounts in 24 hours—Sunkist, Burger Chef, and Dow Chemical—and taking over Avery’s Sterling Cooper West office.
The latter client, of course, involves sitting down with Pirate Ken Cosgrove, who’s still plenty angry at both Roger and McCann for his cold-blooded firing.
“You know, I’ve fantasized one day I’d be in this situation with you, Roger,” says a gloating Ken. “And Pete, you’re not exactly an innocent bystander. I’ve toyed with you long enough: No. Sorry about that.”
Still, with Sunkist, Burger Chef, and Secor Laxatives onboard, the gang pitches the West Coast move to Jim Hobart, the head of McCann Erickson. But Jim doesn’t want to hear it.
“I don’t think you understand what’s happened. It’s done. You’ve passed the test. You’re getting five of the most coveted jobs in advertising, and all the resources that go with it,” Hobart says. “I shouldn’t have to sell you on this. You are dying and going to advertising heaven.”He lists some of their newly minted, blue-chip clients, ranging from Nabisco to Coca-Cola, and concludes: “Stop struggling. You won.”
Joan is the only one who doesn’t buy what Hobart is selling. “Hobart listed off accounts for everyone but me,” she tells Pete as they leave a celebratory booze-fest, adding, “We both know they’re never going to take me seriously over there.” Joan has reason to be concerned after the way she was sexually harassed by a trio of douchey McCann ad men while attempting to discuss the Topaz account.
And, with the gang—and Peggy—joining McCann Erickson, the environment there being potentially hellish for Joan, and her playboy real estate magnate beau Richard in play, who wants her to be untethered and travel the world (and is willing to hop on a red eye flight to New York after hearing she’s had a bad day), it seems like the stage is being set for Joan to take her five years of guaranteed dough, tell the assholes at McCann to shove it, and go see the pyramids.
Still, Pete comforts Joan, telling her, “They don’t know who they’re dealing with.”
And it seems Pete, the man-child who got his butt handed to him by the effete Lane Pryce, has really turned a new leaf here. Not only does he comfort Joan, but also fights to get his and Trudy’s daughter into an elite private school in Greenwich, Connecticut, going so far as sucker-punching the dean when he offends his ex-wife. Later on, when she worries that she’ll lose her looks a decade from now, he looks her in the eyes and says, “You’re ageless.”
The news eventually leaks that SC&P is about to be absorbed by McCann, and the office is thrown into chaos. Don and Roger call an all-hands-on-deck meeting to reassure everyone that the transition will go smoothly, and that their jobs aren’t in jeopardy (even though they probably are).
“This is the beginning of something, not the end,” he says.His words fall upon deaf ears.