A Mad Men episode can never be reduced to a single takeaway, but that didn’t stop fans from forming a consensus after the season six finale: Don Draper goes down, Peggy Olson comes up. The implosion of her affair with Ted aside, Peggy entered Mad Men‘s final round of episodes with the Shot Seen ‘Round the Blogosphere, a literal replacement of Don and an echo of the Draper-centric opening credits. The boss she couldn’t seem to escape, on the other hand, was finally out of her hair, leaving Peggy his heir apparent. If you can’t beat ’em, become him.
Enter season seven, which opened on a hopeful note. Peggy’s in a position of authority over not one, but two former mentors, vetting Don-as-Freddie’s freelance work and rocking a power suit to boot. “Time Zones” nonetheless wastes no time in bursting Peggy boosters’ bubble. In between that one-on-one meeting and her ensuing ugly-cry on the floor of her apartment, Peggy endures one reminder after another that she’s far from in charge. She reports to a boss who pushes her away from perfectionism, not towards it; she has awkward break-room encounters with the ghost of relationships past; she fends off tenants who make her Upper West Side apartment less of a home than yet another uphill battle.
And then came “A Day’s Work,” the Valentine’s Day episode that saw Peggy take out her frustration in the least appealing way possible. And “Field Trip,” where the dynamic-duo reunion some (naively) hoped for merely added Peggy to the long list of people who wished Don would just go away already. It was enough to make some worry whether the writers’ room had carried a fan favorite into Jill Abramson territory, translating her frustration into a grab bag of gendered pejoratives it was all too easy to see Lou or Shirley using behind her back: bitchy, temperamental, bitter, and yes, brusque. Even if Peggy’s newly one-dimensional persona made sense, either as an extension of the character or a commentary on the impossible situation in which early leaners-in found themselves, it wasn’t fun to watch.
We shouldn’t have worried, though, because the final two episodes used Peggy’s (and Don’s) early-season struggles to move her forward—professionally, yes, but also creatively and personally. Because in advertising, as Don shows her, one’s ability to channel the unconscious desires of the consumer is directly related to one’s ability to channel one’s own desires after confronting them head-on. That’s when she hits on the need for connection which becomes the heart of the Burger Chef pitch, a need she has to recognize in herself before she can identify it in the station wagon-driving soccer moms she’s targeting. It’s a breakthrough facilitated by the mentor she once tried to leave behind, and one that comes from Peggy herself rather than her circumstances.
That’s the crucial difference between this season and the last. It was Don’s screw-ups that gave Peggy her window of opportunity last time, before that window quickly slammed shut. And opportune as Don’s alcoholism might have been, the Hershey meltdown spoke more to his gross incompetence than his mentee’s ability to take his place. On Sunday, Peggy’s own brilliance landed SC&P the Burger Chef account, an insight that wouldn’t have been possible without the rejection and self-doubt she’s endured over the years—and Don’s vote of confidence. The Burger Chef spot is Peggy’s brainchild, sure, but Don’s the one who helps bring the idea into the world by reassuring Peggy, listening to her, and handing her the microphone. That’s not a strike against Peggy’s genius, but a demonstration that once Don learns humility and Peggy self-awareness, they’re better together than apart.
Time‘s James Poniewozik observed on Twitter that even though Don didn’t land the account or even save his own job, Roger and Peggy’s triumphs in “Waterloo” were firmly Draper-esque. That’s not a coincidence (on Mad Men, few things are). In Peggy’s case, taking Don’s trade secret to heart and making advertising about what she wants is the key to showing Pete Campbell that she’s not as good as “any woman in this business.” She’s as good as any other creative in this business who’s tapped into the desires of the American buyer by digging around in her psyche until she hits on something universal. In other words, she’s as good as Don.
Yet Peggy’s victory doesn’t come at Don’s expense. Instead, the latest of Don Draper’s many fresh starts has involved resisting the temptation to start over at all, doubling down at his old company instead of jumping ship for McCann. And a return to SC&P meant a different sort of personal transformation than the one that turned small-town nothing Dick Whitman into alpha-male Don Draper. Don rededicates himself as a willing and able member of Peggy’s team, dutifully churning out 25 tag lines by lunch and working with her instead of against her. Coming clean about his shortcomings as a boss, hearing out Peggy’s regrets, and talking her off the ledge are all major steps forward for Don. They also directly enable Peggy to turn her insecurities into professional assets.
Mad Men began with Peggy and Don. Peggy’s introduction to Sterling Cooper was our introduction to Sterling Cooper, and over six and a half seasons, their professional relationship has outlasted both of Don’s marriages, several of Peggy’s romantic entanglements, and three separate incarnations of their company. That alone makes a case for Peggy-and-Don as the lone constant of a show where almost everything else has changed. Long-lasting as their partnership might be, though, it’s also one of the few on Mad Men that’s turned out to be mutually beneficial. “Waterloo” saw the final rupture between Don and Megan, a split that began with Don giving his wife a leg up in her career. When Don helps his wife, it’s the death knell for their relationship. When Don helps his protegé, it makes them equals.