Did Peggy Really Choose Love Over Her Career?

Harris-Olson had a lovely ring to it. But Joan’s path has never been Peggy’s, no matter how badly we wanted “Mad Men’s” women to partner up.

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Could any two words bring a longtime Mad Men fan more joy than these: “Harris-Olson”?

Peggy Olson must have had the most intense week of her life in October 1970: Pete leaves town, Don calls her in a suicidal-sounding depression, Stan declares his love, and Joan offers her a partnership in her new production company. Good-bye, come home, me too, and no thanks, Peggy responds (after a few confused and honking “what?”s).

Did she make the right choice? Does the finale portray the great irony of Peggy choosing love while Joan chooses career?

Because Joan definitely chooses career. The choice is forced on her. It is only 1970, so Richard does not realize that when you give people cocaine, they develop an overpowering desire to become film producers. He doesn’t want to be squeezed to the sidelines of her life—and as an entrepreneur himself, he knows that’s exactly what will happen. To keep her independence and autonomy, Joan lets Richard go. She also lets Roger in, allowing him to leave their son a large inheritance, a decision that will allow her to pursue her own business venture without worrying about endangering her son’s financial security.

Joan’s love-or-work dilemma is stark, and it’s easy to read Peggy’s situation in light of Joan’s. It has always been deceptively easy to read Peggy’s situation in light of Joan’s—especially for Joan. “If you really make the right moves, you’ll be out in the country, and you won’t be coming in to work at all,” Joan tells Peggy in the show’s first episode, assuming that, like her, the new secretary hopes to marry a wealthy professional and live a life of leisure. “I can’t believe you’re hesitating,” she snaps at an unsure Peggy in the finale. “How can you work at that place?” After ten years, Joan still can’t quite recognize that Peggy may not want the same things she does.

Joan’s decision to start a production company is a brilliant move. We saw in season two that she enjoys reading scripts and thinking through the promotional implications of a storyline. She’s had experience (re)building a business from the ground up, when Sterling Cooper reinvented itself as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And Joan’s glamour and theatricality are better suited to a creative executive than someone who works the client side—in show business, the fact that she stands out will finally help her fit in.

It’s not surprising that Joan’s deliverance from premature retirement (was anything more exquisite than the dismissive gesture that accompanied her “I’ve been to the beach”?) came from Ken Cosgrove. Their stories have been oddly parallel for a while. As I noted at the beginning of the final half-season, “Both Joan and Ken have had their bodies used as playthings by clients. Joan prostituted herself to land the Jaguar account (and her partnership); Ken was shot in the face by hard-partying Chevy executives. All their colleagues know. Their very bodies serve as constant reminders of their sacrifices.” Ken found his freedom by identifying with the aggressor and joining the client side as Dow Chemical’s PR and marketing head. In his final scene, he’s less likable than he’s been for a while—calling his child “kind of weird, actually” and pressing Joan to discuss business matters before she’s even had a drink, which in the Mad Men world is an act of discourtesy akin to throwing shoes at a Arab head of state—yet he still seems happier. Ken doesn’t care nearly as much about the work itself as he does about the circumstances. Give him a good office environment, with the resources he needs and competent co-workers and no buckshot to the face, and he’s happy. It doesn’t matter if he’s entertaining clients, reviewing bids, or writing presentations. He’s only concerned about doing the job well, not especially about what the job is.

Joan is the same way, and this is what she fails to understand about Peggy. Peggy wants to write ads. She doesn’t want to only manage people who write ads, she doesn’t want to write anything but ads. Harris-Olson isn’t liberation for her, it’s moving away from what she really values. Stan does get this, and realizes that Peggy is “just excited about being in charge,” not about the job itself: “Working for a producer? That’s not even what you do.” What good is it to have your name on the door if what happens behind that door doesn’t excite you?

Peggy may not be entirely comfortable at McCann, but she’s learning the ropes—she expertly gets herself and Stan put back on an account that they’ve been dropped from. She and Stan clashed often at SC&P, as a copy chief and creative director will. At McCann Erickson, with more layers of bureaucracy and cubicles between them, their conflicts of interest dissolve into a mutual-protection pact. They can survive the factory together.

My heart leaped when Joan said those two magic words “Harris Olson.” But Peggy was right to decline her offer. It’s not the work she wants to do—and Joan, ultimately, isn’t the person she should be working with. Joan has never understood Peggy’s motivation or tactics. Stan always has. Peggy isn’t choosing romance over achievement, or mediocrity over ambition. She’s choosing the work she wants to do, the friend who truly understands her. It may seem a paradoxical choice for an adwoman to make—and what would Don think?—but Peggy, ultimately, chooses authenticity over appearance.


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