For every Phyllis, there were hundreds of Peggys.
By Yash Egami
Poor Peggy. In her first eight months on the job at Sterling Cooper in the AMC television series Mad Men
, she gets seduced and dumped by a married executive, is alienated by her coworkers, struggles with her weight and becomes a poster child for young secretaries everywhere. As she finds out early on, climbing the corporate ladder in the male-dominated world of advertising means something entirely different for women in her position. "If you make the right moves, you might eventually live in Manhattan like the rest of us," explains Joan, the senior secretary. "Of course, if you really make the right moves, you'll be out in the country and you won't be going to work at all."
Such is life on Mad Ave during its heyday, with the ever-present whiskey decanters and cigarettes, the freewheeling womanizing, the boozy lunches and casual sexism and racism. While the show is meant to be an over-the-top drama set in a New York agency in 1960, some viewers are finding that the series might not be so far-fetched after all.
"We've had pretty much nothing but people saying, 'That's exactly what it was like,' from women to men to secretaries and people who didn't necessarily work in advertising but lived in the time period," says Elisabeth Moss, the actress who plays Peggy. "And I think those few people who say that maybe it didn't happen that way maybe just weren't quite aware of it."
Whether the party-like atmosphere portrayed in the show really went on is a matter of debate. But when it comes to capturing the look and feel of that era, Matt Weiner, the show's creator, has been praised for his attention to even the smallest details. "[Matt] said the other day that he looked at the books in his house and every single one was from the 1950s and '60s," says Moss. "He did an incredible amount of research and he's obsessed with that era. And as far as advertising, he did a lot of research into that as well because it is pretty accurate as far as we can make it and still have it conform to our story lines."
But Moss and the writers recognize that women in advertising weren't always relegated to a life of helpless victim and caretaker, as evidenced by Peggy's budding copywriting career. "At that time there were actually a few quite successful women in the advertising industry," says Moss, though like her character, they were mostly in the copy department. "We're taking a very general stance on the show, not a specific one. But [the writers] are giving my character these little opportunities and kind of throwing her these little bones that she's actually very grateful for. She thought she was just going to be a secretary, and if you think about, it's been about eight months and things are going really well for her."
Part of the reason for Peggy's success is her devotion to her boss and mentor, Don Draper. Both characters have their demons (Don cheats on his wife and lies about his past), yet they protect each other from the perils that surround them. Says Moss, "They're really the only two characters on the show who respect each other. Everywhere else, somebody has an agenda. Somebody is trying to get something out of someone else and somehow trying to forward their own life. But he actually thinks that she's good and she has the utmost respect for him and genuinely wants to do a good job for her boss."
Though she mostly avoids fraternizing with her coworkers, Peggy is vulnerable to temptation as well. In the first several episodes, she has a short-lived affair with an account executive, Pete, who tries to undermine Don. "Their storyline is definitely not wrapped up and I'm sure it's going to be gotten into more in the second season," reveals Moss. "This thing happened with Pete, she falls in love with him, he's obviously married, he's kind of having trouble in his own marriage and not sure that's what he wants out of life. Then they sleep together again and he horribly rejects her and hurts her, and from that point on, she won't be able to look at him in the same way. And I think that's really going to affect their relationship in the future."
Even Peggy's physical appearance becomes part of the storyline with her mysterious weight gain addressed on the season finale. "I am wearing padding, I didn't actually gain weight for the role," says Moss, laughing. "I wish I could take kudos for it in a Robert DeNiro kind of way, but I can't."
"Without giving everything away, what I can say is that she's been put into this new situation and it's been very stressful for her," she explains. "Some people handle stress in different ways. Peggy obviously is handling hers in a certain way, which many women and men do."
Mad Men was recently renewed for another season, and Moss and Weiner have already begun discussing the different directions her character might take in future episodes. "She has an incredible ability to believe in something," says Moss about Peggy. "Whether it's an advertising idea or her boss, she really believes in it. And I want to see her not lose that, and I'm sure there's going to be some sort of test that's going to really try that ability. I'd like to see her struggle with that and keep her innocence in a world that's trying to take that away."