'Mad Men' and Peggy Olson: Where does she go from here?

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Image Credit: Jordin Althaus/AMC

It’s been a little more than 36 hours since Mad Men‘s antepenultimate episode left viewers collapsed in a heaping pile of dismay and despair. (It goes pretty much without saying that if you haven’t see the episode yet, there are nothing but SPOILERS from here. Consider yourself warned.) Joan’s decision to trade a night with a lecherous Jaguar big wig for a full partnership in the firm — ensuring Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce could win the much coveted Jaguar account — will certainly have repercussions well beyond this season. Viewers will debate the merits of Joan’s decision, and whether it was even in keeping with her character, well beyond the run of the show.

But at least we know Joan’s future with SCDP is secure (as secure as anyone can be on this show, anyway). Peggy Olson, however, is a different matter entirely. After spending all season chasing after Don Draper’s approval and barely receiving it, hitting dead-ends with Heinz Baked Beans, and watching Michael Ginsberg ace pitch after pitch, Peggy quit the firm. She delivered a wrenching goodbye to Don, gathered what she could quickly carry out of her office, and stepped out to a brand new future to the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”

And now I’m terrified. Like I noted in my recap, I cannot fathom Mad Men without Peggy Olson. The show may be about the deconstruction of Don Draper, but Peggy is too integral to his life and the show’s larger deconstruction of the epochal changes of the 1960s to just disappear. And yet no one on Mad Men has left Don Draper’s employ and survived for much more than the occasional one-off episode to defecate in Roger’s office or recruit for the Hare Krishnas. Does Matthew Weiner really have the stones to write one of his most high profile, popular characters off the show? How could he possibly weave Peggy’s story back into the larger narrative while still staying true to the characters? We humbly submit a few possible scenarios, with the odds of whether something even remotely similar to these prospective futures would actually ever make it to our flatscreens.

The Sal Romano “Gone But Not Forgotten” Future: In the season 5 finale, we see Peggy exchange a quick phone call with Ken Cosgrove from a pay phone near Central Park, and then never hear from her again.

Fans revolt. ODDS: 100-to-1

The Duck Phillips/Paul Kinsey “Comically Poignant One-Off Episode” Future: In the second half of season 6, while buying toys for her son Kevin after work at F.A.O. Schwartz — all he wants are G.I. Joe’s — Joan bumps into a very pregnant Peggy. After an initial awkward exchange, Peggy makes a surprisingly off-color joke about how her breasts are finally getting to be as big as Joan’s, breaking the ice between them. They go to dinner, where Peggy tells Joan proudly that she’s still working at Cutler Gleason and Chaough — on track to become a partner, in fact, thanks to her winning campaign for, yup, G.I. Joe — and that she and Abe have decided not to get married. Joan is impressed; she’s been facing her own difficulties raising Kevin alone, and Roger Sterling has renewed his attempts to worm his way back into their lives. Joan begins to congratulate Peggy on truly having it all, when news breaks on a TV in their diner that Martin Luther King, Jr. has been killed. Abe’s been working in Washington D.C., and when reports trickle in about the race riots there, the stress drives Peggy into labor.

Which is when Peggy confesses that she was actually fired for hiding her pregnancy. She was at F.A.O. Schwartz researching toys for a freelance gig, her first since being fired since no one wants to hire a pregnant woman. She hasn’t been to a doctor in months — she and Abe can barely afford their rent — so she has no idea where to go to have her baby. Joan calls Roger, who gallantly swoops in and pays for Peggy’s hospital stay at Beth Israel (with a few choice Jewish doctor jokes tucked away for just such an occasion). The next day, Abe calls with great news — his reporting on the riots has caught the eye of a Washington Post reporter named Carl Bernstein, and he’s been hired on full time. Roger knows of a regional ad firm based in D.C., and offers to put in a good word for Peggy. But Peggy politely declines — she’s going to make it on her own.

Fans complain there were too many historical references. ODDS: 40-to-1

The Betty Francis “Radically Changed, Rarely Seen Supporting Character” Future: No, not the fat suit again. Free from the old-fashioned confines of SCDP, Peggy shows up in the third episode of season 6 having gone full hippie. She’s grown out her hair. She’s thrown out her bras. She’s even stopped shaving her legs. We encounter Peggy through Megan, who’s arrived at a casting call for Cutler Gleason and Chaough’s campaign for Playtex that Peggy is supervising. Megan is thunderstruck by Peggy’s transformation, but stops short of telling Don, who’s taking Peggy’s absence badly. Ted Chaough ultimately picks a blonde for the campaign, but gets into his first fight with Peggy when she subsequently mentions offhand that his second choice, Megan, was Megan Draper. (On her resume and headshot, she’s still Megan Calvet — her agent says the French surname is more alluring.)

Cut to episode 10. Peggy’s left Abe, has stopped wearing make-up, and is living in the West Village with lesbian photo editor Joyce Ramsay. She’s not happy. Her latest campaign is for Pan Am (a not-so-subtle dig at ABC’s failed attempt to capture the Mad Men mojo), and she relishes the high style and glamour of the airline even as Joyce and her boho buddies openly ridicule it. Behind Peggy’s back, Ted auditions Megan to be the face of Pan Am, and although Peggy initially protests — having Don’s rival firm hire his wife to be the face of a major national campaign is just too mean — she’s forced to admit Megan is perfect for the job. Just as she’s about to call Megan to tell her the good news, the phone rings. It’s Don. He’s a drunken mess. No one else can do what she did for him at the office, he tells her. Nothing he’s doing is working anymore. He’s completely out of touch. He needs her. Just then, Ted walks into her office, and she’s forced to hang up. But when she calls Don back the next day, Don acts like he doesn’t remember the conversation. As Peggy and Don stare out of their respective office windows, “Honey (I Miss You)” begins to play as we cut to credits. Peggy doesn’t show up again until season 7.

Fans endlessly debate whether Peggy is really a lesbian. ODDS: 10-to-1

The Betty Draper “Dominating Supporting Character” Future: Just about every episode of season 6 spends anywhere between a few minutes to half the run-time at the free-thinking Cutler Gleason and Chaough. At first, Peggy is in heaven. By episode 3, her campaign using Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to sell the first countertop microwave ovens has caught the eye of partners Johnny Cutler (Bill Irwin) and Ian Gleason (Robert Sean Leonard). Peggy is approached to help the firm poach Ken Cosgrove. She hesitates — she knows her old firm isn’t exactly in the best shape ever since Lane’s embezzlement came to light — but her old pact with Ken compels her to agree. Ken joins CGC, and a handful of his clients come with him.

Over the course of the season, we watch Peggy and Don go head to head for a series of high profile clients: Amtrak. Levis. The Georgia Tourism Board. Peggy keeps winning, forcing Don to dig deeper into himself than he ever has before, coming to terms with his own obsolescence in the face of a radically changing world. (Plus, Megan’s soap opera career is totally taking off.) Meanwhile, Peggy’s life feels hollow. Abe’s always out of town covering student protests across the country, but more than that, for a reason she can’t quite figure, it’s harder to savor the thrill of her winning campaigns. She begins to drink more, smoke dope, and flirt with casual sex while Abe’s away. Her work begins to suffer.

One morning, after a particularly wild night, Peggy is confronted outside her apartment by Michael Ginsberg. He’s fuming. CGC’s winning cartoon Georgia peach concept was eerily close to one of Ginsberg’s ideas ultimately rejected by Don. Peggy at first writes off the similarity as a coincidence, but then she does some digging, and discovers her dashing, not-so-closeted gay colleague Michael Channing (Sean Maher) stole the concept art from Stan Rizzo’s apartment. She’s horrified, and takes it to the partners, only to realize that subterfuge is how CGC does business.

Deeply unnerved to learn that so many of her accomplishments weren’t won on the merits alone, in a moment of true clarity, Peggy realizes her loyalties have always remained with Don. She calls him, and lays out how CGC’s been beating him point blank. But before Don can answer, she makes a subtle suggestion, remarking that Ted Chaough is a sucker for splashy pitches that push the envelope — and Heinz is coming in the following week fishing for ways to make ketchup more interesting. She hangs up. Both Don and Peggy know Heinz hates unorthodox campaigns, but Ted doesn’t know that. Don has Ginsberg work up a dummy campaign: We see a soldier in a Vietnam infirmary, his face covered in red bandages, a half-eaten hamburger by his bed. The tagline: “Relax. It’s just ketchup.”

In a private meeting, Don gently convinces Stan to “meet up” with Michael Channing one more time, and complain that Don is so out of touch he rejected the most attention grabbing ad he’s ever seen. Lo and behold, Ted and Michael pitch the exact same campaign to Heinz, and it crashes and burns spectacularly. Realizing he needs an original idea, fast, Ted races over to Peggy’s office to get her in the meeting, only to find her office empty, and a letter of resignation on her desk. Cut to the next day, Peggy standing before a conference table that includes Don, Michael, Stan, and Harry, and the folks from Heinz. Her pitch is at once radical and traditional, using just a series of images, with no voice-over or spoken lines, that evoke home, tradition, the comfort of an iconic brand that will always be around, no matter what else changes in the world. Don beams. Peggy is back. End of season.

Fans grouse there wasn’t nearly enough of Roger. ODDS: 5-to-1

Read more:
‘Mad Men’ recap: You Really, REALLY Got Me
Ken Tucker’s ‘Mad Men’ review: ‘Some very dirty business’ with women we love
‘Mad Men’ cast on ‘Actors Studio': 5 Things We Learned

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