Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in the Season 6 premiere of Mad Men. (AMC/Frank Ockenfels)
One of the pleasures of Sunday’s Mad Men premiere was watching Peggy handle herself with aplomb in rooms full of less-qualified, less-intelligent and overall less-competent men. The point the show was making was not subtle, and could in other hands have been accused of being too political, but Elisabeth Moss sold it to us anyway. Which figures: where Mad Men succeeds, it often does so on the strength of the acting rather than the writing. Just imagine if the actress playing Peggy was someone else. In other hands Peggy might be shrill, abrasive or just plain power-drunk. In Moss, you see a Peggy that has learned to modulate her soft tones and hard truths in a way that ultimately lets her win the day.
It all feels so timely; women bosses are key figures of the “zeitgeist” right now, for better or for worse. The coupling of Peggy this season with the ubiquity of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In would have been media-synergy enough. But add in the death of Margaret Thatcher (who, born somewhere and someone else, might have been a Peggy herself) to the mix and we’re up to our ears in online commentary about the nature of female leadership. And in the avalanche of “woman good” and “woman bad” analyses, how funny is it that the fictional character seems the most realistic?
Key to that realism is that Peggy still ran somewhat ashore in her success, at least to her new boss’s mind. After an entire episode in which he’s blithely enjoying himself on vacation during a client meltdown, he compliments Peggy on being “good in a crisis.” But he also tells her she should have sent everyone home once she figured out the solution to a problem late on New Years’ Eve. He even comes in to check on her, expecting chaos, but is pleasantly surprised (and possibly even turned on) by the fact that she’s flourishing. As Alan Sepinwall observes at HitFix, the sequence is clearly there to style Peggy as now being “the female Don Draper.” Who was, it bears remembering, not the greatest boss for Peggy herself, in the end.
The scene also bears another potential reading for me, one (forgive the armchair psychoanalysis) developed from what I gleaned as a flicker across Moss’s face. Viewed by a woman who has struggled to assert her authority in a work setting, Ted’s little reprimand is a reminder that what has always worked, and taken as unobjectionable, in Don—a leadership style that was demanding, in time and effort, if not exactly abrasive—would be seen in a wholly other way in Peggy. Namely, as too much.
This double standard was the subject of Lean In, which I read when it came out a few weeks ago and, I confess, found it wasn’t “for me.” But it wasn’t because I have lived a life of unbroken radical activism. My irritations with the book emerged precisely because I once worked in a professional office environment, albeit not in tech, that actually much more resembled Mad Men with its terrible office clothing. With that experience behind me, I just want a book that has more to say about the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum of being a woman asserting general authority in the world.