Long before viewers began writing Don Draper off as an insufferable drunk with rapidly disappearing prospects, many of the more vocal among us (read: entertainment writers) were already pinning their “Mad Men” hopes and dreams on one Peggy Olson. She had borne the harsh tutelage of a master long enough to hone her demonstrable talent. She struck out on her own and neither crashed nor burned. Her personal life, while far from ideal, is not marred by the kind of public missteps that have impacted Don’s work. Also, she’s relatively sweet and intensely hardworking. For those who naively believe in TV justice, her ascendance seemed assured. Last season’s shot of her in Don’s chair seemed to indicate as much.
Within the chorus of recaps following last Sunday’s season premiere, one can almost hear the collective sigh as Team Peggy tempered its expectations. Trapped under the thumb of a new boss who functions more as a traffic conductor than a creative thinker, Peggy is faced with a shocking truth: Don Draper was an idealist. That intractable need to create memorable work – or, as Lou Avery calls it, “her charms” – is not shared by even the most highly paid of her co-workers. She is frustrated by this, and we feel frustrated for her.
“Despite last season's finale's imagery of Peggy in Don's office, symbolically wearing the pants, Peggy isn't running the shop. Instead, crusty ol' Lou Avery is calling the shots, and he's everything that Don was not.” - Jeff Labrecque, Entertainment Weekly
“… it’s a fuddy-duddy interim boss named Lou Avery, who shoots down Peggy’s earnest desire to present the best pitch possible for Accutron by saying her charms don’t work on him. Only this time, her supervisor truly doesn’t seem to recognize her talent or her devotion to her work.” - Ashely Fetters, The Atlantic
“Lou represents everything Don and Peggy can't stand: He favors middle-of-the-road, boring pablum and can't be bothered to think outside the box. Peggy can't get to him because he has no beating creative heart to reach.” - Maureen Ryan, The Huffington Post
All of this empathy is understandable. Lou is mostly a lazy prick laboring under a thin veneer of cordiality. But Don Draper was no teddy bear, and yet Peggy probably owes him her career. Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture suggests that, while Peggy is smart and creative, her attempt to deceive Lou into making a particular choice indicates that she still has plenty to learn about negotiating office politics. I concur. Lou Avery may not know good ad copy, but he can still recognize weak game from a mile away.
Seitz also suggests that Peggy's attempt to rewrite Freddy Rumsen’s Accutron pitch was an unwarranted power play. “Peggy is sharp,” he writes, “but she’s not immune to the urge to piss on fire hydrants just because she can.” That is one possibility, though a disheartening one. I would suggest that Peggy’s rewrite fail is show creator Matthew Weiner’s way of letting us know that, not only can Peggy learn a lesson or two from Lou and those immediately surrounding her, she still has a lot to learn from Don.
Don and Peggy are currently in similar positions. Both are in a holding pattern, career-wise. Both seem to be teetering on the edge of emotional wreckage – just think of the final shots of each of them from last week’s premiere. But that pitch of his, it still wowed her. Try as she might, she could not rewrite it for the better. Most things being equal, his best line, even delivered through an innocuous, doughy puppet like Rumsen, still trumps hers. That could change if they end up working side-by-side once again and with more understanding between them.
Sarene Leeds at Rolling Stone writes that Don and Peggy “need each other.” I agree that, perhaps, Peggy’s apprenticeship is not quite over after all. As for Don, I have no idea what that poor guy needs. But, at the very least, prepping Peggy to kick Lou Avery the hell out of his (her?) office would certainly give him something more valuable to do with his time than keeping Freddy Rumsen in sausage sandwiches.