Peggy and Don, Part 1

Last week’s episode of Mad Men—episode 7, “The Suitcase”–– was the most brilliant of all, in my view, because of how it depicts the evolving relationship between Peggy and Don. As the hour unfolds, we get to watch Peggy come into her own power as a professional woman. We can actually see her improvising that role before our eyes.
Until this episode, Peggy has been the talented young creative willing to work like a dog in order to move up the ladder, sucking up endless humiliations and insults because the men around her have no clue how to deal with her as a colleague and because she has female cohorts to provide support. Yes, she’s able comes up with some innovative solutions to her situation, such as suggesting that she and a fellow copywriter who is harassing her work naked, which of course throws him off guard. But for the most part she responds to what happens to her rather than taking initiative on behalf of herself. She has absolutely no model; she is making it up as she goes along, and even she can’t be sure where it’s all heading.
But in The Suitcase, we get to watch her sense of herself develop over the course of one extraordinary and difficult night. Peggy is able to see Don’s vulnerability and remain open to that, she but does not make the mistake of offering to be his mother. By maintaining her professional distance while still feeling compassion for the mess he’s making of his life, she turns herself into an ally and a strategic protégé.
The whole turn is masterful, and the fact that it happens on the night of the Liston-Clay fight emphasizes how pivotal the change in what she is experiencing will be. Just as whites were confronted with a triumphant yet defiant “great black hope” on that night, so also is Don Draper—the epitome of sexist entitlement, though always somehow redeemable—confronted in the hours following the fight with the knowledge that a woman has the potential and the right to be his creative equal. That’s why he takes her hand toward the close of the episode: it’s not a sexual overture (for once), but a way of acknowledging that they will be allies in the future.

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