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Peggy's Mad Men storylines were always about work. Why was her ending about romance?

Yeah, Harris Olson didn't make a lot of sense for Peggy to pursue. But, oh, what could have been!
Yeah, Harris Olson didn't make a lot of sense for Peggy to pursue. But, oh, what could have been!
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

To discuss the series finale of Mad Men , culture editor Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by several of Vox's other writers. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here.

Dylan Matthews: Okay, I'll admit it: I hate that Peggy ended up with Stan.

Just about every other character got a resolution that felt fitting. Joan found a business opportunity that was a perfect match for her talents and ran with it, leaving sexy, coke-addled Bruce Greenwood behind when he wouldn't support her. Pete, unhappy in Manhattan, the suburbs, and California alike, decided to bring Trudy along to explore the misery prospects of Kansas.

Sally revealed herself to be the moral center of the Draper family, imploring Don to put his pride aside, give Betty the peaceful death she wanted, and do what was best for Bobby and Gene. Roger, for the first time since Mona, got a partner smart and witty enough to be his equal in the relationship ("Yell at me slower, or in English!"). Don got one last temporary moment of enlightenment that — this being Don — ultimately amounted to little more than inspiration for a commercial.

And Peggy … Peggy got a man.

I see your point, Libby, that having Peggy sign on with Joan wouldn't make a whole lot of sense in the context of their past relationship. Joan thinks Peggy is naive and entitled; Peggy thinks Joan is stubborn and churlish. That's not a strong basis on which to form a partnership.

And what Joan proposed was also not what Peggy wants to be doing with her life. As Peggy told Don earlier this season, she wants to be the first woman creative director of an advertising agency. She wants to land a huge account. She wants to "have a big idea. Create a catchphrase." She wants fame. She wants to "create something of lasting value." None of these are goals best achieved by making industrial films for the likes of Dow Chemical.

But in my heart, I was pulling for Harris Olson all the same. Sure, I had an instinctive desire to see the two great female characters on the show finally band together and take on the world; it wouldn't quite be Alyssa Rosenberg's dream ending of Joan and Peggy driving off in a convertible together to join a lesbian commune in California, but it'd still be quite satisfying.

More than that, though, I wanted Peggy to have an ending like Joan had: one that was about her. Not necessarily one that gave her everything she dreamed of — again, Harris Olson wouldn't fulfill her dreams in the slightest — but one that was at least about her career and let her put it first. Instead, we got an ending that was about her relationship with a man.

It just felt like such a betrayal of who her character is, and the arc she's followed over the course of the show. There are characters on Mad Men whose stories are primarily about their personal lives. Roger was at the apex of his career when the show started, so naturally his marriages and personal drama took center stage. Pete's work appears to be aggressively dull, and the show mercifully avoided highlighting it. And since Betty never got a shot at a career to begin with — at least not until her cut-short stint at psychology graduate school — basically the only stories one could tell about her involved her personal life.

Why the Peggy romance fell flat

But Peggy's story has always been about work, about advertising, and about the nobility and at times necessity of putting that ahead of the things — children, marriage, domesticity — she was told to value. Even when her relationships were highlighted, they were inextricably intertwined with her career trajectory.

She gave up her and Pete's baby so she could have a life for herself, a real start at a career as a copywriter. Her boyfriend Mark dumped her when she decided to stay late to work on Samsonite with Don, and she pointedly refused when Don urged her to "run to him, like in the movies." Her breakup with Abe was less about the two of them than about her own maturation, achieved in that case by buying a condo for herself (albeit a condo in a dangerous neighborhood where one is wont is accidentally stab one's partner with a makeshift spear upon hearing a suspicious noise). Her takeaway from her relationship with Ted Chaough was that it failed due to the extreme power imbalance in his favor ("Well, aren't you lucky ... to have decisions").

Her relationship with Stan is about work too, of course. But it was about work in exactly the wrong way. In the conversation immediately before their teary confession of mutual love, Stan admonished Peggy for just "wanting to be in charge," reminding her that there's "more to life than work." What a horrible, ugly way to respond to someone expressing totally reasonable ambitions. So what if Peggy wants to be in charge? There's nothing wrong with that, and the line between Stan's hippie slackerism and more traditional criticism of women's ambition is very thin indeed.

And when they reconcile, he's not suddenly supportive. Instead, she starts praising him for "mak[ing] everything okay" and being "always right," implicitly denigrating her own work in the process. Also, when has he ever made anything okay? Yeah, he was nice to her after she told him about her baby, but they only had that conversation because he had nastily implied she'd never have kids, that she "got to a certain point in your life and it didn't happen."

I didn't want Peggy to end up with a guy who tells her, "Every time I'm face to face with you I want to strangle you." I wanted her to end up with someone who actually takes her ambitions seriously. That's not Stan.

Read the recap, and come back throughout the week for thoughts from other writers.

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