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Counter-Culture Blues: The Rejected on Mad Men

It was only a matter of time before Peggy Olson found the counter-culture. Or, one supposes, the counter-culture of the mid-1960s found Peggy Olson.

Rejection seemed to be on the minds of everyone in this week's "swell-egant" episode of Mad Men ("The Rejected"), written by Keith Huff and Matthew Weiner and directed by John Slattery, which revolved around the generational gap and in the transition of old ideas to new ones. Is it that young women want to find themselves beautiful, to partake in rituals of feminine beauty, or is that they're only looking to snag a husband? Is matrimony the expected outcome of any encounter?

The rejections experienced weren't just romantic ones--though they threaded through this week's installment--but also intellectual ones, that Peggy could chose to align herself not with the aged men in the lobby of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce but with the vibrancy of youth, with a generation of forward-thinking individuals--artists, rebels, drug-users--who were defying their parents' ideals, rejecting the notions that womanhood meant subservience, that marriage was the ultimate destination, that everything comes down to commerce in one form or another.

In Joyce, Peggy encounters someone rather like her: an ambitious woman who wields more power than most women at the office but without turning on the charm like Joan Harris. No, Joyce is a pretentious intellectual, which makes Peggy smile all the more, a free-thinker who is shocked to discover that a copywriter like Peggy would admire the nudes that have been rejected by Life magazine. In a way, they're kindred spirits, though not quite in the way that Joyce would hope, given the way that she is herself rejected by Peggy after attempting to kiss her at the downtown party she invites Peggy to.

While I was surprised that Peggy would be so down to earth about advances from a woman, I was glad to see that that wasn't the end of this storyline, which was more about Joyce giving Peggy access to a world she knew nothing about--a world filled with arrogant artists, police-raided parties, and possibilities (notice that Peggy didn't hesitate when Abe kissed her)--than in a sexual encounter between the two. Joyce's knowledge of this world and her handing Peggy and entry card to this demi-monde pull Peggy off of the path she's been on. It's an eye-opening experience that separates Peggy all the more from the world she's been inhabiting, an ad agency filled with men who have chosen their parents' values rather than their own.

That Peggy and Joyce's group should walk by a collection of old men and ad executives in the lobby of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is an intentional juxtaposition, a visual reminder of the generation gap that existed at the time. The look that passes between Pete and Peggy as she waits for the elevator expresses the wide chasm between them, between their choices, their past indiscretion, and in the rejection that Peggy faced at his hands and in her own rejection of his belief structure. (The distance between the generations is made all the more apparent this week in the hiring of the elderly Miss Blankenship as Alison's replacement.)

For all of his pluck, Pete Campbell has made his alliance with the establishment. Pete has been promoted; he's a partner and a father-to-be now. His efforts to seize control of his destiny lead him to wrest control of his father-in-law's company and bring the entire Vicks Chemical line to the agency. He's playing an old game and his company here, the old men, the boys' club, signals an era that's soon to be ending. He might be building his dynasty, but Pete is missing out on the true revolution happening on the other side of those glass doors. (It's interesting too that much of what Pete allegedly accused Kenny of is true of him as well. He's leveraging his wife's family for financial gain.)

It's interesting too that Alison, Don's jilted secretary, attempts to form a rapport with Peggy after she tearfully flees the Pond's focus group. Alison sees her and Peggy as one in the same, both rejected women who have been forced to deal with Don's grabby hands and mercurial nature. But that's not the case, Peggy angrily insists; Alison's problems are not hers. It's a reminder that just about everyone still believes that Peggy's position of power at the agency is due to her sleeping with Don. It's a slap in the face to Peggy, an assumption of the highest order.

Yet Peggy too makes that assumption of Joyce in the elevator, seeing her as a pink-slipped secretary rather than the one doing the firing, a photo editor for a national magazine. And, though there wasn't anything sexual between Don and Peggy, she too made a bad decision and had an indiscretion with someone she shouldn't. While she bore Pete's child and gave it up for adoption, the parallels between Alison's plight and her own can't be avoided.

Though she angrily tells Alison to grow up and deal with the consequences, it's clear that Peggy can't truly let go either. Her bonk against the desk with her head recalls Pete's own head-banging earlier in the episode. They're joined in ways that can't be overlooked but Pete, like Don with Alison, has made his decision and it didn't include Peggy. He may have seen her but that made it all the worse. As Dottie said in the focus group, "I gave him everything and I got nothing."

Still, I admire Peggy for going to see Pete and for congratulating him on Trudy's pregnancy; it's a big step for her to make, particularly after last season's admission that she had had his child and gave it away. Peggy's decision not to sign the card but to see Pete in person express her own conflicted feelings. It would have been disingenuous to sign the card but it's harder still to dredge up the past between them, the child they had together, and the fact that Pete will now be a father in more ways than just one.

By saying things aloud (or even writing them), we give them power. It takes courage to admit the truth, which is something that Don can't do. Hell, he can't even take the time to write Alison an actual letter of reference when she decides to leave (likely for that job at Life that became available), leading her to throw a paperweight at Don. (Ouch.)

But it's even harder for him to admit the truth of his situation: that he's in a dark place right now, a time where his life and his expectations of how it would turn out have been brutally thwarted. He's a lone man, sitting in the dark at the typewriter (his hat still on his head, a symbol of enforced formality), but he can't bring himself to even write the truth in a letter to Alison he'll never send.

Don might have chided Faye for using outmoded ideas when she suggests that they reject Peggy's hypothesis and stick with the link between using Pond's cold cream and matrimony, to which Don replies, "Hell, 1925." While he admonishes her for attempting to bury a new way of thinking, it's clear that Don too has already committed to those old ways in his own life.

That elderly couple in his apartment building hallway represents that outmoded way of thinking too, in a way. His life has gone a different direction; he and Betty will never be that couple discussing groceries in a too-loud voice in front of a stranger. ("We'll discuss it inside," the woman says.) He's entering his own home alone, sitting in the dark with the truth. They might be arguing about pears but they might as well be arguing about "pairs" really.

Next week on Mad Men ("The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"), Don and Pete go against Roger in efforts to win a new account.


Hadley said…
I think the counter-culture angle is great for Peggy and breathes some new life into her character. It was fun watching her react to Joyce and the other people at the party and also seeing her gain the confidence to congratulate Pete.(And seeing her peeking into Don's office was hysterical.) I'm excited to see where this storyline takes Peggy.
Barbara Ableson said…
It may be that Don's new secretary was meant to underscore the distance between the generations, but I felt that Joan's choice of the older lady had more to do with Joan's recognition of what had happened between Don and Allison. I think it was Joan's tacit statement about his behavior. I doubt that Don will be tempted by Mrs. Blankenship.
ewench said…
I think the introduction of the counter culture into the show is just great :) I was also suprised Peggy took the lesbian pass in stride!

I have to say watching Dons downward slide into loneliness and alcoholism is rather depressing. I was always on "Team Don" even if he was a bit a jerk at times, but now he is just turning into a complete a$$hole! (i.e. his behavior with Alison)

I think Miss Blankenship is going to be provididng some needed comic relief! (love her already!)
The Rush Blog said…
The rejections experienced weren't just romantic ones--though they threaded through this week's installment--but also intellectual ones, that Peggy could chose to align herself not with the aged men in the lobby of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce but with the vibrancy of youth, with a generation of forward-thinking individuals--artists, rebels, drug-users--who were defying their parents' ideals, rejecting the notions that womanhood meant subservience, that marriage was the ultimate destination, that everything comes down to commerce in one form or another.

I get so TIRED of the show's writer, Matt Weiner and the fans putting Peggy Olson on a pedestal. The more this happens, the more I grow to dislike her. If there is one thing I truly dislike is a fictional character who is presented in an ideal or near ideal manner; or one who is regarded as such.

Peggy has dangerously reached this stage and it's only Season Four. I can probably say the same about Joan Holloway Harris.
KateML said…
Thanks, Jace! The other theme I noticed throughout was the push and pull of privacy and public behavior, being observed and bein secretive, and the power that has over relationships. At one point I turned to my husband and commented on how creepy it was that the office girls were in there baring their souls in front of their bosses. One can assume they consented, but what does that mean? It's somehing that would probably be considered borderline abusive today. You also had hidden Peggy stealing a kiss, hidden don and Alison being observed by Peggy, and of course the hidden (until now) counterculture being exposed at the end of the party. What will these various exposures and secrets do to the relationships, the culture? What do we think we know about people based on our observations? One could argue that the very nature of secrecy gives power to the one who holds the secret and binds the holders, much like Pete and Peggy. That last scene with the couple in the hallway resonated on that level to me. A "pair" of people who had made a life together to the exclusion of others, shutting down Don's observant eye ( which he used through the one-way mirror at work so intrusively) with the pointed "We'll discuss it inside."

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