Peggy and Joan’s first encounter in the Mad Men pilot appears to set them up as opposites. In her conservative skirt-and-sweater combo, Peggy is an energetic do-gooder who wants merely to succeed. In her slinky green number, Joan has men on the brain. A secretary’s job, she instructs Peggy, is to anticipate men’s needs, to be “in between a mother and a waitress,” with two other possibilities thrown in: mistress and suburban wife. To Joan, the latter is the dream, the prize at the end of the struggle. Of course, Peggy takes Joan’s advice and runs it right into the wall, including a failed attempt to be Don’s “girlfriend” when she touches his hand and a very poor decision to accept Pete’s drunken advances.
From this inauspicious beginning, who would imagine that in the show’s final moments, Peggy would be embraced as a paragon of romantic love by a colleague precisely because of her lack of feminine wiles (in fact, her dubbing him a failure prompts his confession) — while Joan rejects a rich suitor to run a business out of her kitchen? In seven seasons, after a decade of fending off wave after wave of misogynistic behavior, carping at each other, and commiserating with each other, Joan and Peggy crisscrossed.
And they both ended up exactly where they needed to be.
We know how Joan arrived at Holloway Harris. Her transformation hinged on her three most painful moments: the rape at the hands of her doctor fiancé, the fateful night with the Jaguar client, and her miserable confrontations with the men of McCann. In the first instance, she saw the limits of her domestic dream. In the final one, she made a rational decision to win her partnership by following her own advice for Peggy, trading on her looks and charm. Joan weathered the aftermath of this choice, fending off humiliating digs and remarks, and becoming indispensable to her colleagues. As a partner at SC&P, she found satisfaction and respect. But then, at McCann, she discovered she had neither. So she took off, intending to live a life of leisure with her new man, Richard, but realizing that this dream has also gone cold for her. “Do we have to get married?” she asked him halfheartedly. She was sad when he left her, but not so sad she couldn’t finesse her business phone call. Founding Holloway Harris means that Joan will never have to deal with an instance of ogling if she doesn’t want to and, more importantly, never have to depend on a man for a sense of completion.
Ogling was never Peggy’s primary problem. Sure she dealt with come-ons and office entanglements, and moments of invisibility too — but she did so by becoming a bulldozing badass, soldiering through at the risk of being labeled, in essence, a castrating bitch. Peggy leaned in. In her final scene “at work,” she pushed a McCann big shot into returning an account. Yet she has a softer side too, and Mad Men implies that becoming another pushy ad exec isn’t the only thing she deserves out of life. She needs human connection, too.
Her fledgling attempts to bond sexually with Pete and Don fail, but by refusing to kowtow to them later on and calling them out when needed, she gains a spot as their family member. Their fast food dinner à trois at Burger Chef sets up her biggest creative triumph, alongside her professional family. Peggy’s strongest emotional moments come from her collegial relationships. In the finale, we see the payoff of this: Pete tells her she’ll smash the glass ceiling, while she repeats his catchphrase, “a thing like that,” to him — showing that she’s been paying close attention to his needs, and vice versa. Don follows through on his role as her sad, wayward father (“Come home!” she remonstrates — not “Come back to the office!”).
Finally, Stan takes her by surprise and slides into position as her office wife. He’ll massage her while she perfects her copy, and remind her that life goes beyond work. He may even help her become a better version of Don, with more of a soul and more grounding outside the workplace. He’ll protect that warm and whimsical side of Peggy Olson from the coldness and risk of the corporate world, and collaborate with her on her best spots. After all, he’s already proven that he’s willing to listen to her teary rants about sexist double standards, and understand them too.
Because of their unique struggles, it’s hard not to long for a union of Peggy and Joan. Sisterhood is powerful. But Harris Olson was never to be. By the end, Joan wanted to burn the place down, while Peggy still wanted to ascend the ranks. Neither Joan nor Peggy is going to “have it all.” But they’re each going to have a more complete sense of self, and hopefully, hopefully they will have each other in the form of monthly power lunches, too. From Joan telling new-girl Peggy to look at the mirror and find her best qualities there, to Joan wooing Peggy for a high-powered job over white napkins and wine, they’ve both come a longer way — and taken more surprising routes — than we might have predicted.