The pleasures Peggy takes from advertising – an industry which shortly after gifting her Hokusai’s erotic masterpiece Roger describes in almost monstrous (octopoidal!) terms – are anything but vanilla
‘This business doesn’t have feelings: you get bought, you get sold, you get fired. If the account moves, you move. Even of your name’s on the damn door, you should know better than to get attached to some walls.’
Most people, most women, would probably run a mile from something so transparently horrible: the sexism, the aggression, the indifference. But Peggy is able to perform the magic trick of transforming all the dross into gold. To understand how naturally this comes to her we need look no further than her immediate response to Roger’s doom and gloom.
“Well hopefully I’ll have that problem some day.”
To Peggy’s mind her fear is “exciting”, the often terrible problems she faces “challenging”, and as she says, she needs this stuff. It’s what gets her out of bed in the morning. It’s revealing that almost all the exchanges between Roger and Peggy this episode, not just the one detailed above, repeat this cycle of misery and cynicism which somehow over the course of their conversation resolve themselves as pleasure and hope. Even more so that the end result is this:
I understand that there’s an end of the world absurdity to the Roger and Peggy double act’s curtain call this episode, but Weiner’s reaching for more than that. To both of them, often considered the most childlike of all Mad Men’s principles, SC&P was a playground, even if they could be forgiven for failing to notice it at the time. And that’s what this scene, with Roger leading with an elegiac but carnivalesque tune and Peggy slipping frictionless across the office floor, is really speaking to. How much they loved the place, and how, like kids playing in the blitz torn London streets, ultimately they made the hostile world of advertising their own. Their antics are as much about their past as where they are now – about who they were as much as where they’re likely end up: Roger, the wisecracking but waning patriarch, the old order on the outs since the 60s started, and Peggy the eternal new girl, the creative spirit of youth weaving in an out, dancing really, between what we realise is not wreckage but SC&P exploded and unpacked, deconstructed right down to its essentials. This number has been going since Mad Men began, only here it is being made explicit.
There’s something of the Situationists’ detournement about all this too, an expression of an irreverent and punkish attitude which up until the point Peggy saunters in through their doors, a cigarette dangling from her lips and painting in hand, McCann has been sorely lacking. And it makes sense that we dissolve to white. Just as the Situationists in their derives made up new names for the streets they aimlessly stalked, so too, we hope, shall Peggy rewrite the roadmap for the corporate environment through which she travels. One thing’s for certain, people like her were responsible for the advertising world’s industry wide shake-up in the 1970s.
Before she gets to the great octopus itself however, she’ll have to contend with its young, McCann’s mostly male staff, and it’s on this personal level that Peggy will initially make her mark. What will these people, who have no inkling of the subtext Cooper and Peggy instinctively slather across it, make of Roger’s present (which btw – and I can’t believe no-one’s noticed this – depending on whether Hokusai is recognised in Mad Men’s universe makes her a very rich person indeed)? I imagine the prevailing view will be that Peggy is perverse, definitely creative. But in the end the painting’s octopuses and masochistic overtones aren’t really the point, rather, simply, that Peggy, a woman of all things, digs sex. Or to whittle it down to the basics, Peggy will disturb the all male higher ups at her new office because she’s a woman possessed of any desire at all, which is to say that she’s a flesh and blood person. At this point in time, and especially at a place like McCann, there’s nothing more countercultural than that.
The painting’s original owner, Bert Cooper (quoted in the title of this piece), could only envision a man imagining the Fisherman’s Wife’s ecstasy because in the early 1960s the concept of female pleasure was still a sexual and ideological revolution away. Still, though, as a Randian he would have applauded the self interest and agency Peggy demonstrates this episode. In fact if he knew her better – at all! – he would have applauded Peggy full stop. Peggy is often spoken of as Don’s protege, and before it all turned sour I think it’s fair to say that Bert saw his relationship with Don in a similar light. To demonstrate this Bert gave Don a copy of Atlas Shrugged, the bible of so many self made men and women, but in the end he found the solidarity he initially felt he shared with Don to be false. In contrast, Peggy, who has some way to go before she experiences anything like the ennui Don felt at the top of his game, has yet to let the spirit of Cooper down, and I think he would view this symbolic passing of the torch in a more than favourable light. Cooper was no feminist, none of them are, but he’d know his painting was in the right hands.
This is one of the stories, mirrored by Betty’s decision to study psychology, that Mad Men wanted to tell, the story of the cultural shift in the 1960s which saw women transition from object (the dreamt of) to subject (the dreamer). Miraculously, like a dog sitting up and playing the piano, it turns out the woman in the centre of the frame wasn’t conceived of by anyone but herself.
And later when she’s done with octopus, you just might meet her around the boardroom table, licking her lips.