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Shakeups on Mad Men shocking but welcome

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Be careful what you wish for.

There I was, feeling vaguely restless and dissatisfied with Mad Men. To me, it felt as if Season 5 had never really established narrative traction, that its ensemble structure had become too diffused.

And then comes last week's episode, and boom. Suddenly everyone is in shut-the-door-have-a-seat mode. You know what that means on Mad Men. Everything happened, including several things I wish hadn't. It was like the Riding Lawnmower Incident but without all the blood. (I should just insert a really big SPOILER ALERT here.)

I'm still reeling with the loss of Peggy Olson, who finally moved over to rival firm Cutler Gleason and Chaough after months of feeling overlooked and underpaid. (It didn't help that the boys were all working on the sexy Jaguar pitch -- and eating lobster sent in from the Palm -- while Peggy was toiling away on a laxative campaign.)

Mad Men is ultimately Don Draper's show, but for five seasons now Peggy has been his necessary counterweight. As played with steady understatement by Elisabeth Moss, Peggy has become one of the series' most quietly intriguing characters.

A feminist without knowing the word, she has just tried to do work she loves, making her way through hostile and uncharted territory, without the help of legislation, workplace policies or role models. Without power suits, even.

In a show where clothes speak volumes, the poor girl has been expected to compete with men while wearing Peter Pan collars and Catholic-schoolgirl jumpers. Elegant Betty Draper and bombshell Joan Holloway have inspired Banana Republic clothing lines, but Peggy has had to soldier on gamely in unflattering haircuts and frequently disastrous outfits. (Mustard yellow. Plaid. Sometimes both.)

Peggy's complicated, caring, blessedly non-carnal relationship with Don has always been a joy to watch. Peggy probably knows the enigmatic Don Draper better than anyone else on the show. Her crisp, clear-eyed perceptions have been crucial, especially since Don spends most of his time surrounded by female adoration, alpha-male envy and beta-male awe. "I never expect Mr. Draper to be anything other than what he is," Peggy explains.

Don, in return, has championed Peggy, who has risen from being his assistant to becoming his "work wife." But to take up last episode's overworked car metaphor, that means being a Buick in the garage rather than the much-desired Jaguar in the showroom. Don takes Peggy for granted, often withholding recognition and even simple gratitude. When Peggy complains that he never says thank you, Don tells her, "That's what the money's for."

In the end, it's not money that lures Peggy away but the promise of respect, along with the fear that if she stays at SCDP she'll always be "a secretary from Brooklyn who wants to help out."

I'm hoping, really hoping, that Peggy will somehow figure in the show's future, but the fate of other characters who leave the firm -- or leave Don -- doesn't bode well. The fabulously closeted Sal Romano got one payphone call, and Paul Kinsey turned up briefly in Hare Krishna robes. Betty Draper has fared even worse. Clearly, Don got custody of all the good storylines in the divorce, while his former wife has been sent into suburban exile with a punitive Fat Betty subplot. (Suddenly she's overeating because she's unhappy? Land sakes, when has she ever been happy?)

Peggy at least got to walk out on a high note. At the end of the episode she stood in front of the office elevator, which has been a metaphor for the existential abyss ever since Don stared down an empty shaft a few weeks ago. For Peggy, though, the elevator doors seemed to open to a world of new possibilities. Finally wearing a chic and regal purple dress, she allowed herself a rare Peggy smile as the (always significant) closing-credit music came up. It was the Kinks' You Really Got Me.

Well, girl, you really did get us, and now you're heading off to CGC. Good for you, Peggy. Sad for us.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 E3

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