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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where office marriages burn on

Don Draper's relationship with Peggy Olson thrives amid Mad Men's sensational tension

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For most of Mad Men's seventh season, Don and Peggy have been at odds with each other. As a professional critic-type person, I should have been able to read that as dramatic tension, but somehow I took it personally. It felt more like listening to mommy and daddy fight.

My TV trauma was probably rooted in the fact that Don and Peggy are usually the only functional couple in sight. Thankfully, the pair reconciled last week, in what is widely seen as the strongest episode of the year. It's impossible to watch Mad Men without a down-deep taste for misery, but even the most masochistic viewer needs a little respite. Finally, Peggy and Don were working overtime again, firing off ideas and slow-dancing to Frank Sinatra. I hate to sound like their boss Lou, a man who can make cardigans look sinister, but all I can say is, "It's nice to see family happiness again."

Peggy and Don may not be a couple in the conventional sense, but they have something. The term "work spouse" didn't come into general use until the 1980s, but that's what each of these driven, compartmentalized, secretive characters finds in each other. Peggy and Don's office marriage is characterized (mostly) by intimacy and understanding, loyalty, trust and respect, qualities that are noticably lacking in the series' marriage-marriages.

And their relationship endures while others have foundered, through infidelity, indifference or -- in the case of Peggy and her ex-boyfriend Abe -- unfortunate bayonet accidents.

Don and Betty may have looked like the figures on top of a 1950s wedding cake, but their photogenic marriage was doomed. Don's second marriage also seems troubled, with Megan pursuing flower-child SoCal bohemianism while Don remains stuck in New York and his grey flannel suit. Megan's announcement that she's taking her fondue pot to L.A. can only be seen as ominous. Nobody eats fondue alone.

Peggy's start-and-stop single-girl love life has had a tragicomic feel, being mostly a series of dead-enders, drunken dog-abandoners and married men. I had fond hopes for her and Ginsberg, and wow, look at how that turned out, with the now infamous "thing in a box" scene.

Peggy and Don remain each other's staunchest, most supportive partner. But even with that slow-dancing, there should never be an actual romance between them, which would be like, ugh, some sappy fan-fiction storyline. It's much more interesting to watch them bring all that emotional energy and intellectual give-and-take to office dynamics. Their complicated relationship has become even more compelling since the power structure has shifted.

In the beginning, Peggy was "The New Girl," insecure and uncertain, while Don was the alpha-male advertising star, who wrote his own rules, drank in the afternoon, disappeared for days at a time, and galvanized the room just by walking into it.

Now Peggy is figuring out how to be a boss, while -- just as crucially -- Don is learning how not to be a boss. According to the new Burger Chef campaign, dad represents authority while mom supplies emotion, but that paradigm is being flipped in this unsettled season.

Peggy now holds authority, with Mad Men commentators often describing her as the New Don. But even though she can be seen taking on Don-like postures or making Don-like pronouncements, she isn't allowed any Don-like quirks. While his demanding, difficult behaviour was always attributed to pure, ungovernable creative genius, Peggy's high standards tend to be viewed as pushy, petty or bitchy, by her co-workers (and by many viewers).

So Peggy struggles to be the New Don, while Old Don tries to adapt to the chastening terms of his current position. He reports to Peggy and has to cancel personal plans so that he can write tags for the unappreciative, unimaginative Lou. Still, in a show where material success tends to be twinned with emotional impoverishment, Don's professional "failure" could be the making of him.

For most of season 7, Don and Peggy have been in conflict with each other and -- this being Mad Men -- with themselves. But they finally manage to get it together by just concentrating on the work. Looking for some kind of honest moment in their Burger Chef campaign, they find something real, and rather sweet, for themselves.

One of the piquant points of this series is that its truest moments often come as the characters are manufacturing false dreams. (Oh, that Kodak carousel pitch.) The Burger Chef campaign has stalled, according to Peggy, because it's being pitched to the kind of ideal American family that no longer exists.

And so last week's episode ended with an odd, unlooked-for warmth as Peggy and Don share burgers and fries with problem-child Peter, their strange makeshift work family forming a touching tableaux as they sit under glaring lights on hard plastic benches, ingesting concentrated amounts of fat, salt and sugar.

"Every table is a family table," Peggy declares.

Though it's hard to remember now, Burger Chef was an actual chain. Second only to McDonald's in 1969, the company was in decline by the 1970s, eventually dwindling away completely. Its fate raises questions about how Mad Men will end, as the half-season caps off this weekend, with a long break before the final episodes air next year.

The Internet's TV conspiracy theorists resist the idea of dwindling. They hate dwindling. They're clutching at the howling coyotes and tinder-dry brush outside Megan's isolated home in the Hollywood Hills, or at the broken door on Don's balcony, beckoning him toward the existential abyss. Many fans seem to be hoping for something fatal, something final, something spectacular. But as last week's Sinatra-themed embrace reminded us, many of Mad Men's finest moments are quiet and slow.

Who knows how the series will conclude, but I think there's a good chance that Don and Peggy will save that last dance for each other.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2014 D12

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