Peggy is something much more important than a lover: she's Don's friend.
It's a scene we've been expecting for six seasons on Mad Men. Peggy and Don find themselves alone in the office on a weekend. Frank Sinatra is crooning "My Way" over the radio. Don asks a downtrodden Peggy if she would like to dance, she agrees, and he holds her small frame against him while they sway together. Don softly kisses the top of her head and smiles to himself and the scene fades out.
But Peggy and Don never full-on kiss, never hop in bed, never exercise the palpable tension between them, and that might be the most important aspect of last night's episode "The Strategy," and possibly their entire relationship. Because Peggy is something quite possibly more important than a lover ever could be to Don: she's his friend, his mentee.
"I worry about a lot of things, but I don't worry about you," Don confesses to Peggy as they sit in her office earlier in the scene, ruminating over a new Burger Chef pitch, after Peggy's first one has been shaken by her own neuroses. Peggy worries that she will end up alone, that's she 30-years-old, and too far from away from ever becoming a mother. Up against the idea of what it means to make a family meal, she asks herself why she isn't in that stage of life. "What did I do wrong?" Peggy cries. Peggy, who's been working for years building a steely facade, willfully avoiding the emotional traps that could limit her in a male-dominated field, can finally let her guard down with Don. If they are a twosome who has never shared a kiss, they have shared a more potent intimacy: secrets about pregnancies, affairs, drinking habits, hushed confessionals.
"I never did anything and I don't have anyone," Don admits to Peggy, coming down to her level. It's a moment of vulnerability that we don't see him have with anyone else, especially the other women of Mad Men. He tells his wife Megan he sleeps better beside her, but she's more focused on a fondue pot. Joan, once Don's confidant, avoids Don in meetings, feeling he's overstayed his professional welcome. But Don and Peggy — who have been in an odd power play all season — are back in each other's embrace both personally and professionally, connected by the olive branch of mutual admiration, self-doubt, and a condemned past. It may not be sexual or romantic, but Don and Peggy are the best couple on Mad Men.
Which is why Matthew Weiner, the show's creator, would be unwise to tread upon the carefully constructed fine line of Peggy and Don's dynamic. As Seth Stevenson of Slate explains, "Please, Matthew Weiner, do not stoop to mash Don and Peggy together romantically. It will make Mad Men feel like one of those unimaginative, long-running shows where by the end all the characters have taken turns hopping in and out of each other’s beds."
Riding the line, hinting at possibilities underneath, but never actually crossing into sexual territory between two compelling main characters is something that few shows know how to do well. That's because there's a risk in not "shipping" every main character together with another one. It's a very easy and usually well received plot device. It avoids the complicated, fraught, and harder to define friendships between men and women. And, in this case, between male and female coworkers.
One show that pulled off this all too rarely seen male-female friendship and professional team was Liz and Jack of 30 Rock. 30 Rock practically continuously parodied the "old friends getting together" plot point that so many television shows use in their final seasons. They staged awkward kisses, doomed holidays, and brutally honest pillow talk. In one classic moment in the episode "Stone Mountain," when Liz and Jack go on a trip to Georgia and Liz gets food poisoning, Jack comforts her by rubbing her back with the end of a hotel broom. He wouldn't dare actually touch Liz. It laughs in the face of television shows that would use the roadtrip plot point to pair the two constantly arguing, constantly confiding friends together. But it never did. Tina Fey would never go there.
30 Rock may not be a stunning period drama like Mad Men, but for a few years, it was fabulous television. The same could be said of Mindy and Danny on The Mindy Project, until the show thrust these friends and coworkers together, much to the consternation of many viewers. We need more man-and-woman dynamic duos who have nothing to do with each other romantically. We need more representations of people with outrageous professional chemistry landing a deal together, breaking bread with one another, and keeping it at just that. Because those relationships do exist, and the line never crossed is the bedrock of male-female friendships. Sister-brother-employee-friend relationships are much more sustaining and much more interesting than flings.
After all, isn't a sense of family potentially more important than a hook up? Peggy's Burger Chef pitch lands on the fact that fast food restaurants provide a special TV-free intimacy in public. "Whoever you were sitting with was family," Peggy explains it. In that last moment of "The Strategy," when Peggy, Don, and Pete, three colleagues, sit together for a meal, they aren't just three individuals who did or could have possibly hooked up at one point over a few seasons. They're a dysfunctional, compelling, dynamic little family.
Image via AMC.