Joan and Peggy: The Student Becomes the Master

A subplot during the first season of Mad Men is the fascinating power-play between Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson. The first episode is Peggy’s first day on the job, Joan Holloway instructs her on both professional and personal matters. Joan makes it clear that she is comfortable with the traditional view of women and tells Peggy to start taking birth control and show more skin – a firm believer in exploiting her physical charms. Peggy is nervous and meek throughout the episode, getting the birth control prescription and being overly modest. The show highlights their differences through many techniques, not limited to costumes, camera angles and lighting.

A perfect example of their dynamic occurs in Episode 5 where Peggy is forced to entertain Betty Draper and her children while Don is away from the office. She is almost certain that he is with his mistress and is at a loss on how to deal with the situation. She begins to panic and seeks the help of the all-knowing Joan Holloway. Peggy is flustered and anxious compared to the calm demeanor of Joan. The implications are obvious; Joan is the master, and Peggy is her disciple. Peggy blurts out a panicked few sentences, wrought with insecurities regarding her ability to deal with the situation, while Joan looks on with almost quiet amusement.

The non-verbal elements play a definitive role in this scene. They are standing close together, and the physical contrast is significant. Joan stands nearly a foot taller than Peggy; her posture is upright, confident and relaxed. She is dressed in a stylish, formfitting dress with large earrings that shine in the dull light, topped off with her hair pulled up almost like a crown. On the other hand, Peggy is dressed in a very simple fashion, none of which plays to her advantage. Her blouse is buttoned to the neck, she wears no earrings and her hair is set in a simple ponytail.

The camera position alternates between Joan and Peggy’s shoulders. From Joan’s perspective, she is looking down at Peggy whose eyes nervously flicker back and forth, never making eye contact as she stands against a dull background, blending in to her surroundings. Whereas, Peggy is looking up to Joan, who looks on intently as a light in the background shines just above her fiery red hair. Joan forces Peggy to reveal Don's secret affair; using it as an opportunity to teach Peggy one of the faux paux of a secretary.

This scene epitomizes the influence that Joan had on Peggy’s life initially. As the season progresses, Peggy distinguished herself as being creative and original. She is asked to write ‘copy’ on subsequent products, with great success. Finally, in the last episode of the Season, Don Draper promotes her to the position of a junior copywriter, effectively giving her a position above Joan.

While there is no true animosity, it is an engaging evolution by which Peggy first learns to survive through Joan’s help and then comes to outrank her as she becomes more confident in her abilities.

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