Last night “Mad Men” viewers must have wondered if they had mistakenly tuned into another AMC show. The first few seconds of the episode began with a piano riff and, then, surprisingly, the screen filling with the image of a voluptuous Ann-Margret singing the opening few bars from the hit 1963 movie “Bye, Bye Birdie.” In a few seconds it becomes clear that the suits at Sterling Cooper are simply screening an in-office preview of the film as a way of goosing their creativity for an ad campaign for a new soft drink. Sterling Cooper wants to get an “Ann-Margret type” for their new campaign for the wonderfully named Patio soda.
Ann-Margret’s sex-kitten appeal makes an impression on more than just the straight males in the room. Sal, the show’s closeted gay character, mentions that he saw Susan Watson, the original “Kim Macafee” in the play, but that she didn’t have what Ann-Margret had on screen. “She didn’t have that,” he says admiringly. (I know a little about the play since I had a part in it during high-school. Surely you’ve heard of the landmark 1978 Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School production?)
But the person most profoundly affected by those few seconds of film is Peggy, the young woman who often functions as the show’s moral core, or at least what passes for morality at Sterling Cooper. Peggy, who has swiftly been promoted from secretary to copy writer, initially bristles at the group’s suggestion that the ad agency use something as clearly manipulative as an Ann-Margret knockoff. Women don’t want to be seen that way any longer, she tells Don Draper confidently. Were she speaking 20 years later she might say that women want to be “empowered.” Don airily dismisses her. “Men want to be with her; women want to be her,” he says. He knows the power of image.
He’s right. And it’s Peggy who, later in the show, while brushing her hair before bed, re-enacts the scene from “Bye, Bye, Birdie” complete with seductive hip moves and come-hither glances. Ann-Margret speaks to her.
And as Ann-Margret threw herself at the camera, Peggy goes into a bar and throws herself at a group of young men drinking. It’s somewhat out of character for the intelligent, sometimes prim, Peggy. (But not to prim to have gotten pregnant last season.) Positioning herself at the bar, she chats up three men; later, speaking to a college senior (who, when she says she works at an ad agency, tells her that “all that typing” must be difficult) she seductively takes a bite out of his hamburger.
Later, they are in bed together. But after a few minutes Peggy says, “I can’t do this” and vaguely suggests that there are “other” things they could do. The end of the arc comes when she wakes up early in the morning, in his bed, gets and goes to work. Matthew Gilbert at the Boston Globe argues that she was, in fact, realizing that she has "more to give" (which she does of course.). I'm not so sure about that. “This was fun,” she says as she furtively leaves the apartment, with no sense of fun in her voice at all, but rather sadness. The final scene has her and Don discussing the Patio account. Will they discuss using a sex kitten to sell soda? Can Peggy do that?
Peggy has become just as vulnerable to the confusing values proffered by film, television and magazine as the rest of the masses who Sterling Cooper wants to gull. In another subplot, the builders of the new Madison Square Garden are frustrated that some New Yorkers want to save the old Penn Station. (They dismissively refer to a now-famous Ada Louise Huxtable article in the New York Times lamenting the landmark's destruction.) No, says Don, ignore those legitimate concerns. Just change the conversation, he says. Ignore, in essence, the right thing to do.
Advertising is powerful, and can change the way people think and think about themselves. It can make them do things that they might never consider doing.
Just ask Peggy.