There’s a scene in Mad Men’s season finale in which Peggy Olson, the secretary with the unflattering bangs, gets her big break as a copywriter. She’s allowed to cast her own radio ad, but she picks the wrong girl: the younger one, with the weaker voice. As each take descends in quality, Peggy gives the actress increasingly withering notes, then simply fires her—at which point her victim runs from the studio in tears. Peggy coolly instructs her male colleague to repair the damage: “I want you to go after her and console her. And after you make plans, or whatever you need to do, call Rita, the older lady you liked.”
That’s our Peggy Olson! In any other narrative, she’d be merely an aspirational chick-lit heroine—the underdog who will whip off her glasses someday and win the man and the account. But in Matthew Weiner’s sixties melodrama about Madison Avenue’s advertising heyday, Peggy’s something more perverse and far more interesting. She’s an eaglet disguised as a wren, capable of keeping secrets when she needs to, even from herself.
Or at least this is what I tell Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy as a unique mix of canniness and naïveté. The 26-year-old actress has just finished up a whirlwind trip to New York, where she still keeps an apartment in the East Village—one far smaller than Peggy’s. (“Peggy’s apartment is massive,” she marvels. “It’s two times the size of mine! When I walked onto the set, my first thought was, Damn, times change.”) She’s also just finished a whirlwind set of PR events: Her Emmy-nominated series, which begins its second season on AMC on July 27, is so hyped at this point I’m almost afraid to admit I like it, for fear of tipping it into backlash.
But I quickly realize that Moss doesn’t find her character perverse at all. Instead, she sees her as a spunky everywoman—the girl anyone can identify with. “She’s Jack Lemmon, she’s Ernest Borgnine in Marty, the one who is stepped on a little bit and has a really good heart,” Moss tells me. “You want her to succeed, you want her to do well. She’s definitely very ambitious, the way a lot of us are, but the last thing she would do is trample anyone to get to the top.”
Perhaps Moss (who is herself relentlessly, and disarmingly, chipper in her analysis of almost everything) has the actor’s equivalent of Stockholm syndrome; or maybe it’s I who have fallen so far under the series’ spell I see dark sides everywhere. Or perhaps both of us are right. Like so many of the characters on the stylishly anti-psychological show, Peggy Olson is a bit of an emotional black box, observing, acting, but rarely explaining. Like her boss Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), she’s a brilliant loner: repelled by the grosser aspects of the men around her but even more alienated by her fellow secretaries. At least she’s not alone on television, which has become a renaissance of female nerdliness, what with The Office’s Pam Beesly, 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, 24’s Chloe, and Betty “Ugly Betty” Suarez—a sorority with varying levels of Asperger’s, grooming deficits, and/or spunk. (It’s an interesting contrast with the movies, where all the dorks are Apatovian male slackers.)
Too bad all those other girls live in the present. In Moss’s portrayal, Peggy Olson seems to be wrestling her way out of 1960 like a woman peeling off a too-tight girdle. Hands folded on her bland A-line skirt, Peggy can seem like nothing more than a pair of huge eyes—but then she’ll show flashes of awkward, even aggressive appetite, in a kinky romp on an office couch or the flirtatious twist she takes across the dance floor. Maybe this physicality comes from Moss’s background as a teen ballerina, which might have taught her something about tortured self-consciousness, I suggest. No, she tells me: “I was one of those girls who ate and was fine. My mom wouldn’t have let me have any weird hang-ups.”
At 26, Moss has found an unusual niche as an actress, specializing in easily underestimated innocents: She’s best known as the president’s earnest daughter on The West Wing, and she also won critical acclaim as a chaste girl who is raped in the independent film Virgin and gave a terrific performance in Girl, Interrupted as Polly “Torch” Clark, a troubled mental patient who lit herself on fire. Even with her face coated in gruesome scar tissue, Moss exuded a damaged sweetness, a palpable yearning to be seen as beautiful by someone, anyone.