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For Your Consideration: The Case for Peggy Olson As the 21st Century’s Best TV Character, As Explained by Elisabeth Moss

For our Best TV Characters of the Century bracket, we spoke to the ‘Mad Men’ star about what her iconic character meant to her, the infamous meme Peggy spawned, and the television performances that still wow her

Adam Villacin

March is a month for brackets, so this week on The Ringer, we’re hosting The Best TV Characters of the Century—an expansive, obsessive, and unexpectedly fraught competition to determine the best fictional TV personality of the past 20 years. To help the public make informed voting decisions, The Ringer has contacted some of the people who know these characters best: the actors who played them. Check back throughout the week for more interviews, and be sure to vote for The Best TV Characters of the Century Bracket here.


“I know it’s my first day, and I don’t want to seem uncooperative, but: Do I have to?” About 15 minutes into Mad Men’s 2007 pilot, we get our first great Peggy Olson line: polite but trepidatious, subordinate but defiant. It’s her first day as a secretary at a lawless ’60s Manhattan ad agency, and her louche boss Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has just asked her to “entertain” creepy account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) for a few minutes while Don freshens up after a mid-morning nap. Yikes. As masterfully played by Elisabeth Moss, Peggy is all steely unease, and you fear for her immediately amid all these narcissists and lechers and dopes. But soon enough she’s thriving at the agency, dominating the show, and towering over the whole of prestige TV’s Golden Era.

More specifically, by the end of Season 1, only Don knows that Peggy gave birth to, and gave up for adoption, the baby she conceived with Pete (that part’s still her secret) by the end of her first day of work. In Season 4, she and Don carry the world-historically stupendous episode “The Suitcase” by themselves, full of screaming matches and scouring tenderness. (Don asks whether she ever thinks about the baby, and she confides that she still gets rattled around playgrounds.) And in the 2015 series finale, Peggy and her extremely subordinate coworker Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) declare their love for one another, though her actual happy ending came way earlier, with a goofy, cigarette-dangling power stroll down an office hallway, a defiant big shot with just a touch of winsome trepidation left, an eternally fascinating human and an enduring meme.

Incremental work success aside, Peggy struggled enormously and hilariously over the years, enduring all manner of crap boyfriends and snide remarks from coworkers, like her office frenemy Joan (Christina Hendricks), though by series’ end even Joan was trying to recruit her. Moss played Peggy as a mutating and forever-engrossing bundle of nerves, never quite a doormat but rarely wholly triumphant. Best character on TV this century. Please don’t screw this whole bracket thing up.

Mad Men, though arguably the single best show of its era, made Moss a star but didn’t wholly define her: After that finale, she pivoted directly to her ongoing, Emmy-winning starring role in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, along with hit movies from Us to Her Smell to this year’s The Invisible Man, quite possibly the last successful film to ever appear in theaters. Moss was kind enough to chat with me on the phone last week about what Peggy taught her, what she’d change (if anything) about where and how Peggy ended up, and the moments—even now in other roles—when she finds herself happily lapsing back into the character that first made her famous. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

So we’re doing this very silly and also deadly serious thing where we made this giant bracket of our favorite TV characters of the past 20 years, and we’re going to let our readers vote—which is always very stressful, no offense to them—and Peggy of course is a very high seed, and I’m going to be very angry if you don’t win. That’s where I am right now.

Oh my gosh. Thank you so much, that’s so nice of you. I’m going to be a little pissed, too, but I feel like that’s a tough bracket right there. That’s a tough bracket.

If I’m reading this right, your first-round opponent is someone from Community, and I didn’t watch Community, and that doesn’t seem like too big a threat to you. No offense to whoever that is.

OK. Yeah. I mean, no offense to whoever that is, but I do feel—that does instill some confidence in me. I didn’t want to go, necessarily, like, head-to-head with Walter White. But I feel comfortable with that.

It’s been almost five years since the Mad Men finale, somehow, already. Do you feel any differently about Peggy now, with a little distance? Do you feel warmer, or inevitably a little colder? Do you still think about her, or think as her?

It’s weird, it’s almost like how time is in our current situation, where part of me feels like it’s been three years, and part of me feels like it’s been the blink of an eye. Sometimes when I see photos or I see clips or something like that, I’m like, “No way, I completely forgot about that part of my life,” or that moment or that day. And then sometimes I see things and I’m like, “Yep, that’s pretty much exactly the same person that I am now.” So yeah, I guess you could say I’ve always felt warmth. I’ve always felt very, very close to her, and I’ve always felt a sense of deep warmth towards her.

That shot of you in the last season triumphantly walking down the hallway, carrying all the stuff, I think you’ve said that that was really hard, really frustrating to shoot. In general, are your favorite Peggy moments aligned with the internet’s favorite Peggy moments? When you see yourself as a meme or whatever, does that feel true to you and true to her?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think that particular one of walking down the hall, personally, I felt triumphant for her, but at the same time, we didn’t think that was going to become what it became. I think there are probably moments that I remember that are personal to me that may not be the big headline moments, that were warm memories for me. Like there’s this one where, when Peggy leaves SC&P and goes to wherever the hell she goes, and she has to say goodbye to Don, and there’s that moment where he grabs her hand. That was something that I didn’t know was scripted, and I was also in a place in my life where I was going off to do a new job, and it just all felt kind of very real. And so that’s a very warm memory for me.

But then there’s also, like, there’s so many—there’s 9 million memories of us sitting around in conference rooms for like 12 hours, really bored and just sick of the fake cigarette smoke, and just being stupid, and goofing off. I have a lot of those memories, too.

Was there anybody who goofed off in a way that didn’t match their character at all? Like watching the show, you wouldn’t think they’d be the goofiest person, but they were?

Vinny. Vinny for sure. Oh, for sure. Definitely Vinny. Him and I, we had a yearbook at the end of the show, and we did superlatives, and Vinny and I split Class Clown. I think we also split—no, I won School Spirit with somebody else, but Vinny and I split Class Clown.

That’s poetic, in a way. I like that.

It was perfect. Yeah, he’s super, super silly and super—his sense of humor is really out there. So he was always acting out.

I’m not sure if actors think this way, but did you “learn” from Peggy in a sense? Did she teach you anything in particular? And is there stuff, the script and the direction aside, that you specifically added to her?

Oh gosh. In a way it’s more fluid than that, because I did the show from when I was 23 to 32. So I had a lot of life experience during that time. I changed a lot—I grew up during that time on the show. So it was more a matter of I would change, and then kind of put that into her, and then the writers would pick up on that and then push her in a certain direction, and then I would pick up on that. It kind of just kept going back and forth over the nine years that it took to make the seven seasons. So it was just kind of this really organic process of growing together. I couldn’t tell you if I learned some things from her or she was learning from me.

Is there something that you really, really wanted for her and really pushed for from a plot perspective or a character perspective?

Surprisingly, you’d think after those many years there would be something. I’m trying to think. But I think that at a certain point, she became mine, and there wasn’t that struggle of having to push, because we were allowed such ownership over the characters. I was allowed control over Peggy, where it really felt like she was mine. I didn’t have to push for something to happen that wasn’t happening. There may have been questions and things like that, but there was not a lot of “Oh, could you do more of that, or less of this?”

I mean, if anything, her growing up a little bit, her becoming a little harder, a little tougher, was something that I really embraced. And I didn’t receive a lot of argument or struggle against that, but I definitely was very conscious of trying to, in those last couple of seasons, bring her into a place where she had changed, where she still had that blind kind of optimism, but at the same time had been through a few hard knocks. And I wanted her to be a little bit tougher and a little bit less romantic.

I remember, toward the end of the show, a lot of agonizing over whether Peggy would end up with someone romantically, or if it was better, if it was more poignant if she didn’t. Did you have an opinion on that, about Stan, or about ending up with anybody at the end of the show?

I thought it was great, because I could have gone either way, honestly. It was fine if she didn’t end up with somebody, but I thought that if she was going to end up with anybody, it had to be him. Because Stan was kind of a best friend, and somebody that knew her for who she was, loved her for who she was, and loved the work as much as she did. And it was somebody that she wasn’t going to change with him. You know? She was gonna be herself, and that was OK. And so I could have gone either way, but I did like the fact that, because she ended up with somebody, it didn’t mean that she had to sacrifice anything else in her life. She’s never gonna leave that job. She’s never gonna go anywhere else. She might have a child, but barely anything is changing.

Do you think about where she is now or where she is five years on from the finale? Is she happy? Is she running the place?

I think what Pete said was really true, when he’s like, “You’re going to be creative director in 1980.” I think that’s exactly what happened. Because we kind of know what happened to those women. They did end up becoming creative directors. They did end up running their own agencies. They did end up continuing to do what they loved. I think Peggy is a bit more of a creator than an executive, so I think that she probably would have kept doing something in that vein. I think she was more on the creative side than accounts, but I think that she continued to do what she loves. That is still kind of obvious to me.

For all the characters that you’ve played and all these huge successes that you’ve had since, do you miss anything about Peggy? Is there any gratification you got that’s specific to her?

Yeah, her sense of humor. I always thought she was really funny, and I always thought she just did really funny things. She didn’t necessarily—she wasn’t trying to be funny, it was just who she was. Which was funny to me. So there were her little quirks and her little things that I enjoyed playing, because I just thought they were really funny. And so that’s one thing that I definitely miss. Sometimes I’ll play a part, and I’ll slip back into it just a little bit, and I have to stop myself, because it’s a place I really enjoy being, but it’s not appropriate for whatever character I’m playing, so I literally am like, “You’re playing Peggy. Stop it.”

So often while watching the show I felt terrible for Peggy, and felt terrible on your behalf. But starting with The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve watched so many worse things happen to you and your characters since. Were you secretly lobbying Mad Men’s writers the whole time to amp up Peggy’s suffering? As an actor, are you perversely having more fun the worse she’s got it?

I don’t know. I think I was in a different place there as an actor. I loved all the little bumps, I loved all the little struggles, the various human struggles that she had in the workplace and in relationships. And I loved her moments of suffering, when she would go home and be by herself with her cat, or be having trouble with a stupid boyfriend that she ultimately didn’t love—that, to me, those very human struggles, I loved that kind of suffering. So, no. I mean, it wouldn’t have been appropriate, I think, in the context of the show, to have, like, Handmaid’s Tale–type suffering.

In retrospect, is there anything that bothers you about Peggy that you would have changed, either in terms of stuff she did or stuff that the show did to her?

I mean, I feel like you’re going to think it’s a cop out, but kind of no. I loved her stories so much, and I loved the different story lines they had, and I loved so many of the themes, and I love where she ended up. I mean, no. I feel like we had this incredible gift with that show, with that writing. And you didn’t want to change it, it was so good. And what were you going to do that was going to be better than that, you know? So, no.

In a way, part of me kind of wanted her to start a company with Joan. I kind of thought that was a cool idea. I kind of wanted them to hook up and start a company, but maybe they did! Maybe they did, at some point. It wasn’t the right move for her then, but maybe it was later. So I would have loved that moment with the two of them becoming a team, but at the same time, I really love where she ended up. It’s like this perfect little decade of somebody’s life.

Just thinking about Breaking Bad, which spun off with Better Call Saul, and then they did a whole movie about Jesse—is there a theoretical universe in which you’d ever return to Peggy in any form? Or is it best just to leave it all where you left it?

I tend to think leave it there, just because I do feel like it is a perfect little decade story, and that decade was the decade of change for her, and she probably isn’t going to change that much now. You know? She becomes the person that she’s pretty much going to be for a while. So I’m not sure what interesting thing would happen, necessarily. Of course, I love that character so much. I don’t feel like I guess some people may feel about a character they play for a long time, where they’re like, “Ugh, I’m so sick of her.” I loved her up until the last day I played her. But at the same time, I don’t know if there’s anything new I could do.

People talk a lot about “The Suitcase,” for example, but what’s your favorite episode from Peggy’s perspective, or from yours?

I hate to say it, but it is “The Suitcase.”

Sure.

Yeah, I mean, there are definitely moments and scenes that I love throughout the show, but I would say I do love “The Suitcase.” It was a really interesting time in my life, and it was this little bubble for seven, eight days. And obviously, with these stories—you couldn’t have that episode in Season 1. You had to have it four years later. My favorite line that I’ve ever said is in that episode, which is just the word, “Playgrounds.” Which she says in the bar to Don. And that’s my favorite line. And you can’t have a one-word line that means so much if you don’t have four years backing it up. So I loved that episode. I felt like it was just a real centerpiece in the middle of the whole series.

So if you were voting, what is your personal favorite TV character of the past 20 years or so?

I’m a huge television watcher, so that’s a huge choice for me, but I would say Walter White probably is no. 1. As far as an arc for a character, I just think that arc is so incredible, and obviously he’s amazing. Also, Edie Falco in The Sopranos is just seminal, and for me is so inspiring—I just think what she did with that was incredible.

I mean, God, it’s like, where do we even begin? Olivia Colman in Broadchurch, I think it’s perhaps a little bit more of a niche, but that performance is epic. It’s not really like a long-running series, so it’s probably hard to say that’s a favorite. But as far as female performances, it’s up there. God, there’s so many. I don’t know how anyone’s ever gonna decide. It’s impossible.