Mad Men has never won an award for Lead or Supporting Actor or Actress at the Primetime Emmy Awards. That one of the greatest television programs in recent and not-so-recent memory might leave the air without ever receiving industry recognition for the brilliance of its sterling cast is nothing short of a pop-culture injustice.
Much of the discussion of the acting on Mad Men stops and ends with Jon Hamm, for understandable and honorable reasons. Hamm is a force to be reckoned with, conveying dozens of emotions with a single facial gesture and portraying states of embattled loneliness and embittered aggression with equal force. His Carousel and Hershey speeches (in the pilot and the sixth season finale, respectively) rank among the most memorable, poignant, layered dramatic moments in the show’s seven-season run. There’s also the not-insignificant matter of Hamm’s dazzling good looks, which enhance the irony of Don Draper’s interior turmoil hiding behind the facade of a confident heartthrob.
But Hamm is just one piece of a much larger ensemble.
Matthew Weiner’s exacting taste and rigorous showrunning techniques are well-documented, but what’s onscreen is difficult to quibble with. Last night’s midseason finale “Waterloo” (directed by Weiner and written by Weiner and Carly Wray) proved yet again that Elisabeth Moss might be an equally gleaming gem.
Throughout the seventh season, Moss has had a lot to play as Peggy Olson settles into her new creative position at Sterling, Cooper & Pryce. Robbed of the opportunity to inherit Don’s coveted position by a soulless man with a misogynistic streak, Peggy faces rampant sexism and struggles with self-confidence. She’s tantalizingly close to the leadership position she’s worked tirelessly to achieve, but the top of the totem pole might be even lonelier than the bottom. Her home life is equally precarious as she continues to recover from her breakup with the married Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) and the bloody departure of her longtime boyfriend Abe (Charlie Hofheimer). A young boy who lives in the apartment above her keeps appearing as a reminder of the child she fathered with Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and the family life she left behind when she gave the baby up for adoption. Even her reliable confidant Joan (Christina Hendricks) provides little comfort.
Moss’ performance has always been remarkable, though not the kind of remarkable that wins awards. She embraces the subtleties of Peggy’s emotions and lets the character become unlikable and even tiresome when the story requires it. This season, though, Moss has been on fire. Her horrified reaction to the unlikely sight of Michael Ginsburg’s nipple staring up at her from a charming gift box alone was award-worthy. The brilliance of her performance lies in the small gestures – her ramrod posture during the Burgerchef speech, the mixture of apprehension and catharsis in her face as she dances to “My Way” with Don, her clenched teeth at the thought of Ted delivering flowers as a taunt. Moss is equally adept at the more traditional “awards-bait” moments, as with her teary breakdown at the prospect of continuing to work with Lou Avery in the season premiere. Peggy’s ambitions, desires, anxieties and insecurities are on display even when she’s not speaking. In typical Mad Men fashion, the most poignant moments are unspoken.
One of the final images of season six inverted the show’s iconic title image with a from-the-back shot of Peggy in her new position of power. In these seven episodes, Peggy’s story gradually assumed the dominance and emotional centrality the show has foreshadowed since the first season. The finale climaxes with Peggy becoming a better, purer version of Don Draper in his golden years, and she gets to deliver the good news about Burgerchef. Peggy’s transformation over the course of the 1960s is inseparable from the achievements of the show’s indisputable lead actress. An Emmy award is far from the only way to recognize achievements in television acting. Nonetheless, if Moss gets to take the stage in September, I’ll be filled with joy. It’s an achievement Peggy Olson, ever the perfectionist, would appreciate.