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Elisabeth Moss is starring in a new Broadway role — and this one has a lot to teach her "Mad Men" heroine


Lessons for Mad Men’s Peggy Olson from her alter ego, Heidi Holland

April 3, 2015

Heidi Holland, meet Peggy Olson. Peggy, Heidi.

These two fictional characters have much in common: Heidi is the protagonist of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles, revived on Broadway for the first time this season. Peggy, of course, is the beleaguered heroine of Mad Men. They’re both successful, fiercely ambitious career women — Heidi’s an art historian; Peggy’s a copywriter — whose taste in men leaves much to be desired. They both refuse to bend to the will of those around them. And they’re both played by Elisabeth Moss.

The characters’ similarities are no coincidence; Moss has said that she imagines Peggy as Heidi’s older cousin. Peggy’s weathered a few crises over the last season: the undermining of her professional accomplishments; the ticking of the clock that needs no description; all while working with Ted, her ex-whatever (is he called an ex-boyfriend if he’s married?).

In Heidi’s case, the asshole du jour is Scoop Rosenbaum, your typical playboy narcissist she meets at a Eugene McCarthy rally and dangles a relationship for years.

But unlike Mad Men, which closed out the first half of Season 7 still in 1969, The Heidi Chronicles spans from the 1960s all the way to the late ‘80s in three acts. (The revival is great fun, with Moss doubling down on her cocktail of eagerness and umbrage and Bryce Pinkham as her hilarious best friend Peter, whose comedic timing is as precise as, well, an Apple Watch. And as Scoop, Jason Biggs is the perfect ratio of smarmy to charming — smarming, if you will.)

Peggy still has the ‘70s (and ‘80s and beyond) to endure, and the similarities between the two characters got me thinking — what if Peggy could take advice or learn some lessons from Heidi, her fictional alter ego? Surely she could be helped by a few nuggets of wisdom.

So just in time for Mad Men’s return on April 5, here’s the best advice gleaned from The Heidi Chronicles, for Peggy’s eyes only. (Spoilers abound for the play.)

Lesson: Happiness is overrated.
Heidi: “I’ve never been what I’d call a happy girl. Too prissy, too caustic.”

Sound like someone you know? If you’ll remember back to the end of Season 7, Peggy seems to be doing just fine, if fine is defined by having a big office and well-stocked bar cart. (And on Mad Men, it is.) But Peggy hasn’t seemed happy in ages, and wasn’t above dripping a tear or two all over her Burger Chef presentation in “The Strategy” — but of course her emotion ends up catalyzing a brilliant idea.

Heidi is similarly obsessed with and defined by her work, protesting an Age of Napoleon exhibition over the lack of female artists, writing a book of essays on art and women, pursuing grants and collecting a handful of degrees. One by one, her friends peel off down fruitful paths: the radical feminist collective member becomes a network executive; the debutante becomes a mother; and so on. But none of them are entirely happy either. So Peggy, there’s no harm in leaning on other ideals. Passion, fulfillment, creativity. Don’t harp on happiness.

Lesson: Sometimes the best seat is on the sidelines.
Heidi: “I suppose it’s really not unlike being an art historian. In other words, being neither the painter nor the casual observer, but a highly informed spectator.”

After years in the business, Peggy’s in a similar spectator position, slightly pigeonholed by her gender, but always demanding more. Heidi pretty much goes it alone during her quest, and pushes onward, stubborn in her ideals even as she’s reluctant to voice them. She must be prodded to tell Scoop he’s being intolerable, and even attends his wedding where he finally tells her why they never worked out: “She’s the best that I can do,” he tells Heidi of his new bride. “Is she an A+ like you? No. But I don’t want to come home to an A+.” Sure, it’s a bit twisted that the only man who comes close to her equal match doesn’t actually want an equal, but in the end, Heidi’s saved from his philandering ways. Peggy, sometimes the prize isn’t worth the price.

Lesson: Choose your partners wisely.
Scoop: “Why should you like me? I’m arrogant and difficult. But I’m very smart. So you’ll put up with me.”

Peggy’s gone through her share of duds: Pete Campbell, Ted Chaough, Duck. But if she could learn anything from Heidi, it’s to avoid men whose descriptions can be reduced to their job titles. Throughout The Heidi Chronicles, her beaus are described as an editor, a guy living in London who doesn’t want to move, a lawyer who calls her “angel” but doesn’t like her to call after 10 o’clock, and another editor. No wonder Scoop sticks around for so long. He at least warrants a few adjectives: arrogant, charismatic, even smart. So Peggy, you’ve dodged the Abes and the Ducks, but it’s best to avoid the Scoops of the world, too.

Lesson: You’ll get your just desserts.
Heidi: “She’ll never think she’s worthless unless he lets her have it all. And maybe, just maybe, things will be a little better.”

Throughout the decades, Heidi’s always a bit removed, reactive, soaking up the insane (and inane) activities of her friends while her own motives remain unclear. Does Heidi want a family? A husband? She doesn’t say. It’s not until the final scene that Heidi gets what she wants — or more of what she wants. It’s 1989 and Scoop strolls in unannounced, bursting with news and nattering on about a lemon soufflé (the puffy dessert perfectly illustrates the man’s ego). But Heidi can’t indulge his selfishness, and tells him her own news: She’s adopted a baby. Scoop views Heidi’s choice to go after what she wants as permission to do the same, and sells his magazine to pursue his dream of running for Congress. One woman’s baby is another man’s political aspirations.

So if Peggy takes a cue from Heidi, in a few short months we should see Mad Men’s copywriter quit Sterling Cooper & Partners and sail down midtown wearing a baby papoose.

Or not. If anything, Heidi’s decision to do things on her own terms should be a bellwether for Peggy, proof that it shouldn’t matter that she’s childless at 30. No wonder Moss was drawn to both roles; like her, the audience is able to see these similar yet not identical heroines come to their own conclusions. Between the two of them, Peggy and Heidi’s journeys allow audiences to — sigh, yes, I’m going to go there — have it all.