Mad Men 5×11: “The Other Woman”

Wow.  

This is one of those episodes that employs three elements I love about Mad Men: the campaign is at the center of all (or all the major) plot lines, there are parallel stories involving the female characters, and major upsets occur.

The tagline in question comes from whiz-kid (I don’t feel right about calling someone who was born in a concentration camp a “wünderkind”) Ginsberg.  I was kind of hoping Don would spin the straw into gold this time, especially after last week’s rousing speech (which I totally neglected to mention in my abbreviated review of “Christmas Waltz”).  The line that SCDP will present to Jaguar is: “At last.  Something beautiful you can truly own.”

This episode has two sides tugging at one another and this is another week where these two sides fall sharply by gender lines.  The male characters who appear in this episode all embody the quintessential Jaguar consumer that Ginsberg writes directly for: the car is a substitute for whatever woman eludes being possessed.  The other side of the coin is those women on the show who, while they can never be truly owned in the same sense as chattel or property, have to endure the men who try to possess them anyway.  “The Other Woman” strikes me as an ugly mirror image of Season One’s “Ladies’ Room”: it’s six years later and startlingly few think to ask “what do women want.”  We see the show’s sexual economy at work in a way that I found striking.  Not that anything has changed very much throughout the show, it’s just that its horrors haven’t been displayed to this magnitude in recent memory.  “Mystery Date” from earlier this season had some similar elements, but so much of that relied on the female characters’ imaginations spiraling outward, though these imaginings are rooted in their lived experiences.  The whole thing becomes even more sickening when you recall Joan being raped by her future husband in Don’s office in Season 2 (you’re welcome!).

The episode starts with Joan, and Joan’s story is the most obviously bound to the Jaguar line.  At the beginning of the episode, Pete and Ken are wine-ing and dine-ing one of the execs who will vote for or against them to land Jaguar.  They ask what they can do to get his vote, and he pulls out the slimiest request this side of Lee Garner, Jr.: a night with Joan Harris or no vote.  Technically, they don’t need his vote to get a majority, but really they do.  Pete Campbell realizes this and he broaches the topic with Joan in a totally sleazy, guilt-trippy way.  She basically tells him to GTFO and says he could never afford what she would ask in order to prostitute herself for the sake of the company.  Rather than letting the issue die with dignity, Campbell calls a meeting of the partners to discuss offering Joan $50K, causing Don to walk out in disgust.  Rather than letting the issue die with a salvageable measure of dignity, Pete asks for a vote in Don’s absence and they take the cowardly, neutral stance on the subject.  Bert offers an impotent “she can say no if she wants to.”  Roger doesn’t intervene.  Lane tells Joan that she should ask for a 5% voting partnership in SCDP so that her son can have a stable future.  And because she thinks everyone has agreed that she needs to become sacrificial lamb for a car ad, that’s what she asks Pete for.  He agrees, but makes everything worse again by asking Joan to set up her own indiscretion.

Normally, I love Campbell because he’s a worm, but this may be lower than he’s gone before (coercing gratitude sex out of the neighbor’s German au pair is another such odious Campbell moment).  And since “Signal 30” much of this season has been emphasizing his sympathetic qualities (emphasis on “pathetic”), seeing him step on someone else so hard is upsetting.  I suppose it’s not surprising, really, because for all his knowledge of old world decorum and manners, he is a ruthless businessman.  Joan asks him what he would do if someone made such an indecent proposal regarding Trudy.  Of course, back in Season One, in “5G,” Pete prods Trudy into having lunch with her ex and chides her for not sleeping with him so that Pete can get a story published in order to avenge Cosgrove’s publication in The Atlantic.

In a continuation of last week’s Don-treating-Joan-right story arc, Don tries to make it apparent to Joan that he actually does elevate Joan’s self-worth over a car account.  He goes to her house to tell her and she thanks him.  The next day, Don’s pitch to Jaguar is intercut with scenes of Joan enduring her rendez-vous with the disrespectful exec.  I held a tiny secret hope in my heart that he’d actually adore her, and his gift of an emerald necklace displays some measure of forethought.  But then once the champagne is poured, he demands “let me see them.”  Of course, when played with Don making the pitch about merciless pursuit of desire, it is all the more depressing.  In retrospect, I wonder about the heavy-handedness of this choice, but I sat through the episode twice and found myself both times totally captivated by the sequence.  But then we find out that by the time Don appeared at Joan’s apartment to talk her down, she had already gone through with her end of the bargain.  It is heartbreaking to see Joan’s hollow face throughout her interaction with the executive.  It’s about ownership, as the line says.  He can’t control Joan and he’s not a part of the financial bargain between her and SCDP (for all he knows, he’s out the price of a necklace but that’s it), but he doesn’t even want control of Joan.  He has gotten to claim exactly what he wanted: her body.  He can’t own her, but he’s gotten as close as he care to get at an enormous personal cost to her.

Next I’m going to discuss Don and Megan’s portion, which has the least screen time.  Megan moves up the audition chain and as she does so, she fights with Don about rehearsing in Boston for eight weeks before the play his Broadway.  Don tries to forbid it, she gets mad, etc.  It’s not a knock-down-drag-out fight, though; Megan drops by the office for a quickie so that she can get an energy boost for the audition.  But when she gets to the office where the producers are waiting to see her, they do not ask for a display of her skills at all.  Like Joan, she is reduced to a body.  They ask her to turn around rather than to act.  I think that this is an important point, but really this physical survey of Megan doesn’t fit into the issue of ownership neatly.  Instead, it all comes from Don.  As I mentioned, he wants no part in Joan’s degradation, but he holds Megan to a double standard about extended travel related to her work.  Megan points out that he gets to do so for his work—and at this point it doesn’t need to be said that underneath that conversation is a reminder that Don has the history of adultery, not her.  She tells Don that if he gives her an ultimatum between him and her career, she’ll choose him, but she’ll always hate him for it.     He can have her body but not her spirit, to spell it out along the lines of the theme I’ve set out to explore here.

Okay.  Now comes the hard part: Peggy.  On the one hand, as a rabid fan of the show, I am scared to lose Peggy in the cast.  On the other hand, I don’t know if I could have handled another Don-Peggy fight where Peggy just bends over because it’s Don.  I remember their first major fight being at the end of Season 3—I assume the whole thing took place during the finale, but I don’t remember—when Don and Peggy had a blow-up over Peggy’s work not being as good as she thought.  But then when he and the other partners broke away from the Brits, he recruited Peggy for the new agency.  She worried aloud that if she refused him, he would never speak to her again.  Don said he would instead spend the rest of his life trying to hire her.

Since then, we’ve experienced a constant push-and-pull between Don and Peggy on the quality of her work and on her assertion that she gets less credit than she deserves for campaigns.  This came to a head in the emotional roller coaster that is “The Suitcase” in the middle of Season 4.  It seemed that Don and Peggy’s relationship was cemented forever.  But this season, we’ve seen more of the same squabbles between them, like in the Cool Whip test kitchen in “Lady Lazarus.”

As the series has continually pointed out Don’s weakening grip on the culture this season, the parallel to this has been Peggy’s failing campaigns.  The office has been pushing her out of the way all season long, both with finicky clients, bigoted clients, and her colleagues.  She has been at the margins so often that when she pulls the Lady Godiva twist at the end of Ginsberg’s commercial, I was genuinely surprised that Peggy was still On It (of course, that particular client picked that dippy song over anything that sounds like the Beatles).  I hope she continues to be On It in the future—I kind of fear that a future with Freddie Rumsen and the boys at CGC will have her fade into obscurity and convention.  But Draper hasn’t presented a very good option when he repeats his past behavior.  Even if he dislikes Peggy’s attitude, him throwing money in her face was beyond insulting.

The scene between Don and Peggy when she puts in her notice is intense and beautiful.  Interestingly enough, Don only talks to Peggy because he’s disgusted with the way Jaguar and the other partners have treated Joan.  But then we see the Three Faces of Don as he first tries to convince Peggy that she doesn’t really want to leave SCDP (and she can finally have that raise), then his “fine be that way” face, and then genuinely sad to lose her].  In this unflattering middle stage, though, Don tries to actually buy Peggy off for any amount of money that she wants.  But it’s not about the money.  It’s about autonomy.  (And not getting money thrown in your face.)  I’m not convinced Don gets that and it sort of surprises me that he can respect both Peggy and Joan but not transfer the same level of respect between them.  Or even to Megan.

I hope we don’t lost Peggy entirely from here on out.

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