Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 11–The Other Woman

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 11 YET.

“Don’t fool yourself. This is some very dirty business.”

MadMenJoan

With just three episodes left this season (including this one), Mad Men continues to impress, this week presenting one of the most powerful, heartrending instalments the show’s ever done. With perhaps a tighter focus than usual, this week’s episode directly addressed one of the themes that’s been ever-present throughout the show’s run – the gender politics of its 60s setting, and in particular the thoughtless, unjust treatment of women that even good men – like Don – just don’t understand.

The script focuses almost exclusively on the travails of Joan, Peggy and even Megan to make its point. Not that the male characters are absent; indeed, they get as much screen time as the women, with some telling character points of their own. But they’re primarily there to demonstrate just what a bad lot in life women – even massively capable ones like Joan, Peggy and Megan – got in 1966.

It was an angry script by writer Semi Chellas (with the usual input from showrunner Matthew Weiner) that accomplished its aims fairly straightforwardly, but not without some real dramatic inventiveness. Ostensibly, the ‘story’ – fitting neatly into the show’s current arc – was about the progress of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s bid for the Jaguar account. But in every way, the story was used to reflect the injustice to which women were routinely subjected at the time.

The script set out its stall fairly early on, with a business dinner between Pete, Ken and Jaguar Dealers’ Association head Herb Rennet. Herb, a slimy, pudgy sort of fellow, doesn’t mince words; he’ll give them his vote, conditional on the promise of a night with the ‘stunning redhead’ who showed him around the office – Joan Harris. Initially, this looked like the sort of thing the show often does, setting up the inherent sexism of the period for being knocked down fairly quickly. We know Pete’s a spineless, unprincipled wanker, but surely even he would baulk at pimping out the formidable Joan for a fast buck?

But no, despite Ken’s immediate reaction of “no way”, Pete not only didn’t rule it out, but made a hilariously hamfisted attempt to make this indecent proposal to Joan as ‘indirectly’ as he could. At this point, the plotline was still funny enough to provoke laughter, with Pete’s clumsy attempts at obfuscation more than matched by exactly the kind of frosty looks you’d expect from Joan. But the humour rapidly began to dissipate as Pete took her at her word – “you couldn’t afford it” – and convened a partners’ meeting to discuss exactly what they could afford to offer her.

As I say, the script had stopped aiming the idea at humour, and what replaced it was outrage. To be fair, Don at least had the decency to walk straight out, saying that if this was what it took, he didn’t want the account. But none of the others had the decency to rule out the idea – not Lane,who recently tried to kiss Joan, not Roger, who’s actually fathered a child with her, not even the usually principled Bert Cooper. Dazzled by the promise of a prestigious auto account, they were all prepared to ask a woman they’d worked with and respected for many years to prostitute herself to further their business.

Lane at least did seem to demur, which almost gave him a shred of decency; but it was clear that he was terrified of offering Joan the prospective $50,000, since he’s already fraudulently obtained that on company credit to pay off his own tax debts. That plotline, clearly hanging over Lane’s head, was what encouraged him, via a conversation made almost entirely out of obfuscation, to give her the idea of asking for a partnership instead. Let’s be clear – Lane wasn’t against pimping out this woman he has feelings for. He just didn’t want it to happen if it revealed that he’s been embezzling the company. That’s far from a high-minded declaration of principle.

Even then, I couldn’t see Joan agreeing to do this. She’s been one of the most self-assured, capable, principled characters on the show since it began. Surely she wouldn’t agree to sell her body in order to further her career? And yet the script gave us a plausible scenario as to why she would give in to the idea of sleeping her way to the top. With her husband divorcing her, her baby to bring up, and now her refrigerator breaking down with no money left to fix it, she’s at her wit’s end. What’s being suggested is horrible – but pragmatically, can she afford to reject the idea? So she went to Pete, and forthrightly declared that she’d do it – in exchange for the 5% partnership, and no negotiation.

The prospect of a character you’ve come to like having to stoop to such depths was truly horrifying, but even then, I found it hard to believe she’d go through with it. When Don found out what the other partners had agreed to in his absence, he hotfooted it straight to Joan’s apartment to play Knight in Shining Armour and talk her out of it. But, as if to prove that Don’s good intentions don’t matter a jot, and that he doesn’t really understand the position Joan’s in, he was too late.

Not that this was immediately clear. At first, it seemed like he’d arrived in the nick of time, and Joan was having second thoughts. But then, Don’s pitch to the Jaguar panel – not coincidentally describing the XKE in the most misogynist terms of femininity – was cleverly intercut with the sequence of Joan having visited the loathsome Rennet the night before. It was heartbreaking to see the self-loathing on Joan’s face as she turned to allow him to undo her bra.

Even then, the intercutting of the sequence kept us guessing. Surely Joan would have second thoughts, politely tell the pudgy car dealer she couldn’t go through with it, and leave? But no, as Don came to the climax of his pitch (tellingly, it was “Jaguar – at last something beautiful you can truly own”), we realised that Joan had gone through with it after all. As she lay naked in bed with the less than attractive Rennet then turned away from him in discreet loathing, it was hard to hold back a tear. And then we went back to the scene of Don arriving at the apartment, realising then that he’d arrived after Joan had gone through with it. No wonder she was about to take a shower.

Was Joan right to do what she did, from a pragmatic viewpoint of a much overdue furtherance to her career? It’s hard to judge, given the presumably accurate portrayal of the attitudes of the time. Certainly, her expression at the partners’ meeting – when Jaguar confirmed their acceptance of the proposal – was all steely business, feeling suppressed. But her telling exchange of looks with a horrified Don showed there was more under the surface than just pragmatism and acceptance. It was a masterful performance from Christina Hendricks throughout, and given Joan’s bonding with Don last week, I wonder if the two are about to have a long, soul-searching chat again.

For all Don’s well-intentioned chivalry though, the far more lightweight (but still angry) plotline about Megan’s audition showed that he’s just as much of a sexist dinosaur as his colleagues. He may not want women to debase themselves (not that this has always bothered him), but he just doesn’t get that the women he knows might want to succeed on their own terms, without his ‘gentlemanly’ help. Certainly when Megan reveals that, should she get the role, she’ll be off touring for months on end, Don’s immediate reaction is to abandon his previous tolerance and forbid it outright. Megan’s angry assertion that he only allowed her to follow her dream because he expected her to fail looked dead on the money to me.

I’m still doubtful over Megan as an ongoing character. As commented on this blog a couple of weeks ago, she’s often seemed too perfect, lacking the flaws of the rest of the characters and acting more as a foil for Don than a person in her own right. But Semi Chellas’ script made me genuinely feel for her. First she had to endure the realisation that her husband had no confidence in her abilities (despite that he still wants her advice about the Jaguar pitch). Then, in a brief but telling scene, it became obvious that her audition callback was less about her acting ability than the shape of her rear end. And for all that Don was ready to be the Comforting Husband, you got the impression that he still didn’t understand.

But when it came to Don Just Not Getting It, this was small fry compared to the episode’s other big storyline – his treatment of Peggy. In the stress and furore of recent weeks, he’s been consistently treating her more like a doormat than a protege, and this week she’d finally had enough.

The last straw came when, having pitched a brilliant proposal to Chevalier LeBlanc perfume in Ginsberg’s absence (and after having refused to be described as his subordinate), Peggy found Don’s first reaction to be that he’d hand the idea straight to Ginsberg as soon as he was finished with Jaguar. And then, to add insult to injury, he took Peggy’s aggravation as a sign that she just wanted the account to get a free trip to Paris. Peggy, to her credit, immediately decided that she was worth more than that, and went out looking for better opportunities with the competition, where she might be recognised as worthy on her own terms.

Not surprisingly, Don’s old nemesis Ted Chaough was more than willing to make her an offer – in fact, he was prepared to exceed her original demand by $1000 a year. It’s nice to hope that he did this out of recognition of her abilities (and that probably was a factor), but given the way we’d seen women treated throughout the episode, my first thought was that he was making the offer just as a way to stick it to Don.

Peggy’s been an integral character to the show since episode one, and initially I didn’t believe she’d leave SCDP. But in a shock moment, leave she did. And as if to cement the episode’s portrayal of the well-meaning Don Just Not Getting It, his initial assumption was that she was just fishing for a raise, which he was more than prepared to give. He finally Got It when it became clear that, no matter what he offered, his former protege was off to pastures new; as he realised, and both reflected that this was really the end for them, the scene became genuinely tearjerking.

Don’s voice cracked as he refused to let go of Peggy’s hand, his face crumpling; Peggy herself had tears rolling down her otherwise controlled face. It was a hugely emotional scene, brilliantly played by both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. As Peggy walked out of SCDP for the last time amid furious partying, unnoticed by all (except, significantly, Joan), it became clear that she really was going. And perhaps now is the right time for that. As has recently become clear, she’s basically already become Don, albeit a female version, and the show doesn’t need two of them. Nonetheless, she’ll be missed.

An incredibly powerful episode overall, that gave Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss in particular a chance to shine, and made me mark Semi Chellas as a writer to look out for. It’s easy for a man, if he’s liberal, to intellectually grasp how badly women were treated in the 60s; it’s quite something else to make him understand it on an emotional level. By rubbing our faces in the injustice suffered by likeable characters we’d known for some time, this episode succeeded at doing just that to an extent that I don’t think even Mad Men has managed before.