"Mad Men" Review: "The Other Woman" (Season 5 Episode 11) - "Shall we address the men?"
The masterful fifth season of Mad Men continues with episode 11, “The Other Woman,” and as always, I’m here with my weekly review and analysis. To do the hour justice, this review contains heavy spoilers, so don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode.
Spoilers for “The Other Woman” after the jump…
“What price would we pay, what behavior would we forgive, if they weren’t pretty, if they weren’t temperamental, if they weren’t out of our control…Jaguar: At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”
When you break down any ad-campaign, be it a fictional one on Mad Men or a real one seen during the show’s commercial breaks, you will find an appeal to human weakness, to subconscious urges that would, more often than not, harm ourselves and those around us if we chose to act on them. That we possess and act on these destructive urges is a fascinating subject in and of itself; that we embrace and promote these urges through a medium fundamental to American life – a medium that has grown exponentially in its omniscience since 1966, a medium many comprehend no alternative to – is a disturbing truth most wouldn’t dare tackle. Yet it lies at the heart of Mad Men, not because the show is about advertising, but because the show is an exploration of the frailty and flaws of the human condition, and advertisements are mirrors to our failings.
In the history of Mad Men, there has been no clearer distilment of this theme than Don’s pitch to Jaguar. It is a brilliant, inspired piece of marketing because it connects with desires fundamental to its audience: men. It speaks of sex, of course, but not in a healthy form. Forbidden sex is the focus, the kind of sex that makes a man feel powerful, the kind of sex fantasized in moments of weakness, when a man feels unfulfilled and reverts to base reproductive instincts to find control in a confused existence. The fantasy feels powerful because the man perceives it as unattainable. It isn’t his woman. It isn’t familiar. It isn’t something he already owns. If he attained it, if he furthered his sexual ownership over a wider domain, what kind of God would he be? What kind of might would he wield? As Don says…“what price would we pay,” if we could feel that power for even one night?
This is the sort of ‘genius’ campaign we would applaud Don for in years past. Intercut with Joan resorting to the most desperate of measures, though, it becomes what I view as the single most disturbing sequence in 62 episodes of Mad Men. Don speaks of these themes in celebratory terms, yet the visual representation we are given of the pitch’s subtext – that of a pathetic man robbing a good, strong woman of all her dignity, enabled by men more filthy and reprehensible than he – is utterly, undeniably horrifying. I felt physically ill throughout the pitch, wanting to see Joan say ‘no’ at the last moment, wanting to hear Don stop mid-sentence and realize the dirty, disturbing truth of his words. But of course, those moments of salvation never came. Joan slept with Herb. Don finished the pitch. Jaguar chose Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as their representation. The horrible deeds of amoral men went rewarded, and a woman with few reasonable alternatives paid the price.
God. Damn. If that isn’t television at the height of its intellectual and emotional power, then I don’t know what is.
In a broader context, the themes of that sequence were the focus of “The Other Woman,” not only the best episode of this season but one of the greatest Mad Men’s ever. This was an hour all about the ways men abuse and hold back women, and though the show has explored this theme before – in many ways, it’s at the heart of the entire series – it’s never done so with such precision, clarity, and raw, heartbreaking power.
One of the things this season has done so well is using micro-level stories to examine macro-level issues; each sub-plot of each episode has had broad implications not just about advertising and the 1960s, but about the human condition itself, and “The Other Woman” was no exception. Through Joan, Peggy, and Megan’s stories, the hour reinforced the idea that SCDP is a toxic environment where women, no matter their level of talent or capability, will either fail to advance or be actively beaten down by circumstance. Weiner obviously isn’t aiming for a discussion about the failings of a fictional sixties ad-agency with these stories, but honing in on tough, uncomfortable truths at the heart of broader cultures. The cultures of advertising and upper-class 1960s society, of course, but also – and this one comes down to personal beliefs, I suppose – the present as well.
We shall talk about each of the women in these various contexts momentarily. But first, we must discuss Don Draper, for his story in tonight’s episode defines the male role in this culture. When it comes to someone like Roger or Pete, it is not surprising that they hurt the women in their lives. That is who they are, and though Pete descended to incredible levels of villainy tonight (played with incredible, icy menace by Vincent Kartheiser, who should be commended for having the bravery to unflinchingly depict Pete’s depravity), it is only a natural extension of his character. Of course he will throw Joan under the bus to further his own self-obsessed agenda. That’s who he is. Of course Roger will have few objections. Women – even someone he admires and respects like Joan – are objects to him. Of course Lane will be so wrapped up in his financial troubles he’ll be the one to find Joan an incentive worth acquiescing to.
But Don? Don is capable of change. He used to treat women, primarily Betty, as these men did, but he’s gotten better. So much better. He has deep and abiding respect for Peggy; he loves his new wife, and at his best, treats her as an equal. He cares for Joan not for sexual reasons, but because he admires and finds value in who she is as a human being. Don Draper is different than his colleagues because although he can still succumb to their level (i.e. chasing Megan around the apartment several weeks ago), he also has the capacity to be a good and respectful man. He is indicative, I believe, of many men faced with a changing social order, be it the 1960s or today.
Don’s actions in “The Other Woman” are heartbreaking because we see his capacity for good and bad in near equal measure. When Megan comes close to getting a Broadway part, he chastises her for considering being out of town, an eerie, uncomfortable parallel to Pete chewing out Trudy for refusing to blindly accept his plans. In both cases, the men are exercising a concept of ownership over their wives; again, it isn’t surprising coming from Pete, but with Don, we know he can be better, and are sad to see him sink to this level.
He does so, of course, for the very same reasons outlined in the Jaguar pitch. When Megan comes to him, he feels weak – probably due to difficulties finding the right ad campaign – and exercises power by putting her down, denying her dreams the same way he feels his are slipping away. He does the same thing to Peggy when she asks to head the Chevalier Blanc campaign; feeling frustrated, he denies her perfectly reasonable request, and to be as demeaning as possible, throws a wad of money in her face as though he can control her with cash.
Which is, of course, the exact same thing Pete and the partners are doing to Joan, albeit on a much grander scale. This, naturally, is where Don draws the line. He will have no part in forcing Joan into what amounts to prostitution, and I for one would never expect him to. As a man with the capacity for sensitivity, a plot that devious would never sit well with Don Draper, and his last-minute attempt to talk Joan out of it at her apartment is, to my eyes, completely genuine. He wants to help her. He doesn’t want to see her hurt herself this way. He truly believes Jaguar isn’t worth it. No company would be worth it. When they land Jaguar at the hour’s end and Don quietly realizes that Joan went through with it, I think the guilt that crosses Jon Hamm’s face is very real; if this was the cost, he would rather have never heard of Jaguar, and that’s why he refuses to celebrate.
But now we reach the important part: one noble action on Don’s part does not give him moral high-ground, even over a scoundrel like Pete. Within this episode alone, his treatment of Megan and Peggy boils down to a similar concept of dismissive, controlling sexism, even if the ultimate harm isn’t as egregious. The thought behind those actions is no different than Pete’s or Lane’s. Just because Don is sensitive enough to refute an act of pure evil doesn’t mean he lacks the capacity to think in similarly wicked terms. He does, and that’s most damningly apparent in his laser-focused Jaguar pitch. The words coming out of his mouth are a manifesto for what Pete was thinking when he made plans to put Joan in bed with Herb. Don may not be acting on those words in the same way, but by speaking and believing them – for the sake of personal gain, no less – he loses whatever moral high-ground he earned by trying to help Joan (a fact hammered home by the editing of the speech sequence, where Don’s trip to Joan’s apartment is repeated at the end to show that Don’s efforts were futile).
Don can be better. There’s no question about that. But in this moment, he’s not, and I think it goes back to a discussion I’ve brought up many times this season: That SCDP and the world of advertising are toxic. When he’s detached from it, he’s healthy; now that he’s dived back in headfirst, he’s drifting closer to the amoral man we knew at the series’ outset.
Peggy Olsen, meanwhile, finally comes to terms with the toxicity of SCDP in tonight’s episode. It’s a decision that’s been foreshadowed throughout the season, as Peggy has spent all year being continually marginalized and ignored. I’ve mentioned it repeatedly in these reviews: Peggy is clearly the cleverest and most capable copy-writer on staff, but as a woman, there’s a limit to how much she can excel in this man’s world. Heinz Beans detested her for having an attitude. Jaguar refused to work with a woman. Partners like Roger continually second-guess her. And over time, a man like Ginsberg – more qualified for her job only if your criteria is the presence of male genitalia – increasingly encroaches on her territory until she has almost nothing left to do with the firm.
This is the circumstance we find Peggy in at the start of “The Other Woman.” Don has given her creative control over everything outside Jaguar, but it’s hardly meaningful. Jaguar means everything, and in her first scene of the episode, Peggy must stand outside the conference room and watch as the men have a good time writing pitch concepts and eating gourmet lobster dinners. The visual layout of that scene isn’t subtle: Peggy’s on the outside of a world she’s not allowed to enter. Even when she comes up with an effective – nay, perfect – new pitch for Chevalier Blanc on the spot and over the phone, she can’t get any recognition or credit for it from the man she respects above all else. She did the work, but Don ensures Ginsberg will get the credit.
It is a profound revelation for Peggy to accept that her surroundings will always hold her back. It’s so tough to swallow, in fact, that even as she talks to Freddy Rumsen about visiting other agencies, or as she has a hugely promising interview with Teddy Shaw, she can’t completely fathom the harsh truth she’s carrying inside. Leaving SCDP means accepting that the people she loves and respects most in the world will never reciprocate, and that will never be easy. When she goes to tell Don about Shaw’s offer – again catching Don at the entirely wrong moment – I believe that in her heart of hearts, she intended on negotiating and staying. But after Don mentions that Joan is now a partner, everything comes into focus for Peggy. Not because she has anything against Joan. She doesn’t. She probably knows, as well as we do, that Joan always deserved that partnership. But with the company celebrating an account she’ll never be a part of, and the only other high-ranking woman in the office vastly leapfrogging her, I think Peggy finally understands that when push comes to shove, she is an afterthought at SCDP, and she will never feel good about herself until she tries to find a place where she is truly loved.
I don’t know if Shaw will provide that place. Peggy doesn’t know either. All she knows is she’s not going to get it at SCDP, and that the future is a little brighter now that she’s exited such a hellish, harmful atmosphere. Of course the hour has to end with one of Elizabeth Moss’ incredible, subtle smiles and a classic rock song. This is Peggy being empowered, empowered because she finally decided to stop playing by the rules of men. Fulfilling doesn’t even begin to describe the power of that ending.
It must also be noted that Moss and Hamm do absolutely stellar work during the resignation sequence. This is clearly Moss’s Emmy submission episode for that scene alone, for the awe-inspiring mixture of emotions and thoughts she creates on the character’s face. It’s just a beautiful piece of acting, and Hamm, as always, is her equal. Hamm is stellar whenever he gets to play an emotionally confused Don, and the character has seldom been as disoriented as he is here. He loves Peggy; he can’t imagine SCDP without Peggy; his grief over Peggy’s resignation is genuine. But he also can’t understand why she needs to move on, and this is precisely why Don is still part of his gender’s problem, rather than its solution. He can’t fathom the pressure he’s put on Peggy, either by disrespecting her directly or enabling others to diminish her power at the firm. If he could, Peggy wouldn’t be leaving. Hamm plays this confliction flawlessly, and he too might want to consider this episode come awards season.
Peggy’s dilemma is all about professional worth, but when it comes to the other two women central to the hour, sex is the prevailing theme. In the patriarchal world these characters inhabit, there’s a constant pressure to bow to male sexual desires. Megan, in her audition, instinctively knows to wear a sexy dress, and isn’t surprised when the men hiring her wish her to show off her body. That’s the world Megan lives in, and it’s the world Megan was raised in. She can’t imagine alternatives, because when men are in charge and their power unchecked, this is what she must do to succeed.
It’s equal parts sad and disgusting to watch, but nowhere near the horror Joan experiences when Pete proposes she sell her body for the good of the company. I suspect some viewers will berate Joan for going along with it and fail to hold the men accountable. It is true, after all, that Joan could have chosen to say no. It’s just that in a system where men hold all the power, Joan’s alternatives aren’t much better. If she says no, she’ll maintain her dignity, but she’ll still be a single mother making barely enough to get by, perennially lacking the power to improve her situation. Sleeping with Herb in exchange for a partnership is, in the world Joan has experienced her entire life, the only way she can permanently improve her status. She’ll lose her dignity, but given everything that’s happened to her recently, is that too steep a price to pay for financial stability and corporate influence?
To Joan - who, we must remember, has a fundamentally different outlook on the world then we, sitting comfortably in 2012, do - those reasons make it a decision worth making, and though it absolutely breaks my heart to watch her go through with it, to see the sadness etched in her visage at the end of the episode, I understand why she did it. I completely understand. That’s what makes me sad, and that’s what makes me angry. Joan had to hurt herself tonight because she lives in a world where no matter how much talent she possesses or good deeds she does, she can never move forward simply because she lacks a Y chromosome. She doesn’t even have Peggy’s option of finding a new workplace, because she’s older and doesn’t have the experience to pursue a more fruitful career. She is shackled by a world order she had absolutely no say in, and it’s inevitable that such desperation would lead to a snapping point.
“The Other Woman” is Mad Men at its very best, and as such, Matthew Weiner is not asking us to narrow our scope of blame to Pete and the partners, or even to the disturbing hierarchy of the 1960s. Through Joan’s story, and Peggy’s story, and Megan’s and Don’s and everyone else’s, he’s asking us to consider the parallels to our own lives, to the world we live in and the flaws we perceive. Injustice didn’t die in the 1960s because history has conflated the decade with the concept of change. The stories and lessons of Mad Men can be applied in far broader contexts, and in an episode like “The Other Woman,” an episode deeply powerful on every possible level, those connections hit home stronger than ever. Your conclusions will likely differ from mine, and from one another’s, as we all view this world in different ways. But I think it’s safe to say that “The Other Woman” forces you to feel or contemplate something, and to do so strongly. That is why, five years on, Mad Men’s status as TV’s best drama is not in doubt.
Come back next Sunday night for my review of
The Penultimate Season 5 Episode, #12, “Commissions and Fees”
“Mad Men” reviews will go up every Sunday night
an hour or two after the episode airs,
Right here on www.jonathanlack.com
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#3: Tea Leaves
#4: Mystery Date
#5: Signal 30
#6: Far Away Places
#7: At the Codfish Ball
#8: Lady Lazarus
#9: Dark Shadows
#10: Christmas Waltz