Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Other Woman" (season 5, episode 11)

Mad Men - "The Other Woman" (season 5, episode 11)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 27, 2012/written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): The major story turns of this episode - some of the most important in Mad Men history - are seeded so subtly that it's a shock when they not only rapidly develop but pay off before "The Other Woman" is done. At dinner with Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), a major car dealer and crucial vote in Jaguar's agency selection, Pete and Ken are informed about as bluntly as possible that Herb's vote is contingent upon them prostituting one of their employees to him. It seems Herb has a thing for redheads. Ken consistently deflects while Pete plays along: always keep the client happy, right? Even if you have to temporarily promise the impossible...but is Pete "playing"? Are his placating reassurances merely "temporary"? Is a night with Joan Harris, who's been with the company for fifteen years (longer than half the partners) really "impossible"? Pete, who once used his own father's death to seal a deal, goes where no one else would even consider. Quickly rebuffed by Joan, he seizes any opening he can find in the language of her refusal and convenes a vote. While Lane and Roger are initially shocked, they drop their resistance after Pete implies that Joan could be willing if the price is right. Lane even encourages her to ask for much more - a partnership and stake in the company - based on his own experience of getting short shrift and perhaps, his own nervousness about getting caught in embezzlement. It wasn't clear to me if he was encouraging her to make the partnership ask in lieu of Pete's $50,000 - if so, this adds a particularly cynical tinge to his admission that he's giving her this advice because of his feelings for her.

Only Don remains indignant but by leaving the room in a huff he is considered absent and therefore not a definitive "no." Joan, feeling the pressure (from her financial/living situation as well as her colleagues) and implicitly reasoning that if she's going to be so thoroughly disrespected she might as well profit for it, gives in. When Don visits her on the night of her rendezvous and tells her it's not worth it, she finally realizes that not everyone was eager to use her...but as it turns out, even if she doesn't tell him (he realizes the next morning when she's called into a partner meeting), he's too late. She's not showering in preparation for the "date" - she's just gotten back. Adding an even sicker tinge to the trade-off, Don's creative campaign hinged on the idea of the Jaguar as an expensive but worthwhile mistress with Michael coming up with the tagline, "Jaguar, finally something beautiful you can truly own." And sure enough, Jaguar votes for SCDP to represent them - due to the combination of that enticing tagline and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Pete to prove that tagline true. The entire office celebrates - except for two individuals. Don tells Peggy he's "not in the mood," and Peggy tells Don...well, let's rewind to when that seed was planted, before we see how it blossoms.

Actually, the season has been subtly building toward this point all along as Peggy's frustrations with the SCDP dynamic, and particularly Don's patronizing treatment of her, have been brewing through the failed Heinz campaign, her exclusion from Jaguar, and now a brilliant, last-minute rescue of the flailing Chavalier Blanc spot, for which she gets little credit. For years, others - including good old Freddy Rumsen - have been advising her to test the waters, and this time she decides to follow through on Freddy's tips by scheduling a series of interviews with other agencies. At first, as with the ludicrous trade-Joan-for-Jaguar conceit, it just seems like a moment of minor dramatic inflection. Peggy will do some interviews, realize why she wants to stay with SCDP and/or capitalize on the threat to finally get the raise, promotion, and respect she deserves, right? Instead she is scooped up immediately by Ted Chaough of CGC, the impudent creative exec Don spent much of season four contending with; Ted not only agrees to her request for an $18,000 salary, he crosses it out and adds another grand. Coincidentally forced to break this news to Don at the exact moment of the agency's ascendency, if Peggy had any doubts they are swept away in rat-a-tat fashion as she discovers Joan was just promoted and that she is definitively not going to be working on Jaguar. In one of the greatest scenes in the entire series, scooping up sixty-two episodes of character development while still managing to contain most of the emotional overflow (even if Peggy finally cries when Don kisses rather than shakes her hand), Don's protegee says goodbye. Only standing at the open elevator door, bathed in warm light with a slim porfolio of work under her arm, does Peggy's dazed expression resolve into a smile of satisfaction, as the joyful riff of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" declares her independence.

My Response:
Although at a glance, Peggy and Betty would appear to be Mad Men's two poles of femininity - one the office worker trying to navigate her way through a man's world, the other a conventional housewife suffocating in the suburbs - the juxtaposition of Joan and Peggy may strike a deeper, more profound note. After all, both women share much in common. Both are working girls who rose to unprecedented heights in the agency after beginning in the secretary pool (and both were secretaries for Don, Joan on the start of his career and Peggy at the start of hers). Both harbor scandalous secrets behind their pregnancies - both involving married men who are now partners in SCDP - and both have challenging relationships with their domineering mothers. And both, even as they achieve a new status in the last scene, disappoint Don in this episode...or rather they force him to acknowledge how disappointed he is in himself, and in what he's a part of. For these reasons and more, the contrasts between the two women emerge all the more pronounced. They dress differently, speak differently, and have different visions of how they have to contend with the challenges they face. Peggy's path has always been forged through a wilderness, with absolutely no one else to share her experience or guide her. Joan, on the other hand, is full of the wisdom of ages with the dark, persistent, bitter knowledge - even when she tries to resist its reality - that her particular power lies in exploiting her very powerlessness (and vice versa). If Peggy must defy conventions, Joan is forced to understand their subtleties to the tiniest detail, all the better to wring every shred of advantage she can out of them. And in this episode, Peggy escapes her apprenticeship by embracing what is essentially a new profession for women at the time, while Joan ascends from her subordination by accepting the oldest there is.

Put like that, there is a heartbreaking elegance to "The Other Woman" and the five-season arc it caps, which began with the brassy Joan bossing the mousy Peggy around Sterling Cooper on her first day. As it unfolds, however, the episode has trouble shaking a certain queasy quality about its dramatic curveball, for Joan at least - a sense that not only her co-workers but her writers have forced her into an unfair position. Is her promotion any less cheap a reward than the crumpled bills Don throws in Peggy's face? The ickiness of the scenario, despite the gilding of sophistication placed upon an insult, isn't particularly helped by the show's heavyhanded gestures: inserting Megan's degrading meat-market audition into the mix, crosscutting between Don's pitch and Joan's sacrifice (even the color-coding lacks subtlety), or using a narrative flourish to reveal, rather unsurprisingly, that Don's intervention came too late. All of this works on a meta-level of complicity, with Pete emerging as a sharp but hardly exculpatory self-portrait of the creators' own ambivalent but determined direction. If the agency needs Jaguar's business, the season - which soared before sagging past its midpoint - requires a shot of narrative adrenaline. Just as Joan's gesture alone would not necessarily seal the deal without Michael's handy tagline and Don's smooth delivery, so this twist needs Peggy's plotline to pair with; otherwise it would feel more sordid in a purely soapy way. Instead the two trajectories complement one another perfectly.

I don't know where Peggy goes from here, one of the benefits of keeping my distance from the broader cultural discussion of this series. I'm certain she will not disappear, and highly doubtful that she'll be reduced to a recurring guest star. Covering the action at two agencies could spread the storytelling a bit thin; on the other hand, this could be just the innovation this show needs as it attempts to avoid repeating itself with the ups and downs of a struggling new business or the woes of wedding a Draper. (By making the moves it does with both Joan and Peggy, as well as allowing Megan to articulate some of the tension in their marriage, "The Other Woman" also defuses that ticking time bomb I mentioned last episode - at least for now.) Ted's rivalry with Don adds another layer of drama, especially since Peggy is exiting at just the moment that SCDP is becoming a real player again; I really like the way all of these elements are coming together to promise a new avenue not just for Peggy but for us as viewers. As for Joan, I hope this sad denouement gives way to something interesting for her too. If I'd been thinking a romance with Don was in the offing, I don't really anymore - too much has changed, and that moment has been snuffed out. More broadly, after Roger, after Greg, after this, I don't think Joan has anywhere else to go down that road. If $50,000, a full partnership and a 5% stake is her price onscreen then an independence within the story should be her price off of it. Peggy can't be the only one who escapes.

Next (active on August 30, 8am): "Commissions and Fees"Previous: "Christmas Waltz"

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