Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mad Men Season 5, Episode 11: “The Other Woman”

Peggy had to leave. That’s the only thing she could do after Don treated her like trash yet again, this time by throwing money in her face. Don’s behavior is all the more egregious this time, because Peggy actually deserves high praise for saving the Chevalier Blanc campaign by spinning a revision of it out of thin air. Peggy has never deserved the degree of lambasting to which Don routinely subjected her, but this time, Don completely misreads her behavior – she seems to question Don’s giving this account back to Michael partly because she wants the account, but also because she is genuinely confused over her responsibilities during the run up to the Jaguar pitch (although there is a degree of petulance in her voice when she questions Don’s decision). Don’s behavior here is a watershed moment for Peggy and for viewers. Peggy and Don have had many breakthroughs in their relationship both this season and last: she and Don have become closer, and Peggy has acquired more and more responsibility at SCDP. Yet Don still lashes out at her when he’s having difficulty with unrelated matters (Jaguar, Megan), and it’s made all the worse this time for happening in front of others, rather than in private. We’ve seen it in bits and pieces all season, most memorably when she stands up to Don for blaming her when Megan leaves SCDP, but the changes in both Peggy’s personal and professional life have done wonders for her self-esteem, and we see it again in the aftermath of Don’s latest abuse. Rather than reducing her to the verge of tears, Don’s berating frustrates and angers her. Crying would have indicated that Don made her feel bad about herself (as he has in the past), whereas anger indicates instead that she’s simply fed up with Don’s abuse. Don’s behavior really leaves her no recourse but to leave if she is to continue to value herself as highly as she has these past two seasons. All she needed was a little push from Freddie Rumsen to make her realize it.

Nonetheless, it is still a painful decision for both Peggy and for Don, one made all the more difficult because Don begins the scene where she breaks the news to him by treating her as a trusted and valued accomplice. He asks her to drink with him, and anticipates her usual impulse toward wanting more by preemptively explaining to her why he feels like can’t put a woman on Jaguar, but does so in a way that indicates he respects her talent and her desire to work on the best accounts. His treatment of her here is essentially the opposite of his reaction to the Chevalier Blanc scene. At first, he misreads Peggy’s decision to leave as an attempt at a raise, and he jokes that she’s finally picked the right time to ask. But when Peggy remains adamant about leaving, Don’s demeanor changes. He doesn’t get angry and yell, but becomes genuinely remorseful. Peggy’s leaving hurts him deeply, and as he kisses her hand, Peggy is in turn moved to see how much she has meant to him. It’s a wonderfully played scene by Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. As difficult as it is for Peggy to leave Don, her smile as she steps into the elevator (along with the first chords of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”) shifts the tone of the scene from bittersweet to one of excitement. Despite his occasional abuse, in many ways Don has been a fine mentor to Peggy, but with the lessons she’s learned with Heinz this season, and with the responsibility Don handed her in wake of the Jaguar preparation, she’s finally ready to graduate from his mentorship, and this smile shows us she knows it. It’s an excellent, albeit bittersweet end to the episode.

Kudos to Pete; he’s now decisively erased any reserve sympathy I had for him from last season. Pete the pimp tries to rationalize Joan’s debasing herself: “We’re talking about a night in your life… I’m talking about business at a very high level.” Ugh. As morally smarmy and disgusting as he is, he also masterfully plays the others in the office. It’s tough to tell how much of his bluster is bullshit and how much is genuine, because he refers to exchanges between himself and Herb that the episode elides when he emphasizes the necessity of broaching the subject with Joan – we didn’t see Herb give Pete an implied ultimatum as Pete repeatedly describes, but he very well might have done so in the parts of the scene we did not see (like the taxi). This is a testament to Pete’s salesmanship, but so is the way in which he approaches the other partners about it. What Pete says to the other partners about Joan’s response to his inquiry is technically true, and if anything, he only lies by omission here: a part of Joan probably was amused when Pete brought up the idea of sleeping with Herb, even if her amusement was dwarfed by the part of her that was disgusted. The way he phrases it to the other partners, however, allows them to rationalize Joan doing this (“Well, if she’s open to it…”). Moreover, Pete’s helped out by Don’s leaving the room after Don mistakenly believes that his putting his foot down puts an end to the matter. Perhaps this will be a lesson to Don: as Pete tells him, conversations don’t end when he leaves the room.

I have to hand it to Lane; he does some quick thinking in this episode to try to salvage his embezzlement. The scene between him and Joan is marvelous for many reasons, chief among them being that we can see things from both Lane's and Joan’s perspectives. When Lane suggests that Joan ask for a 5% stake in the company (rather than a lump sum of cash), Joan ultimately sees it as an altruistic honoring of their friendship that goes against the interests of the company, and redemption for Lane’s foolishly kissing her earlier in the season. There might be some truth to this motivation, but we also see Lane’s more immediate motivation: this is a way for him to hold out hope he’ll be able to conceal his embezzlement. Moreover, we can also understand Joan’s offense early in the conversation, as at first she thinks Lane is motivated to discourage her from accepting the offer because of his own feelings for her, feelings she expressly rejected when she silently opened his office door after he kissed her. A wonderfully complex scene, and a very well-acted one at that.

Nevertheless, despite moral apprehension on the part of all parties involved (except Pete), and despite Herb’s repugnancy, Joan goes through with the arrangement. On a lesser show, this would probably lead to Joan feeling terrible about herself, and it certainly creates a lot of dramatic collateral for the show to spend in the future, but she seems okay with it in the immediate aftermath. Her exchange of glances with Don after they get the news about Jaguar seems to imply that it’s not hounding her terribly. Moreover, the other partners understand very well that Joan’s new partnership means their attitude toward her will need to undergo some revision: they all turn to her when they agree they need to make an announcement; she is now one of them. However, it’s sad that this is the way she gained a measure of equality, not just because it’s degrading to women in general and to Joan in particular, but because previously, with the exception of her affair(s) with Roger,* Joan had been one of the more morally unassailable characters on the show, and definitely one with the steeliest resolve. I suppose we can only hope that she handles any regret she might feel with the same resolve.

* Although let’s face it, Greg deserved to be cheated on.

Meanwhile, we have more ups and downs with Megan and Don. As for the ups, I like that Megan and Don are comfortable enough with both the positive and negative feelings they have for each other that they are able to joke about Don feeling betrayed by Megan leaving SCDP. Early in the episode, Don talks to Megan about the difficulty he’s having with the Jaguar pitch, and she asks, “Do you really want help, or you want to yell at me?” Don replies, “I don’t know yet,” and the two smile at each other. On the other hand, they also have both become aware of the very real conflict of interest Don has over Megan’s potential success as an actress after Megan tells Don she’d be away for months should she get a part. He has equal reason to want her to do well and to want her to fail: he loves her and wants what’s best for her, but he also doesn’t want her to go away to Boston (or anywhere else) for three months if she were to land a part. Also, a part of him probably wants her to fail in the off chance she’d return to SCDP. Stormy waters, here.

Despite the Jaguar ad campaign analogy equating the car to a mistress (rather than to women in general or wives in particular), the parallels between Don’s feelings about Megan and his approach to the Jaguar ad campaign are abundant throughout the episode. When Don first describes the campaign to Megan, he calls a Jaguar “beautiful but unreliable.” While this might not be fair to Megan, considering she’s stuck with Don even as he’s started to exhibit some familiar habits from his first marriage, Don probably cannot help but feel this way about Megan after she tells him that the rehearsal is in Boston and would take her away from him for three months. These feelings are made more emphatic when Michael finally comes up with the perfect hook for the Jaguar campaign: “Jaguar: At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” While the relief on Don’s face upon hearing this tagline is a product of his knowing it perfectly encapsulates the mistress analogy, the reason he knows it is perfect is because it describes precisely his current anxieties about Megan. The previous scene between Don and Megan was their fight about Boston, and it concludes with an exasperated Don yelling, “Just keep doing whatever the hell you want!” One can easily imagine him yelling something similar while standing above a broken-down Jaguar on the side of the road. Note also that Michael only comes up with this idea after seeing Megan take Don into his office for some late night workplace sex. You can see the wheels turning in Michael’s head as he wonders aloud, “She just comes and goes as she pleases?” Even if we know better, Michael sees the relationship between Don and Megan as exactly what he describes to Don: a “mistress” he truly “owns.” But as Don is learning, both in his experience with Megan and in his losing Peggy, you can’t really own anyone.

Other thoughts:

- After all of the creative struggles Peggy has had this season, the Chevalier Blanc scene was a nice moment for her, but also a necessary one, because it reaffirms her creative value, and makes plausible the ease with which she is able to find work elsewhere. Although I wonder if other agencies would have been as eager to hire her as Ted Chaough is. His eagerness is doubtlessly inspired by his own feelings of rivalry with Don. For Ted, stealing away Don’s protégé must seem like a coup, although as the history of show lets us know, this is less a credit to Ted and more a product of Don’s failures as boss/mentor/human being (also, perhaps Ted isn’t the hack we take him for; he gives Peggy a pretty good pitch when they meet). Nevertheless, even Harry – who started the scene of the phone call by asking Peggy to pretend to be Michael’s subordinate – is able to recognize how great Peggy is in this scene. Harry is the one who praises Peggy’s quick thinking when they later report the Chevalier Blanc news to Don.

- I loved Ken’s silent applause for Peggy. Ken began the series as a somewhat callous savant, one as equally sexist as the other chipmunks (his shock at Peggy’s contributing to an ad campaign before she became a copywriter was phrased along the lines of, “It was like seeing a horse that could talk.”). However, over the course of the past two season’s he’s stealthily become one of the most sympathetic male characters on the show. He seems to genuinely value Peggy both as a professional and as a person, checking up on her after Don abuses her in front of him. He has interests other than advertising, and in a way is just as creative as Don (or as creative as Don was at his peak). His job is not the most important thing in his life: recall him being unwilling to talk to his father-in-law on the behalf of SCDP. So far as we can tell, he’s not a womanizer; while he smiles along with Herb and offers to introduce him to another redhead aside from Joan, he seems as repulsed by the guy as viewers are, and when attempting to console Peggy later, he tells her that he knows for a fact that Jaguar isn’t going to happen, implying that he’s dismissed Herb’s ultimatum out of hand. Ken Cosgrove: Mad Men’s good guy in the margins.

- Peggy might have learned more lessons from Don than she realizes – when Ken tries to comfort her, she echoes Don’s behavior to a lesser extent, pushing Ken away by calling their pact stupid and telling him to “Save the fiction for your stories.”

- Even fledgling pimps read Goodnight Moon to their adorable babies. There weren’t as many funny moments in this episode as in the past few weeks, but it’s hilarious when Pete uses the book as evidence for why he despairs over living in the sticks when he gets into an argument with Trudy: “There’s no goodnight noises anywhere!”

- Even though Michael was the impetus for the campaign, it was still nice to get a classic Draper pitch, and the scoring and staging of the scene where Don leads other members of SCDP into Jaguar was quite fun.

- Ironic that Don chastises Megan for “running away” at the end of their fight. Pot calling the kettle black?

- While it provided a nice end to the episode, and a logical move from the standpoint of the characters, I can’t help but suspect this won’t be the last of Don and Peggy working together. This has been one of the relationships most central to the show, and while Mad Men has certainly shown a willingness to blow up parts of its premise in the past (Don and Betty’s divorce being a key example, as well as the formation of SCDP), Peggy has been so integral to everything at SCDP that I really can’t imagine this being the end. By leaving SCDP, the show also has a hole to fill in terms of showing what it’s like to work there when you’re not one of the bosses – Peggy was pretty crucial to providing that perspective as well (although maybe that's something Matt Weiner is no longer interested in exploring).

- The only thing that didn’t work for me in this episode was the sleight of hand the narration attempted with the reveal that Don was too late in telling Joan he did not agree with the other partners’ decision regarding Joan and Herb. It seemed obvious from the get go that he was too late: Pete waits to tell Don about Joan’s decision until she’s already left the office; Joan was about to get into the shower when he arrived at her place to talk him out of it, and Joan sighs heavily when Don tells her he doesn’t think it’s worth. True, the show’s manipulation of the order of events makes Joan seem somewhat of a hard person by deciding to go through with it despite Don’s moral advisement against it. However, that’s a momentary effect, and it seems to be worth much less than knowing all along that he was too late. Moreover, hearing Don’s opinion on the matter seems to foster some regrets in Joan, which is also worthwhile dramatic material that the temporal restructuring loses. In short, I think their scene together plays better with the knowledge that Don is too late. Moreover, the abridged version we get the second time around both seemed to go unnecessarily far in recapping this scene (it’s a rare instance in which the show seems to have underestimated its viewers), but also not far enough, in that elides what to my mind is the most important part about it: Joan’s sigh upon hearing Don saying it’s not worth it. I suppose the Matt Weiner felt compelled to rearrange the order of events so as to the maximize effect of crosscutting between Don’s pitch and Joan’s going through with her evening with Herb, but I don’t feel that the dramatic payoff was worth it. Maybe I’m missing something, but the parallels and contrasts between the two crosscut scenes don’t seem all that compelling to me (which is not to say they aren’t there, but that they don’t seem particularly revelatory for what’s happening with the characters at the moment). Perhaps another reason for the crosscutting is that this pitch, while classic Don, wasn’t terribly inspiring: it wasn’t Don’s idea; we had already seen the cliff notes version of it when Michael broached it to Don in the first place, and it’s a pretty damned sexist ad campaign. However, it's a minor blemish on an otherwise stellar hour of television.

UPDATE: While  I don't agree with Sepinwall about the value of the crosscutting, he pretty much nails everything great going on between the women and Don in this episode. I tip my hat to the master.


  1. Terrific analysis on a great episode, Jason.

    Haven't read Sepinwall yet, but I imagine he points to the fact that Don is by far the least qualified person to give anyone advice on when/why/with whom to have extramarital sex?

    Also, on-the-nose as it was, I found the parallels of Megan and Peggy essentially selling themselves to get ahead in acting and advertising fairly interesting. (Peggy's uncharacteristic decoration of a neck scarf during her meeting with Chaough seemed to point directly to this.) What this implied equivalency is meant to say about the nature of sex and professional advancement I really can't say. (Deleted scene: Betty devouring Cool Whip by the fistful while Glenn watches.)

  2. Thanks. Sepinwall talks more about how his background (being the son of a prostitute and never being allowed to forget it) makes this a line he doesn't think is worth crossing, especially by Joan, the woman whom he seems to admire most.

    I found Megan being treated like a piece of meet was more a parallel with Joan's situation than with Peggy's, as Peggy is being valued for her talent and abilities.

    That deleted scene would be pretty hilarious.