“The Other Woman” S5 / E11
- A- Community Grade
There will never be enough money.
See, you think there might be someday, but there won’t. There will always be some other thing. The fridge will go out, or the kids will get sick, or your cat will swallow a piece of yoga mat and need to be operated on by a vet at 1 a.m. It might seem like you’re going to get ahead, but there will always be something waiting to trip you up. There are super-rich people in this world, and they wish they had more money, too. God knows why. But the second I say this, the second I say that when you come right down to it, money’s not as important as your integrity or your relationships or your conscience, that’s the second I’m the asshole who won’t acknowledge that, yeah, money may not buy happiness, but it sure makes it easier to be happy.
That’s the thing Don tries to tell Joan in “The Other Woman,” yet another knockout episode in a season full of knockout episodes. If the firm loses Jaguar, who cares? There will be another car company or another collection of smaller businesses that will make up the difference. It’s more important to hang on to the firm’s integrity in the midst of a business that erodes the soul as surely as anything does. But Joan’s fridge is out, and who knows if Greg will be good with child support, and what the hell is a single woman going to do in 1967 Manhattan anyway? If she has a chance at being a full partner, at a five percent ownership stake in the company, shouldn’t she take it, no matter how loathsome what she has to do to get there is? The money will be nice, yes, but the second the fridge is fixed, something else will pop up. And how do you live with yourself when you’re lying in bed at night?
“The Other Woman” shouldn’t work. It’s so obviously constructed to be a “message” episode, and the message is far from subtle: No matter what we try to do to make them equal, men are always going to turn women into objects on some level, because that’s just how men perceive them. One of the most fascinating things about this season is how it occasionally seems like fan fiction Matt Weiner is writing about his own writers’ room. Don’s remove from his employees, his attempts to brow beat the other creatives into the perfect pitch, and a host of other plot points all come almost directly out of life in the Hollywood grind, only they’ve been perfectly adapted to another workplace. Well, here’s another one, and if you don’t buy my thesis, check out this blog post by former Angel writer Mere Smith. The male gaze is all-pervasive, and women are degraded by it in steps. Joan is literally prostituted, but that’s just the most direct version of what the casting agents want Megan to do when she comes in to audition.
In some ways, the closest episode I can think of to this in TV history is a Sopranos episode called “Employee Of The Month.” In that one, the show’s writers very clearly wanted to set up a moral dilemma for Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s psychiatrist. The dilemma was this: If she was raped and knew who her rapist was but couldn’t get the police to arrest him, would she sic Tony Soprano on him? It was such a deliberately constructed parable—designed specifically to play on our identification with the character and the “go-to” of rape, which is still the crime TV and movies sensationalize the most often—that the whole thing threatened to teeter off the track at any given time. And yet the final moment, when Melfi gives Tony her answer, is such a resounding and moral moment in that television series that it stands as one of the show’s very best episodes, no matter how weird the journey to that final moment is.
“The Other Woman” has plenty in common with that episode. It goes out of its way to set up a situation in which there doesn’t seem to be any possible exit for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce than doing the wrong thing. It situates the two audience identification characters in places where they are called upon to either accept or reject the offer. (Though Peggy has no idea what happened with Joan, her rejection of the firm as a whole at the end is meant to read to us as a rejection of the old-boy politics it stands for and the embrace of something new.) It gives us a moment where we’re meant to cheer the hero doing the “right” thing, only to realize later just how hollow that was (even if the hero didn’t realize it). And it focuses deliberately on how many women are often reduced to their sexuality, no matter what else they have to offer.
In most every way, “The Other Woman” is a stronger episode than “Employee,” however, because it pitches its story less as a parable and more as a rolling catastrophe. Somebody makes an awful proposition, and rather than backing immediately away, the male partners of SCDP (minus Don) edge the door open just an inch. And once a door’s ajar even a little bit, it has a tendency to ease further and further open, until it’s letting in the rain, and you’re not sure how the floor got wet. One bad apple spoils the bunch. Even the smallest sin infects the whole soul. A drop of impurity always infects that which is pure. The point is: Once an idea like this takes hold, it becomes a horrifying inevitability. The second Herb from Jaguar suggests that, hey, he might be into that red-headed woman, you know where the episode is headed. Yet Mad Men uses that predictability against you, because you both can’t look away and want to know if there’s any way to avoid this, even as you know that these men are going to use a woman who’s done so much for all of them as a pawn.
Of course there isn’t, because Pete Campbell is the one spearheading the charge. Pete increasingly can’t see beyond his own hubris, and where that’s made him the most tragic character on the show in a handful of episodes this season, in this episode, it just makes him a total asshole. He wants the firm to be successful, and he doesn’t care what it takes to get that car account. But all it would take to shut Pete down is just one person saying no, one person firmly shutting him down and calling up the Jaguar guys to say that, hey, Joan’s married, and how dare he suggest such a thing? Ken doesn’t say it at the dinner. Nobody says it in the partners meeting—even Don just leaves by saying it’s dirty business—and soon the roots of the idea are taking hold. The rot infects one man, then all of them, and soon, Lane is proposing to her that, hey, maybe it’s not such a bad idea, and it’s because he has such feelings for Joan that he’s proposing a way that she could make a steal with this deal.
What’s ingenious about this is that this season has gone out of its way to make viewers identify with every single one of these men this season (well, perhaps not Bert, but who was surprised when he had a lasseiz faire attitude to the whole thing?). We’ve seen Pete’s sad desperation, Ken’s dreams of a bigger life, Lane’s money troubles, Roger’s disintegrating marriage and drug trip, and Don’s many struggles. We don’t just know who these men are; we identify with them, on a level where perhaps we couldn’t have identified with, say, Tony Soprano, who always remained something of a terrifying aspirational figure, the guy who said what we wished we could and killed his troublesome coworkers, where we just have to put up with them. Mad Men’s short story structure means that it can have a new, different main character every week, and that means we’re forced to identify with somebody new every week. This makes for amazing television, but it also means when we’re watching these men honestly contemplating prostituting a woman we’ve also identified with, it induces nausea. Watching this episode makes everything else feel vaguely discomfiting. (The car ads in the commercial breaks carried an extra sheen of ickiness, and though I can’t imagine watching the show anyway, who the fuck could stay tuned after this to see who came up with the coolest idea to win on The Pitch?)
The show has always asked us to identify the most often with Don and Peggy, the show’s two ostensible leads, and the two characters who’ve always been traveling in the same direction even if they were facing opposite ways. The central relationship of the show has always been their slow-building, utterly professional friendship, and the thought of a show without the both of them at the same agency might have been unthinkable even as the episode started. Yet as the Joan situation unfurled, Weiner and co-writer Semi Chellas were carefully laying out a similar situation with Peggy, though one that carried no negative connotations. Another ad agency wants her. Freddy Rumsen puts her in touch, and the offer they make is $1,000 above what she requests. Don offers to give her anything, anything to stay, and he even reverts to the more relaxed Don, the man who’s landed a big account and is ready to start doling out compliments again. He’s pushed her, but now she needs to test the world without him.
In its own way, Mad Men gives us its own version of the conclusion of “Employee,” but here, the moment is softer, less obviously pointed. Peggy says goodbye. She extends her hand to shake his, and he takes hers and kisses it for a long, long moment, like a drowning man grabbing at a spare piece of rope. It’s his way of begging her to stay, his way of begging her to compromise her own professional development to remain his protégé. But Don also knows what she doesn’t, the soul rotting thing that his fellow partners did, and the devil’s bargain the newest one made to get what stability she now has in the world. Whatever promise this place had as a new way forward is gone, and it’s almost tempting to read Don’s gesture as a way to beg her to take him along. It’s a devastating moment, one filled with sadness and tenderness and history. Who can have watched the 63 episodes of this show to this point and not wanted to see these two somehow always working together, even when they were mistreating each other?
And what’s so awful about “The Other Woman” is that outside of that one thing, SCDP and Don do everything right. The pitch is good. The moment when Ginsberg realizes what it is is perfect. The whole thing plays off of the way women are sold to us as sleek, unattainable objects, but it places it in a context where it’s meant to be “acceptable.” They make the right calls, business-wise. They make the right calls in terms of creativity, and who cares if the thing that maybe puts them over the top is that they compromised something important and precious? The sounds of celebration echo in the hallway, and when Don goes to tell Joan not to do it, she calls him one of the “good ones” and touches his face softly, because she both knows how naïve he is and how little his goodness—if it exists—counts for anything. He’s Don Draper. He does the right thing because it looks good. But he’s also Dick Whitman, the son of a single mother prostitute whose life was always scarred by his origin myth. She can never know that, so she just sees a man putting up the image of a guy doing the right thing.
Peggy walks down the hall by the sounds of that celebration. Joan looks over to watch her escaping the place Joan has tied herself to ever more tightly. Joan will have all the money in the world now, and while Peggy will get a raise that’s substantial, it will never be enough. There will never be enough money, and once there is, maybe you have to wonder what it took to get there.
Peggy walks to the elevator. The door dings open, and light hits her on the face. Here comes the sun.
- I’ve seen complaints the situation in this episode was “unrealistic,” and while I do think the episode stacks the deck to get to the desired result, via a scenario that has so many variables that have to go just right, I’m also hesitant to call it unrealistic, because you just know Weiner has proof this happened more frequently than we’d like to think.
- This episode was beautifully directed by Phil Abraham, who really nailed the tricky visual aspects of the conclusion (that kiss was loaded with visual symbolism), and even pulled off the coulda-been-tricky cross-cutting between the Jaguar pitch and Joan’s “date” with Herb in the editing bay. (Weiner had final cut, but Abraham gave him lots of great stuff to play with there.)
- I loved the way the episode played with notions of how Christina Hendricks is often reduced, in a media sense, to nothing more than the sum of her curves. Everybody wants to “see them,” and the man who gets to is a loathsome pig. It makes the brief outing to Megan’s callback even more pointed than usual.
- The episode also does a fine job of showing how Don might be one of the “good ones,” but he still has no idea how to deal with who Megan is and what she wants. The idea that she would go to Boston for a few months to be in a play threw him into an angered loop. (I also thought that her playing around with the idea of immorality when he seemed to be asking her for help was a nice indication that she’s still really fucking good at this, since the idea Ginsberg eventually landed on was fairly similar.)
- For all the uncomfortable emotions this episode raised, it’s still really cool to see these guys walking into a big pitch, like the Jaguar one, even if you know that every guy making that walk is an asshole on one level or another.
- I really loved the way that the show used Peggy to give us a bit of the “early days” of Don Draper in earlier seasons and is now using Ginsberg to flesh out both his creative process and who he must have been as a scrappy kid annoying everyone and trying to get into the business.
- The season had spent a lot of time showing that Peggy was floundering without Don’s close attention—the two really do have a weirdly co-dependent workplace relationship—but it was nice to see her pull out that good idea for the cologne company, to remind us of how good she is at this.
- No, seriously, at some point, Mr. AMC said something like, “Just how far will these people go to land the account, next on The Pitch?” and I’m pretty sure my soul briefly left my body.
- Okay, I have as much knowledge of any as you, so let’s speculate: This can’t possibly be the end of Peggy Olson, right? I hope that wasn’t my last firm handshake between her and Don. AS A DON AND PEGGY MUTUALLY RESPECTFUL BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP SHIPPER, I CANNOT DEAL WITH THIS.
- Next week on Mad Men: Somehow, the preview did not appear to feature everybody on the show killed by the psychic fury of Joan’s wrath. Although it appears there will be a meeting of some sort.