Ever since Scenic Routes launched nearly six years ago, it’s been a column devoted exclusively to movies. There’s no practical or ideological reason for that—the sort of close analysis I do here could easily be applied to notable scenes from TV shows. The thought just never occurred to me, because I’ve worked as a film critic for nearly two decades but have never written anything whatsoever about television. In my mind, TV isn’t my “beat”; I watch a fair amount, including most of the really significant shows, but I lack the breadth and depth of knowledge that someone writing about a medium on a regular basis should ideally possess.
Nonetheless, when the A.V. Club honchos asked me whether I might want to do a special Scenic Routes piece for Mad Men Week, I jumped at the chance, because I’ve spent the last several months belatedly blitzing my way through the entire series. (I had trouble getting into it when I first tried, back in 2007; the initial episodes were too winky-nudgy about Eisenhower-era mores for my taste.) The only question was which scene I should tackle, out of the 85 episodes that have aired to date. Numerous candidates came to mind, from the triumphantly poignant (Don’s carousel pitch to Kodak in season one’s finale) to the utterly insane (one word: lawnmower).
In the end, I decided to write about the scene to which I’ve had the most visceral reaction, which concludes what is probably my single favorite Mad Men episode. Season five’s “The Other Woman” is largely about Joan making a degrading sacrifice to ensure that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (as it was then called) will land Jaguar as a client. But it unexpectedly ends with Peggy Olson quitting the agency, after years of being alternately flattered and belittled by Don Draper. The scene is a simple two-hander, but it’s so exquisitely acted by Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm that I immediately “rewound” (is that the verb for a DVD or Blu-ray?) and watched it again, just to revel in it.
One element of this scene very much specific to television involves its timing within the season. Usually, a plot upheaval of this magnitude would occur either in the season finale or in the episode preceding the finale; rarely, it might happen in a season’s first episode, setting the agenda for everything to follow. “The Other Woman,” however, is episode 11 out of 13, and is primarily concerned, as noted above, with Jaguar and Joan. Consequently, while we see Peggy get an impressive offer from Ted Chaough earlier in the episode, there’s no real expectation that she’s going to take it. Not yet, anyway. I naturally assumed that the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go? drama would play out over the following two episodes. When Peggy immediately gives Don two weeks’ notice, it’s clear that writers Matthew Weiner and Semi Chellas have opted to go another route. But that’s just Don’s cue to win her back, either with a calculated yet rousing speech that he improvises on the spot, or with an uncharacteristic display of sincere emotion. And Don takes his cue like the pro he is. It just doesn’t work out as either he or the audience anticipated. Peggy’s mind is made up. Out the door she goes.
“The Other Woman” was directed by Phil Abraham, who’d previously worked as a camera operator and cinematographer on The Sopranos. Abraham has a sharp eye (as seen in episodes like “The Jet Set” and “The Fog”), but—unlike many other directors who graduate from technical positions—he also knows when to just point the camera at the actors and avoid unnecessary distractions. Here, his primary visual decision is to quickly have Don sit down while Peggy remains standing, and to choose angles that make her dominant and him submissive. (It’s entirely possible to create the opposite dynamic, with the seated figure appearing dominant; there are numerous examples of this throughout Mad Men’s run.) This leads to the remarkable moment in which Peggy extends her hand for Don to shake and he instead bows his head to kiss it, which Abraham shrewdly shoots from an angle that makes it look as if Don is kneeling rather than leaning forward in his chair. According to Moss, Hamm was instructed not to let go of her hand until she pulled it away, and she wasn’t told that he was going to do that; the tear that falls down her face, she claims, was her own involuntary response. Her close-up is a separate shot, though, so I’m not sure I buy that story, unless there were two cameras running simultaneously and we’re seeing take one.
Not that it matters. Moss is in superb form here (I’d have no trouble believing that she leaked a single tear on cue), conveying Peggy’s anxiety—look at her wringing her hands as she quits—while simultaneously making it clear that her decision is on some level an act of revenge against Don, who’d contemptuously thrown a wad of cash in her face not long before this. She also nails the moment when Don asks if she’s upset about Joan having been made partner, which Peggy knew nothing about; you can actually see her register that information with shock, then decide it’s not worth pursuing since she’s leaving anyway. (Not coincidentally, that’s when she downs her drink: Let’s do this.) Hamm, for his part, turns in one of the all-time great silent reactions as Peggy launches into her farewell speech. His face immediately goes grim when she starts complimenting him, and the way he repositions himself in his chair, coupled with the wary, what’s-the-catch? expression he suddenly assumes, makes his “But…?” completely redundant. Even more impressive, he manages to get Don from repugnant condescension (“Let’s pretend I’m not responsible for every single good thing that’s ever happened to you”) to servile supplication in nothing flat, credibly. Attribute that in part to strong writing as well: Don caves when Peggy points out that she’s just doing what he would do.
At the time, it was unclear whether Peggy had just been written off the show entirely (or so I glean from reading reviews that were filed right after the episode aired). That seemed unlikely, but not impossible, and several months passed after the end of season five before Weiner publicly confirmed that Moss would be returning for season six. In any case, as Peggy gathers a few belongings and heads for the elevator, it was hard to know whether to feel joy that she’d finally extricated herself from an intolerable situation, in which her talent was taken for granted, or to feel miserable that she was walking out of our lives.
The choice of the final music cue decisively clarifies matters. Even as the British Invasion transformed popular music starting in 1964, Mad Men had rarely played rock ’n’ roll over the end credits. When it had, it had often done so ironically (for example, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which Don had just turned off, finding it annoying). The only previous instance that springs to mind is the Nashville Teens’ “Tobacco Road” slamming onto the soundtrack in a climactic “Don is back!” moment at the beginning of season four. Setting Peggy’s exit to the iconic opening guitar riff from “You Really Got Me” is the show’s way of emphasizing that she’s headed for something exciting. It’s impossible to feel anything but exultant while listening to that song, and I confess that I had to resist the temptation to whoop and cheer. Given how heartbreaking the rest of “The Other Woman” is, that’s a remarkable accomplishment.