Mad Men: The Other Woman

Posted on May 28, 2012

When it comes to rating the occasionally shocking turns of events in the world of Mad Men, we propose the Lawnmower system. It’s very simple. Allow us to demonstrate.

Guy walks into an advertising agency and gets his foot unexpectedly amputated? That’s a FIVE out of FIVE Lawnmowers.

Peggy goes into labor? FOUR out of FIVE Lawnmowers.

Zou Bisou? That’s about a 2/5.

Peggy leaving SCDP and Don? That’s a 3/5.

Joan prostituting herself for a partnership with the blessing of most of the other partners? Oh, that’s about ten lawnmowers right there.

If we were even more obsessive about Mad Men than we already are, we might propose aggregating some of the top reviews of the show this week, just to see how people’s views over Joan’s actions break down by gender. We’ve read a couple straight-male reactions this morning and they were very concerned with Joan’s virtue and the horrible, no-good thing she was forced into doing. And while we don’t want to make predictions about how people will feel (or tell them how they should feel), we wonder if a lot of women will see what Joan did as … not so much “empowering,” as it was making the system work to her benefit, using both the tools at her disposal and the expectations of the patriarchy to enrich herself far beyond what most women could achieve on their own at the time.

Look, what Joan was asked to do was humiliating and reduced her once again to her body. That it was the partners who were asking her to do this (according to the increasingly slug-like Pete Campbell, leaving a trail of slime behind him wherever he goes) was the ultimate betrayal to her – especially Roger. And sure, we’re looking at this from the perspective of gay men, who can sometimes be even more reckless and thoughtless about sex than their straight counterparts, but we found ourselves thinking Joan did something smart for herself and her child, and that ultimately what she had to do wasn’t so different from what she’d been doing her whole career: manipulating men to get what she wants, using her looks and her sexual power.

But the difference here, of course, is that the main tool in Joan’s arsenal wasn’t her wiggle or her jiggle; it was always her brain. With this act, every advance she’s made in her career; every iota of respect she earned from powerful men, has all been swept away; her carefully cultivated and maintained sense of competence replaced by the idea that her real worth is always going to be found in her ability to give men erections. Whatever benefits she accrued or triumph she might have felt in becoming a partner didn’t matter at that moment when we saw her face as she slipped her dress off, the pain and (highly uncharacteristic) fragility etched there in a way we’ll probably never forget.

Which brings us to our next point: The partners will never forget that Joan literally slept her way to a partnership. This part of the story has us confused quite a bit. It doesn’t make much sense to us. Joan, as we know her, wouldn’t agree to such a thing, no matter how much money was offered, simply because she would know that from this point on, the most important people in her career will always think of her as a prostitute. After all the hard work she’d done to establish herself as a highly competent manager, we’re having a near-impossible time believing that she would do this. In other words, we believe that Joan could sleep with a man she’s not attracted to in order to get something out of it. In fact, we believe that Joan has done some version of that before in her life, and we believe there’s a cynical, practical part of her that would just shut herself off and get through the act, knowing that the benefits could be life-changing. What we don’t believe at all is that she’d expose herself to the level of judgment and possible ridicule she would be receiving from people like Roger and Don.

Don’s reaction, however, was surprisingly tender and paternalistic. He was going to save Joan from the horrors of prostitution; horrors from which he literally sprung into life. Don’s issues with women (and they are legion) all spring from the two women he could have called his mother: the prostitute who bore him and the hard, cold woman who raised him on a steady diet of resentment for reminding her of her husband’s infidelities. As we saw in last week’s episode, Don has great affection and respect for Joan and was appalled at the idea of her becoming anything like his birth mother, of whom he’s always felt an enormous sense of shame.

What surprises us is Roger’s reaction. Actually, strike that. We flat out don’t buy it and consider it a rare instance of the writing team dropping the ball. Oh sure, we got him saying he’d never pay for it and calling it “dirty business,” but that was it. We’re supposed to believe that Roger would let the mother of his child (and clearly the woman he loves) prostitute herself for a client with hardly a comment from him. Worse, we’re supposed to believe that he has virtually no problem with the fact that she went through with it, never batting an eye when she came in for her first impromptu partners’ meeting – as a partner. There was no reaction from him at all. That’s bullshit. Roger might be a royal dick about it (in fact, it’s likely) but to have no reaction to it at all strains credulity to the breaking point.

The bomb-drop of Joan’s actions and the potential for the fallout to ripple outward for years to come means we could probably go on for another couple-thousand words on the topic, but we’ll save the rest of our thoughts for the Mad Style writeup. For now, let’s move on to the other Other Woman: Peggy.

One could attempt to make the argument (weak thought it may be) that Joan’s actions were empowering, but no such argument needs to be made in Peggy’s case because there simply is no argument: this is the most empowering thing Peggy has ever done. This is the most powerful thing Peggy has ever done. Don was an absolute ass to her when she first told him, but she shut him down completely when she pointed out that she was doing exactly what he taught her to do and what he himself would have done in her place. He couldn’t argue with that at all and his condescending paternalism evaporated when he realized that, to be replaced with something far more real: a quiet despair over his loss. When Don came to Peggy’s apartment during the season 3 finale and begged her to come work for his new company, telling her, “I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you,” we said at the time that it was easily the most romantic thing Don ever said or did for any woman. To that, we can add his hand-kiss, a gesture that nearly wrecked us just as it nearly wrecked Peggy. That’s the thing about Don: he’s all surface and image; bravado and bluster, but on those very rare occasions when he allows someone (and us) to see the fear under the mask, it can be emotionally devastating, and for just a second, you could see that Peggy was wavering.

But as she stepped into that elevator with a smile on her face, we knew that this really wasn’t a sad thing; nor was it morally or emotionally confusing, like Joan’s actions. No, this was a full-on triumph for our Pegs and we were thrilled for her. Don earned this moment of despair by continuously playing down her contributions and by taking advantage of the close, casual relationship they have by humiliating her often. He never would’ve thrown money in any other staff member’s face like that. As the song goes, you always hurt the one you love, and Don, who has NO IDEA how to sustain a relationship over time, took his comfort with Peggy as an invitation to treat her worse than anyone else at SCDP. In other words, Peggy was his office-Betty. He became way too comfortable with her contributions to his life and took them for granted. And on those rare instances when she called him on it, his cruelty would come roaring to the surface and hit her full in the face, exactly the way it used to with Betty.

But it wasn’t that Don was merely cruel to Peggy; that’s not why she was leaving, nor was it for a higher a salary. She left because she knew her connection with Don (and his inability to have fully supportive emotional relationships) had reached the point where it was no longer going to help her career and had, in fact, started to hurt it. He took her for granted and he was always going to do so, barring some sort of major change. Ted Chaough is an asshole in ways Don probably couldn’t manage, but he’s a new asshole to Peggy and the change could be to her benefit. Her career had become stagnant under Don’s tutelage and having a new condescending, obnoxious boss could be just the shot in the arm it needs. Peggy thrives when people underestimate her or attempt to put her down, so we’re thinking of the two of them – Ted and Peggy – he’s the one in for the bigger surprise the next time he tries to throw his weight around. If she could go from being Don’s mousey secretary to being a highly respected copywriter, she can handle just about anything Ted throws at her. She’ll be fine. It’s Don who’s going to suffer from this loss.

In terms of the themes of this episode, we found them both obvious and a bit paper-thin, to be honest. Women in the patriarchy, no matter what they do, are going to be treated like whores. Joan was in the most literal sense, but so was Peggy when Don threw money at her and Megan, when the casting directors made it clear her ass was as important to them as whatever talent she might possess. To be honest, we don’t think the script actually needed to make those connections. Peggy and Joan’s stories, told side by side, more than made the point of how women are viewed by men a lot of the time. And the entire Jaguar campaign hammered that point home again and again, with a Thor-sized hammer coming down on the audience’s collective head with that tagline: “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” The dealership exec just wanted to own Joan for a night; Don wanted to own Peggy and her ideas indefinitely, Don never wanted Megan to have a career of her own separate from him, Ted Chaough wants to steal Peggy from Don, as if she was an item in his possession, and finally (and somewhat clumsily tacked on), the casting directors only wanted Megan for her body – and found it wanting, apparently. These are all true things and worthy of exploration on a show like Mad Men, but it felt like the writers wanted to get Peggy and Joan in certain places by the end of the episode and stumbled upon a prostitution theme to tack onto their stories. For once, we wish the two main stories could have played out without attempting to link them to anything else. Peggy and Joan are engrossing enough on their own and seeing them both reach career highs in very different manners was more than enough story for us. Sometimes – in any story, but this is especially true in Mad Men – the thematic elements can overpower the dramatic arc and in this case, such a thing was definitely to the story’s slight detriment. For once, the story wasn’t about, say, how awfully women are treated in a patriarchal system. Just this once, the story was solely about two women on different paths and we found ourselves wishing more had been done to demonstrate their similarities as well as their differences. For us, one of the most poignant moments in an episode loaded with them was the brief shot of Joan noticing Peggy leaving the office. So much these two women could share with each other. They both started as secretaries and found themselves with full-blown careers. They both had affairs with partners and bore them a child. They both have mothers who drive them crazy. And they both know, better than any other women who ever worked in that office, just how much of a price they constantly have to pay for not being exactly the type of women society tells them to they’re supposed to be.

Much, much more to come in our Mad Style post, later this week, including the moment we both exclaimed “OH MY GOD!” over one character’s one article of clothing. Why would we do that? VERY eagle-eyed readers with a good understanding of the show’s history might figure it out.


[Photo Credit: Jordin Althaus/AMC]

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