28
May
2012
Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 11
The Other Woman
Jordan
An old cliche tells us that money can't buy you happiness, and obviously that is, taken literally, true. Yet only the naive would deny that money can get you a lot closer to happiness, can solve a lot of your problems, and can give you the freedom to pursue your happiness much more capably. In fact, in nearly every way that matters, money can buy you happiness, or at least a better chance at it than you would have otherwise. I have compared Mad Men to The Sopranos many times over the course of the show's run and especially over the course of this season, but the comparison has rarely been as apt as it is this week. In many ways, "The Other Woman" is a parable episode of the show, set up to put the characters in exactly the situation to test their particular reaction to a specific moral question. It is not subtle about this, nor does it pull any punches in laying judgment across all of the characters who compromise themselves to get ahead tonight. In many ways, "The Other Woman" is akin to one of the finest hours The Sopranos ever produced, "Employee of the Month." And in some ways, it may even be better.

A regional salesman for Jaguar who seems to almost solely control whether SCDP will get the account has one request to ensure he will back them for the job: a night with Joan. This incredibly simple and rather contrived set up is the gateway to a phenomenal episode that asks how many of our primary characters react to a situation that asks them to treat a woman who has done much and more for them over the years like an object to be "owned," and to do so simply to land an account. Sure, its the big one, and we've been told many times that landing a car is a holy grail in advertising that will change the reputation of SCDP and put them in the big leagues, but as Don points out in another stellar conversation with Joan, its just one account, and if they don't get it, they can find another.

This episode is not Mad Men at its most subtle. As I have previously discussed, there is a side to this series that favors showing rather than telling and can end up beating us over the head with a message, and "The Other Woman" does a fair amount of this. I am not usually a fan of the show being as obvious as it is at points tonight, but in this episode it worked, largely because the message the episode was so clearly trying to impart is one that packs a lot of queasy truth to it. At bottom, "The Other Woman" is about the fact that, to some extent, men will always treat women like objects. Whether you blame evolutionary wiring, societal imprinting, misogyny or just plain insensitivity, this is a disparity that has always existed and is likely to exist for a whole lot longer than many of us are probably comfortable with. It makes for an hour of television that is tense, nausea-inducing, and dark, but it also makes for an episode of television that is unafraid to spell out a fundamental truth, however uncomfortable the ramifications. The male gaze degrades women, whether immediately or incrementally over time. Joan is quite literally prostituted out tonight, while Megan twirls for the casting directors and Peggy, tired of being kept out of the spotlight for being a woman, decides, heartbreakingly, to leave SCDP (more on this in a moment, of course).

For the moment, I want to discuss "Employee of the Month," and the similarities and differences between the two episodes (those of you who have not seen The Sopranos, skip to the next paragraph, I'll keep this discussion to one to avoid spoiling anyone). That episode set up the ultimate moral dilemma for the show's conscience, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. Much like in this episode, the set up defies (or rather, ignores) realism in favor of positioning the character at a place where we can see how she will react and whether she will let her strong moral code lapse. In the episode, Melfi is raped, actually identifies her rapist, watches as a legal screw up lets him go free, and struggles with whether she should sic her patient, Tony Soprano on the man. She knows if she asks, Tony will kill the man who tore her life apart, yet to do that would require destroying her dignity and walking away from her firmly rooted ethical code. Like "The Other Woman," the episode was maybe slightly too constructed, yet it built to such a powerful ending, when Melfi gives Tony her one-word answer, that any hang ups seem to melt away, and that the episode stands as one of that series' finest hours.

Similarly, "The Other Woman" places our heroes in a predicament where there is a clear right and a clear wrong thing to do, and watches as nearly all of them choose to do wrong. It watches as our ostensible hero tries to do the right thing, only to reveal how hollow the gesture truly was. And it focuses, laser-like, on the way women are so often reduced in our society to little more than their sexuality, regardless of how intelligent, driven and talented they might be.

I am willing to suggest, however, that "The Other Woman" may be a better episode of television, for the way it manages to show the moral degradation of its characters more as a gradual decline where no one (or no one who matters enough) is willing to put their foot down and say "no" to this horrible turn of events. Where The Sopranos was always clear, even self-righteous, about the line between right and wrong, Mad Men is more willing to explore gray areas, and that makes its handling of an issue that should be extremely black and white more interesting as a study of moral failings. Pete opens the door by going straight to Joan, pretending to be shocked, but really testing the waters. Joan is offended, but Pete walks away with the impression that she can be convinced, and that she should be. Don is opposed with the idea from the beginning, and of course thinks that his opposition will be the final word. But it isn't. The rest of the partners take a vote, and decide to try to pay off their loyal office manager to whore herself out to land them an account.

This season has shown us that Pete is a character with so much pride and ambition it is almost sure to be his undoing. In Pete-centric episodes like this season's "Signal 30" the show does a great job of making this into a tragic flaw that allows us to sympathize with the character. In an episode like this, however, he's just a monster, willing to feed a woman who has done nothing but help to build his company up to a client without thinking twice. Yet this cannot be blamed on Pete. All it would take to stop this horrible degradation is one person saying "No." Ken doesn't say it when the Jaguar man first makes the offer. Don storms out, but then leaves the issue for dead until it is too late. Even Lane, poor, tragic, sympathetic Lane, advises Joan not to run in the other direction, but to use her position to leverage a partnership in the company that will keep her flush with cash into perpetuity. If you have to sell your body, Lane seems to be saying, it might as well be for the highest possible price. That Lane's act seems noble by comparison means very little when you realize that rather than defending her honor, Lane is instructing her on how best to be a whore.

We have spent time with every single one of these men this season and dug into their heads. We've seen Pete's existential despair, Ken's hidden dreams of something more, Lane's increasingly serious money troubles, Roger's LSD-inspired epiphany (and look how much that changed him, as he sits silently and watches this all happen tonight) and, of course, the many struggles of Don Draper. There's a discomforting sense of dread that hangs over the entire proceedings tonight, a nausea induced by watching men we have identified with do something so awful to a woman any viewer has loved for years.

Behind all of this, though, the show gives us a plot that excellently parallels and comments on this story, despite its ostensible separation from the dark dealings going on at SCDP. The working relationship between Peggy and Don has always been one of the pillars on which Mad Men is founded, to the extent that I never would have imagined that Peggy would ever leave SCDP, though in hindsight the development feels almost inevitable. Peggy has grown to the point where she will no longer be satisfied living in Don's shadow, and she has to try to make it somewhere else. Peggy has lunch with Freddy Rumsen, who tells her that even Don would advise her to leave, if it wasn't him she'd be leaving. She meets a competitor for lunch, lays out her salary demands, and gets $1,000 more than she even asked for, plus putting her in charge of copy.

The episode ends, not unlike "Employee of the Month" with something of an indictment. Peggy does not know what she is walking away from, all she knows is that nothing Don can do would convince her to stay. Peggy says goodbye, and Don kisses her hand for a very long time, in an achingly tender moment where he seems to realize that one of the good things about his increasingly dark job is about to walk away.

Salt is added to the wound by how well the SCDP machine manages to turn out the perfect pitch. Ginsberg has a moment of genius, the team puts together a great pitch, and even with that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, it was hard not to get pumped up watching them walk into the pitch meeting. The original idea involved treating the car as a mistress, but the firm figured out a way to get around that negative connotation. Instead, they sell the car like a woman, playing off its sleekness and unattainable nature, and selling it with the tagline "At last, something beautiful you can truly own." The point would have been clear otherwise, and I would almost have preferred the show letting us make the connection for ourselves. Yet the intercut is so perfectly edited that it manages to work even, again, as it is more obvious than I usually prefer the show.

Likewise, the flashback revelation indicating how futile Don's visit to Joan was might have been slightly manipulative if it wasn't played so well by Hamm and Hendricks. Joan calls Don a "good one" as if to tell him how hopelessly naive he is being. Don is trying to do the right thing here, but not, perhaps, for the usual Draper reason--that it looks good. Keep in mind that Dick Whitman is the son of a prostitute, who has never gotten over the effects that had on his life, and who desperately wants something different for Joan and Kevin.

The men of SCDP sold a woman for money. Joan has tied herself to the firm that would allow that destruction of her dignity, taking a partnership in a place that owes its success to her degradation. And Peggy walks out of a slowly sinking ship toward a future that has to be brighter than what she's leaving behind.

Grade: A

Notes:

-Is it just me, or is this the greatest season Mad Men has ever had? I will withhold final judgment for two weeks until the finale.

-"Well, we wanted to be in the car business..."

-"You're talking about prostitution!" "I'm talking about business at a very high level."

-"This is a very dirty business..." "She could still say no..." What a feeble protestation.

-"He's not bad." "He's doing this."

-"I'm Herb, by the way." "Well I should hope so."

-"Well, let's pretend I'm not responsible for every single good thing that's ever happened to you. Give me a number, and I'll beat it."
Tags: Mad Men
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