At what price are we willing to sell our selves, our souls, our bodies? Is there a price or, for some, can we walk away knowing that we weren't able to be bought, no matter how much money was thrown into our faces? Or, for women in the 1960s, was there always someone who owned you outright, a pretty jaguar to be possessed whether you were wife or mistress?
This week's installment brought these issues to the forefront, rendering an episode that was largely about the heartbreakingly quotidian objectification of women in the 1960s, as Joan (Christina Hendricks) prostitutes herself for a shot at a named partnership at SDCP, Megan (Jessica Paré) is reduced to a piece of meat at an audition, and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) manages to leave Don after he literally throws money in her face. These three stories are threaded around the pitch for Jaguar, which itself deals in issues of objectification, ownership, and an easy misogyny that plays out in numerous ways.
While this week's episode of Mad Men ("The Other Woman"), written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner and directed by Phil Abraham, has some strangely clunky moments, it also contained a few of the best sequences on the show, moments of dramatic impact that harkened back to some of the strongest installments of the series, like "The Suitcase." But there was a heavy-handedness to some of the subplots (particularly Joan's) that was surprising to see: was this Faustian bargain really earned within the narrative? Perhaps if some of this had been planted earlier and finessed a little more, I could buy into it more readily, but I had a hard time accepting the reality of this turn, even as I was riveted by Christina Hendricks' and Jon Hamm's performances.
While the episode won me over in the end, as a completed work, I will admit that I was uneasy throughout my viewing. "The Other Woman" continued this season's trend of overt symbolism rather than more opaque subtext, putting the episode's themes under a spotlight with less subtlety than we've seen in the past. Perhaps this is a natural outgrowth within society itself, but for a show that has so diligently and deftly painted with the finest of brushstrokes, it is somewhat alarming to see Mad Men's writers hefting the themes onto the canvas with the imprecision of Jackson Pollock splatters.
Much of the series has revolved around the relationship between Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy: the pilot episode occurs on her first day of work at the agency and over the course of five seasons their dynamic twists and changes, bending under stress, though there is a sense of resentment at times building up inside Peggy, especially the more she is reminded of the glass ceiling pressing against her head and the double standard that exists for her and Don.
It's only fitting in a series with a set end date (two more seasons after this one) that their relationship would be put to the test before long and that eventually Peggy would need to step out of Don's shadow and assert herself and her independence. For too long, Peggy has been indulging in complaining about everything, seething with resentment and frustration, and it was only a matter of time before she did the right thing and, in attempting to salvage what was left of their friendship, sought to leave the company and end her partnership with Don.
The scene that plays out between them is a masterful one, both an inversion of and a restatement of the dynamic that existed between them within "The Suitcase," a moment of unspoken emotion that sums up their dynamic and what they mean to one another. In "The Suitcase," it was a silent affirmation of friendship, as Don squeezes Peggy's hand, an acknowledgement of what passed between them, a symbol of both vulnerability and shared strength, an unbreakable bond based on knowledge, truth, and secrets. Here, this is again an explosion of emotion from Don, both rather than the grief he expressed in "The Suitcase," it begins with overt rage: that Peggy would defy him, that she would leave him, that she would cast off his mentorship and support. That she, in other words, refused to be owned or possessed by him.
Within the scene, Don undergoes all of the stages of grief, really, veering from bargaining (he views Peggy's letter of resignation as an attempt to gain a pay raise) to anger to finally acceptance. Once again, their bond is reduced to the unspoken. His parting gift, a tearful kiss on her hand as he nearly refuses to let go.
He does let go. Or rather, Peggy exerts her own freedom, refusing to be bought at any price. It's clear that the decision to leave Don--as emotionally fraught as any marital divorce--has its own price. Her tears, kept in check, signal the turmoil within her own heart, the weight of her decision, and of what it means that she is leaving Don for the unknown: a copy chief job at Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Don, not surprisingly, views her new employers as an attack on himself, not seeing that this isn't about him, but rather about Peggy and her own need for independence, something she will never have at SCDP.
When she says sadly, "Don't be a stranger," it's as much an invitation as it is an acknowledgement that these two know more about each other--the good things and the bad, the highs and the lows, the proud moments and the weak ones--than most human beings ever get the opportunity to know someone else. It's all the more heartbreaking because of what's passed between them but also symbolic of Peggy's own growth. Don threw a wad of cash in her face, treating her as nothing more than a whore who could be bought and owned for the right price. He's taken her for granted and forgotten that he doesn't own her, and that--as she tells him--he would do the same thing in her position.
I believed for a split-second that he wouldn't shake her hand when she extended it in a masculine farewell. His decision to kiss her hand both underpins his own internal devotion to her, but is also a reminder that she is a woman in the 1960s and that they can perhaps never be truly equals in their current situation. But that they both have to let go of each other if they want to survive. And there's triumph to be had when Peggy, smiling, steps into that elevator: she's not running away, but running towards something.
Peggy's inability to be bought is at odds with what the other women encounter within the episode. The overt immorality of the Jaguar ad is actually spelled out by Megan to Don, who chafes when presented with the notion that having a mistress is immoral in itself. Don himself subconsciously claims ownership of Megan, who has been rendered less independent and modern by dint of the fact that she's now dependent on Don for financial support. With that reliance on his coin comes certain understandings on his part: namely, that she won't jet off to Boston for three months if she lands a role in Little Murders, something he hadn't considered until that point. It's not just Peggy who experiences sensations of resentment. Megan tells Don, after she reveals that she didn't get the part, "If I have to choose between you and that, I'll choose you, but I'll hate you for it."
What that is is her attempt at becoming an actress, but she's seen as another commodity by the casting directors, who order her to turn around and show them her backside, rendering her as a piece of meat to be looked at, assessed, and visually possessed by the men in the room. Megan's friend indulges in crawling around on all fours on the SCDP conference room table, a literal Jaguar to be stared at and objectified by the male executives in the room. She's reduced to being a cat in every sense of the word, on display for the men's pleasure and amusement, an object, an animal, a thing.
But it's Joan who receives the harshest lesson of all, asked by Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) to prostitute herself in order to ensure that the agency lands the Jaguar account after Herb Rennet, the head of the Dealers Association, wants an evening with Joan as a way of improving their chances with the selection committee. That Herb would even suggest this notion--and that Pete would even consider it--reveals just how much worth they assign Joan and women in general. Even when Pete is presented with the hypothetical situation of what he would do if it were Trudy (Alison Brie) in that situation, he fails to see the negligible worth he assigns women, seeing them as pawns or accessories, tools necessary to get the job done at any cost.
It's telling that Lane tries to talk Joan out of accepting the $50,000 that Pete has offered her, but not because he has feelings for her (as she initially believes) but rather because he claims that she should be asking for more, because he once settled for less than he needed. In truth, that's perhaps part of it, but Lane is also trying to cover his own malfeasance: he can't pay out $50,000 to Joan because the company doesn't have the money and he's already taken out an additional line of credit with the bank without informing anyone. By borrowing against the future earnings of the company, he's hoping to offset their current financial crisis without signaling to anyone just how dire things are for him personally and for the firm itself.
But Joan does listen to Lane, at least when it comes to her fee, demanding a 5 percent named partnership stake in the firm, a sizable promotion that makes her the first female partner at SCDP, though all she had to do was sleep with a client to get the position. Her moral revulsion is pushed down because it would ensure both her and Kevin's financial safety for years to come and because she believes that she has no choice in the matter: the male partners decided.
Joan has used her sexuality as a weapon in the past, and it's not the first time that it's been used against her. She's found a price at which she's willing to sell herself, seeing it as a stepping stone to security even as it fills her with resentment and anger. The scene between her and Don at her apartment, in which he urges her not to go through with it, that it's not "worth it," comes too late. Played out of sequence, it's only later that the audience realizes that she has already slept with Herb, rendering Don's words meaningless. But the way in which she sees Don does change, as she realizes that he abstained from the vote and the partners made their decision with him. The touch of her hand on his face, the realization that he's one of the "good ones" (or as good as most men in this era could be) make her decision all the more heartbreaking.
The necklace that Herb fastens around Joan's neck--an emerald pendant as perhaps a gift or a reminder of her service--is more than mere trinket: it's a chain that reminds her of the fact that she is a possession to be used at will, whether by Herb, her ex-husband, or her employers. She's imprisoned by her decision in a gilded cage of her own making. She might have gained more power in the office for giving up her body to be used, but the chain reminds us--and sadly Joan, who packs in away in a drawer, trying to put it out of sight--of just how much of an object she is... and how far we've truly come.
On the next episode of Mad Men ("Commissions and Fees"), Don follows a surprising lead and Sally goes out.