Mad Men, “The Other Woman”

Mad Men Joan The Other Woman

Look into their eyes and you’ll see what they know — everybody dies.

I haven’t been as affected by one hour of television drama as I was watching “The Other Woman” episode of Mad Men in a long, long time — maybe since the episode of Nip/Tuck where Sean assists Megan in committing suicide.

Up to this point, the show has definitely pushed my buttons, but tonight, Matthew Weiner crossed a line with Joan’s character that will forever change the reputation of Sterling Cooper Draper Price.  I knew that this episode was going to be a biggie — I remember seeing my friends’ reactions on Twitter, and seeing articles on the next morning’s news feed revealing the horror felt by the show’s fans.

Since I’m not watching this season live (I’ve been playing marathon catch-up since I started watching the series on Netflix last month), I decided to watch this episode as a sort of add-on.  It was about 10 pm and I thought “I’ll just watch one more episode before I go to bed.”  Bad decision.

I was up until 2 am, pacing and talking to myself, with my stomach in knots.  Having no one to talk to, I instead did a quick internet search of this episode, which revealed that fans were up in arms — in disgust, disappointment, sadness, empathy, and simple pain.  The Hollywood Reporter published an entire spread on Christina Hendricks and The Arc of Joan, and sites like Slate, ScreenRant, DigitalSpy, and Television Without Pity published intensely opinionated recaps.  Thank God for the internet — I wasn’t alone!

The episode’s premise is this: the Mad Men of SCDP want to land a car account, badly.  They are close to landing a deal with Jaguar.  As Don says, “Every agency on Madison Avenue is defined by the moment they got their car. When we land Jaguar, the world will know we have arrived.”

The team decides to pitch the Jaguar as a mistress – the beautiful, tempting woman that you want, but can’t have.  Their tagline is: Jaguar. At last. Something beautiful you can truly own. Little do we know that this marketing tactic will come to play quite literally.  When Ken Cosgrove and Pete Campbell have dinner with Herb Rennett, Head of the Jaguar Dealers Association (who, btw, looks like a recycled extra from The Sopranos) he explains that Jaguar is entertaining lots of offers from ad men, but that he might be more persuaded to back their bid — IF he gets to spend the night with Joan.  Ken is, of course, horrified, but from the moment Herb utters those words, you can see the wheels in Pete’s head turning like a perverse steampunk clock — Vincent Kartheiser is certainly acting his heart out.  He doesn’t exactly tell Herb yes, but in his ambiguity, he also clearly doesn’t tell him no.  Danger.

Pete approaches Joan the next day and, in the way that that only Pete can spin a story, tells her that the company will lose Jaguar unless she sleeps with Herb.  Joan is aghast, stating that this is prostitution, but Pete claims it’s simply “business as usual.”  It’s comparable to what Cleopatra did in Egypt, he says, and Cleopatra was, after all, “a queen,” and what would it take to make you a queen, Joan?  I felt like screaming “But you ARE a queen, Joan! You’re a goddess!”  Joan, in her sexy curtness, in a much more refined way than I would answer Pete, replies that they “couldn’t afford it.”

Apparently, this nugget is all that Pete needs, because he proceeds to call a meeting to bring the other partners up to speed about this indecent proposal.  When he first relays Herb’s request,  Lane Pryce can’t believe that Pete would even ask Joan such a thing, and Roger casually replies that he hopes Pete told Herb to “take a walk.”  Pete replies that he spoke with Joan, and that she seemed willing to do it for the right price.

This scene was, to me, the most disturbing in the entire episode, second only to the inevitable scene when Joan submits to Herb.  I wanted to see the partners pummel Pete – to break his nose and bloody his face for 1) even entertaining Herb’s request and 2) for actually approaching Joan.

But they don’t.

The only one who comes close to having this reaction is Don, in a noble moment.  Here, he appears to be the only man in the room with the balls to walk out of the meeting, after telling Pete that Joan is married with a husband in Vietnam and a baby at home.

The remaining men are uncomfortable, for sure, but Pete continues the meeting, sans Don, asking if everyone would agree to give Joan 10% of whatever they make on the deal – a sum of about 50 grand.  They proceed to talk numbers, first suggesting that they use the funds from their Christmas bonuses to pay Joan, then finally asking Lane to extend the company’s credit in order to have enough cash on hand to fund this vile transaction.

Bertram concludes the meeting by saying that you can’t put a dollar figure on the car, and Roger meekly states that what they are doing is dirty business, and that he won’t stand in the way, but that he’s also not paying for it.  To me, this whole scene was the equivalent of a big Joan gang-bang — that these men would even entertain the thought of using Joan is one thing, but the fact that Pete misled her into thinking that the Jaguar deal would definitely not go through without her compliance is even worse.

And Roger!  His complicity here will be his Achilles heel in the end – at least I hope for as much. Roger, Joan bore your child!  What happened to the man who told her, after her (alleged) abortion, that he wishes he could just hold her?   Where the hell did he go?  I felt such a sense of abandonment from what used to be my favorite character on the show.

Lane Pryce goes to Joan to tell her that the partners have all discussed the matter, first telling her that they don’t need the account that badly.  Joan takes offense to this because she thought she had made it clear to Pete that she wasn’t interested.  Furthermore, she’s offended that this was even discussed at a partner’s meeting, and she even asks, almost incredulously, if Roger Sterling was part of the discussion.  Lane replies that yes, he was, and I can’t help but think that the hurt that Joan felt by this admission pushes her forward to complete this disgusting act.

Lane tells her that she shouldn’t settle for the money, but should instead ask for a partnership in the company.  He tells her that a partnership in the company would take care of her and her child for a lifetime.  I could kill Lane at this moment, because he is not only covering his own ass (the company can’t afford 50 grand to pay Joan since he screwed up their finances), but he’s also hitting Joan where it hurts by bringing her child into the conversation.  He reminds me of that lecherous man you’d see at a bar, whispering reassurances into an underage girl’s ear before he takes advantage of her.

Cut to Pete, at his beautiful home in Cos Cob, reading “Goodnight Moon” to his daughter.  Wow, Matthew Weiner really knows how to juxtapose his scenes. The house that debauchery built.  How would Pete feel if, in another 20 years, his daughter were being put in the same position as Joan?  I doubt he’s capable of that type of foresight.

Later on, Joan goes to Pete’s office to give him her final offer: she wants a five percent, non-silent partnership of the business- no negotiation.  Christina Hendricks should win an Emmy for her performance here alone, as the look on her face is so profoundly sad under her usual facade of poise and control.  I think of the look on April Wheeler’s face in Revolutionary Roadat the moment the audience realizes that she’s made the decision to do the unthinkable.

Amidst the hush-hush tone of this episode, Don Draper runs the gamut of emotion.  We see that he is almost physically ill at the thought of Joan sleeping with Herb to secure their spot at Jaguar.   By the same token, we’ve seen Don treat women as material objects over the last five seasons, and even hire a prostitute on occasion.

Still, he has partially redeemed himself by his honest relationship with Anna, and his sometimes protectiveness of Peggy — I’m reminded of when he punched Duck Phillips after he called Peggy a whore, and when he went to visit her in the hospital after the birth of her child.

In an act of final desperation, we see Don go to Joan’s apartment in a panic to tell her not to go through with the deal.  He is greeted by Joan’s mother, who leaves the two alone to talk. Joan, wearing a green silk robe, and presumably preparing to go out for the evening, looks exhausted and even a bit resigned.  Don tells her “I wanted to tell you that it’s not worth it.  If we don’t get Jaguar, so what? Who wants to be in business with people like that?”

A beat passes, and Joan looks down, telling Don that she thought all the partners were on board with the plan.  He explains that he wasn’t, and that everyone else voted without him.  Joan, standing there in her tiny apartment — a woman alone, living with her mother and newborn baby, looks like she might cry — but doesn’t.  Instead, she smiles, reaching out to touch his face (reminiscent of Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency), telling Don that “he’s one of the good ones.”  Don tells her to have a nice night, asks her to say goodnight to her friend for him, puts on his hat, and walks respectfully out the door.

Don Draper for the win.

I suspect that he pretended to think that her mother was her friend – she has a roommate, she’s not living with her mom.  Undoubtedly, this will strengthen the bond between Joan and Don, one we saw blooming in the last episode, Christmas Waltz.  A heartbreaking scene, and a great example of Don’s complexity and how he has the potential to be an amazing guy, despite his many faults. He remains such a compelling character.

Then comes the scene that will forever haunt me, and the one that makes me want to track down Matthew Weiner, walk up to him, and punch him right in the face.  At the very least, the man should be footing my therapy bill for the next few months.

We see the partners enter the Jaguar showroom, as Couch Baron writes in his recap, in the style of Ocean’s Eleven, all glowing with fraternal confidence.  As we hear Don pitching the campaign, talking about deep beauty creates desire that is unattainable, we see Joan being greeted by fat Herb Rennett at a hotel room door: Joan looking like an absolute knockout and Herb wearing an open robe and a chain necklace over his ugly, hairy chest.  Why the man didn’t just open the door with his penis is beyond me.

Don continues to talk about how beauty creates desire, and we see Herb placing an emerald necklace around Joan’s neck.  Don continues about the allure of the unattainable, and we see Herb and Joan sitting next to each other on the couch, Herb pouring champagne and telling Joan that he feels like a sultan of Arabia whose tent has been graced with Helen of Troy.  Joan, without missing a beat, says that “those were two different stories” before uncomfortably sipping her champagne.  Brains and beauty, that Joan.

Don talks about how unattainable objects always remain slightly out of reach, and we see Herb inch closer to Joan on the couch — Joan looks almost on the verge of tears and her expression barely hides her disgust.  Then, in the line that will forever haunt me, Herb says to Joan, “I don’t know how much longer I can restrain myself.  Let me see ’em,” and reaches up to grab her breast, like he’s reaching out to help himself to something that’s rightfully his.  Like he’s reaching out to admire the paint job on a car.  A Jaguar, perhaps.

I wanted to explode.

For every girl who’s been the victim of a lecherous look, or comment, or gesture, I wanted to scream.  I wanted to stab that fat, ugly sloth right in the chest.  But no one does.  Joan, God love her, coolly stops his advance with the reflex of a tiger, instead turning around so he can unzip her dress.  This is somehow more dignified, I suppose.  I will never forget the look on Christina Hendricks’ face in this moment.  You have to wonder, what’s motivating her?  Isn’t this the same Joan who waltzed around the office with all the confidence in the world?   What happened to that woman?  All I can think of is Joan in her pajamas and glasses, and I want to cry.

I suspect that Joan feels that the American Dream failed her.  We’ve known that Joan wanted to land a rich husband, and she did come close.  She found a handsome young doctor who seemed to be on the up and up — except for the fact that he was a complete insecure tool who was (IMO) threatened by her sexual confidence.  Then there was the time he raped her on the floor of Don Draper’s office.  No wonder poor Joan is clawing for control.  Use what you’ve got, I suppose?

Later in the episode, the partners convene to take the call from Jaguar, letting them know that they got the deal.  The men all walk in, making way for Joan.  Don looks at Joan incredulously, and the two exchange a look that’s lost on everyone else.  At this point, we see the replay of the Joan/Don scene, and learn that Don came to her apartment too late: she had already gone to see Herb.  You wonder though, if Joan would have gone along with it anyway, even knowing that Don was against it.  This is a woman who is desperate, someone who is used to using her sex appeal to get what she wants.  Joan is, after all, the office sexpot.  She’s not exactly a blushing, virginal bride, but she’s also not a whore.  A line is crossed when you willingly submit yourself to someone in exchange for money, fame, recognition, whatever.  Joan’s use of her own sexuality has never been as darkly explored as it was in this episode.

As if this episode couldn’t get any more charged, we then see a disgusted Don, leave the “yay, we got Jaguar” party only to find Peggy waiting for him.  It turns out she’s giving him her two weeks notice.  Strangely enough, I didn’t find Peggy and Don’s final scene to be that moving, although it could be because I was so emotionally wound up from the whole Joan storyline.  I feel like Peggy has been taking Don’s abuse for years, and that her leaving was actually long overdue.

It was interesting to see Don become almost desperate with Peggy —  first, he tries the nice guy routine, telling Peggy that she finally found the right time to ask for a raise.  When she firmly states that she’s serious about leaving and that she’s accepted another position, Don tries to gain control by being snide: “let’s pretend I’m not responsible for every good thing that’s ever happened to you.”  But you can see that he’s being hurt.  Then, when Peggy refuses to relent, he pours salt on the wound, telling her that she doesn’t even need to wait two weeks — she can leave now.  Classic Draper coldness.  Surprisingly though, Don actually waffles, almost in desperation, when Peggy reaches out to shake his hand.  Instead of offering a hand in return, he takes her hand and kisses it.  It’s a tender moment, but I can’t help but think that it’s so like Don to blur the boundaries between personal and professional.

On a greater scale, this episode has shown that the company is in a huge state of transition.  Don feels that things are slipping out of his control, as Ginsberg, an up-and-coming in the creative department, comes up with ideas that trump his own. Times are changing, and Don actually looks remarkably older throughout this entire season (as does Pete). Don still doesn’t understand that money isn’t always the ultimate goal, as witnessed by his interaction with Peggy when he literally throws dollar bills at her face when she asks to go to Paris.  Don doesn’t get it: Peggy isn’t looking for a free trip to the Eiffel Tower, all she’s looking for is the recognition that she deserves for her idea.   As the younger generation encroaches onto his territory, Don becomes more withdrawn and angry.

SCDP certainly ran further down the rabbit hole here, and you can be sure that any success that they reap from this transaction will forever be tainted by it.  The same goes for Joan.

The episode ends with Peggy walking out of the office, head held high, holding her belongings.  Newly minted partner Joan watches Peggy leave the office with a small smile on her face. Indeed, both women have collected newfound power – you’d like to think that Peggy got out alive, but remember, she’s already made a huge sacrifice for the agency.  I hope that the partnership gives Joan everything she wants, but I still feel like Karma’s a bitch.  SCDP has blood on their hands now, and I doubt anything will make them clean again.  But then again, I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t buy a foreclosed home because I feel like it’s bad karma – so what the hell do I know?

I think that this episode was a polarizing moment for Mad Men fans.  Some saluted Joan in what was seen as her only option for gaining a foothold at SCDP.  “Joan is not to be pitied” wrote one fan on a discussion board.  John Slattery said in an interview for Vulture that he “was a little surprised that people were so shocked she would undertake that transaction” given that she’s “a sexually confident person” and that “this was an opportunity for her to set herself up for the rest of her life.”  Okay.  Call me crazy, but sexual confidence and prostitution are not synonymous in my world.  And frankly, if all she wanted was to be financially secure, she could have taken Roger up on his offer to provide financial support for their child!

But the comment that really frosted my cookie came from the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, in an interview for The Hollywood Reporter.  He went so far as to say that “people who think this is out of character haven’t watched the show.” He also said that he “doesn’t think that [we] would judge [Joan] for a second if she were a guy.”  These comments enraged me.  First of all, what we’ve seen on the show is Peggy having one-night stands, being in a semi-abusive marriage, and having an affair with Roger Sterling.  I don’t think that any of this behavior could be seen as precursor for what she did during this episode.  And frankly, I was disappointed by Matthew Weiner’s disrespect for Joan’s character.

All I could think of, watching Joan witnessing Peggy’s escape, was the Sylvia Plath poem whose name marked an earlier episode this season…

Out of the ash 

I rise with my red hair

and I eat men like air. 

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Categories: Reviews, Television

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