Mad Men: The Other Woman

"We've all had nights in our lives where we've made mistakes for free."

I've always thought there was something naturally tragic about owning a huge, fancy car. Okay, that's probably a little unfair. But so often the purchasing of something like the Jaguar at the center of The Other Woman is guided by the very fact that it's incredibly expensive and awe-inspiring. It's a physical reflection of your wealth, something that isn't static like a house or a fancy object, but something you can drive around and impress with by proxy of merely passing by. For those fleeting seconds it's ridiculously impressive. But, I don't know... it feels hollow. Maybe if you're genuinely filthy rich and could afford a couple of them, but when you're merely pushing the illusion of wealth and grandeur, it can't help but read as sort of underwhelming.

I bring this up because "The Other Woman" was all about possession, and the act of being verbally proud of accomplishing something, but keeping the origins of the possession hidden. As long as the perception stays moral and supposedly the result of hard work, everything else is fine. The hypothetical moral dilemma of exchanging sex for huge amounts of money is something as old as time, but there's always been something sort of attractive about it. Not only is it something arguably flattering, the offer is always made by Robert Redford. But Joan's story here was ugly, not only because of the man wanting her for himself, but the fact that her actions were so removed from what we know of her, and potentially what she knew about herself. Joan has always been a bombshell and been aware of the power that grants her, but we've never seen her actually use sex as a form of commerce. It was, in essence, the very thing she seemed to resent Megan for at the start of the season.

But this was an act of desperation. Not only has her personal life been a series of disappointments and depressing upheavals this year, she also found her very belief in the men around her compromised by the discussion of the offer. She is told that both Roger and Don have voted in favor of the deal, while Lane, as much as he claims to be looking out for her, still reduces her to a bargaining chip, regardless of his making sure she's paid what she's worth. It's that running sense of being reduced to an object that drives her to do what she did. She's constantly surrounded by a culture that reduces women to less-than figures, as well as here actually pushing the temptation of a mistress, and finds herself unexpectedly reduced to that level. The woman that, just last week, was reminded of the power she holds and the undeniable respect that gravitates in her direction... reduced to just another piece of currency.

In the end she gets a huge amount of money and literal stake in the company, but it's just as hollow a victory as SCDP's partnership with Jaguar. Both are painted as successes brought together by work and talent, when it's actually about sex and prostitution and the very worst type of sleaze. It's just a horrible, gut-wrenching story. And the heartbreaking bait-and-switch with Don only punctuates Joan's feelings of betrayal. Not only were so many of the men in her life prepared to treat her that way, but even in the process of addressing it all, she was still being lied to and the victim of cover-ups. Joan Holloway has never been a victim, and within the space of one or two days... she's reduced to that.

Sleaze factors into the rest of the episode. The Jaguar is 'the other woman', the young and pretty pinnacle, normally unattainable while you shack up with the miserable Buick stuffed away in your garage. But as long as you fork over enough cash, you can get a piece. Pete fantasizes about Manhattan, 'the other woman' to the quiet, clean streets of the suburbs -- the place where he happily trades colleagues' self-worth for money. Megan is judged and treated like meat by a pack of casting agents, not getting the gig presumably because she rejected a casting couch situation. Meanwhile, her friend happily cavorts around like a cat in heat, allowing men to treat her like a show-piece to salivate over, assuming that it's the only way she can get her power. But it's the Jaguar that most represents ownership, the showy perception of having full control over this sexy object -- because it's becoming rapidly clear as time goes by that actual women no longer feel the need to experience that. They never wanted to, but now they don't need to.

I haven't even started with Peggy. Peggy had, unfortunately, become the wallpaper. No matter the depth of feelings you have for someone, after a while their very presence becomes so expected and ordinary that it's easy to become complacent and take them for granted. It's debatable whether Don's treatment of her was at all conscious, as if he believed he could treat her however he liked because he deep down assumed that she'd never do anything about it... but I sort of understand his actions, even if I don't at all approve of them.

It's hard to not rally on Peggy as she departs, though. This has been her entire arc all year, that nagging sense that her appreciation and actual importance had rapidly been sinking down the drain. That uniqueness that once made people so respectful of her has been long extinguished, replaced by collective gushing over Ginsberg and having lesser accounts dumped on her. But, finally, Peggy embraced that feminist, driven determination that she had lost recently, and takes that leap into the unknown. It's such a shocking development, but at the same time unsurprising in its inevitability. Gosh, that final scene. There were definitely moments of wavering, and despite Don's last act of almost goddess worship or whatever... she leaves with a smile. She's doing the right thing, and she's excited.

But with Peggy, it's not about currency. While the pay rise is wonderful, she's aware that happiness and contentment can only come from that sense of respect from others -- and it's the key difference between her story and Joan's this week. Both characters got major professional boosts here, but Peggy didn't have to sacrifice so much of herself to get her's. Then again, Peggy's never been treated as a piece of meat. Joan's entire being was radically altered this week, everything she thought she knew about herself and her own power got called into question, and the results are ugly and tarnished, despite their outward positivity.

At the end of the episode, Peggy only pushed further into becoming a modern woman. Alternatively, Joan got a prize that she ordinarily would never have received, unknowingly earning that scarlet letter at the same time and regressing into the exact sort of woman she was determined to never become. It's unbelievably tragic.

Notables

- Jesus. Christina Hendricks' face as she peeled off her dress was haunting. Her expression just burned into me.

- I loved Peggy instantly telling Ken that she wasn't crying. Tough to the end, that girl.

- I'm tired of Megan storming out, immediately getting angry and confrontational. Especially after she had just randomly announced that a potential job would take her to a whole different city for weeks on end. At least she seems to get that mutual respect that she's been crying out for in the end, even if I find some of her outbursts cloying at this point. Maybe it's more Jessica Paré, and less the character?

- This week's tragicomedy highlight: Pete being unsure of how to organize the meet between Joan and Herb, hoping she'd handle all the arrangements. God, he is such a bastard.

Quotage

Pete: Do you consider Cleopatra a prostitute?
Joan: Where do you get this stuff?
Pete: She was a queen. What would it take to make you a queen?
Joan: I don't think you could afford it.

Joan: Which one is he?
Pete: He's not bad.
Joan: He's doing this.

Joan: You're a good one, aren't you?

Herb: I feel like a sultan of Arabia and my tent is graced with Helen of Troy.
Joan: Those are two different stories.

Peggy: Don't be a stranger.

Previously posted at Unwelcome Commentary.

9 comments:

Jess Lynde said...

Great review, Max. You captured all the feelings I experienced during this episode, from deep, deep sadness to elation. And I can't help feeling somewhat shamed that your searing assessment of how Joan (and Megan and her friend) was horribly treated like meat comes on a day when we've been having fun objectifying our favorite "pieces of meat" in sci-fi.

As horrified as I was by Pete asking Joan if she would do this thing and then taking it to the partners (even though I shouldn't have been), I think I was most devastated by Joan eventually agreeing to do it. I see why she would given her circumstances, but I truly hate that she completely undercut any progress she made demonstrating how awesomely competent she is and forever squandered the respect she'd earned from the partners by prostituting herself this way. It continues to haunt me days later.

Thank goodness we also had Peggy's story to counter balance Joan's. I was so delighted to see her having the self-respect and esteem to put herself out there and get a better offer. I think she's going to accomplish great things, and I hope she's going to a place where they don't take her for granted. Her small smile at the end was a welcome moment of true joy in this dark, dark season.

maxpower03 said...

I agree about it being haunting days after it aired. Her face in that scene still gets to me. It's just heartbreaking.

Again, I feel like you can understand Joan's reasoning because she was truly at her lowest point. Not only has she had a crummy year, but she was under the impression that literally every partner was pushing her to do it.

What is strange is that I've read around since I wrote the review (I only read additional commentary after I've put my own thing together, for my own peace of mind), and some people were pretty insistent that Joan's actions were some sort of feminist act. And I find that insane. I'm a major feminist myself, and I still love Joan as a character, but I don't understand at all how somebody could paint her actions as something strong or heroic. Maybe if Herb had come to her directly with the proposal and she pursued it independent of anyone else, but the fact that she scored an empty victory and will now be surrounded by a group of men all aware of what she has done... that's just terrible, and something that I doubt she'll ever recover from. She's always going to be known within the office as "the woman who did that", and it's entirely destroyed the reputation she fought so hard for.

It's in striking contrast to Peggy, who had the one moment of happiness here. I adore her, and I love that she ran head-first into greener pastures. As heartbreaking as that final scene with Don was, you knew it was the best thing for her. Which is in total opposition to Joan, who I feel is now essentially doomed.

Thanks so much for commenting, Jess.

Mani said...

I agree with you on all points.

The thing with Don and Peggy is they'd gone down that road before. Him yelling at her, taking her for granted and then wanting her forgiveness. He needed a wake up call and she needed to do what was right for her.

As for Megan, I'm getting very tired of her character, as I feel the writers have turned her into a version of Betty who is not as intriguing as she was. It was because Megan was the opposite of Betts that I and I think Don found her refreshing, now I don't like her at all. She's very childish, always yelling and then storming off.

Joan...it will be interesting to see how the next two weeks end up for her. Maybe the writer's have something shocking up their sleeves that will keep us interested until the next season.

Anonymous said...

What an episode and stellar acting from Christina Hendricks.

Lane is a hyprocrite. He just looked after himself. But his characterization of Pete as "grimy little pimp" was actually correct. Pete was really disgusting but his behaviour didn´t surprise me. Didn´t he want Trudy to do a similar thing in season one or so? Roger was a major disappointment. I expected him to behave similar to Don.

Joan might be partner but I don´t think that the partners will be grateful or treat her with the same respect like before. I fear that they expect her to do it again or remind her of it when they need something from her.

I´m not sure if Peggy made the right decision. Her new boss hired her because of his hatred for Don, not because of her work (so maybe she got a prize she wouldn´t have got if she never worked for Don). Didn´t he hire fomer employees of SC because he wanted to use their infos against Don? I fear she won´t be respected for her work and won´t be happy with her brave decision when she realizes that. I really don´t like Ginsberg, so I hope that Peggy´s coming back. I don´t want her to have even less screentime than this season. Her last scene with Don was incredible and so moving. Elizabeth Moss said that she didn´t need help to cry in that scene. I think that says a lot.

Billie Doux said...

When Mad Men first began, I almost stopped watching because, even though it was accurate, I found it so difficult watching how the women in the show were treated. This episode brought it back to me, times ten. I actually cried twice -- when Joan went through with it, and when Don kissed Peggy's hand. I was pleased that Don has changed so much that he stood up for Joan, and that he gave Peggy the tribute that he did. But what Joan did was just horrible. Even though I completely understand why she did it.

Terrific review, Max, of an unsettling episode.

Suzanne said...

This was the best episode all season even though it broke my heart for Joan. Yes, Pete is disgusting and did "pimp" Trudy out to an ex boyfriend in order to try to get a story published. When it only got published in Boy's Life, he was upset with her for not making sure it got published in a more prestigious magazine. He made it very clear what he wanted her to do. Then, we can't forget the nanny that he forced into sex, call it what it is -- rape. As surprised by the scene where he approaches Joan as I was, I knew I shouldn't have been given who Pete is.

Roger surprised me more. He acted shocked at first, but quickly seemed not to care. Again, why should I be surprised given that he is a creep who wears blackface at his party, the worst of many awful things he has done.

Lane may be the worst, though, since he made it seem like he cared and that he was.looking out for her when he was really just trying to cover his tracks. I hope his advice comes back to bite him when she gets the final vote on his fate. I hope Joan gets them all back in the end.

Great review and I agree that Joan's actions were in no way feminist actions. Peggy is the feminist while.Joan is still caught in the trap of the times in which she was raised even though she tries to get out sometimes.

Banastal said...

I experienced all the feelings that were described in the review. But in the end when Joan was in the partners' meeting I felt that Joan really took a piece of those guys. As horrible as it was - they got what they deserved. When Don talked to Joan I almost felt he was defending his share WHILE doing the noble thing. But it was amazing how Joan showed determination to stick it to those guys by going through with that to take a piece of them. If they ask again - the price will be more - and they will regret it. I feel that even in this horrible situation Joan prevailed. She is a constant reminder in their partners meetings that you can't mess with her like that - because she will TAKE what belongs to her. So it was kind of sickening but at the same time satisfying scene in a weird way.

Marc said...

I have such a strong mess of emotions after watching this episode. And I can't work out whether that's a good sign, that Mad Men is provoking such strong reactions and challenging our ideas of morality, or whether I found it just a little too challenging to process.

There were so many little elements of this episode that were so deeply unsettling. The fact that the issue came up at all, and that anyone at SCDP considered it for even a second. The fact that Roger, who we thought would have some concern for Joan, actually voted for her to do this. That Joan was so easily manipulated into doing it. The idea of these men standing around discussing a woman's actions knowing that none of them would ever be at risk of being put in such an awful position. And the fact that her complete rejection of the very idea was totally, and belivEably, reversed within the space of a few days.

It was extremely distressing to see Joan do what she did, and yet completely understand her reasons for doing so. How deeply has she comprised her own sense of self respect, and how others perceive her?

Will the partners view it without judgement as neccessary business, the way many of them have had sex with prostitutes when entertaining clients, or is it one rule for a man to do it and another for women (which at this stage in the show's period setting, I strongly suspect)? Will they manage to keep it a secret or will word get out to other people and totally destroy her reputation?

I wish Joan had been able to resist the temptation of that money and security for life (which isn't even strictly assured, for example if SCDP goes bust in the future) and instead realise that she could rely on her intelligence and reputation to at least scrape a decent life for herself and her child, even if it will be tough.

It raises the question to me of why she was so resistant to taking financial support from Roger but was able to do this, since it at least gives her some feeling of power and control over her own financial affairs. I'm not even sure if she was considering it at all when Lane spoke to her, until her urged her to at least ensure she was well compensated for it. Would she rather have paid the price she did with an essentially anonymous stranger rather than ask for anything from Roger?

I found myself urging her not to pursue the offer, instead thinking "Why doesn't she just wait until she finds a nice man to marry?" and that made me question, what is the difference between what she did and the various examples we have already been shown of women using their sexuality because it's one of the few advantages they have in a male driven world? I thought, well she's still hugely attractive, young and intelligent, and divorce seems to be less stigmatized at the point the show is currently depicting, why can't she just find a rich man to remarry like Betty did? Even in the last episode it was highlighted that Joan is strongly charismatic to men and indeed we saw sparks of a connection with Don.

Marc said...

But wouldn't that in itself just be another form of prostitution, albeit one recognised and supported by society? Would that be any different from someone like Megan landing a quickfire marriage to Don and the instant status and wealth that has provided her? Of course from what we've seen it doesn't seem as if Megan has consciously pursued Don for that reason, but if she had, would that be worse? I think Joan is trying to retain some measure of control and independence rather than have to rely on a man for anything, because as we've seen, she suffered from her relationship with Dr. Harris and in almost all of the relationships in the show, men ultimately hold the power.

I still don't see her actions as a bold feminist statement, and the fact that she was not empowered or happy with what she'd done suggests it was desperation rather than liberation. But I think the writers could have maybe perhaps emphasised a little more exactly why she did it, or illustrated this throughout the season, that she was struggling to cope financially. I hope this is explored in future episodes and we gain more of an insight into her attitude and motivations to it.

I do almost feel like the knowledge and encouragement of the partners was just too much to handle, as it was so tawdry and disgusting. The only other character that emerged from the scenario with credit was Don, it was just a pity that his words came too late. I don't think it has ruled out a potential relationship between Don and Joan in future, but it did make me wonder how much of his mix of anger and sadness towards Peggy was really directed at Joan, as he had only just realised what had happened.

I feel like it probably would have been easy for the writers to have concluded this episode differently, with Peggy setting off for pastures new and Joan rejecting the offer, but it would have come across as too idealistic and neat when in real life, and particularly in the 60s, women had far fewer choices and were often subjected to horrible treatment.

I at least appreciate that they are trying to really challenge us with the stories they are presenting, and engaging with the female characters more than simply as sex objects. For me, Peggy has been the only main female character to have been strongly developed throughout the show and I hope they are able to keep her in the show in the future, and I think it will be much easier to justify it than it is to keep Betty in the show. I think Betty and Joan are both great characters also, but the writers just have no idea what to do with Betty a lot of the time, and they rarely give Joan the attention she deserves. Hopefully this episode can provoke some interesting plots in the future, and I do hope that Joan is able to regain her sense of dignity and self worth in the future. I can never have any respect for or interest in Pete, Lane, Roger or Bert in future.