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“Mad Men” 5x11:
The best little agency in NYC

May 28, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

Episode title: “The Other Woman”

Significance: Most notably, a reference to how the creative minds at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hoped to position Jaguar, specifically the X model, as a “mistress without saying mistress” in their landmark pitch, which culminated with the winning tag line (courtesy Ginsberg, of course): “At Last, Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own.” But, of course, “The Other Woman” really is a more subtle reference to the buying, selling, coveting and owning of women, specifically the Joan Harris, Peggy Olson and Megan Draper models.

Time passages: There will be no New Year’s episode this season as the “The Other Woman” jumps directly to January of 1967 and the days leading up to SCDP’s Jaguar pitch.

Sealing the deal: For as long as there have been men and women, there has been prostitution, but rarely has it been dealt with so unflinchingly on network television as it was in the morals play of “The Other Woman.” Just a few episodes after we saw Roger, Don and Pete escort a Jaguar exec to an upscale brothel (with disastrous results for the exec and ultimately winning results for SCDP), the agency good old boys find themselves on the selling end of the proposition, with the slimy head of the Jag dealers’ association letting them know his vote could be swayed if they could arrange a rendezvous for him with a certain redhead “built like a B-52.” And while Ken dismisses the idea out of hand, it’s Pete, of course, who brings it to the partners and to Joan. As he delicately makes his indecent proposal, she cuts to the chase: “You’re talking about prostitution.” “I’m talking about business at a very high level,” he replies. And there you have it. In an industry built on convincing people they can buy happiness or success or freedom by buying a car or cologne or cigarettes, the buying and selling of sex seems an almost natural progression. And it’s something Joan makes clear she is willing to entertain … if the dollar figure is right.

Price and pride: The question of whether Joan and the partners acted out of character in going along with Pete’s idea will be a hot topic today in virtual discussion forums and at holiday picnics and parades. And that discussion really starts with the question of whether prostitution is primarily a matter of morality or economics. We’ll let you all handle that debate on the larger level, but we’ll take our cue in this particular instance from Joan herself, who has been privy to these men’s immorality countless times and will have no part in playing the victim. She’s a single mother living in the most expensive city in the world. She’s been encouraged by society to use sex appeal as a weapon and commodity her entire life and she won’t allow herself to be judged for using the actual sex act as a way to ensure her and her son’s financial security for the rest of their lives (the 5 percent agency stake is easily worth $10 million or more in 2012 terms). She wishes things were different (the look on her face – sad but short of tears – as her dress is unzipped tells us that) but she won’t apologize that they’re not (the look on her face – unapologetic and resolute – as she marches into Roger’s office with the other partners to hear the good news from Jaguar tells us that).

The good guy?: No one’s morals are more nebulous here than Don Draper’s, the son of a prostitute and a regular patron of them. On the surface, his flat refusal to even consider the idea Pete brings to the partners, and his too-late effort to convince Joan she doesn’t have to go through with it, seem admirable. But just a few years earlier, Don was more than willing to have Sal sleep with Lee Garner Jr. to keep the Lucky Strike business. And his actions certainly can’t be interpreted as a sign of respect for women as just hours earlier he degraded Peggy by literally throwing money in her face. While Don’s admiration for Joan certainly seems genuine, we’re left to wonder just how much of his opposition to the idea is because it implies that he can’t win the business on his own terms.

The world according to Weiner: We see a reflection of John Irving’s novels in “Mad Men” just about every week, so much so that we’re just about sure Matthew Weiner has to be a fan. In any event, “The Other Woman” reminded us of Jenny Field’s opening line from the fictional feminist manifesto in “The World According To Garp”: “In this dirty minded world, you are either someone’s wife or someone’s whore, or fast on the way to becoming one or the other.”

A beautiful mind: Only in this monumental season of “Mad Men” could Peggy Olson’s departure from SCDP be overshadowed by another storyline, overshadowed, that is, until the final five minutes of “The Other Woman” when Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Moss and the show’s writing team turned in one of its greatest scenes. Peggy’s departure has been foretold since the moment Ginsberg walked in the door, with only the fact that it happened so quickly being a surprise. It would take all week to recount all the great lines and subtle nuances (Don’s kissing of Peggy’s hand going from noble to desperate in five seconds flat, for one) of the split, but it was exemplified perfectly in the way Don and his rival Teddy Chaough literally threw their money at Peggy. While Joan’s body is for sale, it’s Peggy’s keen mind these men want and it’s their two monetary gestures (Don making it rain on Peggy out of anger, Chaough bettering her financial demands to seal the deal on the spot) that convince her she’s going somewhere she’ll be valued the way she desperately needs to be valued. Whether Chaough really feels that way about Peggy or just wants to one up Don again remains to be seen (just as it remains to be seen whether Peggy’s character will even remain a part of the show), but there’s no doubt the writers wanted us to feel that Peggy left SCDP triumphantly (what’s more triumphant than the opening chords of “You Really Got Me”?).

Audition condition: Although Megan’s experience with the era’s sexual politics doesn’t seem nearly as life-changing as Joan’s and Peggy’s, it’s equally jarring to her. While she used an office tryst with Don to gain confidence for her audition, it’s not until she’s asked to “turn around” during her meat-market callback that she realizes her body and her sexuality are just as important as her acting ability. While she’s made it clear to Don she won’t be a trophy wife, society isn’t quite ready to allow her to be exactly what she wants.

Literary notes: + Pete reads his daughter “Good Night Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown just before he and Trudy fight over living in Cos Cob, where Pete contends there are “no good night sounds” vs. Manhattan, which Trudy mistakenly believes is Pete’s only mistress.
+ Chaough references Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay in wooing Peggy.

Line of the night: “Don’t be a stranger,” Peggy tells Don (who, of course, is the ultimate stranger) as she leaves SCDP for the last time.

Line of the night II: “What price would we pay? What behavior would we forgive?” Don asks in his Jaguar pitch (shot “Godfather” style and edited opposite Joan’s hotel room visit). In true “Mad Men” form, he’s talking about anything but buying a car.

 
 

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Joan was unapologetic about turning the most-stunning trick in "Mad Men" history.

 
 
 
 

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