Howdy, folks. Welcome back to our Mad Men roundtable. This entry comes a bit late thanks to the agency taking an extra classy four-day weekend. That is just how we do. Nevertheless, we had a lot to discuss with “The Other Woman,” one of Mad Men’s most powerful episodes ever.
Cory: Gentlemen, I am full of emotions this warm May evening. Tonight’s episode of Mad Men featured some of THE BEST moments in the season’s, nay, series’ run. Unfortunately, “The Other Woman” was also saddled with some really poor, on-the-nose writing and uncomfortable situations that I don’t think actually hold up the way the script wants it to. Nevertheless, there is no question that this is an episode that people will remember for a good while and perhaps the “biggest” episode since the season three finale, plot-wise. There is a whole lot to unpack with this episode, so I’ll leave it to one of you to pick where we head first. But let me ask this leading question to open things up: This episode was a mess, correct?
Andy: Agreed. My notes at the halfway point mostly centered on how the episode seemed to lack any verve. Of course, that sentiment was flipped on its head after the second half. For all the power of those last two acts, though, it was impossible to shake the queasiness that animated nearly everything that happened throughout. Don’s Jaguar pitch was a kind of synecdoche: galvanizing, blatant, overshadowed and undercut not just by Joan’s objectification but by the O. Henrian reveal that capped the sequence. In an inverse of his famous “carousel” pitch, this one tapped into the basest impulses of its audience. I was left feeling thoroughly uncomfortable, and not necessarily in a dramatically satisfying way.
This was one of those episodes that challenge you to separate your emotional response from your critical faculties, which is why I wanted to register my gut reaction quickly right off the bat. There’s so much more to discuss with more level heads, but the leveling on my end will take a little time.
Les: Oh, where do we even begin with this one? I think a mess is probably the most accurate word for it, for the reasons you described above Cory. I don’t know if this is a case of Weiner and company not being able to tie things off in the last few episodes or not, but the central plot here was something else – Matt Zoller Seitz said on Twitter the episode should be sponsored by disinfectant for how crawly it made us feel at times. And yet despite all that, enough good moments shining through – including a tremendously awesome ending that equaled if not surpassed last week’s heart-to-heart in the bar – that in five minutes almost made up for all the unpleasantness that had come before.
In an effort to save our discussion of the good stuff for later and go out on a higher note, let’s get to the B-52 bomber in the room: this is an episode where (to be blunt) Joan prostitutes herself, with full knowledge and approval of (most of) the partners, in the efforts of securing both the contract and her own partnership. Don tries to talk her out of it (giving us now two episodes in a row of sizzling Jon Hamm/Christina Hendricks action) but his conversation is ex post facto, as she’s just finished her tryst and boxed up her new emerald necklace. And paired with a vintage Draper pitch not seen since the days of the old agency, SCDP secures its car – and sells its soul in the process.
This is an arc that’s just left a bad taste in my mouth through and through. I had a discussion with an old friend of mine a few weeks ago about our earlier roundtable on “Mystery Date” when Joan kicked Greg out, and he thought we were being too soft on her given that she was as guilty of lying to Greg about his kid as he was guilty of not telling her about reenlisting in the army. I think our innate affection for Joan does tend to blind us to her faults, but this decision doesn’t mesh with what we know about the character at all. This was one client, a big one not the agency future as much as Pete tried selling it, and Joan’s not rich but not exactly desperate for money. And it doesn’t mesh with the agency partners either that they’d go this far with it – Roger will wear a Santa suit to please Lee Garner Jr., but whoring out the mother of his child and love of his life? Lane’s English sense of propriety? Bert Cooper’s generally good-natured bearing? This felt like a meat market approach to someone a lot of people respect, love and fear in equal measure.
And not to mention that while our agency is on record as solid Pete Campbell fans, this episode has me hoping he’s the one who heads out a window or eats his rifle in the next two episodes, because his approach and attitude this week have bled my affection dry – he’s now nothing to me but the grimy little pimp Lane branded him as before knocking his block off. (Leaving aside that Pete’s stupid enough to not want to come home to Alison Brie every night.)
So, thoughts on why the hell they went this direction? Is this (as Linda Holmes of NPR suggested) the show’s equivalent of Landry killing a guy?
Cory: Even after taking a short break over the Memorial Day holiday (this agency is definitely up to code on all labor laws), I’m still pretty uneasy about this whole Joanie thing. But not only am I uneasy about it, I’m not entirely convinced this episode’s script did a good enough job of making it work. To me, it feels like Semi Chellas and Weiner’s script sacrificed some logic for thematic and emotional gut-punching, which is certainly an approach writers can take, but not one that we typically see on this series. I don’t want to be the person who tries too hard to interpret a character’s motivations as if I know them, but c’mon: Do we actually think that Joan would do this? The episode dropped that unfortunate anvil on our head about the broken fridge and Joan has always been a team player, but prostitution? She has standards and that is at least partially why we love her.
And you’re right Les, it’s also fairly unbelievable that Roger, Lane and Bert would have present so little resistance to the idea as well. At least last week’s episode gave us some precedent and evidence for Lane’s actions. However, both Roger and Bert are so hands-off and generally good-natured that it is really, really difficult for me to picture them, at least in the way we’ve grown to see them, going along with this — and especially doing so with so little discussion. It was as if this was a no-brainer to them. And I get that their reaction was all part of the episode’s attempts to make us feel uncomfortable and question what was being sacrificed for the company’s future, but it was substantially, visibly manipulative.
That fake-out sequence with Don giving the pitch inter-cut with the previous night’s deed was technically magnificent and when it was revealed Don’s plea came at the last minute, I could barely breathe. But, UGH. I think this could present all sorts of intriguing storylines for the last few episodes of the season and this was certainly a ballsy story to tell. I’m just not sure it, like Joan’s decision, was worth it. Andy your thoughts?
Andy: “Manipulative” feels like the right word to me, Cory. The more I think about it, the harder it is for me to stomach the idea of everyone 1) Believing Joan would be slightly amenable to this idea, even in an elliptical way, on the word of Pete Campbell, or 2) Believing just about anything on the word of Pete Campbell. And Joan so quickly succumbing not only to the disgraceful act of prostituting herself but also to the notion that these men whose respect and affection she’s earned would so readily sell her out – I’m sorry, I just can’t accept it.
As well-crafted as the day/night sales pitch sequence was, it rang hollow to me. The show up to that point had elided over too many narrative and character contortions designed to get us there. It didn’t work as a payoff because the set-up was so strained. All that remained for me was queasiness and anger.
In contrast, Peggy finally cutting the cord with SCDP was devastating in all the right ways. It was vital and painful and joyful at once, the way those earth-shattering life decisions tend to be. As both a copywriter and a character, Peggy had reached the limit of what she could accomplish as Don Draper’s eternally undervalued protégé. This opens the door to a wealth of new story possibilities, and I hope the writers don’t backtrack on it. Peggy is probably the only character capable of pulling fully away from Don’s orbit and sustaining a separate, fully-realized narrative.
Honestly, this arc- somewhat unfairly relegated to the B-story, considering how monumental it is to the show’s core relationship – is the only thing that saved the episode for me at all. Les, what did you think of good ole Pegasus at long last taking flight?
Les: Since this episode’s aired, a lot of people – notably Todd VanDerWerff and Alan Sepinwall and a good chunk of their respective commenters – have been far kinder to the episode than we were. I can see the arguments they’ve made about the Joan storyline, but I just fundamentally don’t believe Joan would do this and that any of the named partners would let it go this far, which ruins that for me.
Peggy’s arc though? “The Other Woman” was dark and full of inconsistencies, but Ms. Olsen burns them all away.
I’ve been expecting for weeks for Don to take it out on Peggy for not being able to manage the department while he’s on “love leave,” and we finally got some of that this week. With Jaguar on everyone’s mind she’s on the outside looking in (at a lobster spread no less) and despite a last-minute save of the Chevalier Blanc ad, she’s almost immediately pushed aside in favor of Ginsberg. When she tries to protest, all she gets is another reminder of what the money is for as Don makes it rain and tells her to go to Paris if she’s got a problem. All of this frustration has been building for months, and when a good offer presents itself (courtesy of familiar faces Freddy Rumsen and Teddy Chaough*), she can’t find a reason not to take it.
*Good to see Freddy’s still clean and sober, and willing to help his ballerina out as best he can. And as it was with Pete last year, Teddy knows quality work when he sees it and is prepared to pay more than the asking price to get it. Getting one over on Don is icing on the cake.
Unlike Joan’s decision, this is exactly what I can see Peggy doing in these circumstances. Not only is her work (the importance of which to her we’ve seen all year in interactions with Megan and Dawn) being marginalized, she’s come to the crossroads in her professional relationship with Don. As much as Don can say that he’d spend the rest of his life trying to hire her, or as deep a look as he gave her following that long dark night of the soul where Ali floored Liston, their dynamic is never going to change and she knows it. He’s always going to feel he can hold over her head that he’s the instrument of her success (“Let’s pretend I’m not responsible for every single good thing that’s ever happened to you” is how he starts a supposed negotiation), and his own self-loathing means he’ll take it out on the person he’s admitted he sees as an extension of himself.
A stellar night for Elisabeth Moss, and absolutely her Emmy submission episode. Giving notice to Don as the Jaguar celebration rages outside is every bit as deep as “The Suitcase,” possibly even more so because whether or not he decides not to be a stranger, this is the end of their relationship as it stood. That quiet moment when she gets her things and then as an afterthought grabs her thermos and coffee mug speaks worlds: history and rapport aside, she knows she’s never setting foot in that office again on these terms. And do we need to say just how triumphant, exultant and all-around awesome it was as she strides into the elevator with a growing smile on her face as the Kinks roar to life?
Cory: The difference between my reaction to Joan’s story and my reaction to Peggy’s story was minimal — both felt like massive punches to the stomach. Nevertheless, the big dissimilarity between the two stories is in the build-up and the execution. Time and again, we’ve used this space to complain about the lack of quality material for Peggy (and to a lesser extent, Elisabeth Moss, who has done fine work in short bursts all season), but now, those missing stories make a great deal of sense. As viewers, we felt that longing, alienation and frustration that Peggy felt. We wanted to see her more, just as she wanted more to do and more respect for the things she was already doing. That entire final sequence beginning with Peggy initially coming to Don right before the Jaguar call comes in carried the episode, and honestly, the series, to new heights. Moss was tremendous and let’s not forget that Jon Hamm was similarly on top of his game (this is the second season in a row where it feels like Hamm has a half-dozen Emmy submission options). That, like the events of “The Suitcase,” will forever define Mad Men for me and is so, so satisfying, yet heartbreaking for those of us who have watched this relationship develop from the beginning.
Although this was certainly a big episode for the series’ two most important veteran female characters (sorry, Betts), we must not forget that the events of this one put Don through the ringer. His disgust over the Joan was the only thing in that story not related to Pete’s nasty scheming that rang true to me, but ultimately, it was for nothing. He got the agency their car, but at perhaps the highest cost (well, I guess it could have been Megan carted out for that creep’s affection and entertainment). He lost Peggy and stupidly, stubbornly let her walk away. And on top of all that, he had another blow-out with Megan over the possibility of her getting a part in a play in Boston.
It’s really compelling to me how the season’s big questions and themes are starting to circle around and strangle Don a bit. This is what he wanted: pretty, young wife that he loved and swore was different from the rest; a cushy position at work and even a car for the firm. Months and months later, he has all those things. Megan sure as hell isn’t like Betty. The firm just had its biggest moment, and it involved a car. This is it. And yet, here’s Don Draper, likely alone in his office, drinking away his sorrows with Peggy on the elevator down to new opportunities, the rest of the firm celebrating and Megan likely at home stewing again. I’m getting very, very worried that the season and Don are both headed to dark place.
Andy: Which raises the question: How dark can Mad Men get before it collapses in on itself? Could it fall into the common trap of escalating the Big Bad every season in order to outdo the last one, ultimately creating one too ludicrously huge to pose any tangible threat? In Mad Men‘s case, of course, the Big Bad is the concept of human misery. This is another reason why I want so badly for Peggy’s career move to live up to its sprightly kick-off – after a while, we need some of these people we’re so invested in to succeed. We need to follow some kind of upward momentum. Season five has plumbed some murky recesses while remaining spectacularly entertaining, but I worry that the deeper the show sinks the less light will be able to escape.
And if you’ll permit another wild digression – are you guys surprised by how little the back half of the season has continue the theme of the outside world forcing its way into view? Or how little we’ve explored the perspectives of the firm’s new additions? Dawn sits barely on the fringes of SCDP. Ginsberg, despite some flashes of professional intrigue, remains something of a cipher, being whoever the script needs him to be week to week. Do you think they factor into the longer-term direction of the series, or will they prove to be fonts of unrealized ideas?
Les: That’s a good point Andy. After we spent a good chunk of the first half of the season talking about how TIMES ARE CHANGING, things have now flipped to become more and more focused on the internal workings of the office and how Don and company are making their relationships work. I think it’s surprising when we look back on it now, but I think it also gets to some of the more intractable parts of Mad Men‘s philosophy. Roger can take LSD to expand his mind but still be careless enough to “ruin” Jane’s new apartment, Pete can rise at the agency and move to the suburbs but still be a little weasel desperate for validation, and Don can get a mod apartment and a young wife and still throw a fit when she decides she might go to Boston. While the show’s never been as adamant about people not changing as The Sopranos was, I think one of the show’s core ideas has been that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Re: Dawn and Ginsberg? On the former I read one article that thought it was perfectly in keeping for the show not to really pay much attention to her since SCDP hired her and became accustomed to her presence. That wasn’t uncommon in real life: once these privileged white executives had done their part for civil rights and realized it wasn’t as big a deal as they thought, it just became part of the day-to-day. She’s been quiet since her night at Peggy’s, but given the track record with all of Don’s secretaries – Peggy, Jane, Alison, Mrs. Blankenship, Megan – I don’t think for a second we’re done with her.
And I think Ginsberg’s still a cipher, but he’s also serving a more important function as the young buck making Don feel irrelevant – that look on his face when Ginsberg gave him the Jaguar tagline was impressed, but also shaded with “I should have thought of that, damn it.” That’s sure to intensify and maybe even fester without Peggy to bear the brunt of his criticism.
As to your other question of whether or not Mad Men‘s escalating the stakes toward misery porn, I go back to the death pool we seem to reference every week. Death’s touched on this world before (Pete and Betty’s fathers, Mrs. Blankenship) but always on the fringes of the agency, and unlike many other major dramas like The Sopranos or The Wire – admittedly ones that dealt with more intense life-and-death stakes – there’s never been a main character that has died on this show. They leave the agency like Peggy, get divorced like Betty, or get kicked out like Sal and Paul, but the chance to see them again is still on the table. I think if we’re right and someone on this show does die, suicide or otherwise, that’s going to be the moment of truth for just how dark it can get.
Cory: This season has been especially dark and twisty in the latter half and it seems like I am more and more comfortable with each episode. And yet, the series feels more compelling than ever as well. I understand your concern Andy, and maybe the death Les mentions might change my mind. But damn is Mad Men on a great run right now. Until next week.