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Mad Men Recap: Three Women

Joan and Herb in "The Other Woman."

Q: What's in Mad Men's rearview mirror?
A: Every other drama on television.

"The Other Woman." Say it aloud a few times, stress different words, and listen to what happens. "The Other, Woman." Or "The Other: Woman."
This episode was about woman as Other in the eyes of men, and how women must constantly negotiate that and try to transcend it. But let's not get too hung up on that, because Mad Men doesn't, and because the episode was about situational ethics, loyalty, treachery, and compromise. It was the best all-around installment of Mad Men since "The Suitcase," and while its subject and structure were different, deep down it was great for the same reason that "The Suitcase" was great: because its situations and resolutions summed up and expanded on everything we've seen since the start of Mad Men.

"The Other Woman" focuses on its three lead female characters (sorry, Betty!) at critical junctures, moments when they can retreat or advance. Astonishingly, and at great personal cost, they all advance, and exit stronger than they entered. Peggy pushes back against her marginalization at SCDP by getting another job. Megan pushes back against Don's resentment of her acting career by demanding, and getting, the freedom to come and go as she pleases, even if it means leaving town for three months to rehearse a play. Joan pushes back against the partners' sexual exploitation of her by putting a very high price on her body, and working out a deal that will put her in a position so powerful that she'll never have to sully herself again. As the Kinks declare in the episode's closing song, "Girl, you really got me now." Or to quote Aretha Franklin in "Who's Zoomin' Who," " You thought I'd be naive and tame/You met your match/I beat you at your own game."

Peggy starts the episode on the outside of power looking in … literally. She watches the firm's Jaguar creative meetings — led by her boss and sensei, Don Draper — through conference room glass while a lobster lunch is wheeled in. (Roger paid for it; you can call him Aaron Burr by the way he's dropping Hamiltons.)  In theory Don put Peggy in charge of minding the store while everyone else concentrated on Jaguar — and because Jaguar doesn't want a woman on the account. But we later learn that Peggy doesn't have any real power, even on the crap detail she's been assigned. Don takes the account that she brilliantly rescued and hands it back to its original owner, Michael Ginsberg, who has accumulated more juice in a couple of months than Peggy built up in seven years.

So after consulting with the now-sober, sharp-witted Freddy Rumsen (love that very long close-up of Peggy in the coffee shop realizing what she has to do; Elizabeth Moss is the show's secret MVP), Peggy leaves to take a jog with Ted Chaough. He seems like a potential masher, but is at least going to pay her what she's worth and give her real power. Her absence will make all the SCDP partner's hearts grow fonder, Don's especially — not because Peggy's so kind and pretty, but because she repeatedly saved the company's ass in ways that almost no one but Don recognized. Now that she's gone they'll start to understand her true value. When she returns as a trailblazing Madison Avenue heroine (knock wood) she'll have a corner office and a receptionist who looks like Ma Barker.

The final moment between Peggy and Don repeated the defining gesture of their relationship: holding hands. It first appeared in the pilot when Peggy clumsily put her hand on Don's. Don's curt rejection of Peggy's hand set the tone for their complicated but deep platonic relationship, a merger of husband-wife, brother-sister, son-mother, father-daughter that has no precedent elsewhere on the show — or in pop culture, really. The gesture recurred in "The Suitcase" when Don reached out and squeezed Peggy's hand in a gesture of love and respect during one of his lowest moments: a gesture of profound love and trust. It happened a third time in "The Other Woman" when Peggy said good-bye to Don and the agency.

As Don impulsively kissed her hand, his seated position made him visually subservient to Peggy. In medium shots, he suggested a little boy awed by a maternal or quasi-maternal figure (mother, grandmother, big sister). In wide shots he suggested a kneeling knight pledging loyalty to a woman. He wouldn't let go of Peggy's hand until she forced him to. Perhaps he was overcome by the shock of processing how much Peggy had evolved without his knowledge – that because he'd done such a mostly excellent job tutoring her, she'd grown beyond him, and didn't need him anymore. Like Don's kiss, Peggy's tears were involuntary, honest: tokens of esteem.   

And Megan? More progress. She demands the same (or similar) latitude in her own chosen career that Don enjoys, and wins it through hard work, an insistence on autonomy, and a last-minute, very clever display of wifely guile. (I love that she "auditioned" for Don in her "audition dress" before her actual audition; she moves through life like a skillful actor, treating every choice as if it means something because it does.) We don't know precisely what happened in that audition room – hopefully no more than what we saw — but Megan's centered reactions near the end of "The Other Woman" suggest that she was either not that shocked by the men's crudeness or was strong enough to overcome whatever revulsion she felt. (She's auditioning for Jules Pfeiffer's Little Murders, which would have made a good alternate title for this episode.)

Her final scene with Don is a typically Megan-esque declaration of what she expects from their marriage. She says that the difference between Don's big audition and hers was that she wanted him to land Jaguar. She's right. Don, she argues, is still terrified that if Megan becomes a successful actress, he'll somehow "lose" her, or at the very least be forced to give up his alpha male expectation that whatever woman he's with be comfortable serving him and living in his shadow. Right again. "You get to disappear for work whenever you want," she tells him, "and if I have to choose between you and that, I'll choose you. But I'll hate you for it." Bingo. "You know I don't want you to fail," Don tells her, sounding as if he believes it. "Good," she replies. "Because I'm not going to." Lighters in the air; Megan rocks.

And as if that wasn't satisfying enough, the episode subtly ties Megan's progress to Joan's by following the Don-Megan post-audition scene with the scene in which the partners learn that they landed Jaguar. All the partners gather in Roger's office to hear the good word, including the firm's newest top player, Joan, who stares quietly and confidently at Don. It's the expression of a peer rather than a subordinate. It's serene and tough. Don's reaction shot is perfect: What the hell? Oh … Right. When things die down later, I'll have to come to terms with this. "Joan," says Pete, whose sliminess inadvertently made Joan's professional rise possible, "Would you like to address the men?" As if she hasn't been doing that since she started working here! 

What can one say about the Joan story line that hasn't been said nonverbally by viewers' churning stomachs? Like the other subplots, it was honest about sixties workplaces, and about the depths to which men of any time period can sink. If you were a woman (or know a woman) who worked in a male-dominated office in the pre-feminist era, you know this was a variation on things that happened all the time (and are still happening, in certain industries, albeit in less brazen form). The only surprising thing about the Jaguar slimeball's indecent proposal wasn't that he made it, but that some other would-be client didn't make it years ago. And it was fascinating to see how the partners handled it. They all reacted poorly except for Don. And Don doesn't deserve a medal, either.

Pete wins worst in show for entertaining the idea in the first place. As Ken Cosgrove pointed out, all Pete had to do was say, "I'm sorry, but she's married," and the patriarchal-matrimonial defense shield might have hummed to life and deflected the Jaguar horndog. Even if the client (who himself was married) didn't care about Joan's matrimonial obligations, he wouldn't have wanted to face a cuckolded husband with a bat, which is always a possibility when you sleep with another man's wife, especially if it's made clear that man is in the military. But Pete, the grinning death's-head bastard, let the proposal get past the "what if?" stage, brought it to Joan (a master class in passive-aggressive wheedling, that scene) and presented it to the other partners.

"All he has to do is tell the company he can't sell cars with our campaign, and neither marketing or the factory will fight him," Pete told Don, Roger, Lane, and Bert. This statement is deceptive in at least two ways. First, it presumes a greater influence on the dealer's part than he might have actually possessed. Second, it artfully excludes the possibility that they could have leveraged the proposal the other way – by letting it somehow get back to a moralistic company exec (surely there's one somewhere at Jaguar) or by getting word through the grapevine to the pasha's wife. Granted, the last time a Jaguar wife found out about her husband's indiscretions, SCDP lost the account – but if another executive from the same company got caught mixing business and pleasure again, who's to say that a ruthless operator like Don or Roger couldn't have used it to the firm's advantage? Under the right circumstances, embarrassment can be as strong a motivator as lust. In any case, Pete had the unmitigated gall, as Lane might have put it, to waltz into Joan's office and hem and haw his way around the dark reality of a scheme that he desperately wanted to see happen, and that ultimately did happen. (Best grace note in the episode: Pete extending his hand and Joan letting it hang there.)

But before we tar and feather Pete Campbell for his rottenness, let's look at how the other partners reacted to the Joan gambit: just as sleazily, but without owning their sleaze as Pete did. In the initial meeting of the partners, Lane and Roger both protest that the firm can't give Joan a 10 percent piece of the first year's Jaguar commission, or $50,000. Roger's objections appear to be moral: this is his ex-girlfriend they're talking about. But remember that Roger just split from his second wife and is paying for her new apartment, and that he's got a first wife to support as well. So his concerns are probably more financial than moral.

Lane's objections are mostly unarticulated, but the reaction shots of him squirming on the couch signal that he's worried about money, too. Bert tells him he should look into a $50,000 credit extension to pay for Joan's "bonus" if she agrees to the plan, which is the exact sum that he already secretly secured so he could embezzle money to pay his taxes; surely their bank will not agree to another $50,000. With their own money needs so pressing, Roger and Lane don't so much take a stand as declare that the scheme guarantees them nothing or is doomed from the get-go – positions that declare their moral superiority to Pete without risking anything. (I should say here that Roger's reaction was the only aspect of the episode that didn't entirely convince me. This guy derailed a Honda deal in season four because he didn't want to do business with citizens of the country he fought in World War II, but when Pete proposes selling out the great lost love of his life, he's got no opinion?)

Financial self-interest is the real reason that Lane steers Joan away from the $50,000 proposal and toward the promise of partnership. He says he's trying to talk Joan out of making the same mistake he's been making, of "settling for much less than I needed." Lane is generously helping another person learn from his mistakes, but he's also trying to save himself — her new deal won't necessitate him going back to the bank. A partnership, Lane says, "could take care of a woman and a child to a lifetime." That cinches it for Joan.

Prostitution – a business with which Don has been intimately familiar since childhood – is at the center of this episode. As my friend Deborah Lipp writes, "Joan literally prostitutes herself for a partnership, but [her mother] Gail, who 'raised her to be admired,' has been prostituting herself in her own way to [the repairman] Apollo ... Megan must prostitute herself in a small way, by being displayed … At the office, her friend Julia is happy to sexually display herself to a roomful of writers in the hopes of getting a job as a Jaguar girl. Even Peggy had money thrown at her, quite literally, and even Peggy knows she has to sell a woman's sexuality (Lady Godiva, 'as naked as we are allowed to make her') to keep an account."

The sight of all these men pressuring Joan to pimp herself while pretending it wasn't their idea would be funny if it weren't so depressing. Every one of them wants the Jaguar account by any means necessary (except maybe Don, a prostitute's child, who we'll get to in a minute), but none of them wants to admit this, much less actively participate in Pete's scheme. In Pete's second meeting with Joan, he tries to slough off the logistical details of when and where, as if dwelling on it makes him feel dirty, too. "Do you expect me to do everything?" Joan says.

Bert Cooper's last line in that initial partner meeting is, "Let [Joan] know that she can still say 'no.'" Even if he means it, it's not the same thing as actually shutting Pete down.  The only people who actually said "yes" to the indecent proposal were its architect, Pete, and its executor, Joan. Joan, as usual, got stuck handling the dirty details, pun intended. The partners let the plan move forward, pretending it was all ultimately Joan's decision even though they left her no choice but to say "yes" or be blamed for the loss of the account. In the sex scene that we were thankfully spared, that wasn't the Jaguar guy (character actor Gary Basaraba) weighing on Joan, it was the company's future.

And Don? He's better than the rest, but not by much. When he goes to visit Joan and convince her not to have sex with Jaguar Herb, she's so touched by his concern that she puts a hand on his cheek and says, "You're a good one." It's a beautiful moment – even more so when we see it replayed later (best Mad Men nonchronological edit ever) and learn that when Don swings by, Joan is wearing a dress under her bathrobe, having already returned from her night with Herb. (Apparently he went from 0 to 60 faster than the cars he sells.) Don's appearance is heartening until you consider that he didn't actively oppose the scheme; he just appeared to oppose it. "Who wants to be in business with people like that?" Don asked Joan rhetorically, as if stating one's principles were the same thing as acting on them. Don didn't threaten to quit if Pete and the gang steered Joan into this. He just let it be known that he opposed it because it repulsed him. And please note that his revulsion was conditional: he was offended not that Pete approached Joan with this, but that he approached a woman who has a husband in Vietnam and a young child at home. If Joan were single and childless would he have been so disgusted? Surely not.

And if Don felt so strongly about the wrongness of this scheme, why wasn't he at the voting meeting? Probably because he desperately wanted Jaguar, too – wanted it as badly as his hypothetical customer wanted a woman as beautiful as Joan – but didn't have the guts to own up to his desire. "You abstained in absentia," Pete rightly pointed out in his one-on-one with Don. "The conversation doesn't end just because you leave the room." On some level, Don knows this. He's a calculating person. Even his instinctive reactions seem deliberate. Correction: A reader points out that Don really, truly didn't know about the voting meeting, which means he's guilty mainly of failing to grasp how much his power had faded. He still thinks it's 1963 and that everything word he says will be unquestioningly obeyed. What did he think happened after he stormed out of that first partners' meeting, a game of pinochle?

Joan's reactions are nearly as deliberate as Don's. When I look back over the episode, she impresses me even more than Megan or Peggy, because of the magnitude of the offense she's been asked to commit and the value that she extracted from it. It's not easy to find a core of morality in scummy circumstances, but Joan did it here. It makes no sense to judge her actions by 2012 upper-middle-class liberal standards. There was no such thing as "sexual harassment" in pre-1980s American offices, only piggish behavior that was more often endured than punished. At the highest levels of every industry, women's bodies got traded — for accounts, for real estate, for cash, for Super Bowl tickets, you name it.  And the women agreed because (1) if they said "no" they would be fired, or at least indefinitely consigned to their current rung on the workplace ladder, and (2) getting another job was no guarantee of immunity against future mistreatment. The next boss could be worse than the one before. Every woman knew this; it was a fact of life. 

The stakes are even higher for Joan because she has another human being depending on her, and because she sacrificed her Suzy Q. Homemaker lifestyle (which she never enjoyed, granted) to return to SCDP. She's one of those rare people who, on their deathbed, will wish she'd spent more time at the office. So she sleeps with Herb the Jaguar guy. She's practical that way. And notice what she does with the necklace that he gives her: she doesn't throw it in the garbage (the clichéd Hollywood reaction). She saves it. Why? Because it's worth money. Maybe she'll pawn it and buy a new dishwasher.

Because Peggy exits to The Kinks' "You Really Got Me", she seems like the "winner" of this episode. But the key word is "seems." "You really got me" is an anthem for Joan and Megan as well as Peggy. The song is a confession of hopeless love, infatuation, lust, general subservience to desire – in short, a hapless admission that somebody else, somebody female, has the power in a relationship, whatever the relationship is. "You really got me, you really got me, you really got me," Ray Davies sings three times before the sign-off chords, as if there were any doubt.

Before I close, I want to go on record saying how flat-out amazing this season has been. Emily Viviani's much-discussed theory about season five syncing up with the track list of The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts' Club Band doesn't quite work at a episode-equals-song level – although Matthew Weiner loves pop culture allusions, I doubt he's geeky enough to go full-High Fidelity on us — but after "The Other Woman," I'm with her in principle. Something Sgt. Peppers-level major is happening on Mad Men this year, a seismic creative flowering comparable to season one of The Sopranos and season three of Breaking Bad. Every season five episode is a creative experiment that draws on the cumulative power of every episode that preceded it. We're nearing the point where everything on Mad Men seems to connect to everything else — not just from episode to episode within season five, but backwards, as if the new episodes are somehow unfurling tendrils into the past, fusing the whole run of Mad Men into a fiendishly intricate mega-story. It's just extraordinary.

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC