Although Mad Men has been more obvious about its themes this year -- ever so slightly disappointing in that regard -- the episodes themselves have been, for the most part, particularly great. It’s like Matt Weiner and the writers have said, “Here’s the important thematic elements and – boom – we just completely blew you away even though you knew what we were doing.”
But I read “The Other Woman” as something more than just what price we put on happiness (a rare commodity in Mad Men) and, in particular, the ownership of women in a male-dominated society.
For me this was the episode that cemented the notion that Don Draper doesn’t matter in the same way he used to matter.
There was a moment when Don closed his eyes and sighed a bit with minute resignation when it was clear that Ginsberg once again came up with the best concept for Jaguar. Don knew that Ginsberg, as weird and ungainly and loud as Don was fashionable, cool and subtle in the past, had been absolutely nailing it at SDCP. Leaving Ginsberg’s far better proposal in the cab in a recent episode was proof – even though the client bought Don’s version – that he really feared Ginsberg’s creative potential and was mentally contrasting it with his own lack of motivation and inspiration.
With Jaguar, there was no need to compete. Ginsberg’s idea was the best, and Don knew it.
When Don got wind that Herb, from the Dealers Association and a key to gaining the Jaguar account, wants to sleep with Joan, he’s pissed off and doesn’t condone it and walks out. But it doesn’t matter: The other four vote without him and ultimately against him. Just think about that for a second – they didn’t need Don. They voted without him there and didn’t tell him about it.
Although Don races over to Joan’s apartment to tell her it’s not worth it, he’s too late (a nice editing device that didn’t seem like a cheat in the way Don’s dream scenario a few episodes back did). And the scene also allowed viewers to at first think that Joan didn’t listen to him (which would certainly enhance this theme), but later when Don realizes the Herb-Joan pimp-out actually happened, he’s disheartened, but Joan doesn’t seem to share his sorrow about the whole thing (confirming that she would have done it anyway; and she’d already told Don that she was a big girl who didn’t need him to take care of her – in a sweet way). Of more interest in that scene was Joan wearing all green – the color that Herb said should be seen on skin like hers. If you wondered whether Joan doubted her decision, look no further. (Green's also the color of money, of course. More on Joan’s decision in a moment.)
Back in Don’s personal life, Megan’s acting career looks like it might catch a break, and she allows herself to dream the what-if and think about how much work is ahead. Like all of that time in Boston. All the rehearsals. Don, of course, is stunned. Unlike housebound Betty, Megan doesn’t need to be stuck to Don at all times. If she gets the part, she’ll be leaving for three months. That both shocks and dismays Don. First, because it’s more proof he’s not needed; his wife would be packing up, happily, and pursuing her career. Secondly, Don has always needed to be needed -- and Megan is running away. And hell, that's Don's old go-to habit.
Back at the office, when the Jaguar account is a done deal, there’s no celebrating from Don. He didn’t want it this way, on these terms. And yes, overtly that has a lot to do with Joan pimping herself out to seal the deal (though there were clearly no guarantees), but it also meant that Don’s ability to sell and to close, his powers of persuasion as an ad man, were ultimately not needed. I think that hits him harder. The game can be won other ways, without him.
Finally, there is the ultimate blow of Peggy leaving. The beauty of Mad Men has always been that emotions are not black or white. They are complicated. In fact, it’s the complicated nature of our existence that has been the backbone of the show, the one thing that has made it truly brilliant. So losing Peggy isn’t merely about Don learning the hard way that it’s not about money -- that there is no number. From the now-classic line, “That’s what the money is for!” to the cruel scene in “The Other Woman” where Don literally tosses money in Peggy’s face and tells her to go to Paris so she won’t complain about the account -- that she saved so masterfully – reverting to Ginsberg, Don has always thought money was a cure-all.
It’s fine to view Peggy’s departure as a joyous comeuppance to Don, who has treated her so dismissively of late. But that scene had so much more to it. Don has, historically, almost no ability to deal with women as equals. He doesn’t understand how. He might be incapable of it (though one of the nice trends in Season 5 is Don’s slowly emerging enlightenment via Megan). But he’s always loved Peggy in a way so completely different from anyone else. He’s invested in her. He’s proud of her. And much of his behavior toward her this season makes sense if he’s treating her, as he’s said so often, like one of the guys. Like a man. If Don’s been mean or dismissive to Peggy this season, it can be argued that he’s entrusted her to handle things while he’s unplugged from SCDP. If she whines about the work or attention or the need to move on to better accounts, Don doesn’t want to hear it. He wants her to be a slightly junior version of himself. Go handle it. I trust you. Get it done, and don’t whine about it. Viewed in that context, his treatment of Peggy is one of immense respect; it just doesn’t have the nuance of emotions because, let’s face it, Don doesn’t really have that. And so Peggy’s leaving really and truly hurts him. He went through so many stages so quickly in that scene: disbelief, anger, sadness and finally an understanding of it.
Peggy no longer needs Don to be her mentor. She’s ready. She’s been ready. Her leaving is just another reminder to him that his importance these days is severely downgraded. That’s a very difficult thing for anyone with power to grasp.
As for the more obvious themes in “The Other Woman,” well, apparently a client does want to hear the word mistress, despite what Don says about the Jaguar ad.
I’m sure there will be much debate over Joan agreeing to prostitute herself, but I found that absolutely consistent with her character and a perfect counter-example to Peggy having money thrown in her face and choosing to take her talents elsewhere. Those two have always, from the day we’ve met them, been emblematic of the times and the choices facing women who either buy into the old ways of doing things or opt for something more liberated.
Why would it be surprising that Joan declined the $50,000 – which insulted her – but agreed to the plan advised by Lane to take the 5 percent partner's agreement and then set her and her son up for life, if the firm does well? Joan has always viewed her sexuality as her ultimate weapon: From sleeping with the doctor who first gave Peggy her birth control pills to having an ongoing affair with Roger to sleeping with (much) older men in the first season because of the power it gave her (not to mention the nice dinners and gifts, though it did get her a slight scolding from Bert Cooper who told she could do a lot better) to her desperate and sad desire to marry a man with money -- say a doctor -- and the terrible emotional fallout from that, including saying nothing about the rape until the marriage itself was clearly over. This is Joan. She's clinging to the changing times the only way she can.
I found nothing out of character from Joan’s decision. In fact, the nuance of the difference allowed her to accept the consequences. A flat fee felt like prostitution to her. But to be made a partner, to march in and demand the paperwork like she was asking for a raise for a job performance and to ultimately use the only asset she believes she can to secure a financial future for her and her son? In Joan’s world, that was a calculated career decision on par with Peggy having lunch with Ted Chaough from Cutler Gleason and Chaough and writing down the salary figure and job title it would take to make a switch.
By linking those two decisions, Mad Men brought us back to the very first episode of the series, where Peggy was a frightened but determined woman in the big city, hoping to make a career for herself, and Joan was the wily secretary who said that if Peggy played her cards right and showed enough leg, she might end up living out in the suburbs without having to work.
There was a lot to love in this episode, but by staying true to the self-perceptions of Joan and Peggy, it allowed us to understand the different paths of women at that time and how a couple of years on either side of the cultural divide can lead to vastly different experiences.
But most important, the season-long framing of Jon Hamm’s face as he plays the aging-but-not-aware-of-it Don Draper, has been like time-lapse photography of a man struggling with change and how to deal with it. There’s a wear-and-tear to his countenance that mirrors what’s going on in his mind, whether he understands it or not.