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Mad Men Commentary: Episode 511 – The Other Woman

Joan and Peggy. These two have been the subject of much contrasting over five seasons of Mad Men, and this week’s episode, titled The Other Woman, casts their differences in the sharpest relief yet.

That title – The Other Woman – refers to a mistress, which is how Don and his creative team think of Jaguar. As he explains it to Megan, “The Jaguar is beautiful, but unreliable. It comes with a toolkit the size of a typewriter. You basically have to have another car to go places. What we’re saying is it’s your gorgeous mistress.” Megan is not impressed. “So, a wife is like a Buick in the garage?” “We’re trying to make a weakness into a strength. We’re selling to men,” Don explains. “No, I get it. Doesn’t being a mistress make the car immoral?” Megan asks. “The word ‘mistress’ won’t be in the ad,” Don says. To Don, this is simply a metaphor, but for Megan, it’s a reminder of Don’s past, and it stirs her insecurities.

The episode gives us other mistresses, second-place women who are looking to make it in a man’s world and are thus making the weakness of femininity into a strength. We’re talking about Joan and Peggy and the wildly diverging paths that each takes to a better position and what they’re wiling to trade to get there. And though each is able to leverage herself to a new plateau, in the end, one will feel like a trap, while the other, though terrifyingly unknown, will feel like flying.

And in the middle of all of this is Don Draper, whose great victory will be tinged with bitterness and loss.

The episode opens with Don, Stan, Ginsberg, and some freelancers huddled up in the conference room, struggling to come up with a big idea for the Jaguar campaign. They’ve decorated one wall of the room with various photos and icons, designed to inspire. But it’s not working.

Peggy catches Don in hallway, and asks him to approve some copy for Secor Laxatives, but he’s in a rotten mood and brushes her off, telling her she’s in charge of everything other than Jaguar and to make a decision. It’s a great vote of confidence, but in life it’s not so much the message, but how it’s delivered that counts.

As this exchange is wrapping, Joan shows up with a fancy lunch – lobster – that is wheeled into the conference room courtesy of Roger Sterling. The men applaud as the covers are removed from the trays. Peggy watches this from the other side of the glass wall that separates her from the big time action.

While Don and the creatives tackle the look and feel of the campaign, Pete and Ken work on the politics of the campaign, securing it against some formidable competition. This includes wining and dining guys like Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), the president of the Jaguar dealer’s association. Herb plays his cards close to the chest, until the end of the meal, when Pete assures him that SCDP will do whatever it takes to make him happy. Seeing his opportunity, Herb tells them that there is one thing that will certainly help them win his vote – a night with Joan Harris. A night in bed with Joan Harris. In a show filled with slimy guys and shady deals, this is a new depth. Luckily, Ken Cosgrove is at the table, but just as he’s about to inform Herb that Joan is married, Pete cuts him off.

Herb excuses himself for a moment, and while he’s away, Ken asks Pete why he didn’t tell Herb the truth about Joan, rather than lead him on. Pete says that Herb himself is married, knows that Joan is married, and doesn’t care about either. Ken is disgusted at this. “Well, we wanted to be in the car business,” he says, lighting a cigarette.

Don arrives home from work to learn that Megan has a big audition the next day. She’s nervous and needing support, but she shifts the attention to Don, asking him what he planned on doing. “I was just going to watch Carson and cry myself to sleep,” he says, giving her a hangdog look. She tells him not to worry, that he’ll think of something. He says that maybe she’ll think of something, inviting her to help. She goes along, and asks for the strategy. That’s when he tells her about the Jaguar being like a beautiful, high-maintenance mistress.

These two have been tiptoeing through a minefield these last few episodes, each always on the verge of saying or doing the wrong thing to set off an argument. This time it’s Don who gets under Megan’s skin, but rather than fight, she simply retreats to the living room, leaving him with Johnny Carson and his drink.

The next morning, Pete shows up early and corners Joan in her office. “I got bad news last night,” he tells her. “And I hoped you’d help me deliver it.” Like it was her responsibility.

Joan, being the gossip she is, is all ears, and Pete takes his time building up to the ask. “I don’t know what to do,” he says. “It turns out he wanted something we’re not prepared to give. Something very unorthodox.” “What does he want?” Joan asks. “We’re going to lose Jaguar unless an arrangement is made between you and him,” Pete says. Joan is shocked, but Pete piles insult on top of insult. “If you can think of some way to break this to the company, I’d appreciate it.”

This launches Joan on the offensive, and she reminds Pete of her marital status and what an asshole he is. He simply throws up his hands, saying it’s Herb bringing this up and not him – the don’t-shoot-the-messenger defense.

The scene is like a boxing match, and Pete counters Joan’s moral outrage by being the amoral pragmatist. He brings up the idea that we all make mistakes in life – mistakes that don’t get us anything. They’re free. Well, this is a mistake that could help her tremendously. She could get paid from this mistake.

“You’re talking prostitution,” Joan says. “I’m talking about business at a very high level,” Pete counters, sounding like the devil himself.

Pete goes for his knockout punch – the offer of power. “Do you think Cleopatra was a prositute?” he asks. “She was a queen,” he continues. “What would it take to make you a queen?” “I don’t think you could afford it,” Joan says.

Round 1 – Joan Harris.

Next, we find Peggy and Ken in Harry’s office. They’re about to get on a conference call with Chevalier Blanc, who wants to pull their Beatles-inspired campaign. Harry asks if Peggy will pose as Ginsberg’s assistant (Ginsberg can’t be pulled away from Jaguar), but Peggy absolutely refuses, making Harry introduce her as Ginsberg’s supervisor, which he does.

When they get on the call, Harry and Ken start off talking, but soon the hot potato is tossed in Peggy’s lap, and she improvises a compelling new campaign, set in France with a Lady Godiva theme that the buyer from Chevalier Blanc loves.

Score one for Peggy – she maintains her dignity and saves the account in one call.

Pete gathers the partners together to tell them the news about the dinner with Herb Rennet and his demand. At first blush, all the men are shocked by this news and make a show of being outraged, but after Pete does the math for them, their moral outrage elasticizes, allowing for the proper rationalizations to be made that will allow them to sleep at night.

Bert simply gives way. Roger says he’ll go along, but he won’t pay for it. Lane makes a weak stand, telling Pete he has some nerve. “that’s right,” Pete says. “We’ve gone too far to walk away…over what?” It’s a chilling remark, but Lane folds. It comes down to Don, who is no stranger to misogyny. He’s against the proposal, but for mixed reasons. He’s disgusted by the blatant filth and arrogance of the demand, but he also has his pride mixed up in his reasons. He thinks they can win despite Herb, based on the strength of his and his team’s ideas. He wants to win the business fair and square or not at all. But Pete won’t back down. Don states his position, and leaves to return to his work.

With Don gone, Pete does the math for the remaining partners, reminding them that they don’t need Don’s blessing to do this. “So, we’re 75% of this company. There’s no need to create a conspiracy by having a vote, is there?” Like Pontius Pilate, they wash their hands of Pete while giving him their blessing to pursue Joan for the deal. One by one, they slink out of the office.

Back in the writer’s room, Don tells the guys to abandon the mistress concept. “It’s vulgar. We’re going back to racing heritage,” he informs them, feeling not only the weight of what he’s just witnessed, but the sting of Megan’s judgment from before – that this is immoral.

So, just when Don is looking like Mr. Sensitive, in walks Harry, Ken, and Peggy, to tell him of the good news about Chevalier Blanc. It’s interesting that so much of the time, Don’s miscommunications with Peggy and even Pete come when they approach him right after some stress-inducing incident. Such is the case here.

They tell Don that Peggy has saved the day with a brilliant idea. Peggy plays the humble card, but there’s no need. Don doesn’t really hear a word they say, until Peggy gets snippy with him. He bursts her bubble by reminding her that it’s Ginsberg’s account, which causes her to fire back with “I guess I’m not in charge of everything else after all,” which is a call-back to his earlier sarcasm. This causes him to explode on her, in front of Harry and Ken. “You want to go to France?” he asks, yelling and pulling a wad of money from his pocket. “Here! Go to France!” he says, throwing the money in her face. It’s an unconscionable move, and it sends her out of the office, followed closely by Ken and then Harry.

But ain’t that the way life is? One minute, you’re the hero, and then you turn around and you’re the world’s biggest asshole.

And the same goes for Peggy. Ken follows her to her office, where she assures him that she’s not crying. When he tells her he didn’t think that she was, she gets nasty with him, asking “What? Suddenly, we’re all interested in each other’s lives?” Megan was right about them. They’re SO jaded.

Ken ignores the insult and tries to soften the blow by telling her that Jaguar is slipping away, and that Don is feeling the pinch. Peggy says she doesn’t care. Ken, who’s turned into one of the only decent men on the show, tells her he’ll get her to France, and if he doesn’t then they’ll leave together. She fixes him with a condescending look. “You and your stupid pact,” she says. “Save the fiction for your stories.” Ken says nothing. He just turns and leaves her there. Alone.

Lane may have given up in front of the partners, but he decides to pay Joan a visit, to give her an idea. When he brings up the demand, she is offended by the intrusion, misinterpreting his motives. Of course, his motives are as much self-serving as they are altruistic, but he does show her a way to become a queen. He points out that a payoff will not do much for her or her son’s future, but if she were to push for a partnership and 5% of the company, then she’d be looking out for their future for a very long time.

There’s a moment of great irony in the scene. When Joan still thinks that Lane is in it only for the company, she points out that she makes around $13,000 a year. “I guess you wouldn’t even be tempted,” she tells him, not realizing, of course, that he’s been tempted and seduced by $8,000.

That night, as Don and his team pull a late-night writing session, they are visited by Megan and her friend Julia, the redhead whom Megan was helping audition for Dark Shadows a couple of episodes ago.

As Megan takes Don back to his office, for a little pre-audition hanky-panky to boost her confidence, Julia entertains the writers by climbing on the conference room table and crawling across it on all fours, growling and clawing at the men like a jaguar. I couldn’t help but feel that, with her red hair, and the way she was shot from behind, with her butt hanging out of her panties, she was meant to be a stand-in for Joan, that it was a commentary on her role in this ecosystem – the sex kitten.

At home, Pete reads to his daughter before retreating to his hi-fi system, where he listens to classical music under a pair of headphones. Trudy comes to him, once their daughter is in bed, and he starts griping about how he was in a good mood when he left work, but the long trip home exhausts him. He informs her that once the Jaguar account is landed, he’ll have to get an apartment in the city, to which she says absolutely not.

“It’s an epic poem to get home, and you’re dressed for bed at dinner,” he complains. She tells him that his love affair with Manhattan has to end. “How can you stand living out in this cemetery?” he asks her. “There’s not any good night noises anywhere.” She ends the argument by telling him that she wants to raise her children in the fresh air.

It’s funny how at work, he can get people to do the most immoral acts, but at home, he wields none of that influence.

Another fruitless domestic argument takes place at the Draper residence when Megan tells Don that she’s gotten a call back for Little Murders, the play she needed the confidence for. At first, Don is happy, but when he learns that Megan will be traveling to Boston for out of town tryouts for a few months, he tells her to forget it. This lights the fuse to a big fight that ends with her telling Don that she’s doing it anyway and storming off.

The next morning, Joan meets with Pete to discuss the arrangement. She wears a stunning brown dress with a collar done in a print – tiger…or jaguar – that provides a call-back to Megan’s friend Julia.

Joan is all business with Pete. She gives him her terms, exactly as Lane advised, and when he starts to protest, she cuts him off. After a beat, he agrees.

As she gets up to leave, she pauses at the door to ask which one he is. “He’s not bad,” Pete assures her. “He’s doing this,” she says, then leaves.

Later, Ginsberg interrupts Don in his office to bounce an idea off him. “I know I’m not a manager,” Ginsberg says. “But it’s hard to get things done with you in another room.” “Well, I obviously have the opposite feeling,” Don says. “Permission to speak freely,” Ginsberg says. “What?” Don is frustrated by him, but it’s a funny scene that builds to a breakthrough.

Ginsberg can’t quit thinking about the mistress angle, and he drops a line on Don. “Jaguar, at last, something beautiful you can truly own.” Don takes a beat, closes his eyes, and sighs a sigh of relief, signifying that at last, the words have been found on which the campaign will be built. Don’s relief is palpable.

At about the same time, Peggy is having lunch with Freddie Rumsen, always a welcome sight. She vents to one who knows about the peculiarities of working for Don Draper. “I can never tell, Ballerina, if you’re ambitious or if you like to complain,” he tells her. She wonders why she can’t do both.

During the course of their conversation, Freddie gives her a ton of sound advice, reminding her finally that if Don were sitting where he sits, and he wasn’t the subject of the conversation, he’d tell her the same thing – make your move.

This is hard for Peggy to digest, and as she backs away from the idea, he gets her. “You let him know you’re not some secretary from Brooklyn who’s dying to help out.” It’s that line that seals the deal because it’s so true, at least from Peggy’s perspective. He tags the scene by reminding Peggy that she can’t get mad if he goes after he job, once it’s vacant.

That night, the night before the pitch, Pete pays a visit to Don as he’s wrapping up at the office. Pete compliments Don on the tagline. Pete being Pete, he’s got a hidden agenda, and we soon see what it is when he tells Don that all impediments have been removed, that it will all boil down to the pitch. What Pete means is that, “Hey Don, I’ve Don the hard work, now you just go in there and say your magic words.”

This doesn’t sit well with Don, and as he leaves, he tells Pete that he doesn’t want it this way. Pete couldn’t be happier.

Don races to Joan’s apartment, where her mother answers the door. After a short wait, Joan appears in an emerald green kimono. The mother disappears. “I wanted to tell you that it’s not worth it,” Don says. “And if we don’t get Jaguar, so what? Who wants to be in business with people like that?” Joan seems surprised. “I was told everyone was on board.” Don explains that he said no, but that they voted after he left the room. “You’re a good one, aren’t you?” she says. “So, you understand what I’m saying?” “Yes I do,” Joan says. “I’m all right. And thank you.”

As Don leaves, Joan sends him off with a tender touch to the cheek. He goes home to prepare, feeling as though he’s saved Joan and preserved his chance to win fair and square.

The next day is the pitch, and this is where the show hit another level, putting on par with some of the best episodes in the entire five season run.

Don shows up at the Jaguar showroom, flanked by Roger, Pete, Ken, and the creative team, and as they stride down the middle of the showroom, a competing agency walks past, going in the opposite direction. It’s like an old west showdown.

As Don gets into his pitch, he’s in old form. But there’s a twist.

“You must get tired of hearing what a beautiful thing this car is, but I’ve met a lot of beautiful women in my life, and despite their protestations, they never tire of hear it,” he says. “But when deep beauty is encountered, it arouses deep emotions, because it creates a desire.”

At this moment, there’s a cut to the night before, as Joan shows up at Herb Rennet’s place. It turns out that she did go to him. But why?

Don continues the pitch, and as he does, Joan’s night with Herb is intercut, a contrast to the words Don uses, the mistress metaphor.

Finally, as Don closes his pitch, he ends with these words. “Gentlemen, what price would we pay? What behavior would we forgive? If they weren’t pretty, if they weren’t temperamental, if they weren’t beyond our reach, and a little out of our control, would we love them like we do? Jaguar. At last, something truly beautiful you can truly own.”

And here, we get the twist. The moment of brilliance. It turns out that Don showed up at Joan’s just after she returned from Herb’s hotel. It turns out Don was too late.

The pitch was a beautifully constructed scene that reminded me of the end of the Godfather 1, when Michael settles family business as he becomes godfather to his nephew. Don’s words, used to sell a car, are perverted by the offer of the man who sits in judgment of him. Don thinks nothing of the metaphor, but Megan was right – the car has become immoral because it was bought with dirty money.

Fade to Don’s triumphant return to the office. He’s exultant, and as he sees Joan, he asks if she wants to have a drink with the rest of the team. She declines.

At Megan’s meeting with the producers and playwright (Jules Pfeiffer), she is asked to turn around in her short dress, so they can look at her. It’s a brief moment, but one that is meant, I think, to level the playing field a little. Megan doesn’t get off unscathed either.

Next, it’s Peggy’s turn. She’s at a diner, dressed up and waiting. After a moment, Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) shows up. He’s a nemesis of Don, a hated rival, and he’s eager to win Peggy over to his agency – Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Ted praises Peggy to the moon, and asks her what it will take to get her away from Don. Peggy pulls out a SCDP note pad and writes “Copy Chief $18,000/year” on it. Ted takes the pad, crosses out SCDP and $18,000 and writes $19,000 and checks the words “Copy Chief” and pushes the pad back to Peggy. “If this is your last meeting,” he offers as his only condition. Peggy starts doing that nervous Peggy thing, where she jerks her head like a bird and says she needs a chocolate shake.

That night, Don returns home, surprised to find Megan there. He learns that she didn’t win the role, and tries to console her. She asks about the pitch, and he keeps it low key. She knows better, and says she bets he was great. He says the same about her. “The difference is, I want you to get it,” Megan says. Like Betty never would, she calls out his bad behavior, pointing out the reasons why it has to change if their marriage is to work. She reaffirms her love for him, telling him that if it came to acting or him, she’s choose him – but she’d hate him for being put in the position to choose. He pulls her to him, telling her that he doesn’t want her to fail.

Things seem okay for now.

The next morning, Don shows up for work to learn that Peggy is looking for him. As he calls her to his office, all hell breaks loose, as the word begins to reach SCDP of the agencies who didn’t get the Jaguar business. As it becomes clear that Don won the account, Peggy fades into the background.

Roger calls for all the partners to gather in his office, and as they do, Don is shocked to see Joan enter in an emerald green dress – the same color as the emerald in the necklace that was a gift from Herb.

Finally, the official call comes. Roger takes it and thanks Jaguar for making the right choice. As he hangs up the phone, a cheer goes through the room. But Don’s not celebrating. After a pause, Pete looks to Joan. “Shall we address the men?” Pete asks.

Don follows the partners to the conference room, where the rest of the company has gathered to celebrate. Peggy is in the hallway. “You wanted to talk to me?” Don asks. “Aren’t you busy?” Peggy asks. “I’m not in the mood,” Don says, referring to the celebrating. “You really have no idea when things are good, do you?” Again, Peggy catches him at one of those bad moments.

Don gestures that they go to his office, where he asks her to have a drink with him. Peggy goes into her windup. She takes her time, and remains standing as he sits.

“I want you to know that the day you saw something in me, well my whole life changed. And since then, it’s been my privilege to not only be at your side, but to be treated like a protégé and for you to be my mentor. And my champion.”

Don shifts uncomfortably. “But…” he says.

“But, I think I’ve reached a point where it’s time for me to have a new experience.” “Really?” Don says, not taking her seriously. “I’m giving my notice. I’ve accepted another offer.”

Don tries to buy her back with an extravagant raise, but she’s made up her mind. Unlike Joan, she won’t be bought. And once Don gets it, the look on his face is devastating – the realization that she’s really leaving. He asks where she’s going, and when she tells him, his reaction is visceral. He tells her to forget about the notice, that she can leave immediately. It’s a painful goodbye, and when she offers her hand, rather than shake it, he gives it a long kiss, causing her to tear up. “Don’t be a stranger,” she says, choking back tears.

She leaves him there, and returns to her office, where she gets her coat, her purse, a thermos, and a mug. The rest she leaves behind. As she leaves SCDP one final time, she passes the celebration that carries on in the conference room, and as she disappears to the lobby, Joan catches a glimpse of her. The look on Joan’s face provided the final contrast between these two women. As Peggy leaves on her own terms, a free woman, Joan is left behind, trapped by the bargain she’s made. Yes, Joan made partner, but is she truly free?

The episode ends as Peggy takes a final look back. It’s a heartbreaking moment. But as the elevator pings and the door opens, Peggy smiles as she steps into the future. And as she does, the opening riff of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me sends her on her way.

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