Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mad Men: The Other Woman (5.11)

I've always thought there was something naturally tragic about owning a huge, fancy car. Okay, that's probably a little unfair. But so often the purchasing of something like the Jaguar at the center of The Other Woman is guided by the very fact that it's incredibly expensive and awe-inspiring. It's a physical reflection of your wealth, something that isn't static like a house or a fancy object, but something you can drive around and impress with by proxy of merely passing by. For those fleeting seconds it's ridiculously impressive. But, I don't know... it feels hollow. Maybe if you're genuinely filthy rich and could afford a couple of them, but when you're merely pushing the illusion of wealth and grandeur, it can't help but read as sort of underwhelming.

I bring this up because The Other Woman was all about possession, and the act of being verbally proud of accomplishing something, but keeping the origins of the possession hidden. As long as the perception stays moral and supposedly the result of hard work, everything else is fine. The hypothetical moral dilemma of exchanging sex for huge amounts of money is something as old as time, but there's always been something sort of attractive about it. Not only is it something arguably flattering, the offer is always made by Robert Redford. But Joan's story here was ugly, not only because of the man wanting her for himself, but the fact that her actions were so removed from what we know of her, and potentially what she knew about herself. Joan has always been a bombshell and been aware of the power that grants her, but we've never seen her actually use sex as a form of commerce. It was, in essence, the very thing she seemed to resent Megan for at the start of the season.

But this was an act of desperation. Not only has her personal life been a series of disappointments and depressing upheavals this year, she also found her very belief in the men around her compromised by the discussion of the offer. She is told that both Roger and Don have voted in favor of the deal, while Lane, as much as he claims to be looking out for her, still reduces her to a bargaining chip, regardless of his making sure she's paid what she's worth. It's that running sense of being reduced to an object that drives her to do what she did. She's constantly surrounded by a culture that reduces women to less-than figures, as well as here actually pushing the temptation of a mistress, and finds herself unexpectedly reduced to that level. The woman that, just last week, was reminded of the power she holds and the undeniable respect that gravitates in her direction... reduced to just another piece of currency.

In the end she gets a huge amount of money and literal stake in the company, but it's just as hollow a victory as SCDP's partnership with Jaguar. Both are painted as successes brought together by work and talent, when it's actually about sex and prostitution and the very worst type of sleaze. It's just a horrible, gut-wrenching story. And the heartbreaking bait-and-switch with Don only punctuates Joan's feelings of betrayal. Not only were so many of the men in her life prepared to treat her that way, but even in the process of addressing it all, she was still being lied to and the victim of cover-ups. Joan Holloway has never been a victim, and within the space of one or two days... she's reduced to that.

Sleaze factors into the rest of the episode. The Jaguar is 'the other woman', the young and pretty pinnacle, normally unattainable while you shack up with the miserable Buick stuffed away in your garage. But as long as you fork over enough cash, you can get a piece. Pete fantasizes about Manhattan, 'the other woman' to the quiet, clean streets of the suburbs -- the place where he happily trades colleagues' self-worth for money. Megan is judged and treated like meat by a pack of casting agents, not getting the gig presumably because she rejected a casting couch situation. Meanwhile, her friend happily cavorts around like a cat in heat, allowing men to treat her like a show-piece to salivate over, assuming that it's the only way she can get her power. But it's the Jaguar that most represents ownership, the showy perception of having full control over this sexy object -- because it's becoming rapidly clear as time goes by that actual women no longer feel the need to experience that. They never wanted to, but now they don't need to.

I haven't even started with Peggy. Peggy had, unfortunately, become the wallpaper. No matter the depth of feelings you have for someone, after a while their very presence becomes so expected and ordinary that it's easy to become complacent and take them for granted. It's debatable whether Don's treatment of her was at all conscious, as if he believed he could treat her however he liked because he deep down assumed that she'd never do anything about it... but I sort of understand his actions, even if I don't at all approve of them.

It's hard to not rally on Peggy as she departs, though. This has been her entire arc all year, that nagging sense that her appreciation and actual importance had rapidly been sinking down the drain. That uniqueness that once made people so respectful of her has been long extinguished, replaced by collective gushing over Ginsberg and having lesser accounts dumped on her. But, finally, Peggy embraced that feminist, driven determination that she had lost recently, and takes that leap into the unknown. It's such a shocking development, but at the same time unsurprising in its inevitability. Gosh, that final scene. There were definitely moments of wavering, and despite Don's last act of almost goddess worship or whatever... she leaves with a smile. She's doing the right thing, and she's excited.

But with Peggy, it's not about currency. While the pay rise is wonderful, she's aware that happiness and contentment can only come from that sense of respect from others -- and it's the key difference between her story and Joan's this week. Both characters got major professional boosts here, but Peggy didn't have to sacrifice so much of herself to get her's. Then again, Peggy's never been treated as a piece of meat. Joan's entire being was radically altered this week, everything she thought she knew about herself and her own power got called into question, and the results are ugly and tarnished, despite their outward positivity.

At the end of the episode, Peggy only pushed further into becoming a modern woman. Alternatively, Joan got a prize that she ordinarily would never have received, unknowingly earning that scarlet letter at the same time and regressing into the exact sort of woman she was determined to never become. It's unbelievably tragic. A+


- Jesus. Christina Hendricks' face as she peeled off her dress was haunting. Her expression just burned into me.

- I loved Peggy instantly telling Ken that she wasn't crying. Tough to the end, that girl.

- I'm tired of Megan storming out, immediately getting angry and confrontational. Especially after she had just randomly announced that a potential job would take her to a whole different city for weeks on end. At least she seems to get that mutual respect that she's been crying out for in the end, even if I find some of her outbursts cloying at this point. Maybe it's more Jessica Paré, and less the character?

- This week's tragicomedy highlight: Pete being unsure of how to organize the meet between Joan and Herb, hoping she'd handle all the arrangements. God, he is such a bastard.


Pete: We've all had nights in our lives where we've made mistakes for free.

Pete: Do you consider Cleopatra a prostitute?
Joan: Where do you get this stuff?
Pete: She was a queen. What would it take to make you a queen?
Joan: I don't think you could afford it.

Joan: Which one is he?
Pete: He's not bad.
Joan: He's doing this.

Joan: You're a good one, aren't you?

Herb: I feel like a sultan of Arabia and my tent is graced with Helen of Troy.
Joan: Those are two different stories.

Peggy: Don't be a stranger.

Guest stars Joel Murray (Fred Rumsen); Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell)
Writers Semi Chellas, Matthew Weiner Director Phil Abraham

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