"Mad Men" has used its perch as a vantage point to look at changes in how we behave, to engage in seismic shifts in marriage, parenting, pop culture and the workplace (while skirting others, like race). But foremost, for me, it's always been a show about gender, using the way we were half a century ago to examine how much has changed between and for men and women and how much really hasn't.
The show gets a lot of mileage out of the regressiveness of its sexual politics, from Ken (Aaron Staton) tackling a secretary at an office party to check the color of her panties to Roger (John Slattery) riding a girl like a pony during a debaucherous night out to Freddy (Joel Murray) saying of Peggy's (Elisabeth Moss) first tries at taglines that "it was like watching a dog play the piano" (all examples from the first season — things have been toned down considerably). But it also gets a little thrill out of them too, out of the dominance of old-school man's man Don Draper (Jon Hamm), of Joan's (Christina Hendricks) queen bee-ing through the office, of the courtliness that Betty (January Jones) demands of the admirers in her life.
Last night's "The Other Woman," directed by Phil Abraham and written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner, called bullshit on any of that romanticism by literally selling Joan off as part of a business deal and, in a sad but more positive development, having Peggy realize that her attachment to Don has been holding her back and taking a job elsewhere. Major developments, both of them, though the hugeness of what happened to Joan can't help but overshadow Peggy's leaving — the latter literally makes her exit, ignored, while the rest of the office is celebrating the new account.
What to make of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's deal with the devil? It's strange to think that in the early days of the show it wouldn't seem as shocking to witness an arrangement like the one arrived at here, in which Joan is asked to sleep with Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), the head of the Dealers Association and a member of Jaguar’s selection committee, in exchange for his vote in their favor. Or, scratch that, it wouldn't seem as shocking for them to do this to someone other than Joan — plenty of girls, including the ones heard crying in the restroom in that first season, have been used as ornamentation or a social lubricant or fodder for doing business, not knowing any better or how to say no.
Joan does know better, and she's always followed her own personal code and upheld her own considerable sense of dignity, and she's family, the heart of the office and someone who's worked there for years. She's not bullied into making nice with a potential client, the terms are laid terribly bare — it is, as she says, prostitution, in which she beds a stranger in exchange for a portion and a say in the goings-on of the company, and they get the automotive account they've always wanted.
Some people have complained that this was a development too mechanical to be believed. I'm of two minds — you could hear the gears grinding to get us there, but you can certainly argue the show also set up the storyline ahead of time to make the choices more understandable. Joan always planned her life around marrying someone who would provide for her, and while that's changed and she's found new satisfaction in her job, her fear of raising a child by herself is an understandable one, the years of potentially going it alone stretching out ahead of her — she could tell herself, without rationalization, that she needed the security.
Pete's (Vincent Kartheiser) always been a weasel, and he continues to think that being ruthless in business is a way to prove his stature, despite how little respect he actually earns because of it — it's easy to see him regretting this later, when he's no longer able to buy his own bullshit. Lane (Jared Harris) is in dire financial straits — it's in his best interest to have Joan become a partner rather than demand cash he's already made off with himself, and the advice he gives her about not selling herself for less than she's worth is sound, if quietly distraught.
Regardless of whether the prostitution storyline felt engineered, it was the reaction of the men in the office rather than the offer itself that made Joan's decision and that forever wounded her — that Pete even brought it up to her, in his hopelessly snaky way, and that the others discussed it was a aching betrayal. No one stepped in to protect her, no one rejected the offer off the bat as unacceptable except Don, and Joan didn't know that, and in another rare instance of "Mad Men" playing with form, we twice see that the home visit he pays on her in which he says tells her it isn't worth it, that they don't want to be in business with people like that, so that we can undertand it came too late. That she was even asked must have, for Joan, been proof enough that she couldn't count on others to take care of her, that she would have to look out for herself, whatever the cost.
Jaguars are unreliable, beautiful cars, compared to the extravagant girl you can't keep, the unattainable object you long for and can't have — the thing you admired from afar, finally there in your garage. Joan is the obvious parallel here, the office's prime unattainable object brought down and bartered off in exchange for a favor, but other women are slipping out of the business' orbit in this episode, and out of Don's. Megan (Jessica Paré) gets to the final round of an audition for a role that would take her to Boston for three months, much to her husband's dismay — he's never thought that her own pursuit of professional success would take her away from him, though as she points out, he's allowed to have his work responsibilities dictate when he's around her. (That glimpse of her at the audition, being told to "turn around, honey," was a quick, bleak reminder of the way in which she's being considered as an object herself.)
And Peggy, pushed aside by her mentor the entire season, literally outside looking in on the men eating lobster and coming up with marketing talk equating luxury cars to mistresses, finally pulled herself away from the man who gave her her start and who guided her in the career that's become so important to her. It's surely not without spite that she met with Don's main rival Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) from CGC, and it's surely not without spite that he hired her, though he also seems to genuinely know and admire her work. And as Freddy says, it's a move that Don would make, were he not the one being left behind. It was a relief that when Peggy offered him her two-weeks' notice, that after trying to keep her, he didn't strike out or act betrayed — that kiss on the hand was one of the show's loveliest, most heart-wrenching and most graceful moments. It provided a real twinge, as did the proud look Joan leveled at Don when joining the rest of the partners in the room to receive the news from Jaguar. No one is counting on him to come to their rescue any more.