Every season of “Mad Men” has an iconic episode. In Season 1, it’s “The Wheel.” In Season 4, “The Suitcase.” In Season 5, I was confident it would be “Mystery Date.” And then I saw “The Other Woman.” Spoilers ahead!
The Sterling Cooper Draper Price team is busily working on the perfect Jaguar pitch. Peggy is excluded — Don “can’t put a girl on Jaguar.”
Pete and Ken dine with the head of Jaguar’s dealer association, Herb. The unctuous Herb is quite taken with Joan, and suggests that SCDP arrange an evening for him to get to know her. Pete sees this as a factor that could make or break the Jaguar account.
Pete approaches Joan about this highly delicate (read: incredibly insulting) situation. Joan is understandably outraged: “You’re talking about prostitution… I don’t think you could afford it.” Pete explains that SCDP will lose Jaguar if Herb doesn’t get his night with Joan, though Herb technically made no such threat.
Pete then approaches the partners. The array of reactions to Pete’s attempt at “very high level of business” pimping is fascinating. Roger is jealous, and claims that Herb can “take a walk.” Lane is concerned for Joan, but more concerned at the extra expense such an arrangement could cause for SCDP — and that would dig him deeper in his embezzlement hole. Don is disgusted with the idea, and walks out of the room before the remaining four decide to tempt Joan with a handsome reward if she complies with Herb’s wishes.
The scenes between Joan and Lane this season have all been excellent, and this episode is no exception. In a manipulative move, Lane offers Joan $50K to sleep with Herb, but then craftily back-peddles, suggesting that such a sum might not truly satisfy her. Perhaps a 5% partnership would ultimately be better for her and her child. Notice how the dangling bait of a possible partnership frees Lane of actually paying Joan anything upfront. Joan is humiliated that this situation has obviously been discussed behind her back by the men of the company. Importantly, she assumes that all partners are comfortable with paying her to sleep with Herb — including Don, with whom she feels a kinship. Yet the lure of being a partner has caught her attention.
Joan tells Pete she wants a “not silent” 5% partnership of the company. Once Pete is confronted with the plan taking effect, he has no idea how to manage it. He awkwardly bumbles something about “calling Herb, who can call Joan.” Usually Joan is the one to handle sensitive matters — finessing Megan’s departure from SCDP, hiring Don an elderly secretary in Season 4 who won’t tempt him. After five seasons of smoothing over all things awkward, Joan is sure as hell not going to do it now: “Figure something out! Do I have to do it all?!”
Meanwhile, Peggy is feeling under-appreciated, and takes two meetings. The first is with Freddy Rumsen, who advises she look for work elsewhere, and offers his help. The second is with Ted Chaough from rival ad company CGC, who knows a good hire when he sees one. He offers Peggy a cool $19K, plus the title of copy chief — if she decides on the spot.
The astounding time jumping from “Faraway Places” returns in this episode. Don visits Joan at home to try to dissuade her from having sex with Herb. Joan, wearing a robe and seemingly staying in for the night, is deeply moved that Don never backed the decision to convince her into sex work. (In an episode brimming with amazing lines, my favorite was Don’s, in reference to Joan’s mother: “Say goodnight to your friend.” He has no idea who Gail is, or that she has become Joan’s live-in nanny and full-time support system.)
There is a crosscutting sequence. Don and the team breeze into the Jaguar dealership the next morning, and Don delivers Ginsberg’s “Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own” pitch. As Don talks to the Jag clients about “natural longing for the other thing,” we see Joan submitting to Herb the night before. It’s heartbreaking. And then a repetition of a scene: We again see Don come to Joan’s apartment and try to dissuade her from having sex with Herb. We realize that, upon Don’s visit, Joan’s night with Herb has already happened — she’s about to take a shower to wash off a disgust that can never be cleaned away. Don the Super Man has arrived too late, and he doesn’t even know it.
SCDP lands Jaguar. Celebration is in order, but Don isn’t in the mood when he understands that Joan has become a partner, and the price she has paid to get it. Peggy confronts Don in his office, and tells him she accepted the position at CGC. Don doesn’t believe her at first, but gradually it dawns on him when she won’t accept a counter-offer. “There’s no number.” In an act of grief-stricken desperation or balls-out manipulation — or both — Don kisses Peggy’s hand for a long moment.
Peggy steps into the SCDP elevator as The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” plays on the soundtrack. Her tears have dried. (Ours haven’t.)
“The Other Woman”:
The theme of mistresses and bought women is prevalent in this week’s episode. The ad team knows they want to compare the “beautiful but unreliable” Jaguar to a businessman’s mistress, but it’s important they don’t use the word. That would expose too much, and stir up too much guilt in the buyer. Don doesn’t even like the idea, particularly after he’s heard the scheme Pete’s concocted for Joan: “The mistress thing is vulgar.”
Part of Pete’s vehement spearheading of the Herb-Joan situation has to stem from his own stinging lack of a mistress. He can’t have Beth, and he’ll be damned if he can’t get Herb what he wants. The Jaguar account is now Pete’s sole lifeforce — he hates his home, hates his relation to those in the office, and hates himself. He must get Jaguar, even if it means resorting to pimping. And he hasn’t given up on having a woman on the side. As he tells Trudy, he wants an apartment in the city, using the pretense of the nightly “epic poem” (ha!) he undergoes to get back to the suburbs from mid-town.
Megan’s storyline in this episode is interesting as related to the mistress concept. When she and her friend crash SCDP in the evening on their way to an audition, Megan sequesters Don in his office for sex. Perhaps after contemplating the difference between Jaguars and Buicks, Megan feels the need to add naughty secrecy to her and Don’s sex life — much as a mistress would. Meanwhile, Megan’s friend paws her way across the brainstorming table, ass up, giving the copywriters a show.
At her callback audition for “Little Murders,” Megan is told to turn around, so that the all-male casting directors can assess the goods. If Megan gets the part (which would have her rehearsing in Boston for three months), the audience would be paying to see a good-looking woman on stage.
Peggy has her own relationship with money in this episode. First, Don cruelly chucks cash in her face when she complains about Ginsberg reassuming the head of the Chevalier Blanc account. We also see the written sum that Peggy is ultimately offered by CGC, when she and Ted pass the bargaining sheet back and forth across the table. Notice how she dolls herself up in that scene. This was a great callback to “At the Codfish Ball,” when Peggy thinks Abe will propose to her over dinner: “Here I am,” she seems to be saying, “All dressed up and ready for your offer.”
Joan’s relationship to the mistress theme brings up a complicated issue. How is being a mistress different than being a prostitute in the world of “Mad Men”? Of course there’s the literal answer. But there’s such a monetary element to having a mistress — the apartment, the finery — and all with the implication that there will be no blabbing, no hope of commitment. Joan was Roger Sterling’s mistress, and in this episode she acted as SCDP’s mistress and prostitute. I hated that she had to become a partner in that way. But I’m riveted to see what she does with her sorrowfully won position of power.
Bits and pieces:
- Pete reads “Goodnight Moon” to Tammy! I loved that he mentions hating the “cemetery” suburbs because there are no goodnight sounds.
- No bonuses this year for the SCDP partners. Lane is screwed.
- The relationship between Joan and her mom is so believably complex. Gail can be withering (“Why don’t you hire a colored girl?” — cringe-worthy) but then, a beat later, offers Joan her chair to sit down.
- Don and Megan have issues. Regardless of whether Megan ends up rehearsing in Boston for three months, her point about Don not wanting her to succeed seems accurate.
- Second best line of the episode: “How about: ‘Jaguar, It’s Your Problem, Not Mine.'”
Other ideas or interpretations? Thoughts about the episode?