Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mad Men 5-11: The Other Woman

"There is no number." - Peggy Olson

So in one of the many corners of the internets devoted to analysis and hyperanalysis of "Mad Men," following the airing of this week's episode, I found a comment by someone styling himself "Matthew Weiner" that ran roughly as follows:



Snark aside, while I don't entirely agree with this assessment - an oversimplification at best , flat-out wrong at worst - it does pinpoint some reservations I've had about what's generally been a very strong season of "Mad Men." As I've noted before, "Mad Men" has never been a truly subtle show. Powerful and layered, yes; subtle, no. (The writing, that is - the subtlety of the acting is a big part of what makes the show work.) And yet this season Weiner (or his writers; but who doesn't believe he's the Don Draper of his own "creative" department?) has laid an especially heavy hand on the structure of each episode to shape it around a particular, pointed theme - usually some facet of the show's larger narrative concern with power dynamics, gender dynamics, the displacement of the older generation, or any & all of the above.

Put another way, substitute "are commodified" or "are objectified" for "can be bought" in the comment above, and you pretty much have, at a basic level, the Theme of the Week.

There are nuances, of course, as there always are in "Mad Men." The writers once again go for a tripartite structure of sorts, exploring the TotW through three of the principal female characters - Joan, Peggy, and Megan - against the backdrop of SCDP's Jaguar campaign, which affects them all in ways both direct and indirect.

Megan's was in some respects the most subtle riff on that theme, or at least the most oblique, though it was also the least compelling of the three. Her audition, if successful, threatened to take her entirely out of Don's reach, an outcome unacceptable to him; yet in the end, she, too, was reduced to a piece of meat at her callback ("Turn around, please") and failed to land the part. Meanwhile idiot-savant Ginsberg, seeing Megan seemingly have her way with Don, incorporated that dynamic into a game-winning Jaguar pitch with a disturbing underlying message about man's unsated desire to control and possess women. (Ginsberg's trademark? We've seen a variation of it before, in his Cinderella pitch.)

Or was it the game-winner, that pitch? Thanks to Joan, we'll never know for sure. On that storyline, I need to say this right off the bat: JOAN IS NOT A VICTIM.

Was her predicament tragic? Yes, absolutely; I'm not going to sugercoat it with some postfeminist BS about self-empowerment. She sold herself, and it was devastatingly painful to watch, the ickiness of the transaction accentuated by intercutting with Don selling Jaguar a tag line that could have been written as an ironic caption for either her or Megan. Something beautiful you can truly own. Yuck.

But it was Joan's choice, and it wasn't a foregone conclusion that she had no other. True, she was operating on imperfect information - actually, misinformation from Pete - giving her the false impression that the partners were fine with her selling herself, and she was facing the prospect of single motherhood with no support from her heel of a soon-to-be-ex-husband. Still, she wasn't yet in desperate straits, and she wasn't given an ultimatum, or even any kind of real threat, from the partners. She could have said no.

This in no way exonerates the leading men of SCDP, who collectively played a significant part in her decision. While some viewers found their actions - or lack thereof - hard to swallow, they were all wholly, if unpalatably, in character. Least surprising, after the initial shock that he would actually go there, was Pete's role as pimp-in-chief, telling half truths to convince everyone that without Joan's, er, participation, they would lose Jaguar. Let's face it, there's nothing Pete Campbell wouldn't do to advance his own interests or, by extension, the interests of the firm - this was the same guy who tried to pimp out his own wife to get his story published, after all, giving one of Joan's scornful rhetorical questions to him an uncomfortable resonance.

The others all played some variation of Pontius Pilate, at least initially: Don was disgusted and would have none of it, but didn't try to stop the train until it was too late. (Neat time-loop device there, raising the question of whether Joan would have gone through with it if he'd spoken earlier. Moved as she was, I'm not so sure she would have acted differently.) By contrast, Lane provided an insidious assist to Pete, having his own, urgent reasons for not wanting to pay out cash upfront. Bert was content to let Joan know she was free to refuse, a position consistent with his Ayn Rand-ian view of individual agency. Roger's inaction evidently disappointed viewers as much as it did Joan, but in the context of their last interaction, it makes perfect sense: Joan just rebuffed his attempts to provide for their child, but is - according to Pete - willing to prostitute herself for the same money? Roger's prone to act like a child when he feels injured, and this was no exception: So that's how it is? Well, she's not getting my money that way, after refusing it when it was kindly offered, no strings attached.

Ultimately, whatever Joan's reasons and external influences, she made a devil's bargain and stuck to it. And there was no sign at the end of the episode (unless you count her enigmatic parting glance at Peggy) that she's going to be looking in any direction other than resolutely forward, as a new partner.

Which brings me, finally, to Peggy, who by all appearances came out the best in this episode. All of her friction with Don over the past season was building to this point. He's repeatedly ignored her, unfairly vented his personal frustrations on her, and taken her for granted. He denied her a role with Jaguar (probably for the best, all things considered) while making her shoulder the rest of the work, then refused to give her any credit for saving Chevalier Blanc. The last straw, however, was his throwing money at her face when she protested - a gesture I frankly found as unlikely, coming from him, as it was insulting, but hey, anything to drive home the TotW, right?

So Peggy declared her independence, in a quiet bombshell of a scene that's bound to go down as the most poignant and emotionally satisfying Don-Peggy interaction in all of "Mad Men," beautifully delivered by both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. And her little smile at the end - to the tune (ironic?) of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me") was very Peggy, and wonderful to see.

And yet...there's a suggestion that even Peggy had her price, despite telling Don there was no number. There was no number - or price - he could offer her that she was willing to accept. But she took one from his nemesis. What will be the fallout from that, I wonder?

Random observations:

-FREDDY RUMSEN! I know people were excited to see Kinsey last week, but I, for one, was equally delighted to see Freddy. Whatever Don says about making Peggy everything she is, let's not forget it was Freddy who first noticed her talent. Love that he's still her mentor, love that he's still sober, and loved their conversation in the diner.

-Some viewers fear that Peggy is leaving the show or will have a much-reduced role. I'm not worried. She's too essential a character to be banished or sidelined for long, and her working for Don's arch-rival should have interesting consequences. Will she and Don be in open competition? So many possibilities...

-And poor Kenny gets left in the dust, his loyalty to Peggy unrewarded. Ken's not perfect by any means, but he's a decent guy, and by far the most "normal" of this dysfunctional bunch.

-There's been rampant speculation that someone will be going "out the window" before the end of the season, with most of the betting on Pete. I, however, would put my money on Lane. The noose is tightening.

-Speaking of Lane, although he undoubtedly had his own interests at heart when he advised Joan to hold out for partnership, the tone of his advice - if you're going to do this, do it for what you're really worth to this firm - had a ring of sincerity to it. There's no doubt he admires her immensely, and feels ashamed of what he's doing.

-On the flip side, some have questioned whether Don's attempt to deter Joan was at least partly motivated by his desire to win Jaguar based on the pitch alone. But again, the tone he took with her, and what we've seen of his relationship with her, suggests that any such motives are, at best, secondary. Don likes and respects Joan, and it's personal for him, seeing a woman he cares about whoring herself out. (Contrast with his callous cruelty to Sal, in the same situation.)

-Not sure what purpose Megan's friend playing jaguar served, other than to provide a distraction for the other copywriters while Ginsberg focused his attention on Megan. A bit clumsy, that.

-Best line: "Those are two different stories." -Joan, responding to Pete's clumsy attempts to compare her to Cleopatra.


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