SONIA BRAND-FISHER: When my mother read Gwenyth Swain’s “The Road to Seneca Falls” (a children’s chapter book about the women’s suffrage movement) to me as a little girl, the book began with with a detailed account of the unjust, yet normalized opinions of women and their roles in society. A visceral reaction came from my 7-year-old self in response to the tame description of the marginalization of women. I began to scream and cry, my mind whirled, and my mother put the book on the shelf never to be touched again. A similar reaction came over me when watching this episode of “Mad Men.” Though there was no temper tantrum, and I sat through the entire episode, by the end I was shaking. The structure, the men, the women, the pimps, the whores, the actors, the agencies, and The Other Woman all make up the best hour of television that I have ever seen.
My favorite character, in this episode, was stripped down to her most raw emotions conveyed through her shield-like eyes. Joan has been, throughout “Mad Men,” a symbol, a Marilyn, an unapologetic vixen, a bombshell, and yes, even the other woman. Season Five has shown the strain that all of those labels have on her, and then the men so set on the image of “something beautiful that you could truly own” push her past her own boundaries. Her space suddenly becomes re-contextualized, where the office becomes a place where her bosses control her sex life and as her apartment can only be read as a brothel when her mother takes Don’s hat at the door and Joan emerges in her emerald robe. The episode is tense and stunning, with every character involved in this “transaction” in a state of perpetual disbelief. The Godfather-esque montage of Don’s pitch perfect pitch spinning with close-ups on Joan’s face and features in the hotel room with Herb Rennet felt like a massacre. It felt like someone was going to pull out a gun with the winsome, yet dark music driving the scene forward and our hearts pounding. Though she looked on the verge of tears in the hotel room and in the office, Joan had the strength and icy charisma of a reluctant courtesan. And now another label is hers, silent, like her promotion to Partner at SCDP.
The images of women in this episode as call-girls, spontaneous strippers, and scantily-clad actresses made my blood boil. But Don throwing the crumpled up bills from his pocket in Peggy’s face after she secured the Gevalia account felt like a punch to the gut. We have always seen Peggy as “different” from the other women on “Mad Men” for her intellect, innovation, proactivity, and mystery. For her to be verbally bossed around by Don Draper, if anything, unifies her with her male counterparts in the company, but to toss money in her face cuts deeply as a reminder to her of the society and workplace that she inhabits. She decides to leave SCDP, for a substantially higher salary, for another agency that will treat her so much better than at the place where she got her start. CGC acts as “the other man” in this episode, for when Peggy gives her notice to Don and he asks where she is going, his face tightens, as if she were his wife who had just slept with the next-door neighbor. But it is a much deeper loss for Don, and he kisses her hand as she stands above him, like a queen, and not like Cleopatra. No one follows her to the elevators, no one wishes her luck. It is just Peggy, taking on the world. Finally, something substantial that she can truly own.
Exposing the jagged-edged injustices beneath the technicolor facade of “Mad Men” has not been done to this kind of extreme before. The pain that was felt watching this episode is a testament to the immense impact that a work of art can have on an audience. “The Other Woman” hurt to watch, because it felt so raw and real, but aesthetically maintained its saunter onto our TV screens. It is important to experience artistic pain so that a message can emerge about these times, and our times, leaving us with conclusions that we cannot stick back onto the shelf.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Look, the episode clearly works as television. But there’s been a fair amount of dissection since about whether the actions in the episode match the characters to date. Here’s a rundown:
ROGER STERLING- I’m not convinced Roger is so comfortable with Joan making this sacrifice as he was in the episode. This is the mother of one of his children, a woman he loves. What exactly is his motivation for okaying this? He’s not particularly interested in the future of the company. Is it revenge for Joan refusing his money to raise her son? Felt false to me, plus this compromises our enjoyment of Roger from now on.
DON DRAPER- Would he really do something as extreme as throw money in Peggy’s face? Taking for granted is a different level of response than treating her like a prostitute, especially in a season that has seen him more open to empathy within his marriage. Still, he does have a temper, and I could see this one.
PEGGY OLSON- This was well done. It’s properly set up by both her character, and this season in particular. Seeing her take a path she knew Don would take is exactly right.
LANE PRYCE- I’m still not convinced Lane is a felon. And I resent the show making him a Mets fan, and then a felon. But if we accept that, his complicated motivations while speaking to Joan was remarkable, both in writing and execution.
Like I said, this episode, stand-alone, worked as effectively as any in the series. But what I have always loved about Mad Men is how effectively the drama of a single hour fit into long-term aspirations of the show. And I’m not sure this one properly fit, both regarding the show’s past and its future.