I’ve known a lot of men and women who quite simply can’t watch Mad Men. Watching the powerful men on the show mistreat their spouses, lovers, and secretaries week after week proves too much for some people. I’ve always taken a wicked pleasure in watching the women of the show pave the path on which I currently tread, and either flounder beneath the trappings of suburbia or burst through glass ceilings. I’ve taken gleeful, wide-eyed thrills in watching Joan utilize her femininity and wield her brutal cleverness in the same beat. I’ve rooted for Peggy every sticky step of the way, watched the men around her stomp on her to do better for themselves, and reveled in her talent and ambition. I’ve written a lot about the women on the show, and the way they fascinate me.
Although it was well done, Sunday night’s episode was nothing but blow after blow to the women with whom I’ve become so infatuated. The writing in this season so far has been almost too on point – what I used to love about Mad Men was that it didn’t pander to the average American television viewer. I’ve always reveled in taking to the internet afterward to read other interpretations of what just happened, to agree and disagree and take something new out of a silent glance or a sudden strike. I believe this probably has to do with the lengthy negotiations between AMC, Weiner, and his cast in the 1.5 year hiatus between seasons four and five – which also resulted in docking the budget for The Walking Dead. Something tells me AMC asked for the show to be more shocking, for more to happen every week.
As a result, Lane and Pete had a fistfight. Megan danced burlesque. Harry had sex with a stranger on his desk. Joan got a divorce. Don actually stopped boozing and cheating on his wife and appeared happy. It’s been a bizarre journey thus far (and it’s not over yet). Sunday’s episode took the show into nearly unbelievable territory for me, though. Women were repeatedly bought, sold, and compared to cars. Even the characters for whom we sometimes feel pity, toward whom we often feel friendly, behaved in truly deplorable ways. And then there’s Joan.
I wrote almost two years ago, “Joan represents…feminine potency. She is a voluptuous, poised woman [who] uses the monumental power of her curves to navigate the treacherous waters of office politics, but the current of second-wave feminism is dragging her under. Mrs. Harris is far from weak…She’s brilliantly manipulative and knows men like the backs of her lovely hands. She cultivated her strength in the patriarchal 1950s, but she’s losing her balance as the women around her (i.e. Peggy) gain theirs.”
Since then, Joan has made leaps and bounds. Just this season, she proved herself a very talented office manager and competent mother. She became the heart of SCDP, fielding tough questions, dishing advice, and turning down offers with aplomb. She gracefully (well, mostly) handled a very ugly divorce and giving birth to Roger Sterling’s baby (and all the things that means in 1967). She refused to take Roger’s money to feed their child, after having taken whatever he offered when they were having an affair years ago. Somehow, though, the combination of Lane and Pete (both equally desperate) got her to literally sell herself.
Herb Rennet, manager of dealerships for Jaguar, expressly tells Pete and Ken in a meeting that he’ll make sure they get the Jaguar account on one condition: if he can have a night with Joan Harris. Ken (who’s proving to be the only decent man at SCDP) assumes there’s nothing doing. Pete, that weaselly little sleazeball, figures out just the way to pitch it to Joan. “We’re going to lose Jaguar unless an arrangement is made,” he says. “Can you please figure out a way to break it to the company?” Joan isn’t taking any of his garbage, though. Let’s not beat around the bush, here. What he’s talking about is prostitution.
Pete decides on $50k as a decent number for a night with Joan, and tells Lane to extend SCDP’s credit again so they can offer it to her. Lane, who’s already extended the credit once to pay himself, can’t let that happen. So what does he do? Of course, he goes to Joan (with, I’ll give him this, what seems to be a heavy heart) and tells her she shouldn’t accept a lump sum payment, but demand a 5% share of the company and voting partnership.
What would you do? She’s struggling. She has a child to care for, she won’t accept what she sees as hush money from Roger. Joan’s independence has always made her a formidable, beautiful force to be reckoned with.
Her face when fat, hairy Herb Rennet says, “I don’t know how much longer I can restrain myself. Let me see ’em,” is heartbreaking. Christina Hendricks etched so much emotion into her facial expressions during this scene. Shame, resolve, anger, and pride intermix as she strips off her dress.
Remember just last episode when she told Don her mother raised her to be admired? Way to set us up for a fall, writers. This move gives her immense power; 5% of the company and a voting partnership is an unfathomable gain for a woman in 1967. The question is, what has she lost in the process?
Don tells the partners there’s no way in hell before literally slamming the door on the idea of Joan prostituting herself (shades of his mommy issues). Behind his back, they vote without him – and when he finds out they’ve given it the go-ahead, he seeks Joan out on his own to tell her she shouldn’t do it. When he finds she has, they trade a look of sad understanding. She did what she had to do, and she did it on her own terms.
What’s odd about his behavior is that earlier in the episode he quite literally threw cash at Peggy’s face when she complained about being led astray by his orders to “handle everything.” He put her in charge of all ongoing business – but when she made a magnificent pitch on the spot to Chevalier Blanc and saved SCDP from yet another advertiser’s dustbin, he immediately wanted to replace her with Ginsberg. “So I guess I’m not in charge of everything,” she cries. At which point he throws money at her and tells her to go to Paris.
Sorry, Don. You don’t get away with that. Freddie Rumsen and Peggy are evidently still in contact, and Freddie tells her she needs to let Don know she’s “not some secretary from Brooklyn who’s dying to help out.” If anybody knows the dangers of the ad world, it’s Rumsen, and he notes rightly that Don would tell her to get the hell out in a second, too.
Of course, Peggy starts going to meetings with other agencies. Dressed in full makeup, a low-cut dress and pretty scarf trimmed in ocher, she looks like she’s on a date. Flattery will get the gent from Cutler, Gleason, and Shaw nowhere – but when he offers her $19,000 a year as Copy Chief, she has no choice but to follow.
When she approaches him with her planned speech, Don of course assumes Peggy’s just chosen the right time to grow a pair and ask for a raise. When she learned that Joan had made partner, as well as the fact that Don “can’t put a girl on Jaguar” because of “these car guys,” it gave her the much-needed oomph to get the hell out. When she reaches to shake his hand, Don kisses her the way you would royalty – a rare, lovely gesture of supplication (after his mistreatment of her, naturally) was sad and appropriate. It was the final nail in the coffin – she reached for him as a professional, and he still treated her like, first and foremost, a woman. It’s been such an immense pleasure watching these two interact for all these years that I’ll admit, Peggy’s single tear hit a tender place for me. For Peggy, who just vented to Dawn earlier in the season her worries about becoming one of the guys, this was a perfect exit.
She never goes to the Jaguar celebration, and doesn’t say goodbye to anyone – although Joan watches her retreating back, sealing the relationship between the two of them. When Peggy boards the elevator, she does it with a grin.
I’ve always sort of thought that Joan and Peggy were equally ambitious, that their intelligences were equally matched. It’s just that, as my mother would say, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Joan has always known how to use her femininity to her advantage. Peggy has bullheadedly slammed into the same wall repeatedly until now. Both of them made huge professional advances in this episode, each in her respective way and with necessary sacrifices. I’ll miss Peggy, sure. But I might miss the old Joan even more.
Megan brings in her pretty friend Julia to distract Creative while she has sex with her husband in Don’s office before going to an audition because she wanted to feel confident. At the audition, of course, all the casting directors want to see is her behind (a final punch in the gut to the ladies of Mad Men on Sunday). Ginsberg, ever the up-and-coming genius (and perhaps replacement for Peggy?), comes up with a brilliant, stinging tagline for Jaguar. “At Last, Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own.” Because, har har, not all of us get beautiful women, amirite guys?
Please share your thoughts! What do you think was going on in Joan’s head as she watched Peggy’s retreating back? Do you think the writer’s are ramping up Pete Campbell’s sleaziness to prepare us for his demise? What would you have done? Did you think Roger’s non-reaction was implausible?