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Maureen Ryan

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'Mad Men' Recap: The Women Make Game-Changing Choices

Posted: 05/29/2012 12:00 am

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Do not read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 11 of AMC's "Mad Men," "The Other Woman."

"This thing, gentlemen. What price would we pay? What behavior would we forgive?" - Don in the Jaguar pitch

"There is no number." - Peggy to Don

For various reasons, I wasn't able to review Mad Men until Monday evening, and I was glad to have the extra thinking time. Before I get to specific thoughts on the episode though, I'll share a few thoughts on the season as a whole. Call it my State of the "Mad Men" address.

Here's my big admission: I'm going to be fine with it when the current season of "Mad Men" ends.

Let me be clear: That is not me saying that I dislike "Mad Men." That's incorrect. I think the drama is still tremendously interesting in any number of ways and worth watching.

But normally, at this point in a season, I'd be dreading the end of that year's run of episodes. At this stage of a season, I'm normally inserting phrases like "I can't stand the idea this season's almost over!" into my reviews. What I'm saying here is that I can stand the idea that the season's almost over.

There's a grim, pervasively bleak quality to Season 5 that actually exceeds Season 4's descent into Don's private hell.

The thing is, that descent was actually something of a draw. There was actually a great deal of suspense in wondering whether Don would pull out of the skid in time. We were watching the deconstruction of our hero, in whom we'd all invested, despite (or because of) his flaws. Whether he would survive his personal Waterloo was very much an open question. We both wanted him to pull himself together and were strangely gripped by the prospect that he might not.

And as I've said in recent weeks on the Talking TV podcast, big story drivers were masterfully built into all of the previous seasons. Would Don's infidelities come to light? Would his secret identity and hidden wife be discovered? Would the old firm survive? Would the new firm be able to make a go of it? Would Don be able to pull himself together after the crack-up of his marriage and family life?

It's not that I require each season to have the same structure, but normally, by this point in the season, we'd have palpably swung into the home stretch. We'd feel something coming, even if we didn't know what it was. The show always had more than its fair share of existential angst -- and we love "Mad Men" for that -- but it also had the kinds of secrets, lies and emotional land mines that made for threads of tension and delicious suspense.

This season, it's a repetitive, frequently sordid story. We have seen a lot of the same thing over and over again: characters feel passed over, ignored, taken for granted. For most of them, their lives have plateaued and that's led to any amount of anger, hurt feelings, frustration and even nastiness. Many of the hopes and ambitions of previous seasons have given way to despair, peevishness or a determination to hang on to whatever shreds of mediocrity are still available.

That may be how life goes. But I'm not watching life; I'm watching a TV show, one that has substituted an intoxicating array of good, bad and ambiguous possibilities for the clenched, resentful aura of, well, a train car full of disaffected businessmen on their drunken way to the suburbs.

It's not that I require "Mad Men" to be fun or hopeful all the time, or even 30 percent of the time. I just require a more mixed bag than the generally dour atmosphere we're currently experiencing. The problem with all these characters hitting a wall is this: How do you dramatize negative space, let alone get people emotionally invested in it? How do you depict people not getting what they want, feeling left out or experiencing lassitude? I think "Mad Men" has run up against the wall of what's possible within that particular arena.

And while I'm a fan of dark and twisty drama, shows like "The Shield" and "Breaking Bad" always give viewers the kind of propulsive plots that make it possible to sidestep, much of the time, the fact that you're rooting for people who aren't all that nice. What's propulsive about this season of "Mad Men"? Betty's weight loss quest? Pete's desire for a mistress? Lane's bad check? Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting "Mad Men" to be a hugely plot-driven or arc-driven show; this AMC drama does a different thing and I enormously respect its strange, wonderful, contradictory personality. But this season, the show has gone around in sad, resigned circles a fair amount of the time. I'm not sure what the point is, and I'm not sure the characters think there is a point.

Not surprisingly, "The Other Woman" was a variation on a theme we've seen previously in Season 5, something you could call the Various Forms of Accommodation. It goes something like this: Characters of Don and Joan's generation -- people who are out of touch -- face either grim compromises or being left behind. For characters of Pete and Peggy's generation, some autonomy is left, but frustrations lurk around every corner and little scraps of freedom have to be intensely negotiated and energetically guarded. For Megan and the characters of her generation, there are humiliations here and there (as at her off-putting callback), but, in general, they do what they want. And unlike those in the generations ahead of them, that's what the young people expect to be able to do, indefinitely. They have a different mindset about possibility and experience, a point the show has made over and over again (without ever delving deeply into the counterculture or examining the complex the racial and cultural dynamics promised by the arrival of Dawn and Michael).

Until this season, "Mad Men" often zigged when I expect it to zag; the stories in past season have often unfolded in unexpected ways. But the rather predictable progression of the stories of Megan, Joan and Peggy (marginally compromised, moderately compromised, fully compromised) deflated the momentum a little.

And, true to Season 5 form, the show, yet again, did a terrible thing to a character I love. It actually doesn't even matter any more whether it's characters who are fairly loathsome (Pete Campbell, Harry Crane), characters who are questionable but not unredeemable (Don, Roger) or characters for whom it's impossible not to feel a mixture of affection and compassion (Sally, Joan, Peggy). Regardless, horrid things involving resentment and grim accommodation happen to all of them, and that syndrome is frankly making the show somewhat predictable.

I'm going out on a limb here, so forgive the theorizing, but at this point, it's hard not to read a lot of this season and this episode in particular as creator Matthew Weiner's comment on what happened during the protracted contract negotiations between himself and his representatives on one side and Lionsgate (the show's production company) and AMC on the other between Seasons 4 and 5. I don't think it's much of a stretch to think of Peggy as Weiner's avatar on the show (one of many, of course), and almost from Day 1 of the current season, she's been treated terribly by her superior. Despite her talents, she's been disrespected and dismissed by a distracted boss who thinks that literally and figuratively throwing money at her will solve any problems.

She feels insulted, because it was never about money for Peggy; it was about recognition. Don didn't give her the right kind of affirmation for a very long time, and she'd just put up with as much of his dismissal as she could take. Don and Peggy were able to recognize what they meant to each other in the episode's most moving scene, but almost everything else in this episode was about negotiations that started ugly and got even uglier. So forgive me for perhaps stretching the analogy, but didn't the Weiner-AMC-Lionsgate public spat go pretty much the same way (aside from the whole hand-kissing thing)? Sniping articles appeared on various websites for weeks, and in the end, I'm betting most of the people involved felt dispirited, aggrieved and used.

I wonder if much of this season is about resentment because of how all those negotiations went down, but again, it's only a theory. Perhaps the sheer number of cold betrayals and the prominent season-long themes about under-appreciated creative types are just a coincidence.

Eventually, I know, I have to talk about Joan. Oh, Joanie.

I can't be the only one who recalled Greg Harris' rape of Joan during her encounter with Herb, the emerald-giving Jaguar guy. Something about Joan's cold, dead eyes in those hotel scenes was heartbreaking; the enormously pained look on her face recalled the rape scene as if it were yesterday.

You can say that she chose to go to Herb's hotel room, that she chose to take what she could get, given that she felt sure, in that moment (if not before), that no one at the firm was truly going to look out for her future. Somehow those intellectual arguments fail to provide much comfort, and that's the hallmark of this season: Cold calculation and brutal accommodations are the order of the day. Don't like catching your grandmother performing a sex act on a family friend? Too bad, Sally. Hate the funereal suburbs? Too bad, Pete. Your husband's a self-absorbed creep and you don't like being pimped out by the grimy Pete Campbell and his fellow partners? Well, that's how it is, Joan. Bad things rain down on the characters, without a lot of time spent on the emotional fallout. Just pour another drink.

Of course, it's not all completely cold and grey. Peggy's able to walk out of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with her dignity relatively intact and a smile on her face. Megan uses Don to get what she needs sexually before her big audition, and she tells Don in no uncertain terms that she won't modify her dreams in the least in order to fit into his world.

So it's not all bad news. But there's still a lot of bad news. I looked at that room full men bargaining over Joan's price as if she were a prize farm animal and I wondered, "Am I supposed to loathe all these people?" Because I really did in that moment. I know Pete was feeding them a lot of disinformation -- which was then further twisted by Lane in order to keep his secrets buried -- but still. "Business at a very high level" doesn't look all that elevated; it makes prostitution look honest by comparison. Which makes me wonder: Are these the people we'll be traveling through the '60s with for two more seasons? Um, yay?

Just to be contrary, I am wrestling with something relatively positive I've been thinking about since I watched the episode a second time. The Don we saw here didn't wow everyone with his own amazing pitch -- it was Michael's calculating idea. And the Jaguar pitch, which was intercut with the scenes of Joan's soulless encounter, was designed to make us recall something that wasn't all about possession, ownership, attainable versus unattainable control. It was meant to evoke the simplicity and purity of Season 1's sentimental Carousel pitch, which was Don's idea and represented the heartrending nostalgia that Don Draper used to channel so beautifully.

SCDP's Jaguar idea was a wildly different campaign, one that was all about what you can buy -- a metal thing that is supposed to be a substitute for the warm contact of another human being. (A free idea for your next story, Ken. You're welcome.)

But here's the interesting thing: This Season 5 Don, who's been otherwise checked out for much of the season, possessed the self-sacrifice and self-awareness to go to Joan's apartment and try to talk her out of selling herself to Herb, no matter the cost to himself or the firm. He didn't know she'd already done it, and he was willing to give up a huge amount of prestige and money in order to save a friend from a terrible mistake.

Would Season 1 Don have done that? I'd like to think so, but I don't know. (And I'd love your input on that in comments below.)

As for Joanie herself, I think she made this calculation in her head: She's not Peggy -- her skills are valuable, but not as valuable as those of copy writers and account men and so forth. She's not young anymore. She's had plenty of bad or indifferent sexual encounters that gave her only heartbreak -- why not have one more that might ensure financial security for herself and her child? I think she thought all those things would be enough to get her through the date with Herb, but I don't think they really were. She might have been the one to control when and how Herb saw her naked body, but nobody can control what being sold does to the soul.

Don Draper, the son of a whore, thought the price Joan would pay was too high. But I doubt SCDP has a generous 401(K) plan. She did what she thought she had to, and notice her bearing in the scene in which the company found out they'd won the Jaguar account. It was queenly, Cleopatra be damned.

Speaking of the end of the episode, the scene between Don and Peggy was tremendous, but Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss are always magnificent together. It's no coincidence that their final pose -- Don at Peggy's waist, kissing her hand -- recalled Don's brutal reconciliation with Megan a few weeks ago, kneeling, begging her to stay with him.

In the end, all women are faithless mothers to Don. And yet, on some level, he knows what these three women are worth.

At least someone does.

Some final thoughts:

  • All the Lane stuff, I'll say again, feels like a contrived way to inject ongoing tension into a season that has largely lacked it. As I wrote last week, I don't really believe he would have cooked the books without going to a fellow partner first, and everything that flows from that bad-check contrivance is just an elaboration on a situation that feels hinky and slight. In any event, even Lane sold out poor Joanie, despite very real feelings for her. He proposed a partnership share to Joan, not truly because he's looking out for her, but because he probably can't extend the credit of the firm any further without alerting the partners to his shenanigans.
  • Oh, the irony of Don Draper complaining about his spouse "doing whatever" she wants. Pot, kettle, black.
  • Question for you: Would Joan have slept with Herb had Don caught her and talked to her before she went to Herb's hotel? I go back and forth on that, but I tend to think she would come down on the side of ensuring Kevin's future, whatever it took.
  • Freddy Rumsen! It was great to see him, and it was good that he looked sober.
  • Don was his old suave self in the Jaguar presentation, but the best pitch of the day came from Teddy Chaough. You could see Peggy melt as he played up to her with a masterfully constructed ego-stroke (and similarly, the Jaguar pitch might as well have been constructed only for Herb).
  • Megan has career independence, despite being financially dependent on Don. Peggy has a much higher salary and possibly greater prospects with her new job. Whatever you think of how she got it, Joan now owns part of SCDP, which in turn, now possesses a car account. Speaking of irony, it's very interesting to note that, for all the talk of beauty that is owned, Herb ended up with nothing tangible in his possession. His "ownership" of beauty was temporary at best.
  • And speaking of that, the interplay between Don's pitch and Joan's encounter wasn't exactly subtle, but that's been another hallmark of this season. Still, I was OK with how that worked out, given the many layers of meaning that were at work in those two scenes. Someone is no doubt writing a PhD thesis on all that, even as we speak.
  • Peggy didn't really want a drink in Don's office, but when she found out Joan had been made a partner, she took a big gulp. I can't say I blame her.
  • Is Elisabeth Moss leaving the show? I highly doubt it. My guess: Maybe she'll be gone for the next episode or two, but when Season 6 begins, she and Don will somehow end up back in each other's orbit. Maybe another merger will take place, or perhaps Michael Ginsberg will burn out and Don will beg Peggy to come back?
  • Perhaps one reason to think things will take a turn for the less grim soon: As Peggy got on the elevator -- first, there was actually an elevator there, not a void. Second, she smiled. Third: Kinks!
  • Don't forget to check out the Talking TV podcast, on which Ryan McGee and guests and I discuss "Mad Men" every week. It recently moved to this snazzy site, and the previous site will stick around as long as Roger loves vodka (i.e., forever) here.

 

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