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Mad Men: Controversy as Joan Lowers Herself to Rise and Peggy Exits Anticlimactically (as SCDP Gets Its Halo Client)

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As soon as I saw what happened, I figured there would be a lot of controversy about the latest episode of Mad Men, "The Other Woman." And sure enough, there is.

As always, there be some spoilers ahead. Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, going back to 2009, here in The Mad Men File.

Why the controversy? Well, because two of the show's longtime characters did things that many, if not most, fans don't like.

Peggy Olson, whom some have believed the series is really about, suddenly left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And Joan Holloway (her divorce isn't final but I'm more than happy not to call her Joan Harris despite the fashion of the time) had sex with a car dealer to help the agency close the deal on getting the Jaguar account. In exchange for which she is now a partner in SCDP, which she should have been all along since she's probably the most competent person there.

I've made it clear from the first piece I wrote about this season that I don't think Season 5 is as good as previous seasons. I find much of the plotting far too arbitrary, even capricious. The constant tossing about of obvious symbolism -- which I suspect the writers do in part to stir up the fans, a la Lost -- is grating. And too often the show presents itself as a morality play. Which I find to be frequently pointless.

After all, Mad Men is not The West Wing. (The only other series to win four straight Best Drama Emmys.)

This ain't a show about the good guys and gals. These characters are not West Wing's idealists, albeit frequently fallible ones. These characters are deeply compromised, at best.

The brilliant pilot for Mad Men made this very clear from the beginning. Sterling Cooper was working desperately to help its big tobacco company client get around the problem of pesky health regulations on its lethal product. An especially brilliant touch was having the characters, again, right in the pilot, talk about the unfolding 1960 presidential race and the agency's plans to help one of the candidates. After all, Roger Sterling reasoned, there's no reason that America can't fall in love with a good-looking Navy hero like ... Dick Nixon. (Not the actually good-looking actual Navy hero Jack Kennedy that one expects to hear. In addition to being decidedly unglamorous, Nixon had been a supply officer in the Navy.) That's when I decided I was into the show, as it was such a delicious twist.

On to what happened in "The Other Woman," dealing with Peggy first.

I thought the final scene between she and her patron/kinda mentor Don Draper was brilliant and quite moving. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss (Zoey Bartlet on The West Wing!) do great work together.

But I found her departure from SCDP, and thus from the main narrative line of Mad Men, to be anticlimactic. That's because she just hasn't had that much to do this season. Just last week I wrote that her character had had "another quiet episode."

Aside from some notable mishaps in her work earlier in the season -- and Don's realization that she figured hardly at all in the agency's splashiest creative work, perhaps because he had her assigned to oversee the more routine accounts -- and her proposal that wasn't quite from lefty journo boyfriend Abe, she's been thoroughly overshadowed by this season's major emphasis on Megan.

In fact, Peggy has had to cope with the realization that she is no longer the bright young brilliant at SCDP. She was usurped in that by Megan, who became the first character on the show to reject advertising, even though she has an easy knack for it, and by the quirky but very talented Michael Ginsberg, who does seem to be the real deal.

Since we've seen relatively little of her this season -- remember how central she was the first few seasons? -- Peggy's suddenly leaving the agency feels arbitrary. Don literally throwing money in her face after she makes a neat adjustment on the fly to the cologne client's Hard Days Night-style ad for upcoming Valentine's Day trade (he accuses her of doing it to get a trip to Paris, which is ridiculous) provides some context as it was actually the only thing that shocked me in the episode.

Peggy is prompted to go elsewhere by her old friend, and the first champion of her talents, Freddy Rumsen. Freddy Rumsen? Last time we saw that guy he had just worked his way back in to the agency. Now he's telling her to leave? Cue sound effects for another hairpin plot turn.

And Peggy leaves to go with the oleaginous Draper enemy Ted Chaough? But she still really likes Don. Sure. At this point, why not?

The biggest controversy, naturally, is over the Joan developments.

Some just can't believe that she would have sex with unattractive Jaguar guy to help the agency get the halo account it has long needed and become a very well-off SCDP partner in the process.

And some are just shocked that the agency men would be so involved in using what is in essence prostitution to promote their business.

Whereas I wonder what show some folks have been watching.

I felt sad watching Joan go through with it, but was not at all surprised that she did. (Jaguar guy, incidentally, is not a Jaguar executive as so many TV critics who should know more about the business that funds so much of television have been saying. He is a rich American who who owns car dealerships and heads the dealers committee. Pete Campbell's read is that the two Jaguar execs on the advertising committee will vote for SCDP but the representative of the dealers who sell the cars they get, under contract, from Jaguar can kill the deal.)

Prostitution as part of Sterling Coo's business promotion has been present from the beginning. If the show were on HBO, it would be even more obvious. But the references to "handjobs" arranged by the account executives (on HBO it would be a different reference), the jokes about what accounts guys do, even Roger's expensive fling with a call girl he'd met after she was lined up by colleagues for a big client -- it's all been right there.

These guys entertain the clients as part of servicing the account when the client visits the Big Apple. They don't just arrange museum tours.

That SCDP would use a woman to help close a deal isn't a surprise in the least. That the woman is Joan is the only element of surprise.

I felt bad for Joan, but was not surprised. One needn't have a radical feminist critique of marriage to see a major financial element in more than a few marriages and relationships between men and women.

Don and Roger, for example, both have had trophy wives. Joan was Roger's longtime mistress. While the details aren't clear, did she not receive some financial advantage from the relationship? Since she may be the most professionally capable person at the agency, it may not be a factor. We don't know.

We do know that she married a jerk. She even put up with him raping her. She thought that Dr. Blockhead would be a rich doctor and she could give up working at a young age. She even went so far as to quit her job at Sterling Coo. But her scenario didn't play out for her.

At least Joan made a very good deal for herself this time around. Well, a very good deal unless Lane Pryce's not especially well explained embezzlement becomes a big problem for the agency.

How did that get past Joan, by the way? Just another mystery of plotting.

Is Joan's partnership, which she has long deserved, somehow tainted by how she got it? I suppose. But I suspect that, since she is not afflicted by naivete, she will be sustantially more happy than not to have it. And woe betide any of her colleagues who is foolish enough to try to make her feel bad about it.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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