By Cynthia Littleton
It took two days, two viewings and a trip to the beach where I mostly contemplated the Tao of Joan before I could make any sense of “The Other Woman.”
I didn’t think any “Mad Men” episode this season would be able to top Roger Sterling’s jaunty LSD journey in “Far Away Places.” But I should’ve had more faith.
The darkness of this episode, written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner and beautifully directed by Phil Abraham, was unrelenting. It’s a testament to how much the audience loves and is rooting for Joan that her degradation hurt so much— and that she allowed it to happen by her own choice made it all the more cutting. After much consideration, I believe it was in character for Joan, who’s always used her sexuality and cup size as a weapon, or at least an asset, to make her way. (Notable that the sicko car dealer describes Joan to Ken and Pete as “built like a B-52.”) Her capitulation underscores that as we’ve always known, underneath her steely, sexy, confident exterior is a very insecure little girl looking for someone to take care of her. It’s not by accident that we learned this season that Joan’s father abandoned the family, or at least her mother.
None of this lets Joan off the hook. She made a horrible decision that she’s going to have to live with for the rest of her life — and probably think about every time she looks her “partners” in the eye.
Most especially the best-looking one of the lot, Don. But it hurt that much more because it was her decision — nobody held a gun to her head. Nobody threatened to fire her. We wanted her to take something heavy — like say one of her stiletto heels — to Pete Campbell’s head when he first drops his passive-aggressive hint about the Jaguar dealer’s brazen request. Joan could whip Pete without getting a hair out of place. But she didn’t. And when Lane Pryce came in with his self-serving maneuvering to steer her to a partnership rather than $50,000 upfront — somehow that made it more palatable to her, if only because she’d had more time to talk herself into it, Craven as he is, Pete Campbell’s line about how people often make personal mistakes “for free” probably resonated with her. Yes, Joan’s been there, done that — on the floor of the old Sterling Cooper offices, no less.
Until the very end, until we saw her (twice) at home in her green kimono robe, we wanted to believe that Joan would fight off Mr. Depraved Car Dealer and flee the hotel with a shred of honor. She did for an instant, when she swatted his paw away as he went for her breasts (“them” as he described the object of his desire). But then she seemed frozen with fear as she turned her back to him to allow the final indignity to begin. This and the subsequent scene with fatso in bed made my stomach churn, no exaggeration.
Cut to the adventure of our other femme hero, Peggy Olson. Yes, the contrast between Peggy’s move and Joan’s descent couldn’t have been sharper. And yes, it all fell in line with the theme of the ad campaign Don and the boys cooked up for Jaguar — selling the kick of having car concubine without saying the word “mistress.” For the men of Sterling Cooper, with the notable exception of Don, Joan is the “something beautiful” that they bought in order to land the car account that they felt was so desperately needed. Don was crushed by the whole notion because he wanted to win the business on the strength of his team’s creative work, not sexual favors, and of course because prostitution is a primal source of shame for one Dick Whitman.
Don had almost as rough an episode as Joan, between dealing with her situation and the jolt of losing Peggy. The protégé he thought he owned sprouted legs and walked away into the professional arms of his rival, sending his natural abandonment anxiety into overdrive. As complicated as everything involving Joan was in this episode, Peggy was pretty straightforward. She’d finally had enough, so she moved on. Thank you, Freddy Rumsen, nice to see you, pal. The fact that she was able to lower the boom just as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was in the throes of its Jaguar jubilation only made it that much sweeter for Peggy, as she indicated with her mile-wide smile as she got on the elevator. The sight of Don grafting his lips to her hand not 60 seconds after he tried to wave her off like a petulant child was unsettling, to say the least.
Overshadowed by all the Joan-Peggy action was the very weird scene between Don and Megan in the office when Megan drops by on her way to her audition. She treats Don like a plaything to be toyed with, no matter how inconvenient for him, in order to boost her confidence for her audition. It’s clearly a little demoralizing for Don, who took nothing but blows from the women in his life this week. But Megan gets hers when she gets the meat-market treatment at her audition.
The only thing that bugged me about this episode was Roger Sterling. I don’t think he would have been so silent about the Joan business — not after all that has transpired between those two.
As much as I don’t particularly like the Lane Pryce embezzlement storyline, gotta give props to Jared Harris for great work in his brief scenes. He can act with his forehead and eyebrows, a trait that seems very British to me.
Among the many things to wonder about as the show heads into its last two segs of the season is whether Peggy will try to keep her pact with Ken Cosgrove? I think she’ll try. And after everything that happened in “The Other Woman,” I hope Pete Campbell chokes the next time he tries to read a story to his little girl.