TV Recap: Mad Men “The Other Woman”

This superfine hour of television had its claws out for me right off the bat. The opening scene in the Jaguar war room, a glass cage in which Don, Stan, Ginsberg, and some copywriter mercenaries wearily and warily surround the concept of car-as-mistress, scratched my itch for Mad Men’s workplace dramedy mode, and we get a hint of deeper emotional waters as Peggy’s exclusion from this mammoth-hunting expedition plays on her face: naked, almost childish envy, not necessarily of the catered lobster. (There are three extra guys at the table, including this one:

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

who was a Sterling Cooper bit player in olden times but doesn’t merit a mention on the show’s Wikipedia page. Peggy asks about a “prospect” and though it isn’t clear which one she means it’s probably the older fella.)

So one domino, then the next. We’re at another of those dinners with drinks in an exquisite, dark-wooded room, table-lit with just a spot of color,

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

the better to appreciate the charms of Herb Rennet, head of the Jaguar dealer association, whose favor is sought by Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove because his vote is crucial to landing the Jag account. Rennet crosses a line that’s been in plain sight all along on Mad Men, telling them that SCDP can only hope for his support if he gets to spend the night with Joan Harris. Kenny makes a stab at knocking down this proposal, but Pete, firmly pursing his kissable lips, seems to be fully prepared to bargain for Joan’s virtue. Naturally, we can hardly wait to see how he’s going to go about it, but we do have a quick check-in with Don and Megan at home – she’s auditioning, a wife is like a Buick, okay, later. Pete opens his pitch to Joan by calling epic sleazeball Rennet a “handsome guy,” knowing full well that Joan doesn’t “remember any of them.” His retelling of Rennet’s offer adjusts the details enough to cast himself in a slightly better light, but he doesn’t shy from his task. Unfortunately he leaves with the impression that Joan just needs to have her price met – “what would it take to make you a queen?” (There’s a nicely observed office behavior moment when Carolyn’s eyeball swivels for a second to take in who’s with Joan behind closed doors.)

Pete needs the other partners to approve Rennet’s demand, but he has to get past three members of Team Joan: Roger, Don, and Lane, in their very different ways, all have a history with her. All three react initially with disgust and disbelief, but it’s only Don who storms out. After he leaves, the moral temperature plummets to a negotiation on an appropriate payoff to Joan. This ties in very cleverly with Lane’s embezzlement last week: Pete thinks that $50,000 would buy Joan’s cooperation, if Lane can persuade the bank to raise SCDP’s credit enough to cover it – but Lane already did that last week to stay out of Tax Jail back on Airstrip One! Lane’s got a trick up his hat, though.

While Don and his crew wage the Jaguar campaign, Peggy’s asked to shoulder all the rest of SCDP’s accounts. When a minor crisis arises with Chevalier Blanc, Peggy’s quick thinking saves the day (and earns mimed hand clapping from Kenny; sometimes I try to imagine him as a fan who won a contest to have a minor recurring role on the show). Everybody yells at the speakerphone, as you would. But Peggy’s small triumph just sets her up for another sad scene where her hopes for Don’s approval are rudely dismissed. Don is preoccupied with a Jaguar re-think; seeing Joan on the auction block has soured him on the “mistress” constellation of ideas in favor of something less vulgar, and his frustration spills over on Peggy unforgivably when he tosses dollar bills in her face – like a whore, Peaches! Kenny is very sweet to Peggy in their follow-up scene, reminding us that he was one of her supporters at the dawn of her copywriting career – but Peggy rejects his kindness, joylessly donning her Don mask.

Megan’s relatively minor role in this episode is again about getting Don to take her acting ambitions seriously. She’s a finalist for a part in Little Murders, a dark comedy by Jules Feiffer (although the first production in 1967 only lasted seven performances, it was revived successfully and made into a movie starring Elliot Gould). But if she gets the role, there will be eight weeks of rehearsals and previews inBoston. Don blows up at that; Megan either is overestimating Don’s tolerance and modernity on these issues, or is calculating that he’ll eventually come around after a little rasslin’. (I get the feeling that both of them sometimes misread the other’s anger as foreplay.) There’s a very brief scene at Megan’s audition – actress, wife, prostitute, check and double-check – and then we find she didn’t get the part, which calms the waters at home. But Megan makes sure he knows the score: if she has to choose between her career and her marriage, she’ll stay married – but not happily. Comprenez-vous?

Megan also serves as the unsuspecting inspiration for Ginsberg’s winning Jaguar strategy. “She just comes and goes as she pleases,” he muses aloud (ignoring Megan’s friend Julia, who writhes on the table to local acclaim). That’s what “the other woman” does, not a wife in the ’60s – but the idea stews for a while until it aligns with the episode’s theme: “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” Even though Don told the team to stay away from sexy, Ginsberg sells him on it (lucky for him he doesn’t let on that Megan ever entered his mind).

Lane’s embassy to Joan is an echo of Pete’s. Both of them worked out a couple of angles in advance, and Lane is able – by hinting heavily that he’s doing it because of his unrequited crush – to maneuver Joan into settling for a partnership share instead of a lump sum that would require another trip to the bank. Nobody is allowing Joan to think for a moment that she can choose not to sleep with Rennet. Backed into a corner, abandoned even by Roger, she accepts the partnership offer and gets ready for her night with Herb.

This has been going on behind Don’s back, and it’s Pete who clues him in, defensive, defiant, hoarse of voice. Don’s all “to the Batcave!” and dashes to Joan’s apartment to tell her she doesn’t have to go through with it, but in doing so he has to reveal his powerlessness: “they voted when I left the room.” I think Don’s not sure he’s talked her out of it, but he had to try to be “one of the good ones.” Joan seems sad and subdued, but she certainly does go with the décor.

The presentation to Jaguar is triumphant, and the setting is, again, a dark-paneled room with spots of color provided by the art boards: deep red sexualized close-ups of the anatomy of an XKE just like the one Don took for a spin last week.

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

The Jaguar’s headlights stand for Joan, whose tryst with Herb Rennet is intercut with Don’s eloquent pitch. Don’s at the top of his game – his pacing and tone dare a comparison with his tear-jerking performance in “The Wheel,” Mad Men’s first truly great episode. His voice goes back and forth, conference room to hotel room, and we can imagine that some of Don’s passion is transmuted from anger at Joan’s situation, but, as ever, we’re not totally sure about that. “What price would we pay, what behavior would we forgive?” could be an indictment of the entire enterprise, if Don went in for that sort of thing.

Well now, Herb – the universe knows Joan looks good in green. Fortunately, Rennet’s Herbishness is sufficient unto itself; there’s no need to load him up with some nasty kink or excess cruelty to worsen Joan’s plight. She lives through it, and then they whip off the tablecloth: her date with Herb was the night before the Jaguar pitch, and when Don went to her apartment she had just returned from it. Thus Rennet’s vote has already been secured when SCDP pitches, although Don probably thinks it’s all down to dynamite creative and suave salesmanship. But later that day, while everyone celebrates the Jaguar signing, Joan and Don exchange massively freighted glances that apparently tell him all about what really happened.

And now – this is the real weepy and like, tragic part of the story beginning, O my brothers and only friends. Peggy, our beloved and mistreated surrogate, has finally had enough of Don’s double-edged mentorship. She turns to Freddy Rumsen, another of her early champions, who helps talk her into sending out her book and resumé – for real, not just as a pay-raise ploy. Freddy’s right – we can hear Don offering Peggy the same advice if the situation was different. We next see her at the same restaurant table for a meeting with Ted Chaough. From his showing last season we might write him off as an insufferable jerk with a silly, Wodehousian surname, but really he’s just another Mad Man. Even if he’s motivated by a desire to stick it to Don, Ted knows how to treat Peggy: he understands what’s good about her work, he assumes she knows her Emerson, and he improves on her salary request. (Peggy asks for $18,000, so I assume she’s not making that much at SCDP. For comparison, Joan’s salary is also revealed in this episode: one-fourth of $50,000, i.e. $12–13K.)

Copy Chief at $19,000 – if it’s Peggy’s last meeting. As far as we know, it was her first, and in the moment I really couldn’t tell which way she would jump. In the final scene, Peggy’s got something to discuss with Don but she still hesitates, offering him a chance to join the post-Jaguar merriment instead. Don thinks he knows what she wants to talk about, but “I can’t put a girl on Jaguar” tells us what Peggy’s decided. Peggy’s obviously rehearsed her speech but it’s difficult for her – she’s nowhere near as polished as Don is in these situations, as we’ve noticed in her client presentations. But Don misreads her, in the same way that Pete misunderstood Joan: he thinks it’s a negotiation. Don’s expression of redfaced bowel torment when Peggy tells him she’s going to Cutler, Gleason & Chaough is priceless. Just as when Megan resigned, Don dismisses the two-weeks’ notice and visibly struggles to master himself. And when Peggy extends her hand to shake, Don kisses it almost reverently, eyes closed:

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

Peggy tears up, and has to detach her hand from Don’s nose. In her office, she gathers a red thermos and a coffee mug and heads out; only Joan notices her departure. When the elevator comes, it plays The Kinks and that makes Peggy smile!

So – shall we begin 1967? I can’t believe that Peggy’s going to be sidelined; she’s not Sal, nor Kinsey, nor even Cosgrove, who spent some time at (I think it was) two other agencies before drifting genially back into Don’s orbit. Peggy is Number Two on the show, and she’s us; Don is a multiply masked character who resists audience identification. There’s still time for Peggy to return to SCDP by the final episode of this season, but that seems facile, and ungenerous to Peggy. We could reasonably expect an eventual reconciliation with Don, but for a while I think they’ll have to maintain two agency sets. (And does Kenny go with her?)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

This week Pete only takes off his weasel costume long enough to read Goodnight Moon to his baby daughter, while Trudy looks on. But even Annie Edison would withhold her “awww…” at that because Pete’s already been so multivalently abominable, and in his next scene at home with Trudy it just gets worse. This season Pete’s been gaining respect and grudging admiration from his Mad peers, and on the way to that happy state both Don and Trudy were inspirational and instrumental. Now it looks like he thinks he doesn’t need either of them any more. I still resist the idea that he’s literally suicidal, but some other kind of crackup is probably in the cards. (It’s funny how most of our other favorite cable dramas have sudden, violent death built into them – The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, evenSix Feet Under – but for Mad Men’s characters, the risk is no higher than it is for us in the audience.)

“The Other Woman” does pretty much everything right; it’s on a level with the four or five very best episodes of the show. Mad Men evangelists can use it to convert friends who are on the fence about it. As we used to say on eBay: A++++++++++ !

Mad Men, Episode 5:11 “The Other Woman”: A+


Allan Ferguson was born recently near Disneyland and has lived up and down the great state of California for all the years since. He is currently in La Mesa near San Diego where he practices graphic design and recreational atheism. He can be reached evenings and weekends at fergusonarf@yahoo.com and apparently on the YouTube, somehow or other.