Girl, you really got me going, you got me so I don’t know what I’m doing.
The Other Woman may be the most disturbing episode of Mad Men we’ve ever seen. We’ve seen bad things happen to characters we love, some of their own doing. We’ve seen Don drink himself into a stupor, Roger lie the company almost into ruin, and Lane embezzle. We’ve seen the way both ambition and love can cause people to sacrifice themselves, but has anyone suffered more than Joan, or sacrificed more?
The fans have gone back and forth on Pete this season. In my recap for Signal 30 I called Pete a shit. I got some blowback from fans for that, and indeed, in subsequent episodes, Pete has again appeared more sympathetic. His pathetic adoration of Howard’s wife, Beth, in Dark Shadows, touched people’s hearts. But now I think more people will agree with my earlier assessment. Pete is a low-life and a shit, not just because he asked Joan to prostitute herself, but because he insisted there was nothing wrong with asking.
When Joan said “You couldn’t afford it,” it was not, in fact, a counter-offer, but a way of shutting Pete down; only Pete’s insensitivity made him think otherwise. Pete takes seriously the old joke, often attributed to Winston Churchill: Churchill is said to have approached a lady at a party and ask, “Madame, would you sleep with me for one million pounds?” She agreed that she would. “Would you sleep with me for ten pounds?” he asked. “Certainly not! What kind of girl do you think I am?” “Madame,” he answered “We have already established what you are. Now we are merely discussing price.” (I’ve read various versions of this story, with different price points.)
The joke has a serious underpinning, as so many jokes do. All women are whores, we are being told, and are merely negotiating price. Joan literally prostitutes herself for a partnership, but Gail, who “raised her to be admired,” has been prostituting herself in her own way to Apollo, in exchange for household repairs. Megan must prostitute herself in a small way, by being displayed. Turning around and showing her ass has little or nothing to do with the callback; she thought she was safe because the director was “a fairy,” but with three men on the couch it’s clear she doesn’t feel safe at all. At the office, her friend Julia is happy to sexually display herself to a roomful of writers in the hopes of getting a job as a Jaguar girl.
Even Peggy had money thrown at her, quite literally, and even Peggy knows she has to sell a woman’s sexuality (Lady Godiva, “as naked as we are allowed to make her”) to keep an account.
The most telling, most obvious, quote about the theme of this episode is what Don says in the Jaguar pitch, right down to the tagline:
Oh, this car. This thing, gentlemen. What price would we pay, what behavior would we forgive, if they weren’t pretty, if they weren’t temperamental, if they weren’t beyond our reach and a little out of our control? Would we love them like we do? Jaguar: At last something beautiful you can truly own.
While women are being prostituted, bought, and sold because they are things,the way beautiful, temperamental cars are things, men imagine they are the ones who suffer, because sometimes they can’t quite control the transaction. The tagline itself is shown as being born from anger at women: Ginsberg sees Julia prancing and says “She just comes and goes as she pleases. Huh.”
Why shouldn’t she? I mean, she’s human, isn’t she? Isn’t that what humans do—use self-will to make their own decisions? But to Ginsberg and many other men, a woman isn’t a human, she’s an object of desire, and her ability to make herself desirable and then still have self-will is enraging. To Ginsberg, the lyrics of the closing song (You Really Got Me by the Kinks) make him mad: “You really got me going” is something women do to men, which men can’t control.
It’s disturbing. The whole episode is disturbing, and Semi Chellas and Matt Weiner pull no punches, juxtaposing every inner cringe Joan experiences with the pitch so that there is no doubt they are the same thing. Don wants to control Megan and keep her home, Pete wants to control Trudy and ‘put his foot down’, his greatest anger being simply that he cannot get her to obey him, that she wants things he doesn’t want. Pete, who wants a prostitute in a brothel to treat him like her king, cannot abide the fact that any woman has self-will. This is the same Pete who, in Episode 1.05: 5G, asked Trudy to sleep with an editor in order to get him published—no wonder he thinks Joan shouldn’t be insulted.
But there’s another quote that speaks to the heart of women being bought and sold. In the conference call about Chevalier Blanc, the client asks, “Why would a woman buy a man anything for Valentine’s Day?”
Why indeed? Valentine’s Day is transactional: A man buys flowers or perfume or jewelry, a woman responds with sex. Men are the subjects, they have self-will; they make their selection and choose the purchase price, while women are the objects being purchased.
I could write for hours about this episode, but we really have to talk about Peggy.
Her decision has been a long time coming, and may be necessary. I mean, people didn’t job-hop in the 1960s the way they do now, but advertising was its own animal, and as a career decision this was probably one hundred percent right.
Here’s the thing: in business, you sell yourself. Ted Chauogh wants to hire Don’s protégé, and he negotiates with Peggy over price and title. It’s not sexual; Peggy’s gender is not part of the transaction. Yet the negotiation perfectly parallels what Joan did with a percentage and a partnership. We alldo sell ourselves for work, for ambition, to succeed.
Certainly a lot of feminist and other theory would tell us it’s all prostitution: Marriage, dating, Valentine’s Day, casting couches, and every other transaction in which men are the buyers. But when we look at it that way, we can forget how painful this particular act of prostitution is for Joan, and let’snot forget that. Last episode we saw her say she has some control at work, and how important that’s been for her. This wasn’t just a sexual transaction, it was one that stripped Joan of her sense of control, of self-ownership, and left a dark place behind her eyes, brilliant portrayed by Christina Hendricks.
Meanwhile, Peggy sacrificed love for ambition, because truly, she and Don love each other: He kisses her hand, and she chokes up in response. This parallels the end of episode 4.07: The Suitcase. Don kisses the hand that he held then, he honors the love they share. But as Roger said last episode, it’s every man for himself, there can be no loyalty in business.
Some additional thoughts:
- Welcome back, Dale! Mark Kelly played copywriter Dale in one episode of each of the first three seasons, and was last seen stripped to his t-shirt after getting spattered with blood in Episode 3.06: Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.
- I’m giving quote of the week to Pete, because “It’s an epic poem for me to get home” is a gorgeous bit of hyperbole.
- Ted Chaough, Freddy Rumsen, and a call back to Tom Vogel all in one episode(plus Dale). This season has been so great about connecting the dots to past seasons.
Originally published at Indiewire Press Play.