Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 11: “The Other Woman”
Written by Semi Chellas & Matthew Weiner
Directed by Phil Abraham
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
In an episode crammed with a sickening amount of sexism, ‘The Other Woman’ offers one of the most surprising, and moving, climaxes of this acclaimed fifth season. Former Soprano’s cinematographer, Phil Abraham’s second directorial venture this year focuses on the stories of Don, Peggy, Joan and Pete. It also marks the first time Weiner and his writers have tackled the theme of sexism as intensely as it is approached this week. If this episode were a cake, it’d almost be too rich for the palate; such is the density of sexism, to the point of being overpowering. What better symbol to use for exploring the idea of men treating women as objects, than to have SCDP feverishly pursuing the Jaguar Motors account? It is the goal of claiming this account that frames another top-notch episode.
Opening on Don and a room full of men, some of whom must be freelancers we’ve never laid eyes on before, Peggy’s absence very quickly becomes telling. Naturally, this is followed by a dinner with the sleazy car dealer stereotype, Herbert, who insists on effectively prostituting Joan for a night in return for his backing of SCDP on the Jaguar account; “We’re open to anything your heart desires”, Pete tells Herbert.
Pete is again playing villain of the week, an all too familiar sight this season, as he connives Herbert’s wishes by placing both the partners and then Joan in a difficult, almost untenable, position. Both he and Harry deem it reasonable, given the account at stake, to use women as pawns in their patriarchal games. Pete attempts to placate an outraged Joan, claiming, “We’re talking about a night in your life” (with Herbert). It’s clear Pete doesn’t consider it immoral to use women, as long as he doesn’t get caught – reminding us of his conversation with Howard earlier in the season, “Aren’t you afraid of getting caught?”.
Harry may be less insidious about it, but is just as self-interested in patriarchal conventions and standards of the time, when he expects Peggy to pretend to be Ginsberg’s junior or partner. Rick of Chevalier Blanc Cologne asks, “Why would a woman buy a man anything for Valentine’s Day?”, insinuating the man should provide, while the woman should serve. A restrained Peggy thinks her way through a pitch that has the potential to appease both male and female audiences, which has us cheering for her and, again, gaining a stronger fondness for Kenny. Although Peggy’s pitch objectifies women in a sense, her “Lady Godiva” character rides along and saves the flailing “leather jacket hero”. Could this be her allusion to the vital acquirement of Topaz Pantyhose at the end of the fourth season?
Having discussed the Jaguar pitch with Megan, it appears Don is a man who is moving forward. Following Megan’s chagrin at the use of a mistress campaign, her obvious annoyance – “So a wife is like a Buick in the garage?” – and Pete’s exploitation of Joan, Don reevaluates the Jaguar concept. If only momentarily, this highlights the importance of Megan to Don’s season arc. She has been leading by example in the rights of a woman to choose her own path, rather than be dictated to by a male-dominated society. “We’re not doing this mistress thing. It’s vulgar”, Don proclaims. Unfortunately, it seems Don’s potential progressive attitude is short-lived, as he degrades Peggy by throwing money in her face, to which again, Kenny shakes his head in disgust.
Later, Ginsberg supplies his assessment of the car – “good-looking, expensive, fast and frankly not practical” – and likening it to a woman. Here, frustratingly, Don contradicts his earlier view and asserts that he’s “always been fine with all that” as a direction.
However, Ginsberg does hit on a salient point during his pitch to Don: that the car is a compensation for the ‘asshole’ consumer. Just as ironically, Joan will be compensated for being with the ‘asshole’ consumer. As one expects with Mad Men, the story and plot embody the message that the dialogue proffers. Women are possessions and objects, pawns in patriarchal pursuits, only the mistress or the Buick sitting in the garage. In fact, one could argue that the only reason Lane and Roger decry Pete’s proposal is that they both view Joan as their own possession and therefore company property.
Ultimately, it is about substituting a car for the woman you can’t have, hence Ginsberg’s tagline – “At last: Jaguar, something beautiful you can truly own”. The obsession with control is at the source of male chauvinism, endemic of this era. During his pitch to Jaguar, Don notably refers to the car as “this thing”. This leaves us to ponder whether he would refer to a woman in the same manner. He concludes the speech by posing the question, and summing up why men chase the unattainable: “What behaviour would we forgive…if they weren’t beyond our reach?”. In essence, the idea is the “thrill of the chase”. But with a Jaguar, as Don admits, “he can have a Jaguar”.
Meanwhile, Peggy makes her own statement of intention to SCDP, in a surprisingly emotional farewell. Throughout the episode, the women are so heavily and blatantly patronized by the men around them. Don tells Megan he has reservations about “letting [her] leave the house in that [dress]”. He later insists to Peggy, “I can’t put a girl on Jaguar”. While Pete declares to Joan, pompously, “I’m talking about business at a very high level”, when discussing her relevance to the Jaguar account. Even Freddie gets in on the act, referring to Peggy as a ‘ballerina’. This being the case, it is even more satisfying to watch Peggy metaphorically and literally walk away from SCDP, and in doing so, remind Don that he can’t own her (just as he can’t own Megan either). Perhaps the greatest injustice we’re provided with is, whilst Peggy used her intellect and intelligence to climb the ranks at SCDP, Joan utilised her body to obtain her power.
Finally, ‘The Other Woman’ probably captures the strongest acting this season. A brief glance. A stare into the distance. A subtle shake of the head. Equally, the strength of the finale comes down to this. Peggy’s not the only one welling at the eyes, as she tenders her resignation. Furthermore, Abraham’s direction and Tom Wilson’s editing also truly heighten the extremity of patriarchal control in 1960s western society, and indeed the emotional stakes of this episode. A couple of lingering, telling close ups and mid-shots exemplify this. Joan in her uncomfortable scene with Herbert, fighting tears in her eyes. Peggy’s disgust, as Don throws cash in her face, and finally Megan, whose disapproval is obvious when first pitched the Jaguar ‘mistress’ concept. It wouldn’t be unfair to label the eleventh episode the most complete one we’ve seen this year.