Due to a last-minute illness, I will be your guide through this week’s abbreviated episode recap of “Mad Men.” Sarah will return to her regular duties next week.
This week’s episode title was “The Other Woman,” which could just as well apply to Peggy, Joan or the Jaguar at the center of the ad campaign with which this episode revolved. It was probably the ickiest, most morally devastating episode of “Mad Men’s” run, and once again, Pete Campbell was the reptilian weasel that set many of the events in motion.
The A-plot concerned that Jaguar campaign. Don and the creative team are frustrated with their inability to come up with a campaign that positions the Jaguar as the mistress of the automobile industry: Sleek, beautiful, but ultimately, impractical. It’s a car that requires the owner to have another car because of the many mechanical problems of the Jaguar. At one point, Don’s inability to come up with a clever pitch led him to take his frustrations out on Peggy, who with a quick pitch had just saved the Chevalier Blanc campaign.
That moment of pure Draper assholery would set in motion the B-plot, which we’ll get to momentarily. As it turns out, however, it doesn’t matter how great the campaign Draper eventually comes up with because landing the Jaguar campaign ultimately rests on the vote of the vile, repugnant Herb, a member of the selection committee who will only back Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce if its partners can convince Joan to sleep with him.
So begins the slimeball tactics of Pete Campbell, who has a conversation with Joan that never should’ve taken place, essentially coercing Joan to offer up her body in exchange for the Jaguar campaign. “Would you call Cleopatra a prostitute?” Pete asks, after Joan accuses him of trying to whore her out. But when Joan says she doesn’t think the agency could afford to turn her into the company call girl, Pete knows he has her right where she wants her, and he takes it to the partners. Ironically, it is Don — who has no problem treating Peggy like crap — that’s the stand-up guy. He’ll have nothing to do with it, but his abstention doesn’t prevent Roger, Bert, and Pete from voting to allow it, and Lane from doing the same if only because he’s facing a mountain of debt. Lane, at least, advises Joan to take it for all it’s worth, demanding a 5 percent partnership in the company and a lifetime of stability for her child. Then, before Don can stop her, Joan heartbreakingly rents her body out to Herb.
Christina Hendricks has long been the sexual focus of “Mad Men,” but in this episode, she also demonstrated what a incredibly gifted actress she is, moving from a scene of bemused indignation at Pete’s inartful request to steely woman determined to do what it takes to provide a future for her family, though you could still sense her soft vulnerability quivering beneath. She wanted to be saved, and in the moment with Don after the deed had been done, she expressed a powerful combination of remorse, gratitude, and regret that broke my fucking heart wide open.
She really nails it, though, the next morning, after Joan walks into the office and it becomes apparent to Don what has happened. She has the look of a woman that is both confident and deeply ashamed, while Don can only betray horror. It’s then when the ball in the pit of my stomach shriveled up into the fetal position and wept.
Meanwhile, having been treated like shit for the last time, Peggy took her career into her own hands and sought out Freddy Rumsen, who encouraged her to begin meeting with other agencies. She was offered a $19,000 salary by Don’s nemesis, Ted Chaough, at CGC. She accepts, and when Don attempts to top Chaough offer, she figuratively throws the money back into his face. Don quickly moved through the stages of grief, from disbelief to anger to resignation. I didn’t think she had it in her to leave, but Peggy proved me wrong. Don got in one last moment of grace, an almost apologetic kiss on the hand that expressed years of gratitude, of friendship, and of love, an appropriate bookend to “The Suitcase” episode.
The entire season has been laying the groundwork for “The Other Woman” — from Joan’s decision to leave her husband to Don continuing to take Peggy for granted. Essentially the episode provided a contrast between Joan and Peggy and what it would take for each to be “a queen.” After 13 years with the agency, Joan continues to take their shit, but at least she’s converted it into a real position of power. It only cost Joan her dignity, but in this case, she prioritized her family over her self-respect. Meanwhile, there wasn’t a high enough price to keep Peggy, to stand in the way of getting out from under the thumb of Don and finding independence, her own place in the world. The question that remains, really, is will she return? Will it take Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Harris and Olson to get her back, or is that the last we’ll see of Peggy Olson?
The show has always centered on Don, but it’s been Peggy that has provided the fulcrum upon which Don’s personality has evolved. Without her, where is Don? There are two episodes left this season, and I think Don’s downward spiral has only just begun.