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Tue May 29, 2012
'Mad Men': Ruminations On The Buying And Selling Of Something Beautiful
Originally published on Tue May 29, 2012 11:15 am
It probably speaks to the complexity of Mad Men that the same episode can be a highlight of the series for some and a lowlight for others. Sunday night's episode, "The Other Woman," instantly became a favorite of a lot of observers and writers, but for me, it was a rarity on Mad Men: a serious and profound misstep.
I would hope it's obvious that if you haven't seen Sunday's episode and plan to watch it, you should stop reading.
"The Other Woman" was part of a trend on the show toward more and more explicitly themed episodes where, rather than finding natural convergences between otherwise unconnected stories, all the personal stories in an episode are explicitly and forcefully about the same thing, which is usually also spelled out in whatever advertising pitch is being worked on at the time. In this case, the theme was the objectification and valuation of women, as underlined by the Jaguar pitch comparing fast cars to mistresses. (In fairness, while this story was blunt, it didn't hold a candle to Megan's "The air is toxic!" two episodes earlier. Smog emergency, indeed.)
The three plotlines of the episode revolved around the show's three women, who were (as is often the case) completely isolated from each other. Megan spent the week auditioning for a role that would take her on the road for three months, and she had to rotate like she was a cake in a dessert display to get it. Peggy spent the week realizing that she won't ever get the respect she wants and deserves, nor the money she should be getting, at SCDP, and she'll have to go elsewhere. And Joan spent the week ultimately deciding to have sex with Herb the Dealers Association Guy, who basically extorted the firm by threatening to withhold his vote and destroy their chance at the Jaguar account unless Joan had sex with him.
The Megan story, I didn't care about, though in fairness, I almost never care about the Megan stories. For me, Megan Draper is an example of a problem that's not uncommon on long-running dramas, where the writers become fascinated with writing for someone and abruptly expect the audience to be deeply invested in that person, simply because the audience cares about the show and the show puts the person on the screen all the time. This season has been very Megan-heavy, but she nevertheless remains, for me, poorly defined. Even accounting for the obvious fact that a person can contain multitudes, I can't find the same person in the Megan of the season premiere, the Megan of the Howard Johnson's episode, and the Megan of "The Other Woman." She seems to behave, most of all, in whatever way suits the theme of the week's episode.
That's the opposite of Peggy Olson, one of the most fully realized women in television history, for my money. She's richly and beautifully written and acted, with complexity but also consistency, and what she did in this episode seems like a natural culmination of everything that's happened to her since the pilot. She has gone part of the way down this path before, thinking about breaking away and not being able to do it.
Don's tendency to take her for granted peaked when he tossed money at her, and while it felt several degrees too bluntly done for the sake of the "trying to buy women" episode, it felt like something he might actually be thoughtless enough to do, so fully has he come to expect Peggy to absorb all his nonsense and come back for more. I'm not sure the show has ever done a finer scene than their farewell, with Don's kiss on her hand going from lovely to odd to desperate. He probably ... loves her? ... more than anyone in the world in some ways, though I use the word "loves" here to mean something more like "needs and depends and values." It's completely believable that her departure would resonate with him profoundly, and that scene set up some beautiful things I suspect are still to come.
The Joan storyline, however, was a failure for me. Joan's initial response to Pete's approach — disbelief and amusement that he would even ask her — felt entirely like Joan to me. She has always been primarily concerned with respect and a kind of social correctness. In fact, one of the reasons her relationship with Roger has always been so tricky to parse is that she cares so much about doing things the right way and behaving appropriately (and having others behave appropriately), and yet she has carried on this affair with him. But she does that out of genuine affection that runs both ways between the two of them; she has always been the person who, by far, brings out the greatest measure of his humanity.
When she said she didn't want anyone to know she'd even been asked to do this, that felt entirely like Joan to me. That's how repellent I believe she would find the idea of having sex for money. Not because I think it's repellent, or because it's inherently repellent, but because Joan clearly found it repellent — as a not insignificant number of people do — and she was profoundly offended when she realized that Pete would even ask her. In fact, she found it almost hilarious that he would think she'd take him seriously: "Where do you get this stuff?" she asked as he prattled on about how she would be a queen like Cleopatra.
Then, Pete approached the rest of the partners. Frankly, I found it very difficult to believe he would even present that to Don, Bert, or Lane. (Who knows what he thinks of Roger.) It seemed much more plausible to me that he might try to, for instance, arrange it in secret by obtaining the money under some kind of subterfuge. That Pete would hold an official partners' meeting (with voting!) for the purpose of prostituting Joan, particularly when she had already thrown him out of her office, was very, very difficult for me to believe.
It was equally difficult for me to believe that Roger, Bert and Lane would go along with the idea of pressing Joan to do it. Opinions on this vary: Lane is financially desperate and that was so compelling that he was willing to do something truly vile to someone he's sort of in love with, okay, perhaps — though the willingness to take money is a little different from the willingness to sell a colleague. Bert is checked out, okay, perhaps — though his behavior when they all sneaked out of the old Sterling Cooper in the dead of night suggested, I think, a greater regard for her. But while Roger has always been self-interested, and while he's been reprehensibly irresponsible about the baby, there is a huge chasm, to me, between the cowardice and weakness it takes to fail to acknowledge and support your child — profound, but passive — and what it takes to vote to actively pimp out the one person you've been shown to actually care about without even talking to her because it might — might — land you an account. "I'm not going to stand in the way, but I'm not paying for it"? I did not believe it. Character-wise, I did not believe it.
Now, there was an effort to explain how these men might come to such an absurd conclusion, by having Pete offer a misleadingly straight-faced version of something Joan had said farcically: "You can't afford it." The idea, I think, was that Roger in particular would never have entertained it, but he thought Joan had already considered it, and so it was sort of "maybe I don't know her after all," and so forth.
But (1) that requires you to assume Roger knows nothing about Joan and therefore believes she would willingly do this, and (2) everybody believes that Pete Campbell is such a reliable narrator that if he says Joan is willing to sleep with the guy for money, it must be true. That's not believable in the slightest. Roger wouldn't trust Pete Campbell if he said logs roll downhill, let alone taking him at his word when he says, "Joan is totally up for sleeping with this guy in exchange for enough money." I firmly believe that if that were to happen, Roger would march right up to Joan and say, at the very least, "Explain this to me." Even if I believed these guys would go along with this, I absolutely don't believe they'd go along with it, on the theory that she was up for it, on Pete Campbell's say-so, without talking to her.
Because their responses, taken together, were so unconvincing to me, the story began to feel phony, as if the end (getting Joan to have sex for money) was so important that it justified the means (breaking existing characters and relationships).
And then we come to Joan. At the time she first hears this idea, she's not only unwilling to consider it, but offended that Pete would think she might. She does it, what, a day later? It takes her one day to go from "you're talking about prostitution" to "Well, okay"? It's not that you could never successfully make that happen; it's that you'd have to put a motivator in those 36 hours that was very very very compelling. The mere fact that it presented the opportunity for a lot of money isn't, on its own, enough to turn the ship around that fast for a woman like Joan in the absence of evidence of absolute financial desperation. Not hard times — desperation. Not true for all women, necessarily, but for Joan? Yes.
The motivators that are used in the story to turn Joan around are basically (1) she learns that the partners were willing to ask her to do it, including Roger; (2) Lane offers a partnership, which simply amounts to a larger reward; and (3) her refrigerator is broken. The first presents the upsetting possibility that the men she works so hard for do not respect her; the second ups the ante; the third presents financial challenges.
But I just didn't think either of those things would believably motivate Joan to have sex for money if she was so grossed out by the idea that anyone would think she'd do it a day earlier. Whether or not she wants to engage in what she calls prostitution isn't about the amount or the difference between a partnership and a big check. It's because it's prostitution, and she doesn't see herself that way.
The refrigerator being broken is, as stated, a setback, and there's no question that she's worried about money. But garden-variety money worries aren't anything that would get this particular lady to agree to this arrangement, based on what I know of her. And it's a mark of the quality of this show, and the way she's written, and Christina Hendricks' work, that I feel like I know quite a bit.
As for the respect issue, that's more interesting and complicated. There may be women for whom finding out that the men they work with see them as potential prostitutes might create in them the impulse to become prostitutes — a sort of "I guess if this is what they think of me, I might as well." I just don't believe that's Joan. You can only believe this would motivate her to do it if you believe the external respect of the men in the office is her reason for not doing it.
But because I believe that the reasons Joan would not have sex for money are related to Joan's internal feelings about herself and her own determination to do things in a particular way, then while there absolutely might be circumstances in which she would go so far as to trade sex for a partnership, this wasn't enough. A broken refrigerator and feeling disrespected by Roger and the partners just didn't seem like enough of a change in circumstances to take us from the conversation with Lane, where she was horrified that they'd ask her, to the next day, when she agreed, to that evening, when it happened. There are certainly other things that are relevant to what she might choose to do and how she might view this situation — having been raped by her husband primary among them. But when only a few weeks ago, she finally threw the jerk out, it doesn't seem like an earned trajectory for her to next choose this.
That brings us to the structural flourish of first making it seem like Don had rushed to her and talked her out of it, only to find that he had arrived too late and she had, by then, already done it. Like the miscommunication from Pete to the partners about "you can't afford it," it had a sort of tragic, almost Romeo And Juliet quality, in that it seemed like a terrible trick of timing that he'd arrived too late. That's particularly true because of the gorgeous, luscious, sexy scenes Don and Joan played together in the previous episode, in which the depth of their friendship and mutual respect was more prominent than it had ever been. (My favorite line was her "I've been sitting with you since you walked in." Indeed, indeed.)
If they were trying to convey that Don urged Joan not to do it and failed to convince her, which might have been more interesting and perhaps more interestingly sad (and which would have underscored that it was Joan's fully informed decision), the missed-connections timing wouldn't have been necessary. What this created instead was a sort of "if only he'd gotten there sooner!" feeling of deep sadness.
But again, that relies on believing that it would have made any difference to Joan that Don essentially gave her permission not to do it — that he told her it wasn't worth it and he didn't want the business anyway. For that to make sense, you have to believe that the reasons Joan did it had something to do with feeling expected to do it by the partners as an obligation to the firm, or as an obligation to Don. Just as there's no way Joan would plausibly have gone for this, there's no way Joan would have believed Don would say anything other than what he said. There's no way she would have believed Don Draper would expect her to have sex with a client to get business. This wasn't revelatory; she would have expected nothing less. So what difference does it make that he made this fairly obvious statement to her that it's not "worth it." Of course he wouldn't think it was worth it. How many bosses would have expected her to go along with it? Even at that time, even with the position women were in at work, I would be very surprised if married women with office jobs were generally expected to have sex with people their bosses did business with.
And that brings us to the very beginning of this story and the very first move: How believable is it that even a true lech would not merely demand that a prostitute be arranged on a business trip or whatever (something this show has certainly dealt with in the past), but would demand that a specific married employee be prevailed upon to sleep with him? No matter how entitled and powerful you think you are, how likely is it that a random pretty woman you select on sight in an office can be made to have sex with you by her employers? That wasn't even particularly plausible lechery.
It's certainly not the case that a single unlikely reaction sinks a story, nor is real-world plausibility the most important factor in whether a story is effective. But when every step defies not just ordinary-person logic, but the internal logic of these characters and how they behave and have behaved, it begins to seem like the tail is wagging the dog — like a natural point in Peggy's beautiful, inevitable story was forced into dovetailing with Joan's story for the sake of the thematic idea of talking about buying and selling women and beauty. And the price of that, unfortunately, is that the delicate, deeply flawed, nuanced, genuine regard that the partners in the office have had for Joan is destroyed. Not because Joan did this and is now somehow tainted (I judge her decision primarily on her own apparent distaste for it), but because the fact that they would ask her to do such a thing, and go along with having her do it, and pay her to do it, indicates a profound and fundamental contempt for her.
Not only did I not like this episode, but because it made me believe none of these people ever had any actual respect for Joan, I now like other episodes less, including the terrific Ocean's Eleven-style escape from Sterling Cooper at the end of Season 3 in the episode, "Shut The Door. Have A Seat." That used to be my favorite episode; now it seems like all of its dynamics are not what I thought. That's a perfectly valid storytelling decision; I'm not writing the show, and it's not up to them to serve the dynamics I like. But for me, on a personal and critical level, it makes me care less about everyone involved.