Monday, 28 May 2012

Television - Mad Men 'The Other Woman' analysis / review

Throughout my reviews of this Mad Men season, the recurring theme I've mentioned most often has been the inter-generational conflict between the youngsters pushing towards a future of free love and self-expression, and the hat-wearing, white-haired squares still preoccupied with adhering to the rules of decades gone by. Though such confrontations have been at the heart of many of the ten preceding episodes, I wonder whether Matthew Weiner instead intended for the idea to not be one about age or culture, but a simple truth applicable to any period: those who can embrace change will survive long into the future. Those who cling to the comforts of the past will become history.

'The Other Woman' presented that dichotomy through the eyes of the women of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce. Remembering the series' earliest scenes, as many people will have at the end of the episode, it's astonishing how the power dynamics between the female characters have changed. In her first scene, a jittery Peggy was being led to her desk by office goddess, Joan Holloway. Peggy was keeping her head down, trying to make sense of the busy world she had landed in. Joan was blazing of hair and sex appeal, fully in command of all she surveyed. Fast forward to 1967 and while things may look similar on the surface - Peggy stepping into a new life; Joan holding more power than ever at her firm - the truth could not be more different.
The Peggy-Joan friendship hasn't been looked at very often, but produced some charming moments which have come to define both characters. In the first season, Joan encouraged Peggy to be bolder and more outgoing: their perspectives on a woman's place were in direct opposition, but it was Joan trying to shape Peggy into something she didn't want to be that drew out the competitive, go-getting edge which would later define a woman nicknamed 'Pegasus' by a lesbian photographer. At the end of last season, following Don's announcement of his engagement to Megan, Peggy retreated to Joan's office for a cigarette and a moan. Both recognised each other's ambition and while they were pursuing their goals in different ways, that common ground gave them enough common ground to share a laugh over the skewed gender relations in the office. First, Joan was in charge, then they were equals, and now Peggy has found the freedom that Joan recognises is what she should have been pursuing all along.

The difference between them is that Peggy has always been willing to recognise the need for change and forge her own opportunities, while Joan hopes others will make them for her. Joan is firmly locked in the male-dominated SCDP ethos where a woman can only react. The common image of her is as the queen bee, large and in charge, but as talented as she undoubtedly is, 'in charge' are the two least applicable words for the character. Her divorce represents the only time she has taken the initiative - subsequently dallying long enough for Dr. Rapist to file the papers first - and there has been little willingness to do it again. She had let the situation at home get so bad that her decision to throw Greg out has only birthed a thousand new pressures for her to deal with: bringing up a child with only her (insufferable) mother to help; making enough money to pay the bills; not to mention the stigma of being a divorced mother in '60s Manhattan.

It's no wonder she's reticent to assert herself again, even when the cost is her principles and her body. The worst part of it is how it is an indignity she has endured once before, when her husband forced himself on her at the SC offices. Then, she gave herself up in the hope of finding the life of harmonious matrimony she had long envisioned. Now, she's handing herself over to a leery Jaguar executive for the sake of an account, and to provide financial stability for her child. Both of these things are by no means guaranteed: the executive blackmails SCDP by saying they won't be considered if he doesn't get his night with Joan, keeping them in contention but not assuring them of his business. As for her new position as a partner, Lane might have promised it to her as a more long-term alternative to a single cash settlement, but only did so in order to briefly halt the financial collapse he precipitated by paying off his tax bill using the firm's money. With Burt ruling out the possibility of bonuses, the scheme is back to square one and Joan's five percent share may soon be of a destitute company.

Joan's sacrifice will inevitably be this episode's most hotly debated talking points, and it was as harrowing and cold-hearted a piece of artistic construction as I can remember ever seeing. Cutting between Don's pitch to Jaguar and Joan handing herself over to the executive echoed Coppola's majestic baptism scene in The Godfather, where the subtext of one scene inspired the action of another. Don sells his pitch (nailed by Ginsburg in a wonderful moment of inspiration) by positing a Jaguar car as an object of beauty that can be bought, rather than admired and longed after from a distance. What limited power Joan ever commanded was based on her being unobtainable, and just as the pitch presented women as commodities, so too did the Jaguar exec turn Joan from being the admired figure to being the car, beautiful and available for a price. During his deliberations, Don noted that Jaguar cars are notoriously unreliable, objects to be admired rather than used: Joan (whose pain at suffering yet another sexual shame was played with agonising sadness by Christina Hendricks, whose acting talents are ever overlooked for reasons very applicable to her character's situation) is not even given the dignity of the executive pretending he has any interest in her beyond the one fling. He just wants the ego-massage of knowing he is powerful enough for a client to hand her over on request.

Of course, when your client's board includes the despicable Pete Campbell, who engineers the whole situation with little regard for Joan's state of mind (his attempt at softening the blow by saying the exec isn't too bad looking is just hideous), that's not such an achievement. If anyone's going to have a bone of contention with how events played out, it will almost certainly be with Roger's apparent lack of protest. Don was suitably distraught, not doubt empathising through his own difficulty coming to terms with being the son of a prostitute, and Burt showed some remorse even though his Randian ideals of self-determination made the most important issue being that it was a path she had chosen herself - he was visibly uncomfortable with the idea, but Pete manipulated her words to sound like she was on board. Roger, though, has been intimate with Joan and cares deeply for her, and said virtually nothing throughout the meeting where the proposal - initially $50k - was agreed.

For some, this will understandably be out of character for a man never reticent in airing his views, even when alienating prospective clients (such as the Honda executives in 'The Chrysanthemum And The Sword'). My personal view is that she has rebuffed his every previous attempt to become involved in her life, such as his refusal of his offer of child support. With Pete making it sound as though she was willing to go through with it, he probably accepted it as her decision to make. His LSD trip made him more conscious of other people's wishes, and he's probably in the mindset that she's doing what she has to do to get ahead. It would, however, certainly be disappointing were the issue to not be raised in the future, especially now that he and Joan are working on a more level playing field than ever before.

Where Joan was willing to degrade herself for the sake of a company ready to let her do it, Peggy finally came to the realisation that Don was taking her for granted. She's been on the verge of leaving before, previously with Duck Phillips, and Don won her back by promising he would never stop trying to hire her. This time, after he spitefully throws money at her when she's disgusted at being overlooked for an account she salvaged with a brilliant piece of on-the-spot improvisation, it becomes apparent how she needs a change of scenery, amongst people capable of appreciating and challenging her talent rather than keeping her stuck at a level where she's doing most of the work, but enjoying none of the benefits.

Ginsburg rubs people up the wrong way, but it's a characteristic which forces others to keep reminding themselves of his talent as justification for keeping him around. Don would be afraid of losing Ginsburg, whereas he feels safe in taking greater advantage of Peggy. As laid out in the Jaguar meetings, Peggy has become the reliable car Don knows will always be there while he's off lusting after some new model (and there's an epic piece of slash fiction involving Ginsburg if you take the metaphor any further, which I won't). Ted Chaough admires her in the way she wishes Don still did, and while the question remains of whether Peggy's loyalty to Don would allow her to join his biggest rival, it's clear how excited and energised she is whilst leaving the office for the last time as a SCDP employee. (The light from inside the life shining on her face was a fun touch). Her giving notice to Don of her resignation was the best scene of the season and possibly the series - and what an episode it was that the cross-cutting between the Jaguar pitch and its cost on Joan was almost its equal. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss have always shared devastating chemistry, and it would be criminal were either actor to not receive awards recognition for their work.

How good was 'The Other Woman'? Having watched it last night, I'm still struggling to think of an hour of television that was more moving, more beautifully acted and directed, more thorough in setting out its goals and exceeding every expectation for their achievement. (Classic Simpsons is the only alternative to come to mind so date). Even the least developed of the main plots - Don having to face up to the realities of Megan achieving success as an actress - informed the episode's theme about the commodification of women, while offering a fresh insight into why the Draper marriage continues to work despite itself, because Megan's independence means Don will never take her for granted, even though she will always be loyal to him. She will not make the mistake Peggy made in allowing her wishes to become subservient to his, and so while they will continue to fight, that flaw is what will keep them together, where Don's easy, peaceful marriage to Betty was always destined for failure.

Better still, for a season comprised most of excellent individual episodes made slightly ungratifying by the lack of an obvious season arc, there's finally a sense of something big building for the finale. How Weiner will surpass this level of near-perfection is unfathomable, but he has done it so many times before (no-one will ever forget Don's legendary Carousel pitch, but it's one amongst many such treats now) that to question his ability seems utterly ridiculous. With just two episodes to go until Mad Men's fifth season comes to an end, this is a series no-one will ever take for granted.


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