Mad Men: season 5, episode 11

Female liberation: what would it take to make you a queen?

As the fifth season of Mad Men nears its conclusion and 1966 gives way to '67, we look back on a series that has largely done away with what was once its characteristic slowness, in which relationships would for the most part develop gradually and characters would reveal themselves, and their pasts, at a more glacial pace. It was inevitable that once many of the main protagonists' secrets - and more plainly, personalities - had come to light over six years, the show would have to compensate much of its intrigue-building for action. It appeared for a while that Season Five's narrative would be character based - here we have the Betty episode; now the Pete, then the Roger show - and one by one their public personas would seem more lacquered as the inner workings of every character were thoroughly and systematically mined.

But the writers of Mad Men are not so formulaic, and "The Other Woman", as much as any episode before it, invites our comparison between those three women it concerns. For all its shock happenings, too, it's an episode that develops themes from its previous one. In "Christmas Waltz" Jaguar was set up as the prize the agency has long desired, and that Don, for his own self worth, must achieve. Now it's not only the needed account, nor just the perfect symbol of American consumerism, but an unattainable woman - the other woman - "the mistress who'll do things your wife won't". Herb Rennet, the Head of the Dealership Association (with a name like an industrial farming product), calls it a "hot red number". But his eye isn't on the car - it's on Joan. She has become the material good: "You're talking about prostitution," she spits at Pete, who corrects her: "I'm talking about business at a very high level." Hence why she makes an appointment later to see him, and he confuses her "ability to perform" for the client with the creative's presentation. 

These two performances then play out simultaneously; we see Joan enter the man's hotel room wearing the fur stole Roger gave her in 1955, bought from a young Don Draper. It's a thoroughly depressing montage, with Don's narration on the worth of a beauitful object, the behaviour that would be forgiven for it - though in fact it's earlier, as Joan's initial fury at her male colleagues ebbs away, than we feel the most despair. Despite his Cleopatra allegory Pete is as foul as the client Herb, who has his own garbled tales of the Sultan of Arabia and Helen of Troy. And in their acceptance, once the price for her has been agreed, the other partners (bar Don) are just as implicted: Lane makes sure he needn't approach the creditors, Roger accepts but refuses to pay, and even Burt's "let her know she can still say no," presupposes Joan's consent. We recall Lakshmi from the previous episode, the Hare Krishna who has sex with Harry Crane "for the movement".  But it's a line of Don's, from when he visits Joan at her apartment, that rings out true: "If we don't get Jaguar, so what? Who wants to be in business with poeple like that?" The line is played twice - we hear Don speak it again when we learn his visit is too late. In her face there's the suggestion that Joan would have acted differently had she known Don was not complicit in the partners' barter. "You're a good one, aren't you?" she says to him. But the others in "the movement", this business she has just sold herself into, are not.

Joan's refusal to shake Pete's hand when she agrees to his offer strangely forshadow's Don's refusal to take Peggy's. Instead, in a most tender act, he kisses it for the longest time. Earlier in another reference to the prostitution of Joan, Don tells Peggy to get herself to Paris and throws money in her face. Now, he offers it sincerely to make her stay - but unlike for Joan, "there's no number" he can name. In the end she doesn't leave out of spite; it's "not a game"; she does it "for her career". And although she's moving on from the company, Peggy is still Don's protégé: doing what he would do, braving the future with a smile, and unresenting.

Which begs the question: will Megan, too, break free of Don when she finally gets a part in a broadway play? She already "comes and goes as she pleases," Ginsberg says, and in her audition dress Don he knows she acts for her confidence more than his pleasure. While Megan has sex with him in his office, her friend Julia helpfully acts another literal Jaguar, prowling on the boardroom desk. Which car is Megan: the Jaguar mistress, the beauty Don wishes to truly own? Or the wifely Buick, patiently parked in the garage?

Unlike Peggy, Megan says that between the man - Don - and her work, she would choose the man and resent him for it. Over the course of "The Other Woman" we see a group of women making a choice (though for Megan it is theoretical) against their heart and will, for the sake of their job. In Joan's case, as a single working mother, the notion of "choice" raises questions that persist to this day: how free is she in choosing not to buy for herself autonomy, in the form of a company stake at the cost of her body, that she would never otherwise be afforded? Is it altogether priceless, being made a queen?

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Peggy Olson in "The Other Woman". Credit: AMC

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage