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29 May 2012updated 12 Oct 2023 10:59am

Mad Men: season 5, episode 11

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

By Alice Gribbin

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?

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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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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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