I love Mad Men, I truly love it. When the show is good we aren’t surprised, we’ve come to expect it from the exceptionally gifted writing, directing and acting team, a good episode is par for the course pretty much every single week. When you get a great episode however, it’s something else. It’s the fact that anything in any visual form, be it film or television or art, is not going to be as good as the 45 or so minutes you just experienced, it is unfathomably good. This week’s episode titled The Other Woman is the best of the season so far and won’t be topped.
Throughout these recaps I’ve mentioned that a big theme this season has been the ever shifting geography of the show, that we’ve seen both physical and psychological movements that are going to have lasting impacts. This week we get it again, except this time it’s big and we could see the possible loss of a major character, while another character who has taken more of a subtle role this season has been increased in importance.
It’s the week of the Jaguar pitch, where Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce must go head to head with other companies to get the account to advertise their new line of cars, but it won’t come without a price. Don and the usual team of creatives (along with a couple more freelancers) are struggling with creating a satisfying campaign that fits the Jaguar brief, no inspiration is coming to him or anyone else. It’s a struggle and the prospects are looking pretty bleak, not even the ever reliable Ginsberg can find something that sticks.
Notably missing from these creatives is Peggy, who has been left out due to the misogyny of the Jaguar company. According to Don, A woman can’t be seen as having a part in this because the people in charge won’t like it. But there’s also a sense that he’s protecting her from what they’re trying to do, their pitch involves advertising the car as if it were a mistress and Don perhaps realises that Peggy would wildly object and it would get them nowhere. With that, Peggy is put in charge of all other accounts but still manages to be sidelined by Don. When she asks him to sign off on Secor Laxative he tells her to wait for Ginsberg.
On the business end of things, Kenny and Pete meet with the head of the Jaguar dealer’s association, Herb Rennet, who asks the most reprehensible of things. He strongly implies that if he can spend the night with Joan, then the Jaguar account will be sealed. At this point Pete goes to what must be the absolute lowest point that his character could possibly sink and goes right ahead and asks her to do it. Behind Don’s back, he then asks the partners to vote and they’re all in favour.
Wanting to protect her back and also to stick a thorn in the side of Pete, Lane invites Joan to get as much out of this as possible which means a $50,000 payout and a 5% stake in the company, making her one of the partners. The scene between Joan and Lane is pretty much excellent, acted superbly by Christina Hendricks and Jared Harris who manage to get across affection as well as an underlying sense of understanding between them about something totally unspeakable.
We’ve seen Mad Men go to very dark places in the past, all involving sex. In Season 2 we recall when Joan was raped against her will in the old office by her then boyfriend but now soon to be ex-husband Greg. Then at the close of Season 3, Sal’s homosexuality came under fire when the co-head of Lucky Strike, Lee Garner Jr, made advances towards him which Sal rejected. It led to him being fired from the company or they’d lose the Lucky Strike account.
It is a neat little trick, that no matter how many times we saw Don show a flagrant disregard for physical pleasure, sex can be a manipulative and powerful tool. Mad Men is one of the few cases where sex scenes and sex are totally justifiable and aren’t just there for audience titillation. It actually becomes quite a mature and disturbing element to the show and it never feels exploitative because they don’t do it often.
As a result of Peggy feeling under appreciated, she goes to lunch with the much missed Freddie Rumsen, who invites her to hire a headhunter and call meetings with other prospective employers. This is something she strongly contemplates to a point where she meets the head of Cutler, Gleason and Chaough (Don’s biggest rivals) where he makes her an offer she can’t refuse: Copy Chief on $19,000 a year.
She chooses to tell this Don on the morning they hear they have won the Jaguar account with another of Ginsberg’s prized ideas: “Jaguar. At last, something beautiful you can own”. The scene between them is a display of great directing and fabulous acting, the power play between them is very different. After Peggy has money thrown in her face earlier in the episode by Don, here she takes the dominant position over him. Peggy stands while Don sits down as she makes him realise what he’s just let slip through his fingers.
From the always brilliant Jon Hamm we get a strong performance of anger combined with a realization of what he’s done and from Elisabeth Moss we get a nervous confidence who is finally showing her ability to get the better with Don by remaining cool headed. There is a very lovely, and possible final moment between them when Don affectionately kisses Peggy’s hand before she leaves. She fights back the tears and Don tries to remain gentlemanly to hide his embarrassment.
The episode plays out to The Kinks “You Really Got Me” as Peggy faces a brighter future by stepping into the elevator with a smile on her face. Will she be back this season? Will she ever return? Who knows? But on the evidence of this, the show’s second major character may have just left the show. I doubt she has but this is still a bold move on behalf of the Mad Men writers and who knows what kind of surprises they may throw at us in the final 2 episodes of this year’s dynamite season.
You could say this is going too far but; Mad Men is outshining anything that any writer or actor or director or any craftsperson is doing elsewhere at the moment, it is very quickly becoming the face of this new Golden Era of Television. Director John Hillcoat said recently that film is a dangerous and uncreative medium at the moment and all the best work, for character and for drama, is taking place on the small screen. When you look at the product of the top US networks which pride themselves on their original content: Showtime, HBO and AMC, you know the guy is right.
Mad Men is head and shoulders above any piece of TV or film that has been produced in the last 5 years. It is the defining piece of art in the visual form that will go on to be the definition of popular culture in this generation, just like The Godfather was for the 70s all the way through to the 90s.
Matthew Weiner, I doff my cap to you sir.