Manhattan is starting to look a whole lot like Westeros these days. Sure, they’re in different timeslots, on different channels, and completely different genres, but Mad Men and Game of Thrones have more in common than you might think. Their plots are expansive, but carefully measured, featuring scads and scads of characters that can sometimes seem indistinguishable under all the suits, be they armoured or Armani. The production design is as big a draw to the show as anything else, which helps the undercurrents of death and the terror mortality go down easier. And there’s always plenty of backstabbing, betrayal, lust, and greed to be witnessed each episode. But this week in particular, Game of Thrones and Mad Men both came down to the the same thing: the red stuff. For the former, that was blood; for the latter, it was ketchup.
After all, was that epic staredown between Don’s skunkworks crew working the Heinz pitch, and Peggy’s team from CGC not worthy of being written into song? I bring up the pacing of each show because both take so much time and care dealing in small details and development that the payoff for big moments feels all the sweeter for how low key the buildup can be. For Game of Thrones, that payoff usually involves a surprise beheading, but while Mad Men probably won’t be getting that violent anytime soon, it’s amazing the reactions the show can get out of the viewer with nothing but awkward, dead-air silence. I watched the new Evil Dead this weekend, and didn’t cringe with “OH SHIT” glee half so much as when Don and company walked out of their meeting, only to find Peggy laying an ambush.
The glacial pacing can have its drawbacks at times, particularly when you’re unsure of what the show is setting the table for, if anything at all. Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin practically gets off on subverting audience expectations for where a particular plotline or storythread is heading, thanks to characters loudly and frequently declaring their intentions, only to see those ambitions blindsided by a freight train. The trouble for most of the workers at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is that they wouldn’t be able to pick what they wanted if a Genie’s lamp landed in their lap, seeing as half the time, getting what you want only leads to disappointment.
Having spent six excruciating months married to a psychotic surgeon, Joan knows this truth better than anyone, and she takes center stage in “To Have and to Hold,” easily the best episode of season 6 yet. Joan’s been flitting around the edges the last couple weeks, and her absence has been curious, seeing as the last few episodes of Season 5 setup a huge shift in her role at SCDP. Though it means dealing with the occasional intrusion by Herb, Joan has done the impossible, and risen from secretary to executive in an environment that gave her the same underdog status we apply to Peggy, Dawn, Sal, and the rest of the non-white, heterosexual male folks who work(ed) at SCDP, or just about anywhere in 1968. Joan’s mother is a battle-axe, but I choose to believe her when she says she’s proud to have a Madison Avenue executive for a daughter.
Too bad no one in the office is quite as impressed, not even Joan. “It’s just a title,” she tells her visiting friend, Kate, a Mary Kaye saleswoman who, more openly than Joan’s mother, is genuflecting at what a single-mother divorcee can accomplish. They really can only see her title: it’s Joan who has to go into work everyday with the knowledge that not all that much has changed. There should be more excitement to the life of a high-powered executive than sitting alone in the office, waiting for the receptionist, Meredith, to drop in, and let you know the recent goings on. The energy we saw Joan apply to the new position back in Season 5 seems a distant memory. She’s an official part of SCDP’s ruling small council, but still shouldering the same responsibilities while completely out of the loop on the real action, like Don’s “Project K.”
So what does she do? She dives back into the arena where she did have some real power, as queen bee of the stenopool. Harry’s secretary Scarlet ropes Dawn into covering her for playing hooky, and once Joan finds out, she tells Scarlet to clear out her desk, make like her boots, and go-go. Harry, fresh off a successful pitch with Ken’s father in-law at DOW Chemical, feels now’s the time to not only assert his authority to Joan, but the entire upper management of the company. Harry Crane is good for nothing if not loudly jumping into a situation that he doesn’t fully understand, so Roger playfully indulging Harry’s case for partner status leads to a scene of classic Mad Men comedy that kicks the episode into high gear…
…Until Harry decides the best way to build himself up is to tear Joan down, dragging her backroom-bedroom deal with Herb into the open like stinking laundry. The whole scene, and episode, takes a dark turn following Harry’s remarks, one no amount of perky background smooth jazz can remedy. Joan’s not the type to let Harry, or any of her co-workers see that his comments wound her, but they do. To deal, she goes even further back into old territory where she feels comfortable and in control, helping Kate have a Manhattan fling during a night on the town. The certainty with which she can coach her friend in the art of flirting is a refreshing boost to her confidence, but by the time she’s watching Kate makeout in the back of a cab, she can’t help but giggle at how ridiculously familiar it all seems.
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