I was eating my way through Paris when last week’s episode aired, which is about as good an excuse as any to miss “Mad Men.” I finally had a chance to watch last night. What a strange, beautiful episode, and one I’ll surely be watching again soon to pick up what I missed in my jet-lag fog.
I’m trying not to read too many reviews before I write these posts, because I don’t want to be influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by others’ observations. The few headlines I’ve glimpsed have varied between “best episode ever” to anger over what some viewers perceived as an out-of-character act for Joan. (Or, if not uncharacteristic, one that happened at a time in Joan’s life when some viewers thought she wouldn’t have done such a thing.)
I can’t think of a time when she’d have been more likely to do such a thing. Of all the main characters, I don’t dislike Joan, but I’ve never been blown away by Christina Hendricks’ performance — until last night. I think it’s partly because when I was packing for Paris and doing some last-minute cleaning a week ago, I put Season 1 on the DVD player to keep me company. I hadn’t seen it in some time. Watching it again, I realized I’ve been good at retaining key plot points in my memory over these past five seasons of “Mad Men,” but not necessarily at retaining the nuances of various characters’ mannerisms. I had forgotten how much confidence Joan had in season one. At the beginning of the series, she has an intellectual understanding of the ticking time clock of aging, but not necessarily an emotional one. She sashays through the office feeling confident she is on the way up. She believes she has what it takes to get what she wants. She believes she’s on her way.
“The Other Woman,” more than any other episode, reshaped my view of Hendricks as an actor. I felt how much her confidence has been shaken. She’s feeling a gnawing insecurity after her failed marriage, and we get a glimpse of how Joan’s mother makes sure she never stops feeling it. By Season 5, she is, superficially, still Joan, but she’s only dressing the part. The way she has stopped making jokes and small talk, the way she snaps at people. She still sashays, but only because it’s expected of her.
As for not building up to Joan’s Big Decision, have these people not been watching Season 5? The feeling of being left behind that she shared with Don at the bar? “Now it’s some other lucky girl’s turn,” she told Roger during the last episode. She has placed herself in a separate category from the person she used to be, but she doesn’t know who she’s supposed to be now.
We’ve seen time and again that she is smart and savvy, most notably during the coup that made “Sterling Cooper” become “Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.” We need Joan, all the men said, and they weren’t talking about her curves. What we haven’t seen is her recognition of her own intellect. She once told young secretary Peggy to cut eye holes in a paper bag and stand naked before a mirror, to better understand her strengths and weaknesses. In some ways, Joan’s still looking in that mirror. It’s ironic that taking up the Jaguar offer is both the smartest and the cruelest thing she’s ever done for herself. She thinks she’s being smart and savvy by setting herself up for life, but in doing so, she’s affirming that she can never accomplish such a promotion without using her sexuality.
It’s easy to judge that decision through a 21st-century lens, but why wouldn’t she think that way? And I’m not just taking about “those were the times” — this show has consistently been good about making characters individuals and not stereotypes. Did I want Roger to confront Joan, to be the one to stop her? Of course. Did I think he would? Of course not. His actions, or lack of them, were consistent with the self-centered Roger he’s always been. The silence from the men who have worked closely with Joan for years must have been deafening. I wouldn’t call it desperation, but she’s in an unsettled place in her life, and people who are feeling unsettled do things they might otherwise reconsider. Could there have been anything more devastating to her already crushed self-esteem than believing all the partners were behind the Jaguar decision?
Of course, that belief traces back to one Pete Campbell. I earlier subtitled Season 5 “The Increasingly Bad Decisions of Peter Campbell.” I loathe him, but he is such a fascinating character. He almost has two separate moral compasses — a macro one, and a micro one. Campbell champions new minority accounts and is distraught over Kennedy’s assassination, seeming to have been swept up in the youthfulness and optimism of the generation. Of course, whether he really believes in civil rights or has self-serving motivations is debatable. In any case, his actions on a personal level are positively appalling. Of course, people say the same thing about Kennedy.
Last, but certainly not least, OMG PEGGY!!! (That was my articulate text-message reaction to a friend at the end of the episode.) I’m still mulling over her decision and Don’s reaction. (How beautifully acted was that scene! Wow. I could write a book about Don in this episode, but I probably should save my energy for unpacking suitcases and doing vacation laundry.) When Peggy launches her little speech, Don interrupts and says he can’t put a woman on a car account. Prescient for Peggy’s career; no matter where she goes, she’ll still be a woman in a man’s world. I get the impression she recognizes that, which speaks volumes to how unhappy she was at SCDP. But OMG PEGGY!!! (Clearly, I’m not over it.)
One more reaction, to Megan’s subplot: “Meh.” OK, it serves as one more example of Don being a day late and dollar short, and it’s a foil to Joan’s old-fashioned handling of her career. It wraps up the dark realities of these “other women” — You can have it all, but always at a price.
Agree or disagree with me in the comments!