I Don’t Know Where I’m Going

The Other Woman

“You Really Got Me”, the Kinks

The Other Woman, Season 5 Episode 11

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            Mad Men frequently uses montages with its music, sometimes scoring long sequences with richly considered songs. But this choice comes in right before the cut to black, and therefore requires the context of the whole prior scene, and even the episode in general. As much as I like delving into every character’s journey piece by piece, this hour is really just about Peggy and Joan. Their personalities and arcs have taken drastically different turns in the five seasons leading up to The Other Woman. One of its narratives is essentially sad, and one is mostly hopeful. Therefore, the song at the end functions as a grace note for the B-plot, and a relief after the grimness of the A-plot.

            Both stories center around an incredibly tough win for SCDP: a lucrative, prestigious car account. The episode explores the sacrifices and decisions of two women which made it happen. Much like Mystery Date from the same season, it focuses on gender inequality in illuminating and poetic ways. First up is Joan, who is bandied about as a sexual incentive for the salacious Jaguar client’s endorsement, and considers this her last straw.

            There’s some manipulation necessary in one scene to make her distasteful offer an option in the first place. Pete implies the exchange, being ruthless and amoral as usual. Roger seems more distracted than anything, and for some reason doesn’t dissent, the only real weak character link in the scene. Don would certainly stand up for Joan (and later, he does), but isn’t present at the meeting. Lane may still be bitter from being turned down by Joan, and, facing his own gripping problems, lets the motion pass for a shot at financial stability. And Bert, coming from a more retrograde time, doesn’t grasp what’s horrifying about it. Joan is aghast at their lack of scruples or respect for her, and negotiates a partner’s stake in the agency in exchange for such unspeakable conduct. Mad Men takes a rare narrative feint here to make Joan’s story even more tragic, showing her depression and Don’s late-night pleading without context and later repeating it to reveal it was after the affair.

            Meanwhile, Peggy departs the agency after many small slights add up to a bleak prospect for her future there. Her choice is also played as a grand yet inevitable tragedy, on a smaller scale. Don has been dealing with Megan so much the entire season that he has mistreated his protégé copywriter and taken her for granted. Realizing that this vicious cycle of unintentional abuse and apologies will only continue, with no room for growth, Peggy takes a bold step and accepts a job at a rival agency. She and Don share one last knockout dramatic scene with their typical mutual understanding, despite some bristling and tears over the decision. However, once she finally accepts it and steps out of SCDP’s doors, she is optimistic, and smiles coyly. It’s the most thrilling, joyous moment I think I’ve seen on television, made even more jubilant by how understated Elisabeth Moss plays it.

            The connective tissue of these two tales is the car itself. The pitch that clinches Jaguar for SCDP is a depressing pronouncement of men’s authority over the objects of their desire, including the disenfranchisement of women. It equates this temperamental, ornamental product with a human female. Don knocks the narrative out of the park, as usual, not realizing that this sort of attitude is about to lose him two close friends. One of them used the only tool available to her to secure the business, and the other departs in acrimony amid the office’s din of celebration once it’s acquired.

            The Kinks song used in this episode was a blast of defiant energy unlike any heard before it, essentially inventing hard rock in early 1964 with its amplified and minimalistic sound. It’s a prototypical soundtrack for “badass” moments in film and TV, but its familiarity works to its advantage in this context. Ray Davies’ cool, youthful aggression is a perfect match for Peggy’s indomitable spirit and irreverence for the patriarchal ad business. She’s turning the world on its head, and leaving the men of SCDP confused by her absence. The lyrics seem to reflect this, projecting the adulation and bewilderment these two strong women engender in the male workforce.

            They aren’t strangers to this behavior. Joan had faced similar humiliation with her rapist fiancé Greg, and Peggy knows the struggle of getting gradually beaten down by the other creatives for a couple seasons. Their decisions define them as peers, but on very different courses. Joan sexually submits herself one final time in the hope of gaining leverage from it. Peggy refuses to give in, even though she may be leaving a confining infrastructure for something just as bad. Like these two women, the episode’s final moments move past regrettable memories and plunge forward, eager for fulfillment and control. The mostly happy achievement of the ending sequence is wonderfully compounded by the heartbreaking climax of the other plotline. Joan’s story is a warning, and Peggy’s story heeds it.

            The former takes one last look as the latter walks out the door. Despite her new vantage point in the agency, Joan is still trapped in a world made by men, for men, while Peggy is bathed in the elevator’s light, escaping at last to a place where she might be valued. Then the intense, distorted riff begins, and both characters’ struggles become epic heroism in its sway. The events of The Other Woman are a clean break. They don’t know if they made the right call, but this is something new.

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