"Mad Men's" indecent proposal

In a turbulent episode, the boys at SCDP make Joan a despicable offer -- and, in the process, lose their souls

Published May 28, 2012 12:31PM (EDT)

Nelle Engoron recaps "Mad Men" every week on Salon. She is the author of "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4."

What shall it profit an ad agency if it gains a luxury car but loses its soul?

As Lane said about Don watching Megan singing “Zou Bisou Bisou” in the season premiere, I think I saw SCDP’s soul leave its body last night, not just once but twice: when all the partners except Don agreed that Joan should prostitute herself for the firm, and when Peggy left. Which seems like a smart move, given how women who work at the agency are now being sold off to the highest and most disgusting bidder.

Being underappreciated has been Peggy’s theme song for years, but not having experienced work – much less success -- anywhere else, she’s been afraid to leave. Now, as former boss and mentor Freddy Rumsen puts it, she’s reached the point where she has to decide whether she’s ambitious or just complaining. “If this was about work and not about feeling, you’d make a move,” he argues, bringing up the central conflict of the episode, in which people make moves based on work – and the success and money it brings -- rather than on good old human feeling, either for themselves or for each other.

While the episode is titled “The Other Woman” -- riffing on the idea that owning a Jaguar is like having a gorgeous but temperamental mistress -- it might more accurately, if obliquely, have been called “The Other Man" since men are distinctly divided into good or bad, with the balance weighing heavily on the latter. We begin with Pete the pimp, who plays asp to Joan’s Cleopatra, poisoning her coveted bosom first with guilt (which she refuses to swallow) and then with filthy lucre. “Don’t fool yourself, this is some very dirty business,” Roger warns Pete – and when Roger Sterling chides you about the immorality of your actions, you should jump in your Jaguar and drive as fast and as far as you can in the opposite direction.

While Pete’s as ardent as the head of the car dealer association who covets Joan, he’s too crude to close the deal with her (and later fails basic pimphood by not even knowing how to set up her date with the trick). It falls to Lane to reel Joan in with a far slicker method – but then Lane’s desperate to cover up his embezzlement while Pete’s merely motivated by greed. Taking the advice that Roger had previously offered about how to woo clients, Lane confides to Joan that he just wants her to avoid the mistake he’s made his entire life, which is not to tell the truth when someone asks him what he wants. Appealing to Joan’s ego and need for security as a single mother, he suggests that she skip the $50,000 that he, oops, lets slip will be offered, and ask for a 5 percent partnership instead. “And here I thought you were trying to stop this because you have feelings for me,” Joan observes. Lane claims that’s precisely why he’s looking out for her interests rather than the firm’s, but it’s actually his own that he’s securing, while selling out the one true partner he had at SCDP – ironically, by making her a literal one.

Lane’s behavior may be the most disappointing, but at least he has fear of prison as his motive, while the man who allegedly loves Joan, Roger, continues to see women as mere sexual currency. Saying he won’t oppose it but also won’t pay for it, he takes the coward’s route of plausible deniability while rejecting the opportunity to defend Joan’s honor. Bert merely gives her the right of refusal, which I guess is commendable in an era before “No means no,” but he still observes that “this is a car, you can’t put a dollar figure on its significance” to the firm (although you apparently can on the value of human beings). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to hear this from a man who said he was raised on the principle, “Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.”

As the hero of the show, it’s up to Don to play one, and he alone opposes the plan, literally slamming the door on the idea but failing to realize that his word isn’t as golden in decision-making as it is in ad campaigns. The man who famously stated that “if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation” is brusquely informed by Pete that “the conversation doesn’t end just because you leave the room.”

Unlike the other partners playing God (and dog) behind closed doors like powerful men always do, when Don turns up at Joan's apartment, he shows his egalitarian side by identifying himself to her mother merely as Joan’s co-worker. However, Gail’s a traditional woman who submits to authority, and so she tells Joan to hustle herself out to talk to “her boss.” Neither we nor Don know yet that Joan has already hustled herself out to the real boss of the moment, Herb Rennet (a blob of a man whose name suggests a grassy cheese product), because she believed Pete’s lie that all the partners endorsed her doing so. “You’re a good one, aren’t you?” she marvels when Don tells her that Jaguar’s not worth her debasement and besides “who wants to be in business with people like that?” Ah, but you are, Don, you are.

Don's partnerships continue to be the vexed question at the heart of the season. He deals with his partners’ rapacity by slamming doors and petulantly saying his “no” is final, a tactic that fails both with them and with Megan. Even if Don believes in a woman’s right to say no, he’s still struggling with her right to say yes, and the idea that Megan might have a real career that takes her away from meeting his needs for even a day is something he can’t wrap his slicked-back head around. In that he joins other men of his generation who struggled to adjust to women asserting their own desires, not just in a sexual way (as Megan does in the office one night), but in pursuing careers and self-fulfillment. “This is the way it works -- now you know,” Megan sums up after explaining what it means to be cast in a play, but Don interprets her statement as mere petulance and angrily responds, “Just keep doing whatever the hell you want.”

Illustrating the difference in the generations, Don’s angry judgment is Ginsberg’s excited epiphany, as observing Julia’s wantonness sparks the campaign idea and slogan they’ve failed to conjure for Jaguar despite late nights and lobsters (perhaps it was all the shellfish behavior that was the problem). “She just comes and goes as she pleases,” Ginsberg murmurs in realization, drawing a shocked response from Stan, who can only hear the sexual undertone and not the statement about women’s freedom. “Yeah, I got it,” Ginsberg affirms to himself, a claim that Stan, Don and the other men can’t make. Maladroit in social interactions, Ginsberg nevertheless shares with Peggy an outsider’s ability to observe others, distilling his observations into ads that effectively tap into consumers’ psyches.

As Ted Chaough approvingly says to Peggy, she writes campaigns as if every product was for her, rather than making them formulaic (just as Don, another outsider, pitches that cars aren’t just about function but desire). Quoting Emerson, he asserts that humans must be “a transparent eyeball,” taking in the world and letting it pass through them. Unlike most ad guys (including himself in previous episodes), Chaough is as good as his word, taking in Peggy’s work and worth, truly seeing her, and not just meeting her desires but even raising the ante. Having been seen and valued, it’s not surprising that she makes a decision that (contra Freddy) is about both work and feeling – her feelings about how she wants to be treated at work.

She tenders her resignation to Don at a very tender moment – after he’s realized not only that Joan has prostituted herself to help win Jaguar, but that he may not have won the account on talent at all. It’s hard to tell which would pain Don more: the feeling about Joan, or the work that wasn’t valued. We’d like to think it’s the former, but having said twice that the work will be sufficient to win the account and that he doesn’t want to win it as a result of Joan’s compliance, his ego seems to be in play as well.

That ego rears its head again as he at first refuses to believe Peggy will really leave and then gives himself credit for “every single good thing that’s happened” to her before finally accepting her explanation that she’s merely doing what he himself would do and granting her that autonomy and equality of ambition. After having barked at her and taken her for granted – like that Buick of a wife that you rely on to get you from here to there – he shows his true feelings at last by bestowing a gentlemanly kiss on her hand. Unsentimentally and without fuss, Peggy slips out of the office, giving the doors she’s passed through one last look before smiling to herself with pleasure at her courage.

Peggy’s quiet triumph of self-determination is a lovely note for the show to end on, one underlined by the Kinks’ classic ode to a woman’s erotic power, “You Really Got Me,” playing over the credits. But while Megan and Peggy assert themselves and seem to gain autonomy, the reality is that their fates still rest in the hands of men who won’t overlook their gender. Megan’s subjected to a humiliating audition that begins with a cold appraisal of her body, and Peggy may soon discover her new agency is even more Chaough-vanistic than SCDP.

But it’s Joan’s story that sadly underlines the circumscribed state of women, circa 1966. Having kept the firm running smoothly for 13 years, she deserves to be made a junior partner on those merits. But instead she must sleep her way into the position, and not even with a powerful man she desires like Roger (who seems never to have considered rewarding her in that fashion) but with a repulsive man who sees her as a pair of breasts between which he symbolically hangs a tiny jeweled chain. “He’s not bad,” Pete reassures her in advance, to which she answers, “He’s doing this, isn’t he?” Having equated what he’s asking Joan to do with a drunken sexual mistake, Pete can’t see the hideousness of either the act or the man that Joan has to indulge.

But we can see it, as well as the pain on Joan’s face when this man touches her. As powerful as Joan has always been in certain ways, she remains a prisoner of her body, which men fetishize and seek to possess. While her rape by Greg remains perhaps the most shocking and painful moment of the series, seeing Joan allow her body to be used in this fashion is worse because of what it suggests about her character. We’re not long past the time when all women who gained a position of any power were accused of sleeping their way into it. To literalize that degrading accusation in Joan renders her less than we’ve always thought her to be, and makes her better-late-than-never rejection of the hideous Greg seem less of a triumphant turning point. Joan is now in partnership with a group of men who used to respect and even fear her (as Don admitted last week) but who will now always see her as the woman who slept with a repugnant client in order to get ahead. She’s gained a literal promotion only to be demoted in their estimation.

This commodification of women is epitomized by the Jaguar campaign that Ginsberg has hit on and which Don pitches with his trademark dramatic persuasion. As men selling to other men, they take the male perspective, flipping the power equation so that women are the ones holding it, just as beautiful cars have the power to entice and enthrall: “Oh this car, this thing, gentlemen, what price would we pay, what behavior would we forgive? If they weren’t pretty, if they weren’t temperamental, if they weren’t beyond our reach and a little out of our control, would we love them like we do? Jaguar – at last something beautiful you can truly own.”

By the end of the episode, some women walk free while others seem “truly owned,” bound by chains of gold, yet the men remain unchanged. As the one possible exception, Don alternates between being chivalristic and chauvinistic – in the former state, he suggests what women should do, and in the latter he tells them what to do, but he fails to ask them what they want to do, and he doesn't want to hear it when they tell him anyway. This lack of curiosity to know what the other side feels underlies the very different ways the two genders view each other, with the men seeing women as objects of desire and the women seeing the men as obstacles to their desires.

The freelancers pitch ideas that extol mistresses who do “what wives won’t,” but who does for women what husbands won’t? Pete’s miserable in the “cemetery” of suburbia and wants an escape pad for infidelity in Manhattan, while Trudy wants to make more babies (so much so that she has her jammies on at dinner). Freddy warns Peggy that “car guys are a bunch of creeps,” but she merely responds that “they’re all a bunch of creeps.” (And seeing this episode, who can blame her?) Even the genial Freddy -- whose reappearance in the show feels like a balm after hearing the partners coolly conspire to sell Joan -- encourages Peggy to leave her job while harboring the intention to apply as her replacement.

Herb Rennet tells Pete and Ken that Joan and he “would both like the opportunity to spend the night together” with the confidence of a man whose power has overridden his ugliness so often that he really believes gorgeous women desire him. No wonder Don is trying to cook up an ad campaign in which the Jaguar’s weaknesses are sold as strengths and the (male) Chevalier Blanc client wonders why a woman would give a man anything for Valentine’s Day.

It’s Joan who puts her perfectly manicured finger on these clashing perspectives when Herb makes a laughable attempt to be seductive, calling her Helen of Troy to his sultan of Araby. Diplomatically avoiding the question of how closely each of them resembles those characters, Joan nevertheless quietly observes that “those are two different stories.”

As they always have been, and probably always will be.

By Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron is a freelance writer, an Open Salon blogger and the author of "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4."

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