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'Mad Men' recap: A woman's worth

May 28, 2012 | 10:11 am

In this week's episode of "Mad Men," Joan and Peggy each learn the hard way exactly what they're worth
You know you've got a dramatic "Mad Men" when Peggy leaves the agency and it’s only the second most stunning thing that happens in the episode. In "The Other Woman," Joan finally gets the partnership she's long deserved but she has to pay an almost unimaginable price to make it happen. Meanwhile, Peggy makes the painful decision to leave Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce -- or should I say Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Harris? -- because someone else is willing to pay her what she's actually worth.

The episode's title is, of course, an allusion to the misogynist Jaguar pitch, and to Joan's degrading but profitable tryst with the repellent Herb Rennet -- a character so thoroughly vile he's named after the gunk they use to make cheese. But to me, it also hints at the stark contrast between Peggy and Joan, two characters who have so very much in common yet, when it comes down to it, are playing by diametrically opposite rules.

Joan, a woman whose considerable business savvy will always be secondary to her sex appeal, represents the endgame of the pre-feminist playbook. She's essential, but she'll always be devalued because she does "women's work." Peggy is every bit as competent as Joan, but she's a creative and therefore gets ahead by effectively neutering herself -- by dressing like a boy and tossing back whiskey like it's water.

Both women grapple with the same question in "The Other Woman" -- just how much am I worth? -- but they come up with completely different answers. This may be the saddest thing in one of the saddest episodes of "Mad Men" I can recall: Despite their shared experiences, there's a gulf between Peggy and Joan that can never quite be bridged.

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Joan has long been one of my favorite characters on "Mad Men" because of her tragic mix of confidence and vulnerability. When I think of the most poignant moments in the history of the series, I inevitably go back to Joan -- to her brief tenure as a script reader, to that heartbreaking accordion performance, to the time her fiance raped her on the floor of Don Draper's office.

But Joan beats her own record in "The Other Woman" by agreeing to sleep with Herb in exchange for a 5% stake in the agency. Like Lane's miraculous back taxes from last week, it's a plot development that feels schematic and rather contrived. (It reminds me of nothing so much as "Indecent Proposal.") It's hardly subtle, but it's also in keeping with the blunt direction the series has taken this season. Joan has always used her sexuality to get ahead, but now she's literally sleeping her way to the top.

In this week's episode of "Mad Men," Joan and Peggy each learn the hard way exactly what they're worth
Unlike last week, though, the emotional payoff excuses the rather indelicate plotting. Joan reacts with mild amusement, then offense, to the offer, before finally accepting it. Believing that all the partners, including Don, are on board with the idea, Joan pays a visit to Herb's hotel room. It's telling that Joan's decision hinges so much on what the men, especially Don, think. As long as they continue to think of her as a kind of prostitute, why shouldn't she?

That's why Don's visit to Joan's apartment -- which, we only discover later, comes after she's been to Herb's hotel room -- is so devastating. Joan realizes that Don never agreed to the idea in the first place. It's clear that, had she known, Joan never would have gone through with it. As a newly minted partner, Joan sashays into Roger's office the next morning, but the look she exchanges with Don says it all: He's shocked and disgusted, she's deeply ashamed. 

Peggy's trajectory is quite different. Frustrated by getting Ginsberg's scraps and humiliated for the last time by Don, she meets with her old pal Freddy Rumsen. He tells her what we all probably know but have been afraid to admit to ourselves: She needs to move on. Peggy herself doesn't seem entirely sure until she meets with Ted Chaogh, Don's arch-rival.

Dressed in a sassy little dress and scarf, Peggy is nervous and unable to eat, like a girl on a first date. She's also modest and bashful, giving credit to her collaborators and writing down the salary she wants rather than uttering it out loud. (Peggy might try to be a man, but when it comes to asking for what she wants, she's still very much a traditional woman.) So when Ted actually offers her a higher salary, plus the title of "copy chief," it's as if Peggy has finally seen the light. It's high time she dumps the boyfriend who takes her for granted.

Unfortunately, this means she has to tell Don something that, quite understandably, she dreads. A running theme this season has been Don's fear of abandonment. Megan's decision to leave advertising threw him into an existential tailspin from which he's yet to completely recover, and now he's panicked at the idea that her acting career could take her away from him for months at a time.

But Peggy's defection might be the toughest blow yet to befall Don. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss play this scene so perfectly. She's nervous and apologetic, but firm in her resolve; he's snide and cutting, but ultimately devastated. After Peggy makes it clear that she's moving on, he takes her hand and kisses it. It's a loaded gesture, at once subservient, tender and romantic, as well as a callback to Peggy's first day on the job. As mad as Don is, the kiss betrays his true feelings: He's already forgiven her. "Don't be a stranger," Peggy says, fighting back tears. Peggy is clearly making the right decision, and yet it also feels like she's betraying Don in a fundamental way.   

So now we're looking at the prospect of a Peggy-free "Mad Men," a possibility I'd never really entertained in the past. Series creator Matthew Weiner tends to be ruthless when it comes to writing off characters to serve the larger narrative (see: Sal, Paul, Carla), but Peggy has always seemed like a non-negotiable, second only to Don. It's no accident that "Mad Men" started on her first day at the office. She's the audience proxy, our way in to the once-foreign world of 1960s advertising. "Mad Men" can go on without Peggy, but I'm not sure I want it to without the basic sense of decency she brings. 

Of course, I could be jumping the gun here somewhat. Just because Peggy is leaving the agency doesn't necessarily mean she won't be on the show anymore. It's not inconceivable that she'll pop up now and again, the way that post-divorce Betty does, but even this possibility worries me. If "Mad Men” loses Peggy the way it has Betty, I'm not sure the series can ever be the same.

Though I applaud Weiner and co-writer Semi Chellas for doing right by Peggy -- who would no doubt feel even more confident in her decision if she knew the entire story behind Joan's partnership -- I can't help but wonder if they've done right by the show. Then again, maybe I'm just implicating myself in this sexist mess by even saying that. If I really care about Peggy, I should want her to thrive, not to stick around an abusive workplace just because she and Don share a special, albeit dysfunctional, bond.

Whatever the case may be, it's a testament to the power of "Mad Men" -- and to Peggy in particular -- that I’m even talking about a fictional character in these kinds of terms and that, the morning after watching this episode, I'm still overwhelmed by the sadness of it all.  

RELATED: 

"Mad Men" recap: Every man for himself

"Mad Men" recap: A little something on the side

"Mad Men" recap: "Money solves today but not tomorrow"

-- Meredith Blake
twitter.com/MeredithBlake

Upper photo: Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) quietly leaves the agency. Credit: Jordin Althaus / AMC

Lower photo: Joan (Christina Hendricks) finds it hard to celebrate her new partnership. Credit: Jordin Althaus / AMC

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