Mad Men Season 5, Episode 11
More so than any episode this season, last night’s episode had a clearly discernible theme: the struggles of women in a patriarchal society. This theme touched all three subplots; the resulting unity gave the episode a nice sense of focus.
Joan’s sordid saga of essentially high-end prostitution led the episode. When the greasy Jersey guy (I guess not much changes in 45 years) first mentions his base desire to Pete and Ken Cosgrove, the differences between the two account men are fleshed out. Pete, in his ambition, has no problem leaving the offer on the table. We already knew he respects marriage far less than faithful Ken does. Pete then spends the rest of the episode playing the pimp.
The rest of the partners are put off by the dirty deal to varying degrees. Don, who has a real issue with prostitution, his mother being a whore and all, flat out rejects it. Roger is surprisingly apathetic about the deal so long as it doesn’t affect his pocket. Bert Cooper recognizes the limitless value of a car account, but doesn’t want Joan to feel forced. Lane is against paying Joan off with cash only because it would reveal his embezzlement.
The firm could have had the Jaguar account already if they hadn’t taken that British guy to a whorehouse earlier in the season, an irony not lost on me. This business is forever linked to prostitution, but is that really any worse than when the firm remained solvent on the back of cigarette money?
Anyway, Joan accepts the deal behind Pete’s prodding and Lane’s assurance that she can secure her son’s life in one night. Don’s last-minute, impassioned plea turns out to be Don’s too-late, impassioned plea, and he probably can never look at Joan with respect again.
Ginsberg’s tagline, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own,” is his opus, revealing his keen perception of human nature, which is strengthened because he removes himself from it, and the customary ogling of sex kittens crawling on conference tables. Instead of participating in that display of heteronormative masculinity, Ginsberg analyzes and gains insight: Megan comes and goes as she pleases, getting away with it because she is beautiful. Greedy men want to control beauty but it can’t be tamed. The seeds of his idea were sown in that moment.
The men in charge try to control the women of the show throughout the episode. The partners reduce Joan to her beauty, and treat that as a commodity. Car executives don’t want women writing copy for them, so Don gives Peggy the rest of the firm’s accounts while the men work on Jaguar, which is more responsibility than she’s ever had but somehow makes her an afterthought. Megan won’t be barred by her husband from pursuing her dreams if it takes her hundreds of miles away, because “That’s the way it works.” Yet she is naively surprised at the playwright’s request for her to turn around so he and the producers can assess her body like a piece of meat.
The rest of Megan’s audition is cut off, leaving the viewer to guess at what transpired. Countless porno flicks tell us that the casting couch audition doesn’t end with a pirouette. The idea behind the premise is that the aspiring actress is so determined to achieve her dream that bartering her body to do so isn’t out of the question. Later in the episode, Megan tells Don forcefully that she will succeed at acting. The woman’s got oodles of determination, and men will always yearn to have her.
Only Peggy is able to get ahead without her looks. The show has always gone out of its way to portray her as homely, but she looked especially beautiful this episode—not that it matters. She sees no future for herself at the firm, unless it’s as a whipping girl for Don whenever he’s frustrated. Her talents earn her the position of copy chief at a rival firm, and more money than even she had anticipated. When she breaks the news to Don, she stands above him like a superior (so did Ginsberg when he revealed his line, though he did ask permission to speak freely, even if that was sarcastic). Maybe she is superior: She’s been writing good copy while Don has been doing nothing at work. Only once she’s gone does Don realize how valuable she was, how much he took her for granted. He kissed her hand for as long as he could, but eventually she had to pull it away.