One reason Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is so maniacal about keeping plot points about his show secret until they air is that — well, as this week’s episode, “The Other Woman” proved, he reserves the right to explode every expectation you could bring to Mad Men, and then sets off a few extra firecrackers for the meticulously determined hell of it.
So when the hour began with a boorish client describing Joan as being “built like a B-52,” we could all chuckle, secure in the knowledge that this was the umpteenth example of deploying Christina Hendricks as the show’s non-stealth bombshell. Except the chuckle later turned into a shocked gag reflex, as jolly Jaguar titan Herb seriously proposed having serious sex with Joan as a condition for doing serious business with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And Sterling, Cooper, Pryce, and Campbell — Draper abstaining — all took that demand seriously. As did Joan, who was initially offered $50,000 (“four times what I make in a year”) for one night of repulsive bliss with Herb. Eyes were rolling all across America. Ridiculous! Can you believe this sub-plot! Isn’t this metaphor for the advertising world-as-prostitution going a bit too far, tee-hee?
Except everything here was dead serious. Pete conveyed the offer to Joan even as Roger — Roger! The man with arguably the loosest attitude toward women on the show! — condemned the ploy as “some very dirty business.” And Joan, miserable in her cramped apartment, with her shattered marriage and her hectoring mother, felt she had to take the offer seriously — seriously enough to raise the stakes, asking for a five per-cent non-silent partnership in the firm.
Thank goodness, we all sighed, when Don went to Joan’s place to tell her that she didn’t, shouldn’t, do this. “You’re a good one, aren’t you?” said Joan, touching his cheek tenderly. And when Don gave her a warm farewell look and cocked his hat to the side, we were comfortingly reminded of how lovely and chastely sexy their relationship has been over the past few weeks, and we were relieved…
Only to have the plot rug pulled out from under us. With a cunning switch-back flashback, we saw that Joan had already done the deed with Herb, and she has seriously prostituted herself, with Don’s comforting words arriving too late, which can only add to her misery.
In the evening’s other extraordinary plot, Peggy was made to feel unappreciated once again by Don — indeed, cruelly insulted by him. After saving an account with a clever improvised pitch, Don — preoccupied with Jaguar — not only dismissed her triumph and denied her the credit, but tossed money at her (as though she was, yes, a prostitute) when he thought she was angling for too much. This led to her lunching with Freddy Rumsen (God, I love Freddy, his avuncular relationship with Peggy, his sober-alcoholic stoicism, and I love actor Joel Murray, his twisty mouth and sly delivery), which in turn led her to interview with another firm. Offered a thousand dollars more than she’d asked for, she accepted.
This set up the scene that will glow in Mad Men majesty, as one of the series’ most crucial relationships came to an apparent end. When Don finally realized that Peggy wasn’t kidding, or fishing for a raise, his melodramatic gesture — kissing the hand she’d extended to have him merely shake — took on an almost unbearable poignance.
It’s not as though the series hadn’t prepared us for Peggy’s degree of discontent, but the conventions of series television made both the Joan and Peggy sub-plots shockers. We just don’t expect characters we’ve known for the length of a series to behave in ways that permanently alter their relationship to the show, and to us.
In the context of the hour, Megan’s subplot — an audition for Little Murders, before a trio of men whose bald, bespectacled center judge was doubtless meant to be author Jules Feiffer — may have seemed rather unimportant, another example of her desire to act and Don’s inability to grasp the importance of this to her. But in the context of “The Other Woman,” she was yet another woman who was placed before men for their judgment, their fleeting interest, their arrogant misunderstanding.
Mad Men does this a lot — parallel plotting, one scene echoing another, weaving a theme through various subplots so that we Get The Message. Indeed, I’d say it’s usually the habit, the stylistic tic, that is most irritating about the series, and sometimes leaves you wondering just how stupid Matthew Weiner thinks his audience is. Me, I think the answer to that question is, “Very.” It’s the contempt of a smart college boy who wants to make sure you know he knows his subject more thoroughly than you do, which in turn prompts fans and recappers to race to Wikipedia to prove they, too, get all the references. That’s what prevents Mad Men from being as generous and open-hearted as, say, The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad. But Weiner is brilliant at other things, among them casting (as Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm proved this night as superb actors, and as Christina Hendricks and Jessica Pare and January Jones have proven as, at various times, superb objects of desire) and Weiner is brilliant at plotting, at deconstructing the conventions of the hour-long drama. That’s why the Joan and Peggy moves this week were so effective: They worked as surprises, but they will also probably work, going forward, as storytelling master-strokes.
Because I doubt there wasn’t one viewer of Mad Men this week who would not admit to Weiner — to echo The Kinks’ closing sentiment — “You Really Got Me.”
What did you think of this week’s Mad Men developments?