TV Talk: MAD MEN 5.11 “The Other Woman” - Meredith’s Take

Stop crying for Joan Harris. 

"The Other Woman" is one of the most powerful hours of television I've ever seen. Time and again the writers of Mad Men make it clear that there is no anticipating what will happen on this show. Not because they buck expectations for the deliberate purpose of being unpredictable; they are unpredictable because they don't care about our expectations. They have a story to tell, and theories and spoilers and assumptions have nothing to do with it. This is their story, and we are here to absorb it, not change it. In a time of online communication informing the creative decisions of most television shows, I admire that. We are here for the ride, but in no way are we driving.

So let's talk about Joan. The tragedy here isn't that she is no longer pure. The tragedy isn't that she is no longer the titan, moving like some great ship through the office. Joan will always be that; we can't take it away from her. Her ex-husband can't take it away from her. The partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce can't take it away from her. And the Jaguar executive certainly can't take it away from her. 

The tragedy here is that Joan would never have been made a partner except under these circumstances.

And she knows that. She's worked for the company for thirteen years. She's an incredibly intelligent, competent, fair and personable employee. She is indispensable. SCDP needs her, and yet it would never even occur to anyone in that office that she deserves a stake in the company - unless she lands them the Jaguar account through means that only Joan could provide. 

But don't cry for Joan. She made an extraordinarily tough decision on behalf of her child and her career. She lives in a world and a time where that decision is even on the table, and that sucks. But she will be just fine. She will rise above this as she has risen above every injustice in her life. The tragedy here is that she deserves to be promoted in that office due to her hard work, loyalty and efficiency. But she didn't have a shot in hell of that until she slept with Jaguar. And she knows it.

Let's talk about the men surrounding Joan. Pete, who approaches her in the sleaziest and most manipulative way possible, and Joan sees right through him. Roger, who washes his hands of the entire situation. Burt, who doesn't even hesitate. Lane, whose financial troubles permeate every line, every expression, every decision he makes. He doesn't care a thing about whether Joan does this or not. He just doesn't want to lose his bonus - and he does anyway. I only hope the 5% Joan's getting doesn't turn out to be 5% of nothing. Lane certainly balked at the suggestion of extending SCDP's line of credit, and that doesn't look good.

And Don. Are we really looking at Don as the hero here? Film Crit Hulk wrote a tremendous post about this week's episode and the way that men try to own women, but I can't agree that Don is the white knight in this situation. Does anyone honestly believe his refusal comes from a sense of decency or honor? Do we think Don would resist or even care if it were some random secretary on the line instead of Joan? No. Don cares because - like Megan, like Peggy - he thinks of Joan as his. And he doesn't like other kids playing with his stuff. Don comes out looking better than any of the other male partners of SCDP, but that isn't saying a whole hell of a lot. They all think Joan is theirs to barter with or protect.

When Don rushes to her apartment, it's just one more man telling Joan what to do. I don't know if it should have mattered that he told her not to do it. She knew she didn't have to do it. She knew she deserves better. But it was her decision, and I'd like to think that that decision, right or wrong, wouldn't have been swayed by a patented Don Draper speech. Because if she didn't have sex with the creep because Don Draper told her not to, then it means that she would have had sex with him only because she thought Don wanted her to. And I'd like to think of Joan as her own woman. That said, I'm glad Don went to her apartment, because I think it actually made her feel better. I think she made a tough decision and refuses to regret it in spite of Don's plea, but I think being able to believe that Don is "a good one" is important to her. 

A couple of other notes on Joan before we move on: the way she manges to make herself impassive for Don's visit, moments after returning home from the Jaguar executive's house, is one of the things that I love about Joan. She is so strong, so inscrutable. Also, I love her relationship with her mother. It is always fraught with tension and frustration but also tenderness. And her quietly dismayed delivery of "Those are two different stories" just slays me. The guy's a sleaze and an idiot. 

Megan has a brief but revealing storyline this week, one that feels mostly like a foundation for future strife. She may move to Boston temporarily for a play, and Don's first instinct is to dig in his heels. He tells her he doesn't want her to fail, and I love her response of "Good, because I'm not going to." But notice he doesn't say he wants her to succeed, either. He wants her to do just well enough to keep her happy, but not so well that she and all of her time don't continue to belong to him. We'll see where that goes. But Megan continues to stand up for herself and her dreams, even when her dreams disappoint her as her unbecoming audition did. 

And finally we have Peggy, who braves with placidity Don's latest and most insulting move yet: throwing money in her face. It takes Freddy's outside perspective for her to realize how truly wrong that was, and how much better she deserves. And so she goes out and gets better. According to this inflation calculator, Peggy's $19,000 offer would equal almost $131,000 today. But "there's no number." What there is instead is a feeling of being wanted, of being appreciated, of being sought out. Peggy deserves so much better than Don has offered; he doesn't even take her seriously when she turns in her notice. He laughs it off and then tries to buy her off, but she maintains her eloquent farewell, makes us cry with her throaty offer of "Don't be a stranger," and hightails it out of there. And then she smiles - and we smile with her. 

Peggy's going to be just fine. Megan's going to be just fine. And you know what? Joan's going to be just fine, too. Don't cry for these women. Cry for the pathetic old guard men who are about to have the rug pulled out from under their Italian leather shoes. 1967 wasn't a great time to be a woman. If the GOP had their way, 2012 wouldn't be either. But those who are strong, smart and resilient are always just fine.