Rent a Joan, Own a Jaguar: A Costly Lesson on This Week’s Mad Men

by sweatermanifesto

Editor’s note: Every week, our resident free-market apologist, Harlan R. Teller, offers his unique perspective on the most recent episode of Mad Men.

Last week, Don Draper told his assembled staff that every agency on Madison Avenue is defined by their car account; he might have added that they’re also defined by how they go about getting it. And there’s the rub, as SCDP may have won its car, but lost its corporate soul in claiming Jaguar in this week’s breathtaking exercise in moral turpitude, “The Other Woman.”

Turns out that the going rate for owning something “beautiful” like the Jaguar business is a night in the sack with stalwart Joan Holloway Harris, who has slowly but surely moved to the heart of center stage in MM over the past several episodes.     The head of the Jaguar dealers association decides to act like a modern-day sultan, ordering up the shapely body of the estimable Joanie as the price of his support.   And Pete Campbell, the Sammy Glick of the show, skates over the moral thin ice of the demand and prostitutes himself, his firm, and his director of agency operations by taking the demand seriously.

While the metaphor for the episode is a bit obvious—the creatives are pitching Jaguar as the “the other woman” that is the one beautiful thing a man can own, while Joan is the beautiful other woman who can be bought with the prospect of a five percent stake in the firm—the execution of the concept showed why there has never been anything quite like Mad Men in this history of television.

In a way, just about everyone gets what they want in this episode, which is a significant departure for a show that for most of the year has featured unhappy, unsettled characters enduring their discontent while the world around them is poised between two cultures and about to detonate. This week, SCDP gets its car, Joanie gets her partnership, Don gets to find his internal mensch, Ginsberg gets to establish himself firmly as the creative on the rise, and Peggy gets to jump to another agency for more money and perhaps more respect. Home may still be a volatile place, but work has become a lot more rewarding. About the only person who strikes out is Megan, showing once again that as an actress, she’s a really good copywriter.

For those who think that there is an air of inevitability about Don and Joan, you were rewarded by one of the truly poignant moments in Mad Men lore—Joan’s touching, lingering caress across Don’s inflamed cheek when she realizes that the man, cad that he is, is the one person in her life who actually cares about her honor.  Just when you think Christina Hendricks as Joan can’t get any better, there comes along this pivotal scene, which she plays with an enigmatic grace that hints at so much but gives away so little. Watching her this year might not be quite as rewarding as owning a Jaguar, but we’ll take what we can get, and she’s as good as any actress working in television today.

In a deft sleight of hand, we realize later that this scene, in which Don tries to dissuade Joan from bedding the car association guy, actually takes place after the deed is done. The replay of the scene—which follows a Godfather-like intercutting between the pitch the next day and Joan’s encounter with the Sultan of Jaguar the night before—becomes even richer, and actually changes the meaning of the look on Joan’s face from enigmatic to ruefully sad.

And, in between, while we’re reminded of Don Draper’s charisma and magnetism as a pitchman, the pitch is rigged and the win is tainted. And, on top of his disappointment in knowing that he couldn’t pull this off himself, he then faces a much more profound rejection: Peggy’s resignation from SCDP. This has been brewing for a long time, and his careless disregard for Peggy’s feelings and aspirations brought the situation to a head. The scene between these two is both unutterably sad and entirely inevitable. But, again, in even a scene that feels so familiar, something happens that takes it to another level—that lingering kiss on Peggy’s hand, telescoping six years of affection, complicity and respect into one final, personal gesture. Again, a scene that finds two MM stalwarts, Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss, doing some of their best work of the year. Hamm, in particular, demonstrates the seven stages of grief in a span of about two minutes, ending in sad acceptance as Peggy walks out the door and possibly out of his life.

It has been discussed elsewhere, but it is noteworthy that Don seems to have greater chemistry with co-workers Joan and Peggy than he has with his two wives, and in fact, the most chemistry he and Megan have ever displayed was after she helped him save the Heinz business. Work is a literal turn-on for Don, and his out of date notions about youth culture aside, he enjoys having strong, capable women around him, and respects what they bring to the table. So, given the primacy of work in Don’s hierarchy of needs, it may not be surprising that two groundbreaking female professionals like Peggy and Joan would have such a profound connection with him.   With Peggy, it’s teacher to mentor; with Joan, it’s not quite as well defined, and the ambiguity of his relationship with her leaves us persistently tantalized by the prospect of a Don-Joan coupling.

And, who among you thought for a brief moment that when the elevator doors swung open, that Peggy, with her whole career and future ahead of her, would go hurtling headlong into the abyss of the elevator shaft—the one that Don narrowly avoided awhile back? No, Peggy gets to live another day and compete against her mentor, in league with his hated enemy. The plot is indeed thickening.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller