Every season of Mad Men has one episode which is just that bit better than the others, its knockout blow, its ‘The Suitcase‘ or ‘Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency‘. ‘The Other Woman’, I think, is it for season 5.
SCDP is still intent on winning the Jaguar account, although the first thing I noticed about the opening scene, in which the creatives bat ideas around, is that Peggy isn’t in the room with them; she’s nominally in charge of all the firm’s non-Jag work, but that’s hardly the same. Pete, meantime, has a conversation with Herb, a Jaguar salesman who will be part of the selection process, during which it’s made clear that the price of Herb’s support is an “evening” with Joan. From here in, toxic though he is and repellant though the idea is, you’d have to say Pete plays a blinder: the way in which he turns the impossible into the inevitable is a masterclass in manipulation. Joan isn’t quite as definitive as she needed to be in closing the topic down, and ultimately names her price; Pete marginalises Don, the only partner to be irrevocably against the idea, and gets the others to agree.
Don then finds out what’s been going on and visits Joan’s apartment, trying to persuade her not to go through with it. This is, of course, a fantastic Don/Joan scene, although that goes without saying by now. And what follows is even better, as Don pitches to the Jaguar team, interspersed with Joan’s evening with Herb. There’s a bit of a twist as well: Mad Men doesn’t often use tricksy storytelling methods, which means that when it does you can be confident there’s a reason for it, and what it does here is to heighten our sympathy for both Don and Joan. He’s the good guy this time, and Joan – well, would she have gone through with it had Don’s visit predated her leaving the house?
This all contrasts in a number of ways with what’s happening to Peggy: Don is a very long way from being the good guy is in his dealings with her, and the moment when he throws money at her is as cruel as anything we’ve seen from him in a while. Peggy feels under-appreciated, so decides to see what she might be worth in her marketplace, and ultimately receives a job offer from Don’s old enemy Ted Chaough.
And although it’s a quiet week for Megan, there are, again, a couple of scenes which suggest both that her marriage to Don is both salvageable and doomed, depending how you want to read them: Don’s down on her winning a part in a play, because she’d need to go out of town, but then they appear to reconcile after a deeply uncomfortable callback, during which it’s hinted that there might be a casting couch in the room.
It all comes together brilliantly: Don’s pitch to Jaguar is, like last week’s speech in the office, a reminder that while his creative powers might be on the wane, his persuasive powers aren’t, although he could be forgiven for wondering whether he would have won the business had it not been for Joan. So he’s unhappy anyway, both for Joan and for himself; whereupon Peggy breaks the news to him that she’s leaving, and is emboldened by the news that Joan’s been made a partner. To start with Don’s a bit of a jerk about Peggy’s resignation, but then he realises that it’s not a negotiation, and says goodbye: this scene, frankly, is the best of the season so far, and it’s a highpoint for both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. Hamm, in particular, looks as if his heart is breaking. (Apparently Moss wasn’t told that Hamm would hold onto her hand and not let go; her tears thereafter were unfeigned.) But then she takes one last look at SCDP and leaves, and that smile to no-one at the end suggests that she’s doing the right thing.
Where this episode will fit into your personal Mad Men hall-of-fame probably depends on just how convincing you found Joan’s behaviour – putting the morality of the whole thing aside, was it something that Mrs Harris would do? Looking back on the episode now I’m not sure myself, but I bought it in the moment, and that’s probably enough. Where it leaves the show is another matter: Joan as partner isn’t a problem, because she runs the place anyway, but how comfortable will she be in partnership with a group of men who know how she got there? And the show can’t afford to lose Peggy, even if SCDP has. I wonder whether we might see another realignment of personnel before the end of the season. Once again, though, this was Mad Men at the top of its form, which is to say that it’s on a level no other show on TV can match.