Sunday, June 10, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "The Other Woman" & "Commissions and Fees"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdates: May 27th and June 3rd, 2012

Jon: Hey, hey! Long time no talk. My vaycay was great, thanks for asking. But we have more important items to discuss: the two most recent episodes! Since we've been behind recently, I'm gonna combine the most recent two into a single post to expedite things for Sunday's season finale. Some great items will be overlooked in the name of speed and the greater good of the further adventures of the Partners' Meeting.

First up, a look at "The Other Woman." This episode's focus was on three of the most important ladies in Don Draper's life - Megan, Peggy and Joan - and SCDP's continued pursuit of the Jaguar account. All along their angle was to sell the Jaguar brand as the equivalent of a man's mistress. Which leads us to first to discuss  Joan, who despite always being one of the strongest female characters on the show, if not all of television, is routinely reduced to a slab of flesh. Part of this is because she has never been shy at using her looks to command what she wants; it works more often than not, but the events of this episode are an explicit reminder of the cost of that tactic. One of the key decision-makers on the British luxury brand's side proves himself to be an even sleazier car magnate than what the other characters on the show led the audience to believe (and they didn't exactly mince words on this topic), and all but demands to Pete and Ken during a dinner that if he doesn't get a night with Joan then SCDP won't have a prayer of getting the account. She immediate shuts down Pete's shameless broach of the subject, but ultimately Lane's suggestion of demanding partnership and 5% of the account's profits as a reward for the dirty deed end up being enough to sway her. But I think the real reason Joan agrees to sleep with the Jag-off is because she is led to believe that all the other partners are on board with this decision, even Lane and Roger, her "champions" at the office. Who can blame her if she begins to believe she really is just a pretty face and a set of dynamite curves tasked with being a divorced single mother at time when that was considered downright immoral by society. There must have seemed as if she really didn't have a better option. Of course, what she doesn't know is Don was one dissenting voice who was so disturbed by the idea that he left the room after Pete brought it up, which only allowed them to vote without his counter-point to dissuade them from going forward with the distasteful proposition. Majority rules, after all. When Don finds out that she was planning on going through with it, he rushes to her apartment to tell her she's better than that. He thinks he's made it to her before she met with the dealership owner, but after some crafty editing, we learn before the close of the episode that Joan had only just returned from her rendezvous with the creepazoid before Don arrived. After his speech, she says, "You're a good one, aren't you?" which was just beyond heartbreaking. (More on Don in a bit.) Ultimately, SCDP gets the Jaguar account the next day and a shocked Don learns that Joan, in fact, did her part in reeling them in.

Meanwhile, Megan has continued with her acting plans while the grumbling Don remains reluctantly supportive. That is until Megan reveals that her new possible gig will take her to Boston for a couple of months of rehearsal if she lands it. Don is absolutely furious. Not only is his bride no longer working side-by-side with him, now the very real possibility of her leaving town to pursue her dreams has arrived as well, and that is more than he's able to handle. They have a spat over it, but the issue remains unresolved since Megan has yet to actually land the part. But, much like Joan, Megan can do little more than turn around for the male casting trio for her role in the play, and she is passed over for it; one of the other cutlets looked better on display, I suppose.

Then there's Peggy, who's continuously fought against being just a pretty face, a pawn in the workplace or even seen as a woman working in a man's world. She's always just tried to be an equal through intelligence and hard work. So while she took charge of all SCDP's creative business while Don and his team obsessed over nothing but Jaguar, you can understand her frustration when Don (frustrated by the Joan and Megan developments) treats her inhumanely by tossing money at her face during an argument. That was her final straw. And a couple of meetings with good ol' Freddy Rumsen and a SCDP competitor later, she gave her notice to Don, and there was nothing he could do in that moment to win her back. He lost her days before.

So, is Don one of the good ones as Joan attests? In her experience, absolutely. He's worlds above the other partners and just about any other man she's been in the company of that we've been privy to on the show. And we've seen him be amazing to lots of characters. But Don continues to treat Megan and Peggy atrociously whenever that infamous Draper temper flares up. So... I guess he is sometimes? It's such a hard question to answer, which is why it's so fascinating to contemplate.

And it's a subject that was similarly broached in "Commissions and Fees." While checking the books to see how Jaguar's unique payment request would effect business, Bert Cooper discovers Lane's forged check from "Christmas Waltz." However, since Don's name is on it, he accuses Don of having given Lane a bonus behind everyone's back and being "the good little boy while the adults run this business." And he may have a point, because even though Don cleans up the Lane mess a heartbeat later, he does so in about the most decent way possible by giving Lane an opportunity to devise a story for his resignation. Unfortunately things unravel quickly from that point for Lane, and he ultimately decides to hang himself in his office over the weekend. Continuing with the Don is a good guy evidence, he refuses to let Lane hang there any longer once he learns the body has yet to be moved, enlisting Pete and Roger to help him cut him down. The easy thing would have been to leave him there as Pete, Ken and Harry decided to do (hard to blame Joan or Bert for it though). And he also treated Glen surprisingly well considering the day he had, not only giving the youngster a ride back to school but letting the boy drive the car there himself.

I don't know. Maybe I'm looking too hard for reasons to like Don right now after all the sadness the Joan and Lane stories brought and the prospect of no more Peggy in our lives. He's obviously a complicated man who cannot be easily classified as a villain or a hero in any traditional sense. There does seem to be more good in him now than we've seen in some time, perhaps ever, and I think it's worth putting a spotlight on that for a moment.

Shifting back to Lane for a sec... ugh, that was so depressing. I guess I don't have a lot to say about his suicide. Ever since Joan rejected his advances after the fight with Pete, things have been going downhill for him, and life wasn't particularly rosy for him before that to boot. Once we saw him reduced to embezzlement, it was a good guess his time at SCDP was likely coming to a close and

So many questions are lingering now. Will Joan hold any form of resentment against Pete, Roger and Bert for what they pushed her into? Don't see how you could blame her if she did. How does SCDP deal with Lane's suicide? Practically speaking, Joan will be able to slide into his duties rather seamlessly (there's been a running joke much of this season that she really did all he was responsible for), but this is not Mrs. Blankenship were talking about. The man was a partner and killed himself in his office; there will be constant reminders for all of those characters. Will it drive someone like Pete to change their outlook on what they have in life? And have we seen the last of Peggy Olson? She could easily join the ranks of Kinsey, Rumsen and Sal, the former key members of this group of ad men barely ever seen again after stepping outside their inner circle. Like Joan replacing Lane, Ginsberg could fill the void she'll leave, but at what cost? His volatility may get the better of him. These may not be addressed in the finale, but I'm sure they'll continue to be relevant down the line.

Man. These last two episodes were big downers, but had so much great material packed in. I haven't even talked about really major stuff with Sally, some interesting tidbits on Betty, or even my homeboy Glen! Mark, any thoughts on those characters or were you as consumed with Joan, Peggy and Lane as I was?

Mark: Hey, Jon! Glad you had a good vacation. Geez, where to begin? Well, you know I always have something to say about Sally. It doesn't take much for this kid to break my heart, so you can imagine my reaction to her in this episode. Things are never easy for Sally, so it was appropriate that she would experience her first period while playing hooky at the Natural History Museum with Glen. This show is so adept at portraying the rollercoaster of confusion that is adolescence, and Kiernan Shipka is turning out to be quite a thoughtful actress. I thought the whole subplot, from Sally's reticent crush on Glen "Holden Caulfield" Bishop to her panicked dash back home to Betty, was handled very well. It was also touching to see Betty have a rare moment of selflessness and compassion for her daughter in a moment when Sally desperately needed her mother to put these scary things into perspective. Betty's speech about the life-affirming nature of menstruation was an uncharacteristically upbeat moment for Mad Men. For once this show wasn't convincing me that life is a meaningless nightmare.

And God knows I needed it these last two weeks, as this sweet story was surrounded by the destruction or near-moral-destruction of one of my favorite characters (Joan) and the one I most wanted to pat on the back and tell to calm the fuck down and smell the roses (Lane). First off, Lane. I agree, Jon, this was so depressing, and even though it was laced with some traditional Mad Men gallows humor, the death of Lane Pryce hit me hard. I feel like it is something that is going to irrevocably change the landscape of this show. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything else like this that has hit the SCDP crew so close to their own turf. Even though his reasons were not made clear to the rest of the partners, and I doubt Don will make them clear, I think each character will see what they want in themselves through Lane's suicide and won't be able to help being changed by it for better or worse. I've read elsewhere the theory that Lane gave too much and never claimed anything for himself. I don't know if I agree with that, at least not in the literal sense. I think the problem with Lane is that he allowed himself to be a shadow that the rest of the world passed through. He sat on the sidelines of his own life, and like Pete he daydreamed about being Don Draper, a big bold American bad-ass, until he got backed into a desperate corner, and the only way out was to swallow his pride and take a long look at himself and where he was. And Lane couldn't do that. He couldn't admit to himself that he needed help or that he made a mistake, and he certainly couldn't bear the humiliation of Don (being relatively compassionate, in a Don way) calling him on his actions. Don gave Lane the option of starting over, but that's where Lane and Don differ. That's why Don is the ultimate ad man. He is able to believe in some pie-in-the-sky ideal so strongly that it becomes a reality. Lane hated himself to the very core. He could never be Don Draper, because Dick Whitman would always be there eating away at him from the inside.

Lane snapping his glasses in half right before doing the deed was such a powerful physicalization of that self-hatred. Now the gallows humor I was talking about. I did love Lane as a character, but he is one of those Coen Brothers-esque heroes where its kind of fun and cathartic to see him be endless shit upon as a result of his own stupidity and bad luck. When Lane's wife surprised him with that Jaguar. Damn it. Jared Harris totally nailed the sinking dread of the situation. And after hearing so much about Jaguar's being substandard vehicles, I have to admit I did not see the punchline coming of Lane being unable to start the car and asphyxiate himself with the exhaust. It feels a little weird to say that was a great moment, but it was thematically on-point, it was totally appropriate for the character, and the subtext of the Jaguar-as-mistress being unreliable in a show filled with desperately unhappy philanderers was not lost on me. Just good writing.

I would say poor Joan, but I almost feel like I should be saying poor Don. Sure, Don is essentially our main character, but it almost seems like Don is suffering more for Joan's (and Lane's) decisions than they are. As gross as the SCDP partners were for entertaining the sleazebag Jaguar guy's offer... Well, let's face it, Pete is the gross one, although for as much as the others protested they didn't exactly stop it from happening. I feel like Lane was at least looking out for Joan in his own fucked-up way by suggesting that she get some financial leverage in the negotiation, and ultimately Joan made her own decision. I worry that this is one of those things that Mad Men characters carry around all of their lives that poison them slowly, but as a single divorced mother in the mid-1960s Joan is a stigmatized, ostracized figure. And with Greg off playing GI Joe in the Mekong Delta, Joan only has herself on which to rely when the bills start rolling in and the fridge goes on the fritz. It is horrible and depressing, such is the Gospel According to Weiner, to have to compromise yourself and give up pieces of your soul each and every day in order to stay afloat, and this was an extreme illustration of that in Mad Men's short-story mold. I'm glad to see Joan claiming some more power for herself, but at what cost? I just hope that some day down the line Joan doesn't have to suffer the indignity of being reminded of how she got to where she is by some pigheaded and petty SCDP shithead (I'm looking at you, Pete.)

This whole thing really gives some mileage to Don's downward spiral. Jon, it's interesting to try to pin Don down as being either a good or bad person. He's a complicated guy, definitely flawed and hypocritical, but not evil. Like anyone, I think Don is a good person when he wants to be. It's not easy to be good. It's downright impossible to be good all the time. I think Don is a good person who has been scarred by his experiences. He was discarded as a child and taught to disappear if things aren't going his way. There is an emptiness to him, a fluidity to his identity and how he perceives the world that others don't share. He's a bit of a sociopath in that way. We've joked before about Don being capable of murder. He does have a psycho tinge to him in his ability to disappear or change on a dime when things get too real, but more and more I feel like Don is just a kid who is trying to embody a childish ideal. And in accordance, he definitely acts childish. He is overflowing with respect and admiration for Joan, but when she compromises his idealized vision of her, he is crestfallen. I believe he is genuinely hurt and saddened that Joan was taken advantage of, but I also think there is an element of him feeling let down by her. The same with Peggy. He gets wrapped up in his own stuff and treats Peggy like garbage, and completely disrespects her by throwing money in her face. And when she stops taking it and seeks a new opportunity, he begs her to stay, in a touching scene that has just enough of a dash of "abusive boyfriend swearing he'll never do it again" to make it that special brand of "Mad Men complicated". Don't get me wrong, I absolutely believe that Don respects Peggy and cherishes their professional chemistry and history, but I also think it is important to him that he always remain the mentor and she remain the adoring pupil. But I think Don can be a great person in the moments that he chooses to be kind, which you're right, Jon, these moments seem to be more plentiful these days (credit to Megan, whom I didn't get to discuss much), whether it's paying some respect to Lane's body or taking it easy on the scared and stranded Glen. But Don always gets something out of it. In his night drive with Glen, Don was able to escape from the complications and compromises of living in the world and experience the optimism of childhood. As confusing and scary as adolescence can be, it's amazing how all of those fears can be washed away (at least temporarily) by something as simple as a grown-up letting you take the wheel.

Again, this may just be me not wanting to let go of Peggy, but I don't see this as her exit from the show. I think this is just the next chapter in Peggy's evolution as a young woman in the career world, which has provided such a nice spine for the show. It was great to see her step into a whole new world of possibilities as the Kinks tore down a few more shreds of the good-old-boy business tactics of SCDP. Maybe I'm selfish, but I don't want Peggy to stray to far from us.

Episodes 1&2 - "A Little Kiss"
Episode 3 - "Tea Leaves"
Episode 4 - "Mystery Date"
Episode 5 - "Signal 30"
Episode 6 - "Far Away Places"
Episode 7 - "At The Codfish Ball"
Episode 8 - "Lady Lazarus"
Episode 9 - "Dark Shadows"
Episode 10 - "Christmas Waltz"


RosieP said...

So many questions are lingering now. Will Joan hold any form of resentment against Pete, Roger and Bert for what they pushed her into?

For heaven's sake! Stop it! Please stop making excuses for Joan. Pete and the others didn't "push" her into sleeping with the Jaguar executive. She made the conscious decision to do so, once the SCDP partners made it worth her while . . . namely a piece of the company pie.

Why is it that every time Joan does something questionable or makes a bad decision, fans make excuses for her? They did so when she insulted Paul Kinsey's black girlfriend, Sheila White. They did so when she went ahead and married Greg, after he had raped her. They did so when she committed an act of spousal abuse when she struck Greg over the head with a vase out of frustration and anger. They did so when she decided to have Roger Sterling's baby and pass it off as Greg's. And now this.

Please stop. Joan is about as far from perfect as the other characters. Can you accept this and stop trying to make excuses for her mistakes?

RosieP said...

It was also touching to see Betty have a rare moment of selflessness and compassion for her daughter in a moment when Sally desperately needed her mother to put these scary things into perspective.

Actually, Sally showing any emotional need for Betty seemed a lot more rare to me, considering that she has always been a Daddy's girl wannabe from the beginning of the series.