Monday, May 28, 2012

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode 11 - "The Other Woman"

This won't be the written product of a television critic, because that's not my job. I feel moved to write about Mad Men because it is - simply yet powerfully - the best television show I have ever seen, and probably will ever see, in my lifetime. No television show has ever examined the human condition with such painstaking detail, situational richness, and emotional complexity. Mad Men is not escapist television; it is in fact the very antithesis thereof. The series is one extended and searing portrait of life's difficult nature, a testament to the power of the forces - and the force of the powers - that create unbearably layered dilemmas and highly unsatisfactory choices in a markedly cruel and unfair world.

After Sunday night's eleventh episode of season five, "The Other Woman," it can be said that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has delivered to his audience a number of seminal moments in the life of his series, which has just two episodes left this season and only two seasons in the future. There are, unavoidably, television (or more precisely, "industry") issues that Weiner and Company are dealing with as Mad Men nears the finish line. The contractual status of Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson) might have had something to do with Sunday night's episode, but that's the stuff best left for the TV writers who cover the business as a whole. I can only comment on the quality of art and the level of storytelling at work in Mad Men, specifically as they relate to the show's portrait of the human person as a moral, ethical, sensual, relational, political, and economic creature.

There are several themes and motifs at the heart of Mad Men, but the number one theme and motif are clear. The central theme of Mad Men is that one must find happiness from within, on a spiritual-soul level, instead of defining oneself based on externals (especially possessions). The central motif of Mad Men, in accordance with the show's driving theme, is that outward appearances and statements are not to be seen as reflections of truth or as fully genuine indicators of the internal emotions of the show's characters.

This is not a feel-good show, even for all its moments of comedic genius. It is a show about the complexity of human persons and the situations they encounter because of said complexity. Such a landscape creates wrenching pressures, tangled calculations, and their bitter fruits: confusion and, usually, naughtiness. The mystery of the human person - presented authentically - will offer rays of light and hope, but the larger world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is going to be a dark world more often than not. This was quite clear in season one, and so it should be no less true near the end of season five.

Enter Sunday night's episode.

If you hold the main theme and motif of Mad Men in the front of your mind, you should be able to see "The Other Woman" as a masterwork - not from the standpoint of a television critic, but as one who appreciates the message and identity behind the series.

First, let's deal with the motif of appearances not being what they seem:

Pete, Lane, Roger, Bert - they all express or (in Pete's case, claim) some degree of revulsion to the prostituting of Joan, but they vote, 4-0, to go ahead with the plan. The outwardly stated motives of those four men are not backed up by their actions or decisions. With the exception of Bert - whose private life has not received all that much scrutiny (he's an old fogey) - one can clearly see that Pete, Lane and Roger are all living substantial lies.

Don SAYS he doesn't want Megan to fail at acting, and intellectually, he probably doesn't. However, in his heart of hearts - at a gut level - he DOES want Megan to fail because it's clear that he resents the hell out of Megan for ditching advertising and therefore ditching his dream of having Megan around at all times... to control, to possess, to own... to own the way a man can own a Jaguar automobile... The way Don has established - in his mind - ownership of Peggy Olson's accomplishments and career satisfactions.

The way Don threw money at Peggy, a highly symbolic but extremely potent representation of how he would throw money at so many other relational problems in his past.

The way Don bought Polly (the Draper family dog) when he skipped Sally's birthday party.

The way he bought Betty something nice (a car, even!) after treating her like dirt.

The way he paid off Allison in season four after that ill-advised and drunken fling in his apartment.

In many ways, the only important person Don has never tried to buy off is Joan Holloway Harris. This is the woman who had spent the first 10 episodes of season five trying to establish not just sexual, but personal and relational independence... to get to the point where she could truly feel that she was not - and could not ever be - owned by another man. She finally broke away from Greg, who raped her years earlier but at a time when she could not see or create emotional independence - emotional ownership of herself in a non-work setting - as a realistic possibility. She acknowledged her lack of control in season five, being more vulnerable and empathic to Peggy than she's ever been before. Joan had revealed new dimensions of an emerging interior happiness which almost every Mad Men character fails to attain, Ken Cosgrove and (to a lesser but real extent) Henry Francis being the two conspicuous exceptions.

The conversation with Don at the bar in the previous week's episode, "The Christmas Waltz," was powerful not just because of the abundant chemistry and self-revelation in that scene (not all of that dialogue was truth-telling, but all of it WAS revelatory; that's a key distinction in any discussion of Mad Men), but because the conversation with Don brought Joan to the realization that in her new existence - one spent dealing with a divorce, a new baby, and a nagging but well-meaning mother - she had to define her life not on the basis of her level of control, but on her emotional well-being.

Joan's firmness with Roger; her openness with Peggy; her courage in front of Greg and Greg's parents at the Italian restaurant; and her dialogue with Don all struck the right blend of assertiveness and surrender. Joan had steadily proven how to let go of the toxicity in her surroundings and still retain her best and most warmly human qualities. Joan grew to appreciate how to surrender to the forces she could not change and take charge of the forces she could master. Joan was on the precipice of joining Ken Cosgrove as a fully centered Mad Men character.

But ah, yes - things are not what they seem. Not when situations arise such as the one that confronted Joan in "The Other Woman." The Bible could not have told the story any better, but it is oh-so-real that at the end of Sunday's episode, Joan's haunted face reminds us of Jesus's words: "What profit it a man (woman) to gain the whole world" - to gain a five-percent share of SCDP, massively heightened status in the office, and a lifetime of financial security - "and forfeit his (her) soul in the process?"

That concept from Sacred Scripture is in many ways a mere rephrasing of the Mad Men theme: happiness must come from within, from the heart and the soul, from that place where - as Anna Draper (the saintly figure of Mad Men) told Dick Whitman - "I know everything about you, and I still love you."

What every Mad Men character needs to do is to love oneself in that fashion: to know the darkness within, to know the failures of self and the messiness of a cutthroat and plainly amoral business... and still love who you are each day. Loving one's own self - precisely when knowing the measure of one's own inadequacies and imperfections - will enable a person to have the courage to value that love over and against any financial gain, any material possession, when there is a conflict between the two... a conflict laid out in grand detail on Sunday night.

The fact that Matt Weiner turned a brilliant pitch by Ginsberg - "at last: something beautiful that you can truly own" - into the very conceit of Madison Avenue, the very idea all Mad Men characters must work to OVERTURN, NOT UPHOLD, in their personal lives - makes "The Other Woman" a supremely shining (and, paradoxically, dark) example of the series' central theme and motif, mingling in wondrous and spectacular detail. The ownership that every Mad Men character needs in life is the ownership of one's emotions and principles. a mastery of self which enables a person to be happy with oneself and sleep peacefully at night in the house of integrity.

Viewing a woman - or a Jaguar car - as a possession to be coveted, owned and controlled solely for one's own pleasure and desires? That's what Madison Avenue is about. That's what the worst aspects of Don Draper have always sought. That's what Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell so regularly pursue. It's what Herb, the auto dealers' executive who wanted that night with Joan, thirsted for in his life. Ginsberg - artfully crafted as this "alien, outside" figure throughout season five (albeit with minimal accumulated screen time) - is emotionally removed from the world of SCDP, enabling him to see all of this, and it's why he has the clarity (combined with the substantial natural talent) to come up with the perfect pitch line for Jaguar.

The interconnectedness of the plot lines, characters, and human portraits in Sunday night's episode was staggering enough. The ability of Weiner and his team to create so many inversions and ironic structures in the episode made "The Other Woman" that much more remarkable as a work of art... and this series delivers hugely impressive works of art even when it doesn't leave its audience reeling in the wake of earth-shattering events.

In an attempt to capture this last concept - inverting the trajectories of characters and overturning expectations, just when you think you have everything figured out - one can't comment on "The Other Woman" without noting that amidst all this darkness and bitter irony, the heroine of Mad Men can be seen as truly that: a heroine.

After seeing the agony of Joan's inner life, Mad Men viewers were able to witness a beautiful conclusion to an artfully tormenting 64 minutes of television: Peggy Olson, the second most important character on the show - the one who learned at the feet of Don Draper, the master - arrived at more money, status and power without having to sell her soul. In fact, as Freddy Rumsen told her, Don wouldn't have handled her situation any differently, something Don silently acknowledges in that unforgettable final scene.

Peggy is not bought off. Sure, Ted Chaough's money is considerable, but it doesn't matter whether Don can top the figure or not. Peggy knows that for the growth of her career and - far more important - her own self, she must step out of Don's shadow, taking ownership of her life in ways she never could at SCDP. As was the case in the conclusion of season three ("Shut The Door, Have a Seat"), Don is negotiating with Peggy to keep her on the team, but the terms of the exchange are different. Don no longer has a compelling reason to convince his protege to stay with him, on his team and in his office.

Don knows that he still takes Peggy for granted, and that's why his anger and nastiness give way to a knowing acknowledgment that Peggy must do this... for all the right reasons (not the wrong ones). In a masterful interweaving of storylines, Matt Weiner enabled Don's tensions with Megan and his concern for Joan to give way to this wrenching rollercoaster of emotions in which Peggy, the person he most deeply identifies with, becomes Don's best self.

You will recall that at numerous points in season five, Peggy took on so many of the qualities one would associate with the Don Draper of seasons one through three. She ducked out of the office for afternoon movies and hanky-panky. She wasn't emotionally available to her intimate partner (Abe), retracing the way Don behaved toward Betty. She was consumed by her work and identified herself by her achievements in the workplace. She continued to gain more money, power and responsibility, but none of those things made her feel happy. She needed to take ownership of her life from within.

When she smiles at the very end of "The Other Woman," instead of dissolving into a pool of tears, one can know - with certainty - not only that Peggy made the right decision for herself, but that she KNOWS she made the right decision for herself, and that she knows she made the right decision for herself for the right reasons at the right time.

So much emotional and spiritual wreckage fills the SCDP office at the end of this episode. All the men of SCDP - with Don being part of the dynamic, but less so than anyone else (there's an irony for you to contemplate!) - have won Jaguar, but at great cost to their integrity. This bastion of Madison Avenue has advanced up the corporate ladder by selling its collective soul. When Peggy walks out of SCDP for the last time - Don didn't want her to linger, after all - she's leaving this wreckage, this soul-sickness, this emptiness and moral rot behind her.

No wonder she's so happy: She has learned the central lesson of Mad Men.

The TV critics might lament the possible end of the life of Peggy's character on the show, but again, that's an industry concern. I certainly hope there's a way for Peggy to remain a central character and presence in seasons six and seven, but remember: The quality of a television show should be measured by the quality of the stories it tells, not whether certain characters get to stick around for a certain length of time. Sunday night's story brought about more than a little pain - it would be a diminished experience for viewers to not see Peggy Olson on AMC in 2013 and 2014 - but if Sunday night's episode and Peggy's internal triumph represent the price one must pay for such anguish, so be it.

So be it, indeed.