Some people never have to make those choices
Mad Men Season 5 Episode 11 recap
I am slightly shy to say "I told you so" (which is about to be a meta-statment) but I have always maintained that Mad Men is about the women. The men, apart from Don, are similar with similar problems and only vary in their reactions to the same situations they come across. It's the women who define the 60s on this show - the choices they make, the paths they forge. They are far, far different from one another, and episodes like this explain exactly why. Nothing that happened last night could have happened to any of the men; none of the repercussions would be as loud.
Peggy is a fast learner. We knew it when she was a secretary, when she was a fledgling copywriter, when she began to learn how to emulate Don. She doesn't have natural instincts for workplace navigation - why should she? Four years of work in an agency don't override 25 years of social conditioning; the things she's supposed to be good at don't help her here. But by God, when someone tells her something she needs to hear, she hears it.
It's not that saving the account about to be cancelled wasn't skillful. It's not that Don throwing the money at her wasn't disrespectful. It was, and it was. But even her talk with Ken wasn't the moment that made Peggy move. It was when Freddy Rumsfeld told her “I don't know whether you're really ambitious or you just want to complain”. That's it, right there. Make your choice. She made it. She chose. That's what's so rare. This is what separates her from so many of her contemporaries and the people who will follow in her footsteps. Many, many people want to feel appreciated, but aren't able to back it up. They will complain for days, weeks, years but can't accept that getting what you want may mean having to take a giant risk. Peggy is whiny at times and reliant on her coworkers (notice her nervous “I had a lot of help”) but she has guts, and I have to value that above all else. She bet on herself. I'm glad she cried with Don, that's exactly how she should have felt. I'm glad she was happy on her way out. I'm sure she'll feel regret and angst and elation at her new job. But she knows she can follow through on a decision, can put her money where her mouth is. As a 26-year old in 1966. Do you know how rare that is for so many people in the workplace, male or female?
Of course, this wouldn't have to happen to a male. That is, they'd go ...but they wouldn't feel they were betraying their boss (I liked that the show had a light hand with this, but even her confessions of how Don had “seen something” in her showed that her feelings were involved; it wasn't strictly business); they'd feel entitled and justified and crow about it on their way out, rather than slip out like Peggy did. She may - will - do this again, either to come back to SCDP or to make another leap, but she'll debate and worry. The saving grace is that she'll have this, a reminder of how strong she is (and of what giant things she's achieved - $19,000 is over $130K in today's terms) to gird her loins. You think this would happen to Ginsberg? Ginsberg was talking about how he was going to save the place before he'd come up with a single idea. That wouldn't fly for Peggy - she won't be able to say “I told you so” without sounding like a petulant brat so she has to remember her triumphs even as she discovers what's waiting for her at the next place.
This, I think, is why people hate Megan. I don't hate her as Don's wife and an indication to him of what a different kind of married life can be but the whinge and whine about acting is getting very old, very fast. She undoubtedly felt like a piece of meat in the casting room but when is she going to feel uncomfortable enough to say she's not putting up with it? To her, that means “failure”, and, of course, accepting that maybe she should have stayed with Don, as he so clearly wanted. But to someone else, maybe at some other time, saying she can't put up with it would be a victory. Being true to oneself. What would her father say about that?
Speaking of fathers, I chose to believe the scene where Pete read Goodnight Moon to baby Tammy was tone-deaf on purpose. Since he blames his entire breakdown of personality on the fact that he's moved to the country, he's built a bigger and bigger wall between what happens at the office and his home life. He'll never, ever be able to see that treating people like objects will have manifestations in his own life. I've always appreciated that though Pete should treat Trudy more like a “thing”, he's needed her to be his moral compass and coach. Conveniently, now that she's stepped out of that role and he's irrevocably reprehensible, he's found a way to make this her fault, so that's great. I understand there are slimeball people in the world, but this is a case where I wish I didn't know so much about one. I don't want to understand Pete. I don't want to empathize with the good parts of him. Remember how awful his family was? Stop! It doesn't matter! He's horrible! And the most horrible part is that he's not clumsy. He knew he could manipulate Joan. He wanted to be able to and he didn't even break a sweat. If he was a different man - if he was Don - this would actually keep him awake at night. But it won't. You know this.
So we come to Joan. And about now is when I need you to pull up a chair for some moral relativism.
I hate that it happened the way it did. I hate that she was lied to about who was on board and how they got there. I hate that everything that happened to her was relayed through the crappy, shifty, self-interested third parties, and that Don couldn't shift himself to worry about Joan until it was far too late.
I don't hate the way things are now.
Think about the phrase "Slept her way to the top" (always her, of course). We have that damning “slept her way” right at the beginning, so you never think about the rest of it: TO THE TOP. Joan is far more capable than her job has ever required of her. She's got a long road ahead of her raising a baby boy. She knows, as we know, that she's getting older and less desirable and won't find it as easy to snag a second husband.
So now she's a partner in the business.
And they just signed a huge client. One that, we've been reminded, is really going to break SCDP through.
And Joan is a voting partner.
She just jumped about four tiers in the workplace hierarchy.
Do the ends justify the means? In general? Of course not. Prostitution remains the ugliest thing you can suggest to some women (though there are others who will tell you that, in itself, is wrong and it's an honest profession) and it's a line crossed. It was demeaning and not pleasurable. She had tears in her eyes. Joan will always have done this. She'll never not have done it.
But my GOD people, that's 80% of the things on this show! Remember Don's words to Peggy. "It will shock you how much this never happened." Remember the things Joan has gone through (abortions, rape, being the other woman) that she may remember, but that have not made her crumble as a person. Mrs. Harris has no dirty secret to keep. Everyone knows what happened, so Joan has nothing to hide from the partners. And she has a lot to show for it. She's got a whole new platform to build her life on, separate from Greg, who was no prize, and without gnashing her teeth in frustration at how much more she could be doing. For God's sake, she gets to be disgusting annoying Harry's boss. Are the long term effects worth it?
Joan's always been a pragmatic woman. I'm not saying it didn't cost her anything. Far from it. I'm just wondering if a judicious choice made is going to turn out, in the end, to be something she remembers with disappointment, but not regret. Is that crazy?
Some people never have to make these choices. They're probably lucky. But the ones who do are the ones who learn about themselves. What they can do. What they're capable of. They may be expensive lessons, and the methods of learning them are undoubtedly distasteful.
But aren't they worth something?
Photos courtesy AMC