“Understated” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily use to describe a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but that’s surprisingly what 12 Strong ends up being.
Here's my latest "Mad Men" video, inspired by "The Other Woman" (Season 5, Episode 11). It's my favorite kind of video analysis/criticism: no narration, no inter-tiles, just interwoven images, dialog and music.
NOTE: Don't even think of reading this if you haven't seen "The Other Woman," yet.
"The Other Women," the 11th installment in "Mad Men" Season 5, has one of those great titles (like "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," "The Rejected," "Tomorrowland," "Far Away Places") that keeps resonating as you think back on the episode itself. It begins in a meeting of creative executives in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce conference room, as Stan tosses out the primary theme -- of the episode and the Jaguar account pitch: "Jaguar: The mistress who will do things your wife won't." And that's the usual definition of "the other woman" -- the rival for the heterosexual breadwinner's affections, the spicy dish on the side. As Megan phrases it, the Jaguar is the mistress and the wife is the Buick at home in the garage. But that's only the beginning.
All three of the show's central female characters have been "other women" under certain circumstances, with various men. Joan has long been Roger Sterling's "other woman" -- not just his extra-marital go-to girl, but his office wife... and (unbeknownst to everyone else) the mother of his child. Peggy slept with Pete on the eve of his wedding to Trudy, got pregnant, and gave up the kid for adoption. She's never slept with Don (though a lot of the people in the SCDP office think that's how she attained her position), but don't underestimate how much her personal and professional second-bananaship has contributed to Don's fortunes as well as her own. It was clear early on how much he preferred her company at work to Betty Draper's at home.
And then Megan came along -- first as an employee (Joan: "He'll probably make her a copy writer; he's not going to want to be married to his secretary") and then as Don's wife -- the "other woman" who, in the eyes of Peggy and the rest of the firm, distracts him from the advertising job to which he was formerly "married." Don is so smitten with her that the company practically has to sue for alienation of affection. ("You've been on love leave," Cooper chastises Don at the end of "Far Away Places." "It's amazing things are going as well as they are with as little as you are doing.")
It all culminates in the line finessed by Michael Ginsberg (the word "mistress" can't be in the ad) and delivered by Don in SCDP's pitch: "Jaguar: At last a thing of beauty you can truly own." That last word deserves some explication. Yes, in the presentation, Don likens the temperamental beauty of the Jaguar to a woman, but the whole point of the proposal is that, as everyone knows, a woman can't be "owned." A car can. I only mention this because I've seen a few commentators claim that "The Other Woman" is an episode about "men trying to own women," and I think that's a bit simplistic. OK, men might wish they could "own" women on some level, but not even Don Draper or Roger Sterling -- not even Pete Campbell, fer chrissakes -- really believes that is possible in 1967.¹
Ginsberg's breakthrough inspiration is that the Jaguar represents not the mistress but unattainable beauty. A guy recognizes when a woman is out of his league; but a Jaguar can't say no. For Peggy, Joan and Megan -- women who, in this episode at least, decide what they want and what they're willing to do to get it -- there is no negotiation.
Don knows he doesn't own Megan; she has a will of her own, an independence from him that attracts, frustrates and frightens him. But she tells him where he stands in no uncertain terms: If he insisted on making her choose between pursuing an acting career and staying with him, she'd choose him -- but she'd hate him for it. Don fears he could lose Megan. I don't think it consciously occurs to him that he might realistically lose Peggy, not so soon anyway. And not because he thinks he "owns" her but because she owes him. She's his subordinate, his protégé, and in that sense he takes her loyalty and continued presence for granted.
And then there's Joan. You know she's been in positions similar to this many times. She's not even fazed when Pete tells her that Herb the Jaguar dealer has made an indecent business proposal involving a night with her. "How did that come up?" she says, casually pulling out a cigarette. But she's also a practical woman. It's interesting that Peggy consults her antediluvian former colleague Freddy Rumsen about the decision she's facing at work, but Joan keeps her own counsel and tells no one. She even gets mad at Lane, the only one of the partners who approaches her about the Herb proposal, because her first reaction is humiliation that the partners had even been discussing it. But, as Lane rightly points out, with the amount of money that is at stake, there has to be a meeting. Still, he's the only one who talks to her in private about it -- until Don's belated visit after work, the night before the Jaguar meeting. (The episode's initially disorienting, seemingly Buñuelian structural flourish involves re-playing part of that conversation to place it in chronological context.)
And this is one of the things I love so much about "Mad Men": characters have mixed motives, not fully known to us or (perhaps) to themselves. People can do the right things for the wrong reasons, the wrong things for the right reasons, and in some ways it may not even matter because every (trans-)action, every decision, involves trade-offs. Just because somebody makes a choice that, on balance, seems to be the "right" one, doesn't mean it won't also have painful, damaging consequences -- unintended or otherwise. And somebody may do something bad or wrong, but that doesn't mean it might not have some positive reverberations, too -- intended or otherwise.
Remember "The Summer Man," when Peggy fired that little shit Joey for repeatedly taunting Joan with sexual insults? She was right to fire the creep; there was no way anyone should put up with his disturbingly bratty, pervy behavior. But what thanks did that get Peggy? "Now everyone in the office will know that you solved my problem and you must be really important, I guess," Joan snaps at her. "All you've done is prove to them that I'm a meaningless secretary and you're another humorless bitch." Very good point, but at least nobody at SCDP has to bother with Joey anymore. What's most important, however, is to remember that the best way to show respect for Joan is to respect her ability to take responsibility for herself, and to do what she needs to do.² Those who intercede on her behalf (often in the name of chivalry) are not only being intrusive by assuming they can take charge of her life without being asked, but they're patronizing her. She's at least as strong as they are. Joan is the Hawksian heroine -- the Angie Dickinson -- of "Mad Men."
Lane doesn't attempt to persuade Joan one way or the other about taking up Pete's offer; it's her decision, her body, her life. It's not his place -- any more than it would be for him to counsel her about whether to have an abortion. But he does give her a sound piece of business advice -- putting her interests above the company's. Joan says, still trying to feel him out, "Here I thought you were trying to stop this because you have feelings for me." You can see by the welling in his eyes that she's struck a nerve. But that's not all that's going on. Because his advice also helps with his own tenuous financial situation, which has caused him to illicitly "borrow" $50,000 from the firm to pay off some personal debts.
Same with Don, who relishes playing Joan's White Knight (because he has genuine affection for her, and perhaps also to undercut Roger a little, because he knows the silver fox has not always treated her well). Just last week ("Christmas Waltz") he took her out for a drink after her rapist-husband had the nerve to sue her for divorce. This time, once he knows he's got a good pitch, he stops by Joan's apartment and tells her not to go through with it because, even if they lose the account, who wants to be in business with people like that? (This is a long way from what he told Peggy about the racist clients in "The Beautiful Girls": "Our job is to make men like Fillmore Auto, not Fillmore Auto like negroes." But Don was hungrier for business then.)
I'm disappointed, though not surprised, that after Joan's 13 years with the firm, neither Don, Roger nor Bert went to talk to her in person after Pete outlined what was at stake. Were they embarrassed, or trying to spare her embarrassment? Were they just trusting that she'd make her own decision? Once Don finds out that she went through with it, he's disappointed -- but how much of it has to do with Joan's sacrifice and how much has to do with not knowing if he won the account on the merits of his presentation? (And don't forget, it was Ginsberg's line. At least this time Don didn't deliberately leave his junior exec's ideas behind in the taxi.)
"Mad Men" has so much going for it -- the writing, the performances, the period look -- but for me the most thrilling thing about it is the way it makes glorious cinema from, mostly, people talking in rooms and compartments. The framings, the positioning of bodies and furniture, the relationships between foreground and background, the 3-D use of windows and doorways and corridors as frames, portals and masking... it's like a taste of Rohmer and Antonioni and Godard (all of them going strong by the mid-1960s) every week.
In the video "remix" above, notice the similarities in the conversations between Pete and Joan, Lane and Joan, Don and Peggy -- who is standing up and who is sitting down, who offers a hand and who doesn't. This episode emphasizes the layout of the SCDP offices, with Joan's right there in the heart of everything, separated by a curtain from the glassed-in conference room. Don, of course, has the "power office," with his secretary seated straight at the end of the hallway. You have to walk by Peggy's workspace (which she shares with Stan and Ginsberg) to get to it. And Roger's stylishly showy, monochromatic executive office is directly opposite Don's, but in another universe of design -- trendy and modern, while Don's still retains old-fashioned traces of his Sterling Cooper digs.
There are three flashes of Don Draper anger/violence that caused me to flinch in this episode: when he throws the money at Peggy's face; when he bristles at Megan: "Well forget it"; and when he turns bright red and glares at Peggy: "Let's pretend I'm not responsible for every single good thing that's ever happened to you..." Don is a master at manipulating emotions, which is part of what makes him such a good ad man. He has the ability to see the powerful, exploitable connections between consumers' desires and the products he's charged with selling them, and he knows they're not really about whether the product itself (the "technology" as he put it in "The Wheel") is so great, but about the longings, the needs, the empty places people feel they can fill within themselves by purchasing (and thus aligning their self-images with) a product. What Don Draper is selling isn't practical, it's that "sentimental bond" -- nostalgia, unattainable beauty, the illusion that you can buy, and own, something that can't be manufactured... by purchasing something that is: "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons."
At the same time, Don has a instinctual feel for how to twist and misrepresent somebody else's motives when it suits his purposes. So, when he throws the money at Peggy, he knows damn well the issue is not about her wanting to go to Paris to shoot the Lady Godiva commercial, or even about the account being Ginsberg's and not Peggy's. It's about his employees (including, as we've seen, both Peggy and Ginsberg) claiming ownership of their ideas. As far as he's concerned, their ideas belong to him and the firm ("That's what the money is for!") -- but when Ken and Harry are standing right there telling him how Peggy brilliantly improvised a new campaign in the middle of a conference call, it's easier to diminish her by overlooking her accomplishment (he's fully aware of her talent) and misrepresenting her motives as petty. He realizes it's not about the trip to Paris (oh how girly and immature), but that's an effective tactic for (dishonestly) humiliating her, knocking her down front of her colleagues and shutting down further discussion.
I don't know if Don actually believes, at first, that Peggy is asking for a raise, or if he's thinking that he can mollify her by bringing up the possibility and pretending to misunderstand. But the most devastating moment in "The Other Woman" for me, perhaps the most dismissive and insulting thing he's ever done to Peggy, is the smarmy smile with which he patronizes her when he says, "I have to say, I'm impressed. You finally picked the right moment to ask for a raise." Ask for a raise! It's like she's breaking up with him and the guy thinks she just wants him to take her out for dinner. I thought Don was a better actor than this. (Jon Hamm is a great one to pull off this ambiguity...)
Lives can change on the turn of a phrase. Nuances of language become negotiations: Joan's "prostitution" becomes Pete's "queen." When Pete reports to the partners that Joan's response to his offer (let's face it-- no matter what Pete says, it's as much his offer as Herb's; Pete could have shut it down at any time, as Ken assumed he would), he makes it sound like she's opened another round of bargaining. Is that the way he heard it? Is that the way she meant it? The glories of "Mad Men" are in the fissures between meanings, interpretations and intentions.
Another of its great wonders is how rarely it slips into melodrama -- except when the characters are creating it around themselves (like Diva Don's occasional outbursts at Peggy or Megan when his ego is wounded). Pete tries (disingenuously?) to reassure Joan that Herb' "not bad" (meaning he's not as gross as he could be) and she replies, simply: "He's doing this." Point taken, and it applies to Pete as well. He can rationalize all he wants about doing what's best for the company, but this is still his handiwork. And yet from the moment Joan appears in Herb's doorway, he's about as benign as someone like him could be under the circumstances. The show doesn't need to rub our (or Joan's) noses in it. He's doing this, it's sickening, and that says all that needs to be said about him.
(Ginsberg says that when he came up with the Jaguar line, he "kept imagining the asshole who's going to want this car" -- someone who already has a lot of beautiful things, but "one way or another, what he has isn't enough." Recall Peggy saying to Don in an earlier season: "You have everything. And so much of it." Ginsberg could be describing Don, or Pete, or Roger, or Herb, or any number of "assholes" who think they can fill the holes in their lives with cars or money or women or power. And when Don concludes the pitch, the rosy look on Herb's face indicates he's feels he's gotten what he wanted from the deal. We may never know if, without the "guarantee" of his night with Joan, he would have been wooed by the SCDP presentation anyway.)
"The Other Woman" is gut-wrenching and heartbreaking, but Peggy's final walk to the elevator -- turning her back on Don in his office and the celebration in the conference room as Joan (stuck talking to Harry) gazes after her -- concludes with a little eruption of joy: a faint smile, a steady stride forward and Dave Davies' guitar riff from The Kinks' "You Really Got Me" (1964). We've seen her here many times before, notably in "The Rejected," when she resolved to move on with her new life as Pete moved on with his; in "The Suitcase," when she decided not to leave for her birthday dinner with her boyfriend and family but to stay and work with Don instead; and in "The Beautiful Girls," when she, Joan and Faye -- three unattainable beauties -- shared the same box for a moment. Now she looks slightly behind her while waiting for the car to arrive, because Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is already back there Makes me wonder if, when Don Draper rang for the elevator a few episodes ago and the doors opened into the abyss, if it was less a premonition of losing Megan than of losing Peggy....
"When deep beauty is encountered it arouses deep emotions. Because it creates a desire..." That black void in this frame will be filled with the Jaguar pitch: "Jaguar: At last a thing of beauty you can truly own."
- - - - -
¹ Joan accuses Pete of trying to pimp her, but she turns the tables on him. As Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) says of prostitutes in "Game of Thrones": "You've forgotten the most important thing about whores... You don't buy them, you only rent them." Joan doesn't sell herself (her triumphal moment is when she enters Roger's office as a 5-percent voting partner without shame); she buys a piece of SCDP. It's not cheap, but she decides it's worth the risk, worth the price.
² Joan isn't selling herself. To paraphrase Tyrion Lannister on "Game of Thrones," she's only renting. And she knows better than most that everybody, in one way or another, is a prostitute at some time or another. "Mad Men" certainly isn't the first show to draw parallels between capitalism and prostitution (it's work for pay), but it's more nuanced than most. If Joan ever sold herself, it was when she married Greg after he'd raped her in Don's office. In this episode, she bought herself back.
Stop watching movies made by assholes. It'll be OK.
A look at the way Donald Trump's words and images recall the Stanley Kubrick classic.
Hey, "Blade Runner 2049": You know that Voight-Kampff test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...