"Mad Men" Recap: Naked Ambition

"Mad Men" Recap: Naked AmbitionPhoto Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

What would we do to get what we want? Last night's episode of Mad Men reminded us that all of our desires, tangible and otherwise, come at a cost. And in the end the only thing that stands between us and what we want is one question: Can we afford it?

 

Joan Doesn't Think SCDP Can Afford Her

What begins as a perverted joke—the Jaguar executive telling Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Kenny (Aaron Staton) he would "welcome an opportunity to spend a night" with Joan—escalates to one of the most outrageous plots in the history of Mad Men: The men of SCDP haggling Joan (Christina Hendricks) for the price of her body. Notice we said outrageous, but not implausible. If the idea that Joan sells her sexuality was presented to us in any other way, we would have been less likely to "buy it", but creator Matthew Weiner creates a perfect storm of circumstance that successfully convinces us that this particular situation, despite its abject vileness, might actually be conceivable.

Let's consider the circumstances. Pete's manipulations, above all else, play a key role in the sordid transaction. Even when Pete first approaches Joan, his language is laced with deception, which Joan, being the shrewd woman she is, sees right through. She calls Pete out on his pitch immediately: "You're talking about prostitution," she blatantly says. "I'm talking about business at a very high level," Pete replies. "Do you consider Cleopatra a prostitute? She was a queen. What would it take to make you a queen?" 

Joan curtly tells Pete, "I don't think you could afford it," but the seed of Pete's not-so-subtle suggestion, that sex can buy power, has already been planted. And it can, can't it? Cleopatra wielded her seductions like a weapon, winning not only the throne, but coercing Marc Antony in a way that convinced the world that she was where Egypt's true power lied. 

 

The Joan Transaction: Yay or Nay?

Despite Joan not showing an iota of interest, and in fact, blatant disgust in even being asked, Pete proceeds to proposition the partners on the idea, presenting Joan's response about SCDP not being able to afford it as it was an invitation to begin bidding. The way the men react can not only be considered with regard to their relationship with Joan, but can also be seen as litmus test for their character in general. Here's the reaction rundown:

Pete: Pete is orchestrating the whole thing, and if it were tried in court (which technically, it could be) his hands would be the filthiest. He initiates (and eventually closes) the deal, and basically serves as Joan's pimp. But really, are we surprised? Pete pimped out his own wife to her ex-fiance get his short story in Boy's Life, and while he didn't blatantly ask her to sexually barter for publication, it was strongly implied. Pete's generally sleazy, self-serving interactions with women in general pave the plausibility of his role in the Joan transaction, but more than anything, his all-encompassing interest in SCDP sells it. Pete does what it takes for SCDP, and morality has never factored into it.

Roger (John Slattery): For someone who has a long history of roaming Joan's hills, and who has fathered a child of hers, we expected more of a protest from the silver fox. Instead, we get an uncharacteristic silence. He initially tells Pete, "I hope you told him to take a long walk," but when Pete presents his angle, Roger adopts a hands-off stance, simply saying he's "not paying for it." We can see this in a literal sense (he won't put the cash down for something so base) but also as statement of non-involvement. He doesn't want soil his hands. "Don't fool yourself," he tells Pete. "This is some very dirty business." But not dirty enough to protest or to refuse involvement, huh Roger? Shady business, indeed.

Bert (Robert Morse): Old apparently doesn't mean old-fashioned. Burt seems the least miffed of all the men by the idea of selling Joan's soul body, but then again, we might be able to chalk that up to simple senility.

Lane (Jared Harris): Lane is initially indignant (he does adore Joan, at least we thought he did...), but begins to operate in self-serving way for two reasons. One, he is afraid if Jaguar's business is lost, it will mean no bonuses/new income, which means his sketchy bookkeeping will catch up with him. But Lane's final push into the pro-prostitution camp comes when it is mentioned that a bank advance would be obtained to secure her services, which would expose that he had already recently extended SCDP's line of credit. It is then that Lane's scruples are tossed to the side in favor of self-interest. Lane is the one who ultimately seals the deal with Joan under the guise of being concerned for her interest, and even claims to be discouraging her, but is actually persuading her. He suggests that Joan ask for a 5% stake in the company and sells her on the proposition, offering that a payday like that "could take care of a woman and a child for a lifetime." And suddenly, it's a done deal.

General Mad Men thoughts on prostitution to consider: All of the men have paid for prostitutes before. Most memorably, Don (Jon Hamm) coughed up cash to be choked out by one for the good part of fourth season. The men have procured prostitutes for clients, brought them to strip clubs, surrounded them with beautiful (bought) women, and have generally used women's charms whenever possible to seal a business deal. Moreover, these techniques (when Bazooka doesn't land in the mix) have been very successful. So, from a business standpoint, their decision, while amoral, isn't entirely off-base in terms of what we've been shown as the norm for this time.

And Don's take on the matter...?
 

What Does Don Think A Woman Is Worth?

Alicia Key's claims, "A real man just can't deny a woman's worth." By her definition, is Don the only real man standing at SCDP? Not so fast...

We'll give props where they're due, Don is the only man who makes a stand against the commodification of Joan. He's absolutely livid when Pete brings up the idea, and he's so clear he won't budge on his stance that Pete chooses to work around him because working with him is not an option. When he is finally let in on the decision, it's too late, and he rushes to stop Joan from making a decision that that has already been made. Roger and Lane, both of whom we believed to have respect, admiration, and in Roger's case, even legitimate love for Joan, allow her to make a decision that tarnishes her value and moreover, her reputation as a respectable, highly regarded woman.

Don, however, seems truly concerned with preserving Joan's dignity. He tells her point blank, "It's not worth it" an he doesn't stand down (like Roger) or attempt to persuade her (like Lane). Instead, he admits he would sacrifice the future security of the company to keep her class in tact. "If we don't get Jaguar, so what," he boldly remarks, and Joan takes his word for it. She tenderly touches his face, calling him "a good one" and damn it, we almost believe it, too.

Don plays the chivalrous role well, but in truth, he is guilty of exploiting women in myriad ways. We're not even talking womanizing (for once!) we're speaking to the way he routinely undervalues Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Peggy does some slick, off-the-cuff pitching to Chevalier Blanc, and looks to Don for a little recognition, or, the very least, placement on the account, and Don tosses a wad of cash into her face. Juxtaposed with Don's qualms with doing the same to Joan, we see Don's conflicted (even hypocritical) persona yet again exposed. What does Don think a woman is worth?
 

SCDP Can Afford Peggy, But She Won't Be Bought

Peggy realizes she's not being valued by Don, and by SCDP on the whole, so she makes a bold career move and takes a position as copy chief (and a hefty raise) from rival agency Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Her ambitions outmatch the opportunities SCDP can provide, so she chooses to break free of her limiting persona as the "secretary from Brooklyn dying to help out" at SCDP and move to a place where she will be given the chance to truly shine.

Peggy has bargained for her creative independence, and she comes out on top with her dignity in tact. She can't be bought; Don's attempts ate bargaining are futile. But Peggy's ambitions do come at cost. She loses Don, her "mentor", her "champion", but she asserts her value, proves she cannot be taken for granted, and ultimately, she gains respect, which is why Peggy's face as she leaves SCDP is one of pure, unadulterated triumph.

Compare that to Joan's hollow, injured expression as she unzips her dress. Joan, too, had made a bold move to secure her self-sufficiency. As a named partner, she will have the financial Independence she needs as a single mother, and has won it by her own means. But the stakes she has wagered are too high.

Sure, Joan has always been overtly flirtatious, and shamelessly levied her sexuality in the office, but there is great divide between the subtle power of desire Joan once incited to do her work, and her trading sex for a stake in the company. Joan is now very literally a woman who has slept her way to the top, and rather than being hearsay or gossip, each of the men on top is entirely conscious of what she paid for her new position. 
 

Jaguar: At Last Something Beautiful You Can Truly Own

By the end of the episode, SCDP's ledger is heavily marked: One woman down, one woman up and a new client on the roster. Don nixes the mistress idea, calling it "vulgar", but Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) swoops with an incredibly insightful, subtle pitch. The pitch perfectly encapsulates not only why a slick car like a Jaguar is desirable, but also sums up the skeevy Jag execs treatment of Joan as an object, and on a deeper level, the motivations that drive Don Draper. 

"I kept imaging the asshole who's going to want this car and how he's probably already got a lot of beautiful things," Ginsberg astutely observes, "What he has isn't enough."

Don is immediately defensive: "Or maybe he thinks the car will help him get them." As Don said last week, Jags don't do it for him, but beautiful woman are our leading man's achille's heel. Don's delivery of the Jaguar pitch is successful because we know he isn't just selling the idea; he believes his own words. "What price would we pay? What behavior would we forgive if they weren't pretty, if they weren't temperamental, if they weren't beyond our reach and a little out of our control? Would we love them like we do?"

Megan (Jessica Pare) is Don's Jaguar, not the "Buick in the garage" like she fears. She can leave at any time in pursuit of her acting dreams, and Don is terrified, yet he loves her more (or only?) for being so uncontrollable. She won't be owned, and it's that unattainable element that fuels his desire. And of course, also exactly what makes Don himself so alluring to woman. 

Likewise, familiarity is what gets Peggy taken for granted, which is why she chooses to "own" her career by walking out the door. And what of Joan? Well, she just got owned. 
 

Other Points Of Interest

-The Kinks song at the end could easily acts as a stand in for Joan's thoughts: " "You really got me now. You got me so I don't know what I'm doing. You got me so I can't sleep at night."

-Don kissing Peggy's hand. We know he cherishes her, and we hope he finds a way to bring her back to SCDP where she belongs. A Peggy-less Mad Men is a far inferior show.

-Peggy's affecting words to Don: "The day you saw something in me, my whole life changed."

-The Jag exec makes an attempt to be suave, "I feel like a sultan of Araby. My tent is graced with Helen of Troy" and Joan bluntly puts him in his place: "Those are two different stories."

Written by Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)

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Tags: mad-men, recap, amc, jon-hamm, jessica-pare, elisabeth-moss, john-slattery, matthew-weiner
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