This has been Megan Draper‘s season. While Jessica Paré is a compelling actress who manages to perfectly embody the youthful sexiness of the late sixties, the focus on the newest Mrs. Draper has resulted in the marginalization of Joan and Peggy. These two female characters have always held a unique position in Mad Men’s universe because they are two of the only women under fifty Don has never attempted to bed. Nevertheless, he still weighs control over these women, fashioning himself a benevolent dictator who aids them but for the price of their undying, unquestioning devotion.
Anyone who has watched more than two episodes of Mad Men will recognize that the central account under discussion always serves as a metonym for the episode’s larger concerns. This week it was Jaguar—“the mistress of cars”—which serves as a stand-in not only for Joan, Peggy, and Megan but also for all mid-century women whose worth was still tied to the shape of their fenders. This commodification is emphasized in the primary position money holds in Joan and Peggy’s narratives. The Joan storyline serves as the most obvious example of female commodification: her body is literally priced and sold so the firm can land the auto account they need to establish themselves as an authentic agency. It is easy to read Joan’s prostitution as the ultimate example of her inability to escape the social connotations of her voluptuous body. However, she ends the episode not as someone’s wife, girlfriend, or mistress but as a partner in the firm she has helped make a success.
In last week’s episode, Joan and Don finally shared a scene. What was most notable (beyond the fact that 99% of the world’s sexiness could be harnessed in one shot of two people talking) was the elegiac tone of their conversation. Listening to sad music, lamenting their past mistakes, and making references to dated icons, Don and Joan personified the gendered nature of the sixties promise of renewal. Don is capable of starting over with Megan and inhabiting a late sixties lifestyle, but as Joan stated, what is she supposed to move toward? Another man who will either leave or abuse her, another married man looking for a busty diversion? Don has a choice that Joan doesn’t because even though they are opposite-sexed versions of one another, Joan drew the shorter straw when she came out of the womb with a vagina. Her sexuality doesn’t offer her true power in the sixties—that is until she chooses to commodify it in a way that actually does give her power: a 5% voting partnership in SCDP to be exact.
When we see the repeated scene of Don coming to Joan’s rescue, it is tempting to believe that she wouldn’t have gone through with this “dirty business” if he had arrived earlier. But where would that have left Joan? She would have been an underpaid office manager with a young child and no chance of a promotion. Don’s true noble gesture was not this moment but the earlier scene when he left Pete’s office and refused to discuss the price of Joan’s ass with his co-workers. When he visits Joan, he is, like the rest of the smarmy lot, telling her what do with her body. He may have the best of intentions, or he may simply want to win the Jaguar account on his own merits. The larger point is that Don’s opinions no longer matter. Joan makes her own choice, and the nasty truth is that it’s probably the best choice she could have made under the circumstances. Even as you see her shiver as she disrobes for the swinish Jaguar executive, she still manages to express her mental power over him, reminding him that sultans and Helen of Troy do not belong in the same story. She’ll let him use her body, but he’s getting one hour; she’s getting a lifetime of security.
This is not to argue that Joan is now some fully empowered feminist icon. She is obviously fulfilling the cliché of the woman who sleeps her way to the top, but she still manages to make the men at the office look like the true whores who will sell their souls for a lucrative account. What clearly upset her more than the creepy touch of the Jaguar John was the thought that men she had worked with for over a decade were sitting in an office fifteen feet from her discussing her body’s market value. This is the ultimate betrayal because it underscores the illusory nature of the power she had seemingly amassed and the depth of the gender divide she could never truly traverse. The previous episode’s elegy may have been a lament for the earlier years when certain lines would never be crossed or an earlier time when Joan still believed her beauty would secure her a future with a nice, attractive doctor. But we are now in the late sixties, and that time has past. Consequently, Joanie has decided to screw them all.
Peggy’s narrative also centers on Don’s naive belief that women (or at least his women) are beyond the lure of material interests. In the few scenes featuring Peggy this season, she has either been expressing concern that she is becoming a man or allocating more creative ground to Ginsberg. One of the only exceptions is when she fleeces Roger for all the money in his wallet when he asks her to work after hours on a project for which she will receive no credit. Her seeming indifference to Ginsberg’s rise or Megan’s brief success confused me because it seemed so at odds with Peggy’s ambitious character, but this episode made it clear that she had been planning her exit from SCDP long before Freddy showed her a number. She finally realized she would never be fully appreciated if she were always thought of as “Don’s girl.” When Don throws money in her face after she saves an account, this is simply the final insult.
Long-time Mad Men devotees will find the final tender moment between Don and Peggy so heartbreaking because of the simple gesture with their hands. In the pilot, Peggy placed her hand over Don’s to signify that she was sexually available, believing this was her only avenue toward advancement. Don rejected her because he obviously saw something of himself in this intelligent, ambitious young woman. This gesture was repeated in one of the series’ finest episodes—“The Suitcase”—when Don placed his hand on Peggy’s after she stayed up all night with him because he was too frightened to hear the inevitable confirmation of Anna’s death. It was a sign of solidarity, friendship, and respect, so when we see the gesture repeated once more with Don desperately trying to hold onto her, it is both profoundly sad and profoundly fitting.
Although I certainly hope this is not the last we will see of Peggy, I do think that having her discard her identity as “Don’s girl” with this gesture signifies the shifting arc of their relationship. Don may claim that everything Peggy has accomplished stems from his magnanimity, but he knows this is untrue. He gave her a break, and her talent and tenacity catapulted her out of her gendered box. When Peggy metaphorically throws the money back in Don’s face, saying, “there isn’t a number,” she is finally revealing herself to be one of the few women beyond Don’s control.
Even though this is one of the few episodes this season that does not prominently feature Megan, she is still central to the theme of women and ownership. One would think that of all the women Don hopes to restrain, Megan would be the most difficult. She is the rebellious emblem of the sixties who watches Avant-garde theater and sings provocative French pop songs at his birthday. She is practically in a Godard film every moment she is on screen. Nevertheless, Megan ends this episode in the gendered box Joan and Peggy have both discarded. Megan’s decision to audition for a role that would keep her away from Don for months initially suggests she is beyond his control; however, she later tells Don that if she had to choose between her career and him, she would always choose him. One may debate whether this might be true of any woman married to someone who looks like Jon Hamm, but it nonetheless suggests that for all her sexual liberation, she is still a docile female whose idea of rebellion is vacuuming naked or throwing a plate at a wall that she will have to clean up herself. Her career goals are similarly revealed to be less than revolutionary in her “audition” scene in which a crew of casting directors makes her turn around like a prized sow. She believes she is going to be an artist—so beyond the crass commercial world of advertising—but what she forgets is that she is now becoming the product.
Joan and Peggy are smart enough to know that you will always be nothing but a disposable body if you place all of your self worth in that body. They shared a delightful scene toward the end of last year’s finale in which they laughed at Don’s ridiculous belief that he was doing something novel by marrying his twenty-something secretary. Megan thinks she is the face of the future, but she is little different than a kinder, less sociopathic Betty Draper. Joan and Peggy may not be the happiest characters by this episode’s end, but they are the strongest. There is no one—not even Don Draper—who can own these two bitches.