Simply put, The Other Woman may end up being one of the three or four most consequential episodes in the history of Mad Men. In one hour, Matt Weiner completely shuffled the deck and at the end of those 60 minutes, Peggy Olson, loyal right hand, alit for Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, Joan Harris had leveraged an "indecent proposal" into a 5% stake in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the firm had landed its first car client - Jaguar. What could have read as a ham handed effort to show how one woman (Joan) compromises herself in service of some greater good (her own financial independence) or how one man (Pete) lowers himself in service of some greater goal (landing an account), because Weiner opted to create a parallel storyline that resulted in Peggy's departure from SCDP, he neatly tied together two recent show themes - Roger's observation to Peggy that it's "every man for himself" and Paul Kinsey's yearning for meaning in a world of charlatans and users.
It is said that if you agree to have sex with a stranger for money, you have defined what you are, now you are just negotiating over the price. When presented with a 1966 version of Indecent Proposal, where one of the decision makers at Jaguar was prepared to give SCDP his vote in exchange for a night with her (and conversely, torpedoing the firm's chances if she did not), Joan's reaction was revulsion, but having taken Lane's counsel and considered her own situation, she was savvy enough to leverage her position not into a one-shot pay off ($50,000), but instead, into an equity stake in the company - a steady revenue stream that will offer her the ability to live free and clear of her absentee husband and nagging mother.
Of course, Joan's sexuality has always been a double edge - it both defines and debases her. She was more than happy to accept the affection of Roger Sterling years ago when he was gift wrapping mink coats and indulging her in afternoon getaways at swanky hotels, but the allure of middle class existence - of marriage, children and a home - was too seductive for her to turn down, even when it meant marrying a man who sexually assaulted her. In a more modern era, she was caricatured by free lancer Joey last season as both a harlot and a shrew, but when offered one last chance at motherhood, even though the father was not her husband, she leapt at it, consequences be damned. But now, her hopes and dreams have crumbled - she has been served divorce papers by her husband and she does not see Roger as a fit parent for her child. Left with the option between co-raising little Kevin with her mother or grabbing onto a lottery ticket that will allow her to survive on her own, she takes the latter course. Every man (and woman) for him/herself, after all.
Meanwhile, Peggy has been meekly accepting the slings and arrows of Don's absentee management, taking on more and more responsibility while watching wunderkind Michael Ginsberg run circles around her with his brashness and creativity. Peggy has hit what will be known as the "glass ceiling," but all she feels is limitation. She can't strong arm clients like Heinz to accept her ideas, she can't even work on certain accounts like Jaguar because she's a woman and she doesn't have the casual connection with Don to sell hokey dialogue with Cool-Whip. It may simply be a matter of, when push comes to shove, clients still feeling awkward with women working on accounts, or it may be Peggy's refusal to be treated like a second class employee, but some part of her feels that she's still viewed as the woman who was once a mere secretary and whose ideas, even when good, are somehow diminished because they came from the mind of a woman and not a man.
Peggy's breaking point happens when she swoops in to clean up Chevalier Blanc with an on the fly idea as she, Ken and Harry sit on a conference call with the client. While Peggy's work has largely been eclipsed this season by young Mr. Ginsberg, her ability to think quickly on her feet saves the firm from losing the business. Instead of gratitude from Don, she gets demeaned, as he literally throws money in her face as she again seeks a small sliver of recognition. Later, when she has lunch with Freddy Rumsen, she shows a remarkable amount of insight - she knows she has more responsibility than ever, but she is stagnant. Freddy observes that he can't tell if she's ambitious or just likes to complain, to which she replies, "why can't it be both?" But that's not satisfactory for Freddy, who has been in the business long enough to distinguish between "work" and "feelings," and knowing when it is time to lay a clear marker down, take the meetings and fly the coop.
I love the scene between Freddy and Peggy because her relationship with him contrasts so sharply with the one she has with Don. Freddy may occasionally piss her off (as he did during the Pond's Cold Cream research last season), but his avuncular nature and willingness, all the way back in Season 1, to put his faith in her skills, has made for a tender relationship. His counsel, at such a critical point in her career, is right on point - the only way for Peggy to gain Don's respect is to stop acting like the secretary from Brooklyn grateful for her job and own her talent by seeing whether she can succeed outside Don's orbit.
Indeed, Freddy's advice is an echo of what Bobbi Barrett told Peggy all the way back in Season 2 as she was departing Peggy's tiny apartment after convalescing there, which was basically to demand respect. Ever since then, Peggy has struggled with that advice because Don constantly pulls her emotional strings at critical points - when he and Bobbi had their car accident during Season 2; when the partners were leaving Sterling Cooper at the end of Season 3; and when Anna died in Season 4 - all while short changing her effort and contribution to campaigns like Glo-Coat, Popsicle, and Topaz Pantyhose. Each time she attempted to stand up for herself, she backed down, largely because Don operates in a world where he can do whatever he pleases and cleans up the mess with a furrow browed "I'm sorry" or "thank you." But this time is different. Freddy arranges a meeting for her with Ted Chaough, who has been gunning for Don since last season. When Ted tries casual chit chat about why she wants to "work for the other team," her answer is remarkably insightful, she says "it's not a game, it's my career." And in that, she gets Ted to do something Don never has (and maybe because she never could gin up the moxie to do it) - she gets treated seriously. What Chaough does to get Peggy to flip is not adding $1,000 to her salary request, but something far more meaningful, approving her title request of "copy chief" - showing her respect.
The denouement between Peggy and Don is every bit as painful and intimate as the pivotal scene in The Suitcase, in fact, it takes place in the same location - Don's office. Happening on the heels of securing Jaguar, Peggy almost chickens out from talking to Don, but unbeknownst to Peggy, he's in no mood to celebrate, having learned it was Joan's complicity, and not his pitch, that carried the day. Peggy attempts to be gracious, speaking of Don as a mentor, of her privilege in working at his side, but that she needs to move on. Don misreads her entirely (something not uncommon for him), assuming her big windup is just an attempt to get more money. When he realizes she is serious, he attempts to belittle her, and when that doesn't work, (possibly?) seducing her, his mouth lingering uncomfortably on her outstretched hand, but she does not take the bait, quietly packing her things and walking out even as the firm is celebrating its biggest success. It has taken her six years, but she is finally able to say "no" to Don Draper.
What is most interesting about Season Five is how un-present (not a word, but a good description) Don has been throughout these episodes. There has not been a season that is less about Don than this one and yet, as he has receded into the background, the lives of others have evolved and changed while Don has been mostly oblivious to what is happening around him. Peggy was cut adrift, tasked with doing everything from training Megan as a junior copywriter to interviewing new hires while Don lingered uncertainly. What little humanity Pete may have gained has been stripped away - he has humiliated Roger, slept with hookers and housewives, pimps out Joan for the sake of gaining an account, refers to his adopted home town of Cos Cob as a "cemetery," and is no longer "trying to make a baby" (a/k/a fucking) his wife. His not so subtle trail balloon of an apartment in Manhattan is a weak echo of frenemy Howard Dawes's cushy arrangement with his mistress in the city. Meanwhile, the older partners - Bert, Lane and Roger - all sign off on elevating Joan's status in exchange for selling her body.
What little emotional range Don has shown has been largely poured into the ups and downs of his marriage to Megan, which has been at times stable and supportive and others fraught with insecurity and fear. In this way, Peggy's departure feels less surprising when you consider the distance she has traveled with Don since the iconic Suitcase episode. At the time, Don was at a nadir, hopelessly drowning himself in Canadian Club, his emotional anchor, Anna, recently deceased, and his personal life a blur of cheap one night stands. When Don locked his hand in Peggy's at the end of that episode, they were in "this" together - the bond Don desperately needed to feel, to know there was someone in his life who he could fully trust, who completely knew him. Fast forward 18 months and the narrative of Don's life has changed. His new bride knows the "big secret" of his Dick Whitman past, he's hired a plucky and ambitious copywriter who spits out creative ideas like a Tourette's patient and Don's own personal journey has led him to a mellower place where work is not all consuming. Megan's tenure at SCDP even qualifies her as a sounding board for the drama that Don experiences at work. In short, the dual roles Peggy played - of creative right arm and emotional support, are no longer needed, so Don has done what he always does - he takes Peggy for granted, ignores her, and when she stands up to him, turns his back on her.
Of course, this being Mad Men, one has to assume that Ted Chaough's encomium to Peggy's work may just be the silver tongued antics of another man who will disappoint her, but that's to be determined. Peggy's decision to go to CGC shows that she, like Kinsey, is seeking someone who she can believe in even though we suspect Ted is just another poseur. There was pathos in Peggy's leaving - as the firm is celebrating the Jaguar account, she is walking in the opposite direction (Don's final big foot maneuver was to accept her resignation effective immediately instead of allowing her to work her final 2 weeks) and she is also processing the fact that Joan has been named a firm partner. There too, a relationship that has been complicated and at times competitive, is blurred. Peggy has no way of knowing what Joan had to do for that partnership, but it is that information that girds her to tell Don she is leaving. They catch each other's eye as Peggy is leaving and we are left to wonder what each is thinking about the other, whether Joan feels she has "won," at great personal cost, some battle versus Peggy, whose transition from secretary to copywriter she always resented, by attaining her partnership, or whether she feels sympathy that Peggy thinks leaving will make a meaningful difference in her career, as Joan is too jaded and experienced at this point to think women will ever be treated equally in the workplace. For Peggy, she may rightly feel as though she is taking ownership of her career or that Joan was unjustly rewarded while she languished. Regardless, what viewers know is that each has made enormous sacrifices that neither feels comfortable with but has accepted.