I thought this week’s episode of Mad Men was one of the weakest the show has ever done – this season has often been a bit obvious, but this episode went beyond that to be genuinely clunky: the heavy handedness of the episode’s insistence that prostitution is bad (a simplicity which undermines the show’s previous, much more interesting, awareness of the way in which, for women in the 60s, all choices were bad choices); the strange insistence on presenting Don as a “good” person; the blindingly obvious parallels between Joan’s storyline, the ad campaign they are working on, and the subplot involving Megan. So I’m annoyed by this post, which praises the episode for all the things that make it clumsy, in the service of a moralizing critique of capitalism which, because it ties that moralism to women’s bodies, also manages to be sexist. The key line, regarding the supposed ethical superiority of Don and Peggy:
They are free to act ethically because they are not trying to find a way to belong, and they understand themselves as having nothing to lose…. Thus, they are not simply good capitalist subjects in the fashion that, say, Pete Campbell is. They are ambitious in wanting to work the system but also understand the impossibility of obtaining the object that would provide complete inclusion.
That is, they make an ethical choice to resist being “included” in the capitalist system. But capitalism isn’t something you can get outside of, and certainly not by making an individual ethical choice. Worse, this ethics of purity in relation to capitalism is explained, in the post, in terms of prostitution and the episode’s rather boring dilemma as to whether Joan should prostitute herself; the logic of the argument in the post amounts to an ethical embrace of a sexualized purity, or, in other words, calling Joan a whore.
But by restricting consideration to individual ethics, that post also misses the one interesting thing about the episode: that when Don goes to Joan’s house to dissuade her from sleeping with a client (an action, BTW, which makes no sense at all in terms of Don’s characterization), he completely fails to understand what is at stake for Joan. Joan has always been aware of the way being a women exposes her to insecurity, and also of the ways in which in might be possible to use her femininity to mitigate this – in the case of this episode, getting some kind of legal ownership in the company. The post’s claim that Joan “doesn’t have a choice” again sells her short – she does have a choice, and although it’s a very bad set of options, she is aware of the necessity of navigating these options strategically.
As we have seen in previous episodes with Don’s relationship with Megan (particularly the episode where he left her stranded at a motorway service station), Don really does not understand this position of dependence that sexism has forced women into, still less his own role in perpetuating that. It will be interesting to see how Megan deals with this dependence, and whether Don is capable of reassessing his own position; if, at least, the rest of the season manages to be better than this episode.
(And, the more I think about it, the more troubled I am by the Peggy plot. Although of course it’s the culmination of a lot of development for Peggy, within this episode her decision to leave the company does look a bit like she’s had her head turned because a charming man paid attention to her; as a matter of her appetites getting in the way of a proper loyalty to Don – consider her longing look at the lobster she doesn’t get to eat early in the episode.)