Mad Men, Season 5
"There's no number!?"
Hey John and Julia,
“What price we could pay,” Don murmurs during the Jaguar pitch, “what behavior we could forgive.”
Mad Men has always been about the things that people want—the nagging slippage between our lives as we actually live them and the siren of aspirational fantasy. But Sunday’s episode stripped this theme to its discomfiting essence, by suggesting, with harrowing cynicism, that sometimes we want a thing so badly that no price—our decency, our dignity—seems too high to pay.
The episode turned on the parallel dilemmas of Joan and Peggy, the Jaguar and the Buick, and specifically, on how these women appraise their worth in the workplace—and how their male colleagues do. As you two (and Freddy Rumsen) point out, the firm has been marginalizing Peggy all season; Don’s insulting display with the money was merely the coup de grace.
But consider that gesture for a second. I’ve never actually seen anyone do it in real life, not in earnest, anyway, but it’s a trope in our popular culture. To throw money at someone in the manner that Don does is to assert your power over them, and your extreme contempt. It echoes the strip club patron’s acknowledgment of a stripper, and perhaps also the john’s hasty, post-assignation payment of a whore. You can be bought, the gesture says, for a sum that I may carelessly toss aside.
That’s the same message that Joan receives, in rather more explicit terms, when she discovers that her colleagues, and even the father of her child, value her bedability more than her integrity. Lane, her erstwhile intimate and defender, suggests that it is merely a question of the dollar figure, that the right sum will inevitably “turn her head.” Pete takes this a step further, positing to Don that the whole transaction was practically Joan’s idea.
It’s tempting to lay blame for these horrible events on Pete, because only he could dream up such an indecent proposal and then, in his unctuous, odious way, propose it. (Pete has a maddening tendency to reel off lines of dialogue that mean the exact opposite of what they say. “I hope I haven’t insulted you,” he tells Joan. “That’s all that matters to me.”) But really, the Pied Piper Pimp of Sterling Cooper is just taking the lead, escorting his colleagues down a path that they’re all more or less comfortable with. Like Pete, Bert Cooper wants a car, and 5 percent of the firm plus the small concession of Joan’s honor is a reasonable price to pay. Lane wants to avoid the inevitable exposure of his glorified check kiting, and is ready to barter Mrs. Harris in the process. Roger, I’m less certain about. Given his affection for Joan, his antipathy for Pete, and his emotional disinvestment in the larger fortunes of SCDP, it’s not entirely clear to me why he comes around so quickly to Pete’s plan. But he does, and as you point out, Julia, for Joan, that may be the decisive blow.
So both Peggy and Joan are told by their colleagues, in effect, that they are cheap. But they answer this crude appraisal in very different ways. Joan is demoralized by the sudden revelation that these men who she has nurtured, trusted, and in the case of Roger, perhaps loved, might conclude, at the urging of one porcine prospective client, that she is little more than a piece of ass. Did you notice that Joan’s first objection to the arrangement was that she was still “a married woman”? (Don’s, too, incidentally.) The Jaguar guy asks Pete whether Joan is “one of these free spirits,” but on the contrary, she’s an old soul, even an antiquated one. Sure, Don intervenes on her behalf, but I think you’re right, Swans, that he was motivated more than a little by a desire to win the account, unambiguously, for creative. “He’s one guy, and we can win it without him,” Don tells Pete. We all seek the measure of our worth, even Draper.
When the firm tells Joan that she’s worth nothing, she agrees. You can even see the danger, as she strides into the partner’s meeting afterward, her Noh-mask composure restored, that she might eventually mistake this insult for a compliment, and conclude that she’s worth a great deal to her colleagues, even 5 percent of the firm. After all, it’s a fine line. “Do you consider Cleopatra a prostitute?” Pete asks, “She was a queen.”
Peggy’s response to her own appraisal was mercifully different from Joan’s. When Don learns that Peggy intends to leave, he concludes that this is simply a gambit for more pay. “Tell me the number, or make one up, and I’ll beat it,” he says, figuring that like Joan the Jaguar, Peggy can be bought, and owned. When Peggy tells him, “There’s no number,” Don flashes with anger. “There’s no number?” he sputters, incredulous at the thought.
But before we congratulate Peggy for shattering the illusions of a culture in which everything can be reduced to a dollar figure, let’s remember that she, too, has been bought and sold—for dinner at La Caravelle and $19,000, to Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough. Mad Men has never been prudish about the ruthless mercantilism of the modern workplace, and the apparently divergent paths of Peggy and Joan in this episode could come down to the fact that Joan assumed she was worth no more than what the partners were willing to pay her, because with Roger silent and Don too late, she simply never got a better offer.
How appropriate that it is Ginsberg who diagnoses the pathologies gripping the firm. Ginsberg is an old soul himself, who is both fascinated and repulsed by the sex-and-violence decadence of his era. What inspired his breakthrough on Jaguar? It was Megan’s actor friend, performing an impromptu audition for the campaign by crawling, panties bared, across the conference table—another nod at the conventions of striptease. “I could be in a bikini,” she brainstorms lustily, “and you could paint my body with spots.” Knockoff the grabass, indeed.
As his horny colleagues gather round the spectacle, Ginsberg does not mask his contempt for them, or for the intended audience of the campaign. “I kept imagining the asshole who’s going to want this car,” he tells Don. When he licks his lips, pauses for effect, and delivers that winning tagline, Ginsberg isn’t just delivering the car for Sterling Cooper, he’s invoking the craven malaise of late-20th-century materialism.
Apollo and I are just friends.
Patrick Radden Keefe is is a fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream.