In Mad Men’s controversial fifth season episode “The Other Woman,” Christina Hendricks’ Joan Harris is offered an indecent proposal: sleep with the head of the Jaguar dealership association and receive a partnership in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Over the course of the episode, Hendricks’ Joan battles with the decision, ultimately choosing to sell her body for a seat at the table next to the men.
In Part 2 of a two-part deconstruction of “The Other Woman,” series creator Matthew Weiner and Emmy nominee Christina Hendricks dissect five sequences from the Emmy Award-nominated installment. What follows is an edited transcript from that conversation.
Pete Offers Joan an Indecent Proposal
Christina Hendricks: People’s reaction to that is, “Oh, Pete, he’s the worst, he’s the creepiest.” He’s not doing anything worse than what everyone else does in the episode, to be quite honest. He brings up the topic for the first time, but if he didn’t, who knows if someone else wouldn’t have stepped in and done it?
Matthew Weiner: He brings it up in a very clever way, which is like a tabloid version. He’s morally outraged by the suggestion and, by the way, what do you think of it?
Hendricks: Yes, yes, I find that to be utterly amusing. I could watch Vincent [Kartheiser] do that scene over and over again.
Weiner: What you’re seeing is a really great, persuasive, morally complex idea, and we love this slippery slope thing. He brings it up, and he has this smile when he stands up and when she says, “you couldn’t afford it,” because that means something different to a salesman than it means to you and me. To a salesman, it’s a crack in the door. His logic is: we’ve all made mistakes for nothing. Are we honestly supposed to think that Joan has never slept with a client? Don has slept with two that we know of. When the Japanese came in for the pitch, they put her front and center. She is the entry to the office and they show her off in all of her beauty and her power. That’s why I love when she says, “how does that come up?” None of this is new in a weird way.
Of course, the thing that he does that’s really morally reprehensible, that shows how the group dynamic works, is when he calls everybody into his office and brings it up. All of a sudden, it’s an institutionalized thing, where the company itself is going into its pocket to make this act happen, and now you’re in a different realm, and that’s what the story was about to me, too. How does something like that happen?
Hendricks: Matt and I had talked about [this idea] previously.
Weiner: Every time I talked to people from the era, it would always come up. Some woman would tell me something in a moment of confidence, at the very end of the conversation, and I was, like, wow, we’re going to have to do that sometime, and make sure that the stakes are high enough and rig it so it becomes a real choice. So Christina knew that there was a version of Joan doing this.
Hendricks: I didn’t know the consequences or the rewards; however you want to put it.
Lane Convinces Joan to Ask for More
Hendricks: Jared [Harris] is amazing. He’s a tremendous actor. I love doing scenes with him. There definitely is a relationship between those two people, but he’s been freaking out. This major thing is happening to him, and he is scrambling to try and manipulate and save his situation. Why does it change between the Pete scenario and the Lane one? All of a sudden, it has become a company move. It’s not just someone weaseling around in your office and throwing around things.
Weiner: Right, and then she gets the information when Lane says $50,000. That is a price worth considering, and you see Christina, in an incredible piece of acting, just get wobbly emotionally, get confused by it. “Do you know how much money that is to me?” What I think is a cool part of the scene is that Lane comes in there for completely underhanded, selfish reasons. What he is telling her to do is better for her, but it is also way, way better for him because he can’t give the cash because they can’t get a credit line. His crime will be unearthed.
But he does have an emotional stake in telling her this, which is that he is really angry that he has never gotten anything out of this place. He hasn’t gotten his money out of the place, and there’s this strange, extra connection at the end of it. It’s probably the disappointment where she’s surprised that he is, even though he is giving her this good advice, advocating it at all, because she thought that he would defend her. What he has said is, if you’re going to do it, do it big. It doesn’t help when she comes home, and her mother reminds her of how crappy her life is.
Don’s Plea Comes Too Late
Weiner: This was a solution to how to tell the story. The story was supposed to be about Don making a triumphant pitch for Jaguar, and it also was supposed to be about that great moment being tainted because it was rigged and Joan had slept with the guy. The victory was hollow on some level. Don doesn’t know if he won or not, because Joan made him win. The ordering of those events really was a problem and we got to a point where we can either show Don doing the pitch, or show Joan being with the guy, but we can’t do them both, because Joan’s thing has to happen first, and if Don gives the pitch after we’ve seen Joan do this, no one is going to listen to a word that he says. It doesn’t matter how good it is. We’re not going to believe he could have won.
Semi [Chellas, who co-wrote the episode] had this great idea, this elliptical thing, which we really loaded up with cues so that you would know at the end that Don was too late. Seeing Joan in there, taking the necklace off, and Joan’s mother taking Don’s hat into the room where Joan was, and then Joan putting on the green robe and coming out, seeing that behind-the-scenes moment the second time really cemented it. What it allowed us to do is show Joan going through with it 24 hours beforehand, and then show Don giving this pitch that the audience is convinced is a great pitch. Then you slowly dissolve back to the reality of Don coming in [to work] pretty happy, Joan asking how it went, and Roger having this dead response—“it was one of his good ones”—and Don wondering why Joan’s not more excited.
Hendricks: One of the reasons I love working on the show is that these characters get richer and richer. It’s very true to Joan’s character. She got raped and didn’t show much emotion. There’s a consistency to Joan, and one of the reasons that I think audience members really respond to her is that survival instinct: pick the pieces up and put them back together, and let’s go again. Tomorrow is another day, and that is a consistent personality trait of this character, and it’s something that is desperately sad about her, and wonderfully resilient about her.
Weiner: She shares that with Don. Joan is about moving forward. She doesn’t know anything. She doesn’t even know until Don walks into the office after they get it that he is aware of the fact that she went through with it. Their relationship is bigger than that moment.
At Last, Something You Can Truly Own
Weiner: There is a romance to a woman who is so beautiful, like Helen of Troy, that a man will do anything to be with her, go to any lengths, and risk his life and finances and pain, for one night. It is a fantasy, and it was very important to me to show that disintegrate, and show what the actual transaction looked like.
I love the imagery of the chain, and this was again indulging the romantic fantasy. I got you an expensive gift. This is going to be like a date. Then she takes control of the situation and when he says, “let me see them,” all of the romance is broken into something very, very base. Her turning around like that, is not just sadness, it’s resolve. She takes control of it. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this.
Hendricks: It was one of the few times that I’ve been hyperaware of what the audience needs to get through this scene. It was very, very specific. Most of the time, I just go with my heart and soul, and what I think Joan would be feeling in this instance. I was very aware of taking all those things into consideration, but also making sure that this story was told in a very specific way that Matt and I had talked about. It is tricky. It’s about little moments and it was very specific that Joan was taking one last drink, turning around, and taking control of the situation.
Joan Gets Her Reward
Hendricks: From now on, you’re going to see Joan in the partners’ meetings. Every episode, she’s going to be in the partners’ meeting.
Weiner: With Christina and Jon, in the midst of everyone slapping each other on the back, there is an acknowledgment. It’s not “screw you,” or “you’ve done it,” or anything else like that. There’s just this acceptance of this is the way it is. She’s a little embarrassed that she’s discovered. I can’t even get over how much there was in that. I was so excited when I saw it. I can’t put it into words, or I would have written dialogue for it.
Hendricks: That moment is a bunch of things, and it is: 1) absolutely don’t judge me, and 2) it’s okay. It’s not an apology. It’s like, “don’t worry about it,” to Don. I’m a partner, so look at me, how exciting. What’s done is done, let’s not talk about it, and let’s move on, and go forward from here.