AMC’s Mad Men has never shied away from uncomfortable or challenging circumstances, but Season 5’s “The Other Woman”—during which Emmy nominee Christina Hendricks’s Joan Harris had sex with a potential client in order to secure a partnership at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce—was instantly controversial, given Joan’s heartbreaking decision and because she is such a beloved character.
Nominated for writing (for co-writers Matthew Weiner and Semi Chellas) and directing (for Phil Abraham) Emmy awards, “The Other Woman” was also the episode submitted by Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, and Hendricks in their respective categories, and rightly so. It’s an installment that is vicious in its condemnation of the treatment of women as objects of beauty to be owned and possessed, a thematic thread that manifests itself in the circumstances surrounding Joan, Peggy (Moss), and Megan (Jessica Paré). From Joan’s decision to sell herself for a shot at power to the pitch that Don makes to Jaguar—where the tagline reads, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own”—the notion of commodity and ownership provides a strong undercurrent in an episode that is riveting and eye-opening.
The Daily Beast spoke to Weiner and Hendricks about “The Other Woman,” and dissected five of the most indelible sequences from the Emmy-nominated installment. What follows is an edited transcript, the first in a two-part interview.
What did you make of the reaction to “The Other Woman”? Did you anticipate it being as polarizing an episode as it was?
Christina Hendricks: Yes, I did think it was going to be. It is a very controversial scenario.
Matthew Weiner: I was surprised. I knew it was a dramatic moment, and I expected it to be treated as drama, because the stakes were so high, and we knew Joan so well. But I also felt on some level, if we hadn’t used the word prostitution in there, it was more about the public nature of what was going on, and also their love for Joan, and the fact that she was put in this position that was so upsetting to people. I was stunned, though, by the suggestion that there were some people questioning about whether she would have actually done this or not. That shocked me. Maybe what they were saying is they were questioning whether they would have done it, but I was hoping, certainly judging on the history of the show and what Joan has done, obviously this is not the first time this has been an issue for her.
Given that, why do you think that people reacted so viscerally to Joan’s decision?
Weiner: A lot of this is attributed to Christina’s portrayal, but Joan is a very important character and has had a great deal of suffering. Some of it based on her own values and expectations, and I think that the audience really roots for her and was horrified at her having to do this, or having to even be in this situation. I think they felt terrible.
Hendricks: I agree. There has been this wonderful support for the character of Joan, even when she does do something that’s been off-color or bitchy, if you want to use the word, since Season 1. She would say things to Peggy, or to Paul, or do things that you wouldn’t necessarily approve of, but I think people could be, like, “Well, sometimes I do bitchy things too.” They do identify with her, and so this is maybe a step too far for them? Maybe it’s making them question their support of her a little bit more, and it made people uncomfortable?
Weiner: The fact that she’s being compromised, or expressing ambition, or all of those things, on some level … to me there’s a horrible reality in this entire situation is that it ends up being a career-changing moment for her, as we see. That’s probably why she did it, but that said, I think people were hoping that she would maintain some higher morality and suffer through the rest of her life.
Hendricks: There were very few options for women at this time at work. As a single mother, how do you rise at work? How do you make more money? How do you support your family? Luckily, we have a lot more options these days. It’s not fair to compare the situation to 2012, but people can’t help it because that’s where we live, and that’s what we do, and that’s who we are. We get emotional, thinking, “I would never do that. I can’t believe it.” Well, you would never do it now.
Weiner: It’s obviously immoral and a sacrifice, but Joan has a whole different set of values. Joan married a man who raped her.
She was very clear to Peggy, season after season, that the object of this whole job was really to find a husband, and here she’s found this husband, and it’s not worked out the way she had hoped it would, and all of a sudden, we see her expressing an interest in power. We did what we could to paint her into a corner for the rest of her life, and then this thing comes up. The most shocking thing to me is just how institutionalized it was. The idea that everybody was in on it, and how that group immorality was executed. They really just went along with it. It became this momentum.
The episode sets ups certain themes about objectification and ownership that then became explored through Joan, Peggy, and Megan, and also the Jaguar pitch itself. How does the episode capture the pervasive objectification of women at the time?
Weiner: I don’t think it’s just the time. Cars are still called “she” and “her,” and objects of luxury are still referred to as women by men and by women. A big part of the story was this creative roadblock that they were at. Don abandons the mistress thing, which he knows is repellant, his wife tells him so. I love that moment with Megan where she’s like, don’t act like I don’t understand what you’re doing here, it’s really an unpleasant view of women. Then of course, she’s going off for her audition, and part of the job of being an actress is being scrutinized in that way. Joan is something that this man is demanding and buying, and Joan cannot be owned, but she’s for sale. Of course, it’s not a coincidence that Don throws money in Peggy’s face.
How would you describe Christina’s performance in this episode?
Weiner: Christina is amazing in every episode. Even if she’s just passing through in some explosive scene—like in “Lady Lazarus” when she and Peggy have this conversation about Megan’s future—Christina is always good, always complex, always elevating the material. Her transition from walking in the door in Herb’s hotel room to when she leaves, and the state that she’s in when we see her the second time when Don comes to visit … there’s what, three lines of dialogue? It’s all a spectacular performance. Of course, you write a look into the script, and it can be a dangerous thing. The director may miss it, the actor may not do it, and it may not be caught on film, it may not be significant, it may not be charged with meaning, but when they call all the partners together, and Don walks in to Roger’s office, and Joan comes in with the partners, and they both realize that they know what happened, that’s the actor’s moment, that’s not the writing moment.
Christina, what is it about the transformation of Joan and Don’s dynamic that we see emerge in “The Other Woman”?
Hendricks: There have been a couple of hints over the last five seasons of Don and Joan’s relationship. We don’t see a lot of scenes of them together. When we do, it solidifies, it’s almost enough to take you through the rest of the season because you get this idea of who they are. There’s this mutual respect, they’ve got each other’s number, they understand each other, there’s not going to be any f–king around, that—oops, I forgot I was doing an interview.
Weiner: Messing around, screwing around! Tiptoeing around. Want me to get out my [thesaurus]?
Hendricks: I got too comfortable!
Weiner: They’re very frank with each other, that’s for sure.
Hendricks: It is a wonderful moment when Don comes and says, “You’ve got to stop this.” People love Don so much and love Joan so much that everyone wants to really believe how tender this moment is, but what we have to remember is that Don is so proud of his pitch. He knows he’s going to win this no matter what.
Weiner: That’s so true. There are two things that come up in the public conversation about this. People coming up and saying, “why didn’t Roger do anything?” That’s one. And, “well, at least we know Don’s a good guy, he did something.” Don says it a couple of times: “The creative will win.” “I don’t care, I’ve got a great thing here, and I only have to win two of the votes and just wait until they hear this pitch. We don’t need this extra insurance.” Which is up for debate, but I think a lot of it is his creative confidence and arrogance.
With Roger (John Slattery), when he hears that this has been broached with her and that she is amenable to it in some way—as something as complicit as, “you can’t afford it,” which in negotiating language means, name a price; it’s very different than “no”—there’s a moment of silence after Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) relays this information. That he’s like, look, if she wants to do it? It’s almost like he’s been rejected by her, she has squeezed him out of the life of the child, that window has closed on their relationship, mostly due to his fault, although he probably never will see it that way. In fact, he’s had many opportunities to make good on that relationship and hasn’t, and he sits back and I think he’s filled with resentment. He’s, like, fine, she wants to do it that way, that’s her, that’s not me. I think it’s like a spurned lover that you’re seeing there. I think somehow people expected him to be this knight in shining armor at that moment.
Hendricks: Which he’s been so many times.
Weiner: [Don] respects her power. As we saw in “Christmas Waltz,” there is a lot about them that’s the same. When they talk about their carnal selves, it’s just two people saying, I know it, I gotcha, I agree.
This is also the episode where Peggy leaves the firm, and Joan notices Peggy leaving during the party. What we should make of Joan’s expression?
Hendricks: I wasn’t trying to play some big moment. She leaves every day. The sense to me is that Joan always has her pulse on the energy and the politics in the office, and for a moment it was a sense of something being off.
Weiner: Exactly. There’s the other thing, which is that, if you really think about it, a big part of the story is that Peggy is completely excluded from Jaguar, absolutely because she was a woman, and so this celebration is meaningless to her.
Hendricks: It was really about the storytelling of that moment. That moment’s about Peggy.
Weiner: There’s an essence of dramatic irony, which is that the audience knows that those characters don’t know, and so just to see those two women passing for that last time in that office was something I didn’t want to miss either.
Had you known going into this episode, which is very Joan-centric, would also be the one in which Peggy would depart? Was that intentional?
Weiner: Absolutely. This is an episode called “The Other Woman,” and it’s literally about the quantification and value of women in the workplace and the relationship of their sexuality to it. I knew that on a subconscious level at the writing stage, because of the way the stories went together. As these stories fold in together, it starts to become about that, but it was always about what you have to do to get ahead, in a very simple way, and the opportunities to get ahead.
Has there ever been a temptation to put Joan and Don together sexually? Would you ever want to see that?
Hendricks: It’s intriguing.
Weiner: It’s always intriguing. I’ll tell you one thing, what we were able to do this year was really about the fact that that had never happened. So far, we’ve benefited from that, but never say never. I look at the scene at the end of the lawnmower episode [“Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”], when Joan has had her shower and is leaving, had her going-away party, and the whole thing ended with them in the emergency room together, and I always look at that and that’s about as intimate as two people can be. They have a lot of history. It’s not sexual, but they definitely have a lot of history. We’ll have to see. I think that the two of them together might cause some atomic explosion, that’s a part of it too.
Hendricks: A building might explode!