A price above rubies

Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) and Christina Hendricks (Joan).

What price does a woman put on her soul?  How blurred is the line between integrity and compromise?

As Puritanical attitudes towards what is acceptable to a television viewing audience have softened, the portrayal of women has evolved as well, with the smiling apron-wearing June Cleaver giving way to ever more complex characters, where what it means to be a woman, in all its wonderful, contradictory glory, is examined on a psychological level – much more deeply than hacky debates on the best make of shoes or how sexually inadequate their partners may be.  Last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Other Woman,” after four and a half seasons of examining the ways in which men compromise themselves in pursuit of wealth, sex and power, took its two strongest female characters and forced them to ask themselves what their own price might be.  Joan agreed to an indecent proposal in exchange for a partnership in the company, while the lately taken-for-granted Peggy decided her worth couldn’t be expressed in numbers and chose to walk when that was all she was offered to stay.

The buxom redhead Joan has been described by the show’s creators as man-like in her full command of her sexuality, a beautiful woman who is well aware of the effect she has on those obsessed by mammaries.  To their (and Christina Hendricks’) credit, she has never been portrayed as the kind of vampy temptress such a description usually fits; she isn’t working from the Erica Kane playbook, but rather striving, consistently, to prove herself as the best at her job.  As to her relationships with the men and the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, one will forgive what sounds like a puerile argument when the symbolism of Joan as mother figure is expanded upon.  Even those who have expressed sexual desire for her, whether fulfilled like Roger Sterling or unrequited like Lane Pryce, have found themselves in the position of whimpering babes at her ample breast.  Others, like cardboard husband Greg, have been unable to cope.  (Greg escaped, ironically, to the boys-only army.)  Her relationship with serial womanizer Don is perhaps the most complex of all – ironic that the two best-looking people on the show have never taken it much beyond a brother-sister level.  Don is man enough, in the end, to recognize that Joan agreeing to sleep with a lecherous car dealer in exchange for securing the Jaguar account isn’t the path she should take.  The episode played expectations by staging Don’s last-ditch attempt to change Joan’s mind without revealing until later that it took place well after the deed was done.  Was Joan truly as compromised as most reviewers of this episode tend to believe, or was it a logical progression in her evolution – a conclusion on her part, regardless of what we may think of its validity, that to get where she wants to be, she has to use every talent at her disposal, regardless of the collateral damage to her spirit?  Coincidentally, this week’s Game of Thrones featured a scene where the ruthlessly ambitious Cersei Lannister drunkenly observed to the virginal Sansa Stark that a woman’s greatest weapon lay between her legs.  Has Joan crossed that line now?  Has she decided that being good at what she does is only going to take her so far?  One thing is for certain, in the jubilation that accompanied the announcement of SCDP’s winning the Jaguar account, newly-minted partner Joan was as out of place as a prostitute at a church picnic.  Perhaps inside, that was how she felt.

Peggy, on the other hand, while she has had her share of romances (and one ill-advised fling with Pete Campbell, whose abject disinterest in her since that early episode indicates that she was strictly a novelty to him) is the little chickadee to Joan’s mother hen.  Unlike Joan, she’s never really had the option to full-out Mata Hari lecherous men into helping advance her station in life, and so her drive to prove herself comes more from a place of not having much of a choice otherwise.  She and Joan both find themselves brushing against the glass ceiling, and for Peggy, going down the road suggested by Cersei Lannister is not only unpalatable, but unnecessary.  Peggy’s worth is not tied to her future at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – it is, after all, only one of many companies out there where her talents can be of use, as is quickly proven by her meeting and ultimate decision to go work with Ted Chaough.  When she admits this to her mentor, Don – while incredibly empathetic in his encounter with Joan – cannot reconcile the idea that Peggy’s problem cannot be solved with just more money.  But Peggy is in as much a crisis of spirit as the one faced by Joan.  Oddly enough, Joan’s loyalty to SCDP and its people – her mother’s instinct again – was probably what led her to make the choice she did, the dangling carrot of a partnership aside.  Peggy, by contrast, realizes that to grow as a person she must, in a Buddhist sense, divest herself of her attachment to Don Draper and the old gang.  The little chickadee has to leave the nest.  It is a much healthier decision, and explains the smile on her face as she steps onto the elevator for the last time, with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” playing in the background in a final brushstroke of symbolism.

Proverbs 31:10 says that the worth of a virtuous woman is far above rubies.  Joan let herself be bought, some would say for far less than rubies.  Peggy didn’t.  What is most important, however, is that in the end, the choice was theirs.  They may indeed have a price, but they are going to be the ones to decide what that price is.  These women defined themselves instead of letting men do it for them – a greater achievement in the sexist era in which Mad Men takes place.  They were willing to accept the consequences of that definition, whatever they may be.  And taking absolute charge of one’s destiny is, to risk a cliche, true empowerment.

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