THEME: Mad Men Season 5

"The Other Woman"

As per usual, we’ve been diligently watching each episode of the current season of Mad Men and loving every minute of it. In my household, one must respect the golden rule…

In Weiner we trust.

As in, Matthew Weiner, the creator and head writer of Mad Men (in case you’ve been living in a junk yard, are a political prisoner, or, perhaps worst of all, someone with no inherent sense of quality television programming). Weiner steers the ship and he’s never led us astray. Season Five has been no exception; there’s been some amazing episodes, including “The Other Woman,” which stands as one of the most discomforting hours of television I’ve seen.

What, ho, the partners are asking Joan to prostitute herself to land a new client? I was yelling “Don’t do it Joan!” at the flat-screen. You, too? Alas…because Weiner is not only a brilliant artist, but also a cruel, manipulative one…Joan did it. And a little piece of my soul went with her.

As I’m always looking for the theme of each episode, the “prostitution scene” made me flash back to a number of moments in this season, leading me to conclude that one of the major themes for the season has to be…

1. “Dirty Business.”

I’m thinking of Sally Draper walking in on Roger getting a hummer from Megan’s mother. Lane embezzling funds from the company to cover his UK back taxes. Roger convincing Jane that she agreed to a divorce while they were high on LSD. The guys losing an account because a client insisted on a visit to a whorehouse, then was found by his wife to have “chewing gum on his pubis,” which leads to Lane kicking Pete’s ass all over the conference room. Later, Pete seduces his train buddy’s lonesome wife.

You know, everyday kinda shit.

How far would you go to get to the top? How many people would you step over?

Even the kids in the show can see the writing on the wall. When Glenn asks Sally how she finds Manhattan, her answer is simple: “Dirty.”

Trudy Campbell, delightful cherub that she is, uses “subterfuge” to get Don to attend her house party. But we can forgive her for her crafty ways, because she’s pretty much the only main character who seems to value her marriage. Which leads me to a question.

Is Matt Weiner going through a messy divorce or what?!

There’s always been sexism, misogyny and adultery on Mad Men, but they seem to be taking it to a new level, where EVERY marriage is on the rocks and EVERY spouse, man or woman, sees their partner as their overseer. Although divorce was still taboo in the mid 1960s, the stigma seems to have missed New York City, because everyone in the Mad Men universe is either jumping on the D-train or impatiently waiting for it, tapping their toe on a platform in front of a sign reading “You’re willingly fucking up your life-ville.”

Like most great television, Mad Men ties its many plot threads together with a strong, controlling theme for each episode. This theme is expressed and explored in dialogue, dramatic situations, setups and payoffs. The key to reverse-engineering a Mad Men screenplay is to answer the question, What’s it really about?

The theme in “The Other Woman” has to do with women as objects, or rather, possessions. The Jaguar pitch deals with this theme, as they elevate the idea of a car as a mistress to a new level: you’re not just enjoying a woman, you’re owning her. This is the fantasy they’re selling, because, theoretically, a man cannot truly own the most exquisite woman he’s ever seen. Because, you know, she’s probably got some thoughts of her own, and, free will and stuff.

Interestingly (but not coincidentally; remember, theme!), two women advance their careers in “The Other Woman,” but with polar opposite methods. Peggy takes the bold step of shopping for a better offer from a competing firm, accepting one from Ted Chaough, Don Draper’s nemesis. (Is Peggy essentially a trophy on Chaough’s mantle — his new possession? Ironically, Peggy was a part of Don’s brilliant plan to knock Chaough out of the running for the Honda account. Remember Peggy driving that scooter in a circle?)

Joan, tragically, must sleep with a disgusting man to win her bounty: a 5% stake in the company. I would have preferred that Joan end the episode with her partnership, and her dignity, intact, because I’m at that point with the show where the characters feel like old friends. I know this is silly, but remember, I’m the guy who said that a lack of taste in television is worse than being a political prisoner. What do you expect from me?

More theme, from a broader perspective. Looking at a Mad Men season as a whole, there is usually a “meta-theme” that ties into the season-long emotional arc of Don Draper and any number of supporting characters. Season 5 of Mad Men seems to have two meta-themes. Joining “Dirty Business” would be…

2. “Marriage sucks.”

Or is “Marriage is prison” more accurate? Whatever the case, it just seems to me like this season is dwelling on characters being unsatisfied by their partners, as well as an overall disdain for monogamy, moreso than previous seasons. The armchair psychologist in me wants to declare Matt Weiner the victim of a McCann Erickson-sized mid-life crisis.

Yes, it’s worse than you think: I not only analyze the crap out of every character and plot point in this show, but I psychoanalyze the writers of the show. Maybe I’m the one who needs help?

But look at this.

You remember a few years back when the show was accused of being sexist, and Weiner pointed out that the majority of the writers on staff were women? At one point, according to imdb, there were seven women writers on staff, and now there are only three. To be fair, they have trimmed the overall size of the writing staff, but I wonder if this accounts for a more “masculine” perspective in this season? I can’t help but notice more male names popping up in the writing and producing credits, like the legendary Frank Pierson, 87 years old and still acting as Consulting Producer on every episode this season, as well as most episodes of season three (which is still my favorite, if I had to choose).

Pierson (along with Matt Weiner) wrote the powerful fifth episode of Season 5, Signal 30 (the one where Pete gets the business end of Lane’s British fisticuffs of fury). Here, we see Pete trying unsuccessfully to make time with a high school girl, then reclaiming his manhood by sleeping with a hooker. This isn’t the first time Pete loses the fight against fidelity (or small man’s syndrome) in season five, whereas Don wins it outright by staving off the advances of an ex-girlfriend in episode four, Mystery Date. But it’s not enough for him to rebuff her in person, he has to strangle her to death and shove her corpse under the bed. Of course, the writers don’t let us know that it’s only a dream without an excruciating wait. There’s been quite a few shocking, over the top moments on Mad Men, and I’d put this one in the top five of the “Mad Men Shock and Awe Pantheon.” My point? That scene felt extremely macho to me — the married guy can’t just say no to an attractive suitor, he has to KILL the woman in the climax of a “dark night of the soul!” I know this is Don Draper we’re talking about — when it comes to the ladies, willpower has never been his strong suit — but still, it felt like perhaps the only off moment of what has been yet another fantastic season.

With that said, don’t let me catch you saying that my love for this show has waned. I still, and hopefully always will, adhere to the golden rule:

In Weiner we trust.

Good Luck and Happy Writing,


Click here to read excerpts and purchase Story Maps

Click to read excerpts and purchase Story Maps

A brilliant example of what every aspiring screenwriter needs to know about the art of writing screenplays. A must read for serious screenwriters.”
-J. Stephen Maunder, writer/director

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