We can all agree that Mad Men has had its share of intense episodes, as it’s explored every hellish crevice of the virulently unscrupulous and morally bankrupt. But last night’s episode, with its escalating depiction of women at the cusp of feminism yet not close enough to save them, was in my mind the most anxiety-inducing, stressful episode of the whole series.

That is without a doubt because it hit too close to home. As predicted, Joan Holloway is about to be chewed up and eaten alive by McCann Erickson, first by some peon account man who undermines her and offends the Avon client—“Who told you you got to get pissed off,” he says after she admonishes him—then by Ferg, who promises to handle the problem, then uses it as an opportunity to suggest that by doing so, he expects sex in return.

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Joan has had to cope with this kind of bullshit for her entire career, but she’s now in a solider place than she’s ever been, and a trailblazer in her way: a working single mother who took an ill-begotten partnership (the disgusting Jaguar exec) and parlayed it into something beautiful and workable. She’s always been a boss, even when she was thought of as the lowly office manager, but here she is at the top of her game, handling accounts that she brought in—and a network of dark-ages admen refuses to acknowledge her hard work and authority, simply because of her gender. (Even the interior design symbolizes the contrast in ideals—McCann’s dark, clunky mahogany desks in comparison to SC&P’s airy mid-century mod décor.) Ferg, defending the ad-man’s stance, says: “He has a wife and three children, what’s he gonna say… she’s my boss?” I almost puked in solidarity.

Earlier, two of the women copywriters stepped in her office to beg onto the women-oriented accounts and asked her to meet them for a women’s gathering after work. “It’s not women’s lib, it’s just a bitch session!” and “We are strictly consciousness-lowering,” they assured her, but the subtext was that they were putting their toes in the water, testing her out. Who wouldn’t need a “bitch session” as a woman working for the disgusting McCann people, and where would women’s lib be if women hadn’t gathered together to discuss the inequality issues they faced in the workplace? Joan sniffed out their double intent and, empowered by it, threatened McCann’s Jim Hobart with a lawsuit. A gender discrimination lawsuit. He counters—she can leave with half her money, $250k, but Joan is like nah, it’s the principle of it. It’s Joan’s most triumphant moment—someone is finally going to get their rightful comeuppance for the way she’s been treated all these decades—but it’s also bittersweet. As journalist Britt Julious tweeted, “That feeling when you realize everything Joan said in 1970 is basically everything you said in 2014.”

Yes. Because as heartening and exciting it is to see Joan tell her disgusting boss that she will be filing a lawsuit and she knows that Betty Friedan and the ACLU will be all up in the lobby, picket signs in grip, what comes of the threat is also as much of a reality today as it was then: she capitulates with the knowledge that a lawsuit could cost her everything, and who knows if she’d win. It’s 1970. It’s 2015. Stakes is high and we’re still not taken as seriously as our male counterparts in the workplace, almost no matter the profession. What do we even do? The way Joan’s eyes break as Roger Sterling convinces her to take Bogart’s bogus deal and leave McCann, the way she tears up but doesn’t falter—she’s weary, and her brief dalliance with hope is coming to this. I hope she takes her money and her accounts and starts her own damn company, but the frustrating thing is that she simply shouldn’t have to.

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Sterling’s talk with Joan is, in many ways, a betrayal—what would have those women copywriters have said if they’d caught her that morning instead? But even as Roger has been such a womanizing, male-entitled asshole, he’s also been one of the most progressive characters on the show. Near redemption comes in that scene with Peggy that became instantly iconic—drinking vermouth, of all things, in the empty office, smoking bogies, playing the organ, Peggy swishing around in her rollerskates. They are similar, it seems, free spirits both kind of fucked by the times sharing a deeply surreal last night. When he gifts her with Burt Cooper’s controversial Japanese portrait of a woman being pleasured by an octopus, she balks at the thought of hanging it in her office. “You know I need to make men feel at ease!”

But in an inverse of what Sterling does for Joan, Peggy’s interaction with him is liberation, as surely as he passed her the baton. Her hungover stance is bad as hell—wayfarers, a cig, a deeply modern polyester dress and that damned octopus painting in hand, out for all those buttoned-up boys in the hallway to gawk at. This is a transformed Peggy, balls out and guns blazing, and a bit of reprieve for our Joan heartbreak. She’s a symbol of the new, and even if McCann tries to demote her to secretary, as it seems they might, there’s hope for us—women—yet.

The pain of watching that episode was fully rooted in its familiarity, but even more painful was the less overt departure: that of Shirley, who explains to Roger she is resigning because “Advertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone.” It’s the theme of the episode, but once again, it’s more truthful because she’s a black woman. Advertising has a very specific person in mind—witness the beer man who describes a caricature of a working-class midwesterner—and very often, then as now, it is a way to exclude.

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The possibility that Don might die is still on the table—that loose window in his new office was clearly Matthew Weiner throwing a big ole bone to the conspiracy theorists—but as he tries to find himself in a Kerouac-inspired road trip, it seems to further symbolize his displacement in a shifting world. His discomfort with the turn his life has taken leads him to yield back to the archetype of the lone noble white man, journeying in search of purpose, the hero with a thousand faces. It’s a boring, entitled road to take, and the contrast between his short haircut and starched shirt and the shaggy hippie look of the hitchhiker he picks up is as stark as the one between the interiors of the ad agencies. The ‘50s are over, and even if this hitcher doesn’t rob and/or kill Don before the finale—come on, you know you thought about it—what we knew of Don is already dead, and he’s finally realizing it.

Image via AMC/screenshot.


Contact the author at julianne@jezebel.com.