Take a good, long look at the woodcut print pictured above. If you're a devoted fan of Mad Men, this isn't the first time you've seen it. Actually, this isn't even the second time you've seen it. And if you're a student of 19th-century Japanese erotica, then all bets are off.
Katsushika Hokusai's The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife dates back to 1814. In it, an octopus performs oral sex on a human woman as a smaller octopus kisses her and strokes her nipple.
On Mad Men, Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) hung it in his office.
The eccentric art collector and Sterling Cooper founding partner — who is now deceased, but makes a timely dream-sequence appearance in the passenger seat of Don's Cadillac in last night's episode — proudly shows the illustration to Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) in the third season premiere.
"I picked it for its sensuality, but also, in some way, it reminds me of our business," he explains. "Who is the man who imagined her ecstasy?"
This is, of course, a hilariously narrow-minded interpretation, one that denies the woman pictured any agency or inner life. Instead, Cooper invents an unseen man (the artist slash adman) he imagines pulling the strings. His reading is in perfect keeping with the state of Sterling Cooper in 1963, when the women of the operation were firmly restricted to the sidelines.
Flash forward to 1970, the second half of Mad Men's seventh and final season, and last night's episode. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) finds herself sharing a bottle of vermouth with Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in their now vacant office, after the rest of their colleagues have been absorbed by McCann-Erickson, SC&P's parent company.
Sterling offers his old friend's treasured illustration to Olson as a gift, encouraging her to display this rendering of "an octopus pleasuring a lady" in her new office.
Uh, sorry, but she's not having it. "You know I need to make men feel at ease," Peggy says. "Who told you that?" Roger asks.
That's a vital question, especially in light of their pending move.
We first saw a hint of what life at McCann is like for female employees when Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy met with creepy envoys from the mega-agency about Topaz pantyhose earlier this season. "You should be in the bra business," one of them told Joan with a smirk.
The reality proves to be even worse. Peggy has already been demoted from copy chief to copy supervisor, and receives the same floral arrangement that McCann sent all the new secretaries. As Olson anxiously passes the time at what remains of the old digs (her McCann office isn't ready yet), Joan is treated to a comprehensive tasting menu of sexism, with compliments of their new employer.
First, SC&P's only female partner is saddled with an incompetent male account exec who offends her clients and refuses to report to "a girl." Ferg Donnelly (Paul Johansson) offers to assist with her accounts instead, which gives him ample opportunity to make uncomfortable sexual advances towards Joan.
She finally turns to McCann-Erickson head Jim Hobart (H. Richard Greene), who proves to be less than the ally he painted himself to be. When appealing to him as an equal gets Joan nowhere, she threatens to involve the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, but Hobart doesn't bend. In the end, she begrudgingly accepts a buyout of 50 cents on the dollar to exit the company. It's a crushing defeat.
As Diane Kelly recently wrote in Throb, a marine biologist would immediately note that the octopus in Hokusai's print doesn't appear to be aroused, nor is he actually mating, at least by by cephalopod standards, with the woman. But it doesn't take an advanced degree of any kind to deduce that her pleasure (which is made explicit in the Japanese text that captions the image) is paramount here — and that there aren't any non-tentacled men to be seen.
Resurfacing the woodcut now makes a profound feminist statement, when the women formerly of SC&P need it most. The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife is a testament to female sexual power and imagination. Bert Cooper was right, in sense. This image is about men, in that it's about their absence and irrelevance. Who cares if they feel at ease?
Peggy, it seems, takes this message to heart. The next morning, she rolls into McCann-Erickson wearing sunglasses, puffing on a cigarette, and generally looking amazing (and a little hungover — the two aren't mutually exclusive). Most importantly, she's carrying the print, which is already turning the heads of male coworkers she passes in the hallway.
McCann-Erickson has no idea what it has coming.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.