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Mad Men Character Study: Cleopatra Joan

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Spoilers for last Sunday’s Mad Men, “The Other Woman,” and previous episodes, below:

Joan Harris was manipulated, played false and used on Sunday night. Not just by the men in her life, but by Mad Men itself.

I’m not talking here about my personal reaction to seeing Joan let herself be pimped out to a Jaguar dealer to land the account in “The Other Woman.” That reaction was probably the same as a lot of yours: It made me sick, sad, disgusted. That wasn’t why I disliked the storyline, though. If a drama has stakes, then it has permission to break your heart. That’s the deal.

There’s a difference, however, between “I don’t want to see Joan do that” and “I don’t believe that Joan would do that.” The former is a gut, human response, but it’s not really a criticism of a work of fiction. The latter is about character integrity, a pretty serious deal for a show like Mad Men, which, at its best, is dedicated to the idea that action should proceed from character, not from Matt Weiner’s invisible hand.

It’s not that I believe Joan could never do this. She’s strong, confident, but not above compromise or despair. We saw her, for instance, marry the fiance who raped her rather than break off the engagement. What I don’t believe is that she had it in her to go from where her character was at the beginning of this episode to where her character was at the end of the episode without a triple-bank-shot of contrivances. Last week the show likened her to a Jaguar XKE, and this week it took her from zero to whore in 60 minutes.

I can’t pretend to know what was going on in the writers’ room, but the storyline felt reverse-engineered. It played as if there was a certain place the episode had to end up–Joan sleeping with Jaguar Creep to get a partner stake in the company–and the story worked backwards to the precise chain of events, timing, deceptions and misunderstandings that would make that oh-my-God moment possible.

Thus Jaguar Creep’s brazen demand. Thus Pete’s inability to resist trying to satisfy it. Thus his bringing his version of the offer to the partners–each of whom has a connection with Joan and specific reason to distrust the wormy Pete–and implying that Joan was open to negotiation. Thus Roger Sterling–who has never passed up an opportunity to try to interject himself into Joan’s life–accepting the story without a word to her. (Bert Cooper’s passive agreement, I kind of buy; he does have that amoral Ayn Randian streak in him.) Thus Joan going home to a nosy mom and a broken refrigerator. Thus Joan’s believing Pete’s version of the partner story, thus Lane’s self-serving suggestion that Joan ask for a partnership, thus Don’s acting too late, thus… thus…

There have been a lot of science-fiction references in this season of Mad Men, and Joan’s story in “The Other Woman” feels, weirdly, like a certain breed of didactic sci-fi premise set up to field-test human morality. An alien ship arrives above Earth, and they offer humanity a life-changing gift–but at a terrible price! (Our women, our children, a certain race of people, &c…) “The Other Woman” was a kind of sexual science fiction, a what-if parable in a show usually driven by character.

The problem is, Joan’s initial reaction sounds like Joan, period. She not only rejects the idea, she dismisses it, and Pete’s ridiculous pitch likening her to Cleopatra. She calls it, in so many words, “prostitution.” What made this story feel like such a violation by the show itself was that, to make this happen, it had to bend Joan’s character to the needs of the story–and quickly, over the course of a couple days.

There’s a version of Joan who might be jaded or desperate enough to trade her body this way. It’s just not the version of Joan we last saw. Much of drama is about the idea that we all have the kernel of very different people within us. Breaking Bad is entirely about that, but it didn’t make Walter White from a teacher into a killer over four commercial breaks. Mad Men could certainly take a character on that kind of journey over time; look at how it broke Don Draper down into alcoholism through most of season 4.

But here you have a character who has been on a journey–in exactly the opposite direction. We met Joan in season one as a kind of anti-Peggy, sleeping with Roger, embarrassed about her age and seeing herself (and other women) defined by how men see them. Over the past years, she’s grown more confident, more willing to succeed on her own terms, even as she knows how the office limits her. She’s become the woman who can throw Greg’s rape in his face as she tells him to get out of her life. And some things about her have been constant: her even keel, her insistence on respect and dignity–especially at the office–and, always, control. (The most heartbreaking part of her rape scene is how, through it all, she keeps her voice level, trying to cajole Greg out of it, rather than have anyone else–or herself–hear that she’s being overpowered and violated.)

Is it possible that, through Pete’s connivance, Joan suddenly feels herself being raped all over again–this time by the male partners, pimping her out–and that the only way she can maintain control is to own the idea and get as much as she can out of it? That it’s so crushing she is immediately overwhelmed, without protest, without saying or asking anything that would tear the episode’s delicate web of little lies and misunderstandings?

Maybe. It adds up, intellectually, barely, if everything breaks just right and the wind stays from the south-southwest. But it feels mechanical. It doesn’t feel like this Joan, at this point in time.

It’s the difference between giving a character a reason for action and giving her emotional motivation. A reason is, “I need money.” A motivation is, “I give up; I’m exhausted; maybe this is the best I can do.” And that difference matters, a lot, for a psychologically realistic drama like Mad Men. Joan’s actions can’t make sense just because the arc of season 5 needs them to. They can’t make sense because they fit the themes of the episode. They can’t make sense because “it really happened to someone once.” And they can’t make sense because “that was what it was like for women back then.”

Because Joan isn’t “women.” She’s a woman. She isn’t “someone.” She’s a specific character. Indeed, one thing that elevates Mad Men from so many lousy ’60s dramas is that it treats its characters as idiosyncratic people, not stand-ins for social forces and demographic groups. Her actions have to make sense because they are what she would do, not anyone else.

But here, as in some other episodes this season, that’s less important than the unity of themes, images and symbols. Women are objects (Megan, Peggy). Everyone has a price. (If you don’t get that, Ted Chaough will write it on a piece of paper for you.) People, women especially, are possessions. (“Something beautiful you can truly own”) Even the Don Draper pitch–which used to rely on the flow of language to move us and connect to greater themes–is triple-underlined with crosscuts to Joan’s assignation. Everything, and everyone, is press-ganged into the service of the Almighty Symmetry.

I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority on this one; I’ve already seen Mad Men fans hailing “The Other Woman” as the series’ best episode of the season, maybe ever. (Not everyone: Linda Holmes at NPR goes into more detail taking apart the implausibilities of The Great Pete Campbell Pimp Caper.)

And I can see why they’d think so. Christina Hendricks–long the most underrated actress on Mad Men–performs the hell out of this, selling the emotional change that (to me) the plot didn’t. The moment when Joan grabs the letch’s hand pawing and her chest and turn to give him her zipper–offering herself on her terms–is pure Joan, maintaining control in gestures if not in the transaction. Whatever I think of the plotting, her sales job makes this an Emmy-submission episode. (Not to mention, the Joan storyline aside, Peggy’s goodbye to Don and the office was terrific, moving and well-earned.) The episode’s structure is audacious, especially the OMG repetition in which we see Don arrived too late to Joan’s apartment (though I don’t like the idea that he could alone have saved her from falling from grace). The story is unsettling to the core; I can’t stop thinking about it three days later, and I know that’s a sign of something special.

But it’s also a sign of something very big, something that has to change the way these characters see each other going forward and something that changes how I view their interactions looking backward. And it happened in a way that makes me question Mad Men’s commitment to let its characters drive the story—I can’t resist a car metaphor either—rather than be driven by it. Without that, you have a drama that’s elegantly crafted, constructed and detailed, but not quite organic. You have a Jaguar. Breathtaking. Gorgeous. But a machine.