The internet has gone a bit crazy this week over Mad Men's Joan Holloway sleeping with a client in exchange for a partnership in the ad firm.
A lot of the discussion around this episode focuses on would Joan really do this, and hey, she's in a desperate situation because she has to care for her child as a single parent. Yes, it's true that Joan is a single parent, and it's true that that's a difficult situation. Except Joan hasn't brought that up. She hasn't talked about her fears about raising Kevin alone and hasn't seemed all that stressed about money (or alimony?), to the point that she declines Roger's attempts to pay off-the-books child support.
She didn't sleep with scuzzy car guy just because she was desperate for the stability. She slept with him because she's in a liminal phase.
Liminalty is the scary in-between times in our lives, the weird time when we're not who we used to be but we're not quite who we're going to be. Joan's in a classic -- classic! -- liminal phase right now.
She's not the office vixen anymore, but she hasn't really transitioned to doting mother. And to top it all off, she's in the middle of a particularly traumatic divorce. Joan doesn't know who she is anymore; her entire identity is jeopardized.
I waited all week to post on this hoping to come up with some rational, defensible argument for why this disturbed me. The best I came up with was what I initially felt--that this was one of the few times where I could "feel" the writers in the room with me. I felt like I was watching plot points, more than characters interacting.
I think it would help if I had some sense of why Pete is so good at his job, if they took some time to show us selling in the way that they show writing. I don't really "root" for characters. I don't much care about Joan and Don spending a tender moment together, except as it furthers the ends of story-telling. I don't care if Pete triumphs over all opposition, but I'd like to see more of why. As it stood, I didn't believe that the the other partners would allow Pete to be the sole go-between, that Roger would say nothing to her about it. I simply didn't buy it.
We live in era of cynical art. It's become a badge of honor for critics to say of writers "the characters in this piece are loathsome." Mad Men has always stood out for me in its ability to ride that line between cruel irony and romantic optimism. It's a really tough place to live. Everyone is in fear of making earnest art, and they should be. But often I think we just go the opposite direction, and slip into a reactionary pose.
"the most Mad Men episode of any episode of Mad Men, or like what you would think the show would be like if you'd only ever heard people talk about it."
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power