This post-episode mini-analysis of “Mad Men” could have focused on the already dysfunctional marriage between Don and Megan Draper, a relationship that — as Sunday’s season five premiere, “A Little Kiss,” demonstrated — apparently involves Don’s usual callousness, upward career mobility for Megan and your standard make-up sex prompted by half-naked house cleaning.
It could have focused on the fact that, as usual, poor Peggy Olson has been left holding an open can of slimy beans, this time almost literally thanks to her failed Heinz ad campaign pitch.
Or it could have been a lengthy dissertation on the deeper meaning of this episode’s opening scene, in which the white frat boys at Y&R were caught dropping water bombs on African American protesters. (Implication: It’s last call, donkeys. For the times, they are a-changin’.)
But this pseudo-recap is not going to focus on any of those matters. Because right now I feel strongly that, above all other “Mad Men” characters, we need to talk about Joan, the mother of a little boy named Kevin.
Joan Harris (formerly Holloway) is going to be a mommy blogger’s dream this season. She’s essentially a single, sleep-deprived mother, thanks to her husband’s deployment to Vietnam. She has to grapple with the daily demands of having that real estate agent from “American Horror Story” as her mother/babysitting helper. (Joan, listen to me: do not ever let her convince you to buy a home because of its Victorian charm and the handy pasta arm in the kitchen.) And she’s feeling the magnetic pull of professional ambition tugging her back to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, where there is indeed a lot of nursing and diaper changing that desperately needs to be done.
The issues that Joan is grappling with are technically of her era — it’s 1966 in “Mad Men” times. But honestly, they could just as easily be happening in 2012, and undoubtedly are in New York apartments, not to mention other homes all over America, as we speak.
As anyone who has ever given birth can tell you, the experience of new motherhood turns a woman into a human pendulum who swings from exasperation to gratitude, from defiance to despair, seemingly every minute of the day. Christina Hendricks did a superb job of portraying that in tonight’s episode, showing us a Joan that’s both freshly vulnerable and as scrappy as ever.
“Joan, he’s not going to allow you to work,” Joan’s mother/Marcy the real estate agent said of Joan’s husband, Mr. Harris the doctor/one-time rapist.
“Allow me?” Joan asked, putting emphasis on the word “allow” with all the fiery outrage of a latent feminist still waiting for her movement.
The director of agency accounts at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was eager to get back to work, which is why she lost it in Lane’s office when she suspected that Scarlet and Clara had taken over her job. Lane reassured her that she is still valued — “The two of them together couldn’t operate a parking meter,” he said of her temporary substitutes.
But Joan being the beautiful and curvaceous symbol of womanhood that she is — and Lane being the sort of repressed Brit who steals photos of young women out of found wallets — it was obvious that Mr. Pryce’s respect may be tinged with feelings of attraction. This makes me nervous. Joan needs one man in that office to see her for her skills and not her, um, considerable assets.
Which brings us to Roger, the father of Joan’s son and a man who appears to have no idea that his former lover went ahead and gave birth to the child she told him she had aborted. When Roger pranced over to Joan during her visit to the office and examined the infant, practically blowing smoke in his face, I thought for a moment he might see shades of himself in little Kevin’s face. He didn’t seem to, though one assumes that as that kid grows older, he’ll display some revealing genetic tendencies toward excessive drinking and barfing on clients. (Aside: Peggy’s response to the child was also priceless as well as poignant. I can’t hold the baby, said the woman who gave up the child that she also secretly conceived with a fellow colleague. “My hands are dirty.”)
But even Roger isn’t the co-worker who presents the biggest challenge to the returning, red-headed new momma. That would be Megan, the aforementioned new wife of Mr. Don Draper.
A number of hints were dropped in tonight’s episode about the potential for a rivalry between these two ladies, the new flirtatious Frenchy and the classic office goddess.
She’s conniving, warned Joan’s mother of Megan Draper. “Do you think she wants you around her husband?” she asked.
Indeed, when here came Joanie with a baby carriage, Megan looked desperate to avoid her. Confronted only with an office path that led her to Harry Crane and the loins that burn for her “Zoo Bisou Bisou,” Megan — who clearly admires Joan’s beauty (“She looked good at nine months,” she said enviously) — had no choice but to engage in awkward conversation, then scram as soon as possible. It was also notable that, when Lane regaled Joan with the story of Megan’s surprise party musical performance, the buxom (Don’s words) lady responded with, “I can’t even imagine how handsome that man must be blushing.”
It’s very possible that we’re being set up for a showdown between Joan and Megan, an epic battle between pouty lips and gravity-defying cleavage. Really, is it a coincidence that Megan performed her saucy French number just two seasons after our Joan did a less sexy version of the same thing, but with an accordion?
If a face-off is in the works, I look forward to watching the fight. But more than that, I look forward to watching Joan Harris navigate the uneven terrain of managing work responsibilities and motherhood, and doing so with a determination to succeed at both. This is a woman who clearly wants to forge a way forward that differs from the path tread by her mother, who worked because she had no choice.
Joan Harris wants to have it all. Among all these damaged boys in season five of “Mad Men,” I am hoping that she can.