In the week leading up to the Mad Men premiere The Wire will be revisiting some of the show's most important characters. Today we reminisce about Joan Harris née Holloway, the sexy, sad office manager turned partner and director of agency operations at Sterling Cooper.
Who She Was
Joan is inherently a paradox. She is presented, in the pilot, as a kind of stateswoman of the office, a woman who has risen in the system by learning how to play the game of subservience created by the men of Sterling Cooper. As powerful as Joan is, she also encourages the sexist culture that pervades the firm in the early days. As she introduces Peggy Olson to the ways of the company, she tells her: "Go home, take a paper bag, cut some eyeholes out of it. Put it over your head, get undressed and look at yourself in the mirror. Really evaluate where your strengths and weaknesses are. And be honest."
Season 2, Episode 12, The Mountain King: Though it seemed a little counterintuitive, Joan always made her goals clear: one day she would leave Sterling Cooper and settle down with a husband. But when she takes up with Greg, a handsome doctor, the show brutally strikes down her domestic dreams. Greg rapes her in Don's office, saying, "this is what you want, right?" The camera hones in on Joan's resigned eyes as Greg's hand pins her face to the floor. When the episode aired, Emily Nussbaum wrote in Vulture: "Joan’s power turned against her. And what made it particularly cruel was that her fiancé’s assault was a poisoned parody of the boss-secretary role-play that was her specialty, forced on her by someone who wanted to humiliate her for her history."
Season 3, Episode 3, My Old Kentucky Home: Trapped in her marriage with Greg the rapist, Joan hosts a dinner party, where she learns that Greg has been hiding information about his career failures. Greg forces her to play the accordion and sing "C'est Magnifique."
Season 4, Episode 9, The Beautiful Girls: The relationship between Joan and Roger, which at first seems like a typical secretary-boss mistress-ship, is oddly tender and forever star-crossed. Here, with Greg heading off to Vietnam, they have passionate sex on the street after being mugged, sex that results in Joan carrying Roger's baby as Greg's.
Season 5, Episode 6, The Other Woman: This episode yields the most heartbreaking moment of Joan being exploited. Herb Rennet, who could help Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce win the Jaguar account, proposes that he have sex with Joan in exchange for getting the firm the business. The partners, aside from Don, agree to offer her $50,000 to do it, and she agrees after demanding that she become a partner in the firm. It's a move that both advances Joan and degrades her.
Season 6, Episode 10, A Tale of Two Cities: When a friend sets up a meeting with an Avon representative, Joan attempts to win the client, cutting out Pete in the process. She and Peggy, who have so often being at odds due to their differing ways of rising though the ranks, form an alliance.
Where She Is Now
When the series begins, Joan's sexuality is her greatest asset. It's how she has achieved her status within Sterling Cooper, and she encourages other women to use their bodies in a similar way. But her body has since become the weapon people use against her as a way to control her and subvert her power. She is ultimately forced to prostitute herself to become a partner, and then is judged harshly for the act she was pressured into performing.
Joan begins this season still attempting to assert herself in Sterling Cooper & Partners' business, all the while continuing to struggle with the perception that she isn't serious. No one should forget, however, that Joan knows how to run the firm better than most of the men there. Which Joan herself might find perversely funny.