I’m not bad, I’m just written that way
September 22, 2010
When it’s good, Mad Men is very, very good. Though season four started slowly, it’s begun to hit its stride, and The Suitcase ranked among the very best of the entire show. But the followup, The Summer Man, brought back one of the series’ recurring flaws: The one-note character.
A ruckus at the vending machine leads sexy senior secretary Joan Holloway to chastise copywriter Joey. Joey doesn’t respond well to this and turns the scolding around, telling Joan she dresses like a prostitute who’s trying to get raped. Things degenerate from there.
That Joey has no respect for women is hardly surprising; even the most modern men of the cast seem barely able to understand why a woman might have ambitions that don’t revolve around husbands and babies. But there’s a gulf between the civilized sexism of Sterling Cooper and Joey’s full-frontal assault on a member of the fairer sex. Not even the most rakish, predatory members of the cast would be so bold as Joey; Ken Cosgrove is one ski mask short of being a rapist, and even he wouldn’t be so crass to a woman’s face.
If misogyny was the worst of Joey’s sins, he – and more importantly, the writers – could be forgiven. But Joey is also very, very stupid. Being a jerk to a woman is one thing, but being a jerk to Joan is something else entirely. It’s hard to imagine how someone could work at Sterling Cooper for several months and fail to understand Joan Holloway’s standing. She’s clearly not just one of the secretaries, either in duties or stature: the men running the company, like Lane and Don, clearly respect her, and treat her like an equal. While Sterling Cooper is still a boy’s club, Joan is not a common secretary who can be replaced after a one-night stand.
Joan Holloway is likely the subject of many rumours, and more than a few insults. But none of them would be directed to her face.
Of course, being a raging misogynist with no understanding of office dynamics is hardly an impossible combination of character traits. There a many possible explanations for Joey’s behaviour; the writers merely forgot to come up with one. He’s been a background character up to now, one whose primary purpose appears to be to show that Peggy isn’t at the bottom of the ladder any more. We know next to nothing about him; I had to look up his name just to write this post.
So he becomes a one-note plot device: He exists to be mean to Joan. He comes out of nowhere to mount an escalating campaign of insults and harassment against a beloved member of the cast. There is absolutely no question who is right and who is wrong; he’s horrible to Joan, and then a dick to Peggy. He deserves his fate, and not a single member of the audience could think otherwise.
This isn’t the first time Joan has been plagued by an oafish male. Her husband Greg is one of the great blights of the series, a character entirely wretched in both design and personality. He’s a handsome doctor, it’s true, but he’s also possessive, boorish, chauvinistic, a rapist, and, as it turns out, not even a very good doctor. The intent of the character is clear: Mad Men is often about the contrast between the fantasy and reality of what we want. But Greg has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. There’s barely a single scene in the first few seasons where we might think “oh, yes, this is what she sees in him.”
(He’s been more sympathetic so far this season, but one assumes that’s merely setup for his inevitable death/maiming/trauma in Vietnam.)
The result is that Joan looks stupid. It’s one thing to harbour fantasies of an ideal husband, but it’s entirely another to marry a complete and utter doofus. No matter the era, Joan Holloway is an intelligent and independent woman, and there needs to be some reason why she’d be attracted to – and stay with – this utter failure of a man.
Characters like Joey and Greg rob the show of drama, because the conflict is entirely one-sided. Joey’s behaviour could have been reasonably explained, but instead he became a Bad Man for no reason beyond plot necessity.