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Vox talks Mad Men: Joan is filthy rich, powerful — and so, so miserable

Joan (Christina Hendricks) has a horrible conversation in the final Mad Men premiere.
Joan (Christina Hendricks) has a horrible conversation in the final Mad Men premiere.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by editor-in-chief Ezra Klein and foreign policy writer Amanda Taub.

Amanda Taub: I am definitely living the life I want to be living: I’m getting paid not only to watch Mad Men but to talk about it on the internet with you guys! When I told my husband I was going to be doing this, his response was, "Wow, this is basically all you ever wanted, huh?"

Lucky for me, it turns out that getting what I wanted actually makes me happy, unlike most of the characters on the show.

What was striking to me, watching the episode, was how precise the wish fulfillment was for so many of the characters — and how little difference that turned out to make to their lives. Ezra, I think that gets to your point about circularity, because the episode seemed to be saying that it didn’t matter what happened to these characters: they were always going to find themselves in the same place of dissatisfaction. The message of this episode wasn’t "Careful what you wish for," it was "Go ahead and wish for whatever you want — you’ll still be lost, even if you get it."

Ken, of course, is the most obvious example. All this time, he has seen himself as an artist trapped in the corporate world, writing stories at night under a pen name and dreaming of a quieter life in Vermont. But when given everything he needs to escape and live out his dream — money, the encouragement of his kind and supportive wife, and a kick out the door of his gilded cage — he can’t bring himself to actually take it.

Maybe that’s because, at the end of the day, it’s more important to him to feel smugly superior to the likes of Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling than it is to follow his dream of being a writer. Or maybe he’s just too scared that he will try and fail. But no matter the explanation, it’s incredibly sad to see him take this path, especially after hearing him tell Don how he pities people who are too scared to follow their dreams.

And then there’s Joan, an even sadder version of the same story. Todd, I don’t see her as necessarily regretting what she has done to get to her current position, but I do think she might as well have been holding up a giant sign that said "Is that all there is?" throughout the episode.

Joan has already been through a round of getting what she wants but still being just as unhappy as before. Back in season one she wanted to leave Sterling Cooper to be a wife even more than Ken wanted to leave to be a writer. She got married, but to say achieving that dream didn't make her happy would be a serious understatement. Her husband turned out to be a rapist who couldn’t support her financially and didn’t respect her enough to consult her before signing up for two tours in Vietnam. She then belatedly embraced the career goals she seemed to have secretly had all along (remember how much she loved reading TV scripts for Harry back in season two?), and became, on paper, one of the most successful women on Madison Avenue — not to mention very, very wealthy.

But all that money and status clearly isn't making Joan happy, because the people around her still don't treat her with respect. First, she and Peggy have to sit stoically while a couple of neanderthals from McCann spend an entire meeting sniggering about her underwear. Then, perhaps inspired by Peggy’s barbed assertion that Joan doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do because she’s "filthy rich," Joan goes on a shopping spree, literally trying to buy happiness — only to be cut down to size by the sales assistant in Bonwit Teller, who reminded Joan that she used to work there. Has an offer of an employee discount ever been so unwelcome?

Don, of course, has been cursed by this problem from the beginning. Everything he wants comes easily to him, from women to money. But it’s never enough to make him happy, because, as Doctor Faye told him when he dumped her for Megan back in season four, he only likes the beginnings of things. So the man who has no difficulty convincing women to love him goes home alone to a dark apartment.

Is that all there is?

Read the recap.

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Next: Todd VanDerWerff with some predictions

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