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Joan is Mad Men's most tragic character — and an example of why we need feminism

Joan's integration into McCann Erickson goes disastrously — mostly because everybody at McCann Erickson is awful.
Joan's integration into McCann Erickson goes disastrously — mostly because everybody at McCann Erickson is awful.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men 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 education reporter Libby Nelson and political writer Dylan Matthews. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Libby Nelson: With just two episodes to go, things are starting to feel final, all of a sudden.

Shaking up Mad Men by dissolving Sterling Cooper & Partners into McCann Erickson so close to the finale seemed like a challenge. It's hard to get invested in new characters, new seating arrangements, and new conflicts when we know that their lifespan is so limited. But it seems we're not expected to care much about McCann, because, well, it doesn't seem like anyone at Sterling Cooper intends to do much work there.

Instead we got a long, elegiac farewell to the Sterling Cooper & Partners offices, complete with the mesmerizing organ stylings of Roger Sterling. Like almost everything else in Mad Men, "Lost Horizon" is about characters adapting to the way their world has changed. And they adapt about they way we expected: Peggy charging into the brave new world, Joan and Roger struggling to cope, Don adopting a new identity and running away.

The three major storylines felt thematically connected but tonally distinct: Joan's battle with McCann seemed far away from the whimsy of Peggy's roller-skating and Don's eerie late-night road trip with the ghost of Bert Cooper. Mad Men's more surreal flights of fancy are divisive, but Peggy gliding around the old office on roller skates while Roger noodled on the organ in the background was a good example of the genre. I could also watch the sequel — her sexy, badass march into McCann — forever.

But after Joan's rocky transition to McCann, I can't help but worry that Peggy is striding right into a buzz saw. Barring a last-minute plot twist, it seems like this is where Joan's professional arc ends: with McCann essentially paying her to go away. It's a victory in that it will make Joan very rich. But we've known for a long time that Joan doesn't work just for the money — as Peggy pointed out a few episodes ago, she can afford to quit — and if this is the end of her career in advertising, it's a sad, hollow ending.

Joan is arguably Mad Men's most tragic character. (Even Betty Draper Francis seems to be getting a happy ending, going back to school and even sharing a friendly moment with Don.) For all her looks and competence, Joan is constantly thwarted. She's changed dramatically over the course of the series, from the queen bee of the secretarial pool to a wiser, kinder, astonishingly competent businesswoman.

But every man she encounters seems to see her only as a vehicle for his own desires. Her ex-husband is an incompetent doctor who raped her. Her coworkers encouraged her to sleep with a client to land the Cadillac account. Her last proposal of marriage was from a closeted gay man. Joan knows what she wants, and she pursues it, but it always eludes her. This is true until the end: she's denied both the moral high ground of a high-profile lawsuit and the financial satisfaction of getting the money she's owed.

In other words, Joan's life is an extended argument for Why We Need Feminism. But for all the wealth and power she's gained, she's in some ways still imprisoned in her 20s, when she was the sexiest woman in the secretarial pool. Joan's first task at Sterling Cooper was to instruct Peggy on how to fit in and succeed, and she'd bought into the patriarchy fully.

A decade later, she's still degraded and not taken seriously based on her looks, as if she's paying for how she presented herself in her early career. Maybe the full flower of the feminist movement just came too late for Joan. Or maybe Mad Men has a happy twist for her hidden somewhere up its sleeve.

Todd and Dylan, what do you make of Joan's storyline? Where do you think Don's cross-country quest is taking him? And how did Roger get an organ, anyway?

Read the recap, and check back later today for more thoughts from Todd.

Previous episode's discussion

Next: Todd on McCann's role in the final episodes