We Love the City

The monologue is my preferred method of discourse.

I’m not bad, I’m just written that way

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.

3 Responses to “I’m not bad, I’m just written that way”

  1. To be fair, they did offer a reason for Joey being an ass: he’s has mommy issues. But introducing them in a one liner doesn’t exactly round him out as a character.

    The other issue with their interaction was that he was too horrible all at once. No one else has ever treated anyone in that show badly for so long without reason.

    The “looking like you’re trying to get raped” line is another clear example of the writers not understanding the power of their foibles. Joan was raped in that office, so to suggest that she is somehow to blame – even if it’s an asshole comment from Joey – makes the fact that they didn’t ever deal with her rape (or the other rape) in the show so much more infuriating. The two incidents separately might have just been upsetting, but together they amount to victim blaming in a plot line that adds nothing to the show.

    1. Patrick

      Great points from both of you. Some further thoughts:

      I think the writers chose that line carefully, knowing that we would all relate it back immediately to Joan’s rape at the old Sterling-Cooper offices. Also, I’m not sure we should expect Joan’s rape “to be dealt with,” largely because I don’t think Joan is the type to let it affect her. I think she is a survivor in many senses of the word, and as an audience we’re meant to think she simply pressed on. Having said that, she did club him over the head with a vase. Perhaps that was her way of dealing with it. Hard to say.

      Also, I don’t think there is any issue with Joey being a one-note character. That is the point of tertiary characters: to give us reason to think of the specific plight of our major characters through their interactions. What Joey serves to do is rather overtly remind us that despite Joan’s new power (her role is clearly elevated at SCDP) she is still viewed as an object by some men of that period. Also, I think this exchange helps further prepare the audience for “The Beautiful Girls” which I felt rather successfully dealt with a number of strong female themes.

      Finally, I don’t think Dr Rapist was an “utter failure of a man” when she agreed to marry him. On paper he matched a lot of what she seemed to want, and it was only once engaged and then married that he completely fell short of her goals for a spouse. Why she has chosen to remain with him, I’ll grant you, is a valid question. Divorce in the 60s was not all that uncommon, despite the efforts the show made to suggest as we explored Don and Betty’s divorce.

      Finally, I love the we care so much about this show to be nearly offended when character development isn’t robust enough, or as organic as we might hope. If only more of TV would present us with such dilemmas.

      1. We care because it is so good sometimes it hurts. When you know what someone is capable of, you expect their output to match their capabilities each and every time. Inconsistency is terribly frustrating.

        People don’t give pop culture enough credit.

        But on not needing to deal with Joan’s rape, I disagree. It didn’t add anything to the plot line. It showed us Greg was not just a failure, he was also a rapist. That’s a pretty big character shift. By never addressing it again (the vase may have been it, but maybe not) it just becomes the elephant in the room. Why write it at all? Why change Greg?

        Also, she may be tough and she may be a survivor, but having your husband – the man you put on a pedestal because he’s meant to fulfill all your on-paper needs and to be all you desire in the world- betray you like that is not something that can be ignored.

        But mostly, rape just pisses me off and it offends me when it is thrown around as a plot device. (http://lizzbryce.com/2010/05/09/mad-at-mad-men/)