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« BYO YNMS x 3: Shape of Water, The Snowman, Proud Mary | Main | 150 Words on The Beguiled, The Big Sick, and Planet of the Apes »
Thursday
Jul202017

Joan Harris Appreciation 

By Spencer Coile 

Whether she is slinging a cigarette around the office or barking orders at her fellow secretaries, Mad Men's Joan Holloway (later to become Joan Harris) is a character unlike any other portrayed on television in the 21st century. Caught up in issues of gender inequality in the workplace, a dead-end marriage, and an affair with her boss, Christina Hendricks managed to infuse this tough-as-nails supporting character on one of AMC's finest with enough nuance and grit to make her as memorable as its leading players, Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss.

And while each deserves celebration and posts of their very own, there is something so magical, so intriguing about Joan, that further attention must be paid...

On paper at least, it's a role we have seen play out before: the aging secretary, still beautiful, sexualized, discriminated against, but powerful in her own way. She is the office manager at Sterling Cooper at the start of the series, telling Moss' Peggy how everything "works." Yet there is something so beguiling in Hendricks's first appearances as Joan. She is not given copious amounts of screentime, but Hendricks works wonders with the material. She is alluring, yes, but Hendricks is not interested in laying all of her cards on the table. Like the majority of the actors on Mad Men, she is incredibly subtle, layering each line reading with enough mystery that we want to know more.  

Of course, Joan is not always relegated to the sidelines of the series -- her role gathers up importance in later seasons. Along the way she displays some impeccable accordion playing and marries Greg Harris, and we begin to see more of the internal struggles that Joan experiences. She is ambitious and great at her job -- but give that all up to become a trophy wife? Does she really love Greg? It is truly stellar work from Hendricks, making her limited material feel expansive. With every glance, side-eye, quip, and episode the portrait of Joan becomes clearer and clearer.

The pinnacle of Christina Hendricks's work on the series comes in season five, with one of the series most acclaimed episodes, "The Other Woman." The episode is focused predominantly on Joan (a rarity) as she attempts to become a partner at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, at the gargantuan price of selling her body to a potential client. The idea itself is shocking and disturbing, but Hendricks navigates this struggle with grace, only letting us see the cracks in Joan's facade when her back is turned. After five seasons, we have watched Joan play an integral part in the success of so many people at SCDP, and now she is willing to fight back for what is rightfully hers -- a spot at the top of the corporate food chain. The episode and Hendricks' perfomance are elegant and deeply haunting -- the fact that she did not win an Emmy for this episode alone is one of the biggest crimes committed in the realm of award shows. 

Throughout its seven season run, Mad Men played with themes of power, greed, of what it means to make your name known. We watch Don Draper's fall from grace, Peggy's rise to the top. Joan's story is wholly her own, and watching her foresake love for business is partly heartbreaking, sure, but also a sign of the times. In an era where Joan would be the perfect trophy wife, she gives that up to make a name for herself. It is staggering work, and by the series finale, it all makes sense. Joan is an individual, not a type, relying on her own charm, her own wit, to carve out a space in the history books for herself. She defies gender expectations and the advice of men around her, and ultimately proves that she is not a dumb little secretary who is willing to have her heart steamrolled by the next man who wants to take advantage of her. She holds her feelings close to her heart, puts on a brave face, and conquers anyone who crosses her. And that is a performance and character worth celebrating. 

If nothing else, we can all appreciate one of the finest Joan moments on Mad Men: her berating SCDP receptionist Meredith by throwing an airplane at her. Pure comedic gold. 

For more Mad Men content (in honor of the series' 10th anniversary), check out Nathaniel's post touting the show as a whole

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Reader Comments (9)

Joan Harris is my spirit animal - from the pen around my neck to the accordion in my closet.

July 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

the best character on the best show. no easy feat!

July 20, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I LOVE JOANIE. Definitely one of TV's all time most iconic characters. She called her son Kevin though, but hey, nobody's perfect ;)

July 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJB

Love the character and the actress so much.

July 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Joan was the best thing about MM.

July 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Spencer, what a terrific article. Great job illuminating all that was wonderful about Joan and Hendricks. Cristina Hendricks was stark raving brilliant on this show, and the fact that she never won an Emmy only calls attention to how silly the Emmys are. Thanks for the fun tribute!

July 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

please do a series on the secretaries of mad men. meredith, dawn, mrs blakenship...

July 20, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpar

"my mother raised me to be admired."

July 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJon

this is cool.

October 5, 2017 | Unregistered Commentersam

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