There have been many great moments in Mad Men involving Joan Halloway, but this week’s Mad Men Magnificent Moment goes to the best one so far. The show closes with a montage of evening activities: Joan getting our of her work clothes, Peggy bathing, Father Gill jamming out, Don drinking a Heineken in the office.
The context here is Joan’s disappointment at her loss of the TV script reading gig. It’s already clear that she’s enjoyed the job more than she expected, and moreover that she takes pride in her accomplishments — she impressed clients, and did so in a way that no man in the firm could possibly have. She deserved the credit and recognition that was her due, and instead they took the success that she gift-wrapped for them and used it as proof that they should hire a man (who will still rely on her for the details) to do her job. And since Joan is concealing her disappointment, we cannot know what she is thinking through dialog. She’s no crier, or shouter, or one to break things, and even if she did any of those things, all we’d know was that she was upset, and sure we’d know why, but without being drawn into her. What’s called for is a moment that innately connects her feelings with the exact situation that give rise to the injustice.
This week’s Mad Men Magnificent Moment is Joan sitting on her bed, back to the viewer, turned slightly in profile, slipping her bra strap off of her shoulder, and idly massaging the clearly painful indentation the strap creates there. In a single instant we know that she does this every night, that she is used to this pain and has no expectation of it changing. We may even imagine that she suffers from pain in her back, or will later in life. We see that her breasts, which she uses (and the men in her office view) as one of her assets, exact a toll on her, but that toll is so internalized and accepted that she is barely conscious of it. This is synecdoche for her womanhood in general: the physical pain Joan suffers is a direct result of being a woman. So it goes with her life — she is resigned (for now, at least) to the frustrations and degradations of being a woman working in an office in 1961. With uncomfortable strap marks and the glass ceiling, she sees no alternative to just putting up with it.
Update: When I went to add this still as an illustration, I watched the scene again and read it slightly differently, she kinda acknowledges the strap mark and frowns at it, looks away, then back at it, and then goes distant. Like she’s used to fretting about it for moments at a time before resigning herself again. Slight elaboration on the above.