Boomer Lens: Mad Men Episode 4... Joan Takes Her First Steps on the Path to "True" Equality

04/09/2012 05:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2012

In "Mad Men's" fifth season, the series' overriding magic reveals itself with new clarity and, as in Sunday night's episode, "Mystery Date," with great elegance. Each week, the show's writers foreshadow the shape of future social movements -- call it a rhythm they've become so good. We're given a glimpse of what's 'around the bend' while the show accurately foreshadows what's in store for the Baby Boomers to come. For me, more and more, this focus represents "Mad Men's" chief hallmark and cultural importance.

It's a fitting role for the show to play, because identifying and capitalizing on emerging trends is a chief function of the ad industry it chronicles. Ad agencies constantly take the pulse of what is current and newly evolving in the social zeitgeist and then project it forward to align their clients' products and services with those styles and trends.

Yet sometimes, as it did Sunday night, "Mad Men" outdoes itself by presenting us with a vision that leapfrogs past the incremental gains to reveal the mega trends that are coming.

Sunday night, "Mad Men" fans watched Joan Harris finally come of age as a "real woman" and player in a man's world. I found myself riveted to the screen as I watched Joan take great pains to reintegrate Greg into their home life, then rebel when he told her he would be serving a second tour of duty in Vietnam, then rebound as the dutiful, loyal wife, defending his courage and resolve. When the subject resurfaced at dinner with his parents, Joan learns the painful truth -- that Greg volunteered for a second tour -- and we see her inner strength and resolve emerge.

Without emotion or drama, Joan calmly tells her abusive, unfeeling, self-centered and overly entitled husband -- a man who has put his own needs before his family's -- that he is 'no longer needed' in their lives. Before Greg leaves, Joan also looks him in the eye and calmly addresses his major shortcoming: that he is 'not' a nice man.

Unlike Peggy, who concedes, in another scene, that she tries to "act" like a man, but doesn't like doing it, Joan's character stretches out naturally with grace, conviction and determination when she asserts her independence. The scene closes with her passively resting in bed beside her baby and her mother. Joan remains, at all times, "pure" woman and, in this respect, a model female leader who allows her delightfully feminine sensuality to remain ever-present. She expects to be taken seriously and treated with courtesy and respect in a world dominated by men.

Unlike any other female character on the show, Joan Harris does not need to first experience a Gloria Steinem-style 'feminist awakening' in order to act decisively and live life on her terms. Instead, she experiences self-realization and self-actualization without compromising her principles, beliefs or gender-specific behaviors. Joan Harris transcends the social restraints which remain a distant ideal for women of her era: to be liberated and more equal.

If Weiner and company keep building on Joan's strengths as a lead character, she may well go down in the cultural record book as a quintessential American female role model. Who knows? Joan might soon be running Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce... or perhaps, "Mad Men's" writers will allow her to parallel the real-life trajectory of the legendary Mary Wells, who started out as a secretary, climbed the ranks with smarts, charm and beauty and then led her own highly successful agency, Wells Rich Green, to great prominence.

In 1966, when "Mad Men" episode four takes place, "Bewitched" was all the rage and Samantha Stephens represented the stay-at-home mom role model. And here comes Joan Harris, pioneering a new frontier for herself, calling the plays with greater and greater acuity. What role model might Joan's character have referenced for guidance? Katherine Hepburn, I thought, while watching her take off like a rocket Sunday night.

It would take real-life television execs another 20 years to produce a show with a female lead character who exhibited Joan Harris' potent combination of moxie, character and feminine charms. The show was "Moonlighting," starring Cybill Shepherd. Shepherd played Maddie Hayes, founder of the Blue Moon Detective Agency. Hayes ran the show while her often reckless but charming co-star (played by Bruce Willis) drove her crazy. He was also the man she adored as he helped her solve cases.

Can you imagine Maddie Hayes telling a "Greg" of her time that he simply wasn't needed any more? Of course you can, but by then, a woman of Maddie or Joan's disposition would never have settled for "Greg" in the first place.