(Minor spoilers, I suppose, if you haven’t watched this week’s episode, yet.)
Tonight’s episode of Mad Men contained a longish thread where Don and Joan took a Jaguar for a test ride and ended up at a bar, talking about their lives. It sounds like a prelude to a fanfic wet dream, and it was very knowingly played as if the writers, the characters, and the audience all recognized the fanfic possibilities. But it was also played as something perfectly in character, in a way where both Don and Joan understand the attraction between the two, and know that there is no need for a Moonlighting Moment, because these two adults have an intriguing respect for their relationship.
And so you have the best-looking guy on the show, and the best-looking woman on this show or any other, and they’re sitting together at a bar getting drunk and enjoying the hell out of being with such a great-looking person, and they laugh, and they tell each other truths they don’t tell to anyone else, and then they drink some more.
As Mo Ryan pointed out, “If they ever got together, the resulting sexual energy might incinerate all of New York, if not North America, but hot damn. It would probably be worth it.” But because it will never happen, we get scenes like tonight’s. It wasn’t like the classic episode “The Suitcase”, where Don and Peggy learned about each other and became closer. Peggy would like to be Don, and her frustrations arise in part because the gender standards of the time make that extremely unlikely. Joan doesn’t want to be Don … in some ways, her expectations and desires are a bit lower than Peggy’s. Joan wants to be recognized as an important, extremely competent, essential part of the work team. And when she’s drinking at a bar with Don, she is with someone who thinks she is all of those things. He admits he was terrified of her when he first joined the firm, but Don, and the times, have changed enough that when he sees Joan now, he recognizes not just her importance, but how much they like each other, and how much they have been through together.
And this doesn’t happen very often in the Mad Men world. My brother and I were talking last week, trying to figure out if there was a single “good” person on the show, and all we could come up with was Joan. This is great for the dramatic thrust of the series, but, while Mad Men is often quite funny, it is rarely a show that elicits a smile, because no one is “good” enough, no one is really friends enough, to just be themselves with another. Don and Joan were themselves for a short while, and neither of them could quit smiling. Nor could I. I’m sure I’m forgetting something from seasons past, but off the top of my head, I can’t recall a single scene in the history of Mad Men that made me smile as much as this one.
Of course, Christina Hendricks and Jon Hamm were perfection. It was nice to see Hendricks get a chance to stretch … while many of the women characters are at least as interesting as the men, the show’s focus is on Don, and Joan/Hendricks is underutilized a lot of the time. The pleasure the two actors had in their scene together reached out to the audience. It was lovely.