(SPOILER/UPDATED) Mad Men and the Abortion That Was (n’t)

Why do viewers buy the idea that Joan didn’t “go through with it”? The answer lies in our preconceived notions about what happens in clinic waiting rooms.


Joan Harris, formerly Holloway, office manager and femme fatale supreme at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, had an abortion on this season’s “Mad Men.” Or at least that’s what I thought when I saw the episode, although the action was shot in a somewhat cryptic way. Joan entered the illegal doctor’s office and sat in the waiting room. Sitting on those sterile couches, she had a talk with a despondent mother whose teenage daughter was also having an abortion. Joan–who we know has already had two abortions in the past–pretended that she, too, was there for a daughter and not herself. Viewers assumed that “fifteen,” the age she gave for her fictional daughter, was the number of years since her first abortion–or maybe she just wanted to make the other woman feel better.

Joan contemplates her options. Image copyright AMC. Photo by Michael Yarish.

Joan contemplates her options. Image copyright AMC. Photo by Michael Yarish.

Then Joan went home on the train looking serious. She told her paramour Roger the next day that they “avoided a tragedy” and “life goes on.” Her behavior then changed during the subsequent episodes, and she refused to sleep with Roger again, as though she had a big “I’m too old for this” epiphany.

This all made sense to me in the context of Joan having an abortion. But when I logged on to the internet the conspiracy theories were everywhere,  flooding the comment threads of almost every single blog and message board discussing the episode. There was even a “did she or didn’t she?”poll at Slate.  Joan couldn’t have gone through with it, viewers averred. She had a moment of regret at the “clinic” and she is secretly carrying Roger’s baby, which she will pass off as being the spawn of her creepy rapist husband, Greg, who is currently serving a tour in Vietnam–even though she told Roger the timing wouldn’t work. Or she’ll move away and start a plucky new life for herself as a single mom, a la much-referenced soap opera “Peyton Place.”

I was inspired by this interpretation to reevaluate the episode in my mind–the ambiguity of Joan’s face on the train home, the oblique mention of “avoiding a tragedy.” Suddenly, knowing how showrunner Matt Weiner loves to tease his audience and play with ambiguity, I began to doubt my own convictions.

And it turned out, when the finale aired earlier tonight, that I was indeed wrong. Joan phoned her husband in Vietnam and indicated during her conversation that she was carrying his child, to giggles on both ends.

In the end, though, this isn’t so much about exactly what Joan did or didn’t do as it is about the assumptions we’ve been fed by the media surrounding women, pregnancy and abortion, assumptions that Weiner is very much playing with as we watch the show. We are not used to women going into abortion clinics and quietly, clinically even, getting the procedure. We are used to the clinic waiting room being a place of agonizing decision making, not of determined resolution. We–even pro-choicers–are deeply accustomed to the rhetoric of regret and guilt and the association of  abortion being “unnatural” for a woman who wants to be a mother. But do all those assumptions and ingrained images actually fit Joan’s story, or is Weiner manipulating our modern sensibilities for a sensationalist storyline?

Bloggger “Meowser” at fan-blog Basket of Kisses summarized the major objections to this potential plotline.

Now, I know it’s kind of an unusual happenstance for a major character on television or in a movie to actually voluntarily end a pregnancy — in fact, it’s kind of like a third rail, you see people killing themselves and people who are already born… but abortion, never ever ever — but I’m just not able to wrap my head around this particular conclusion. It just doesn’t seem to be a very Joan-like thing to do; the amount and extent of fibbing that would have to take place would make Don look like an amateur, and that’s not Joan’s style.

Exactly. “Mad Men” is known for being excruciatingly period-specific. Joan was not at a modern-day abortion clinic and she was not privy to a modern-day abortion debate. She had followed a specific plan which involved breaking the law and risking arrest–which speaks to a strong determination to begin with. There were no protesters and no one to tell her what she did was immoral. Sure, by the standards of her time she was a “loose woman” but there was no pro-life movement calling women selfish babykillers. The “tragedy” that’s been avoided in the terms of the time could also have been the alternate consequences of keeping the baby: a pair of divorces, for instance, or social ostracism.

When viewers talk about Joan’s decision, they focus on her regret over her “biological clock” and her anguish over having had so many abortions. It’s true, we certainly know from her own behavior that she wants to have a perfect white picket fence family with a Doctor husband–so much so that she stays with him and gets married even after he rapes her. At the same time, however, Joan’s interest in being a mother seems to stem as much from a desire to conform to society’s prescribed path as some sort of innate maternal quality or instinct.

And that’s where the plotline around Joan’s pregnancy falls apart–her character. She is obsessed with outward appearance, with propriety. She shuns Peggy Olsen for breaking the mold of women in the office by pursuing a job as a copywriter. She prides herself on carefulness and subtlety, on neatness and discretion. Would she really risk the public humiliation of a rumored out-of-wedlock pregnancy? The risk of having to take time off from work with her family situation so precarious? But as it turns out, Matt Weiner decided that her desire to “have it all” reached such desperate soap-opera levels that she’s willing to take that gamble.

Finally, this “secret pregnancy” plotline has flown against the grain of the show and shows a departure from his previous subtlety. “Mad Men” telegraphed the fact that Peggy was pregnant when she herself didn’t know it–the show’s creators embrace this kind of dramatic irony. We know the character’s secrets, while the other characters do not. For instance, there has been a recent series of shots of Don Draper and his girlfriend Faye Miller standing together–with Megan, the secretary he slept with, floating in the background or standing in between them. As for Joan’s plan to pass off Roger’s baby as her husband’s, we ought to have gotten at least a few more clues about it. The show, which posits itself as sophisticated and a standout from the pack, has cheapened itself with a twist right out of a daytime talk show.

If, as I wrongly hypothesized, Joan indeed “went through with it,” the tragedy in Joan’s story wouldn’t have been that she lost her “last chance” to be a mother (another trope we’re accustomed to). It’s that she has to hide every indelicate burst of passion and talent she has under a veneer of in-control femininity. The abortion would have been part of a story arc for Joan, but not a “hidden pregnancy” story. It’s about a woman who realizes she has strained every last muscle fighting between her actual desires and her overarching belief in conformity and maintaining appearances. It’s realistic for her character, the time period, and the plot for Joan to have had the abortion. The show’s writers and the many viewers who think “she didn’t go through with it” are imagining a modern-day conception of abortion fueled by iffy anti-choice tropes found in movies like “Juno” or shows like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”  It’s too bad that in this instance “Mad Men” didn’t prove itself better than such fare.

What do you think, Rewire readers, based on your viewing this season?