Alexandra Lange | Essays

The Ladies' Paradise

In “Souvenir,” Mad Men welcomes back Joan, looking lovely. I am pleased Bonwit Teller had the sense to make her a manager. I am also pleased at the thought that Rachel Menken might return. Placing Joan in the parallel universe of the department store makes sense, as she is an operator primarily in the world of women (she never defeated Moneypenny) and now she has perfumed stairs to climb. It also underlines a point many have made in discussing her character: she is a throwback, with her Marilyn curves and feminine wiles and can’t see that Peggy (might) be able to make it plain. Joan’s life plan is disintegrating along with society as the 1960s wear on.

The department store is also a throwback, the late nineteenth-century equivalent of the mid-twentieth century corporation (to which Sterling Cooper is an adjunct and replica in miniature): a production machine in which people are cogs, but a meritocratic one, a civilizing influence and a world in which women actually have an edge. That’s the story, at least, in Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, one of my favorite books, with architecture, shopping, societal upheaval and romance all mixed together in one potboiling novel. I’ve rarely met another fan, but if you’ve recently reconsidered Dickens, it should be next on your list. And on Masterpiece Theater’s as well.

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