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


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, RHRC readers, based on your viewing this season?

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  • carolyninthecity


    Just watched the season finale…I won’t spoil the whole episode, but apparently there was no abortion- no one knows except Joan and her husband, who believes the baby is his. I agree this is very strange for Joan’s character and the show- I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the writers do with this next season! 


    Everyone watch the final episode, besides the Joan pregnancy twist there’s tons of weird stuff happening in this finale! 

  • drochelson

    But the great thing about Joan this season is that she’s no longer so obsessed with neatness and propriety, with subsuming her desires.  Finally, in season 4, she’s become a full character.  She asserts herself in the office; she says no to Roger; etc.


    I agree that it was a bit out of left field — one of several big twists in the season finale — but I thought it fit quite nicely into the arc Joan has taken this season.


    (Incidentally, I don’t think the Megan thing was as soap opera-ish as some suggest.  Though Weiner is fond of dramatic irony, he also likes frustrating the audience’s expectations.  Everyone wanted Don to end up with Faye; instead, he impulsively proposes to Megan.  It was a big twist that seems like it was aimed at the late adopters who got on the Mad Men train in season 4 — but I also think it was red meat for those masochists, among whom I include myself, who have been along for the ride since the beginning.)

  • jodi-jacobson

    That Don proposed to Megan was surprising to me, but not because it was not Faye.


    The fact is that he already has 3 kids.  He is a guy who lives a life of total contradictions but at some level also wants a happy family life, and to give his kids what he never had, which was stability and happiness. You could see it when he jumped into the pool and when he just sort of fell onto the bed. He seems to be yearning for something simple and happy.  Faye has made clear that she’s not into having kids, her right, her choice, and it fits for her.  But that would not work for what i think he wants that he is coming to terms with. I think he was really affected by Anna’s death.  And i don’t think Megan is not his equal.  In some ways, she is more in tune with him–at least right now–than Betty ever was and perhaps than Faye could be.


    just my immediate reactions.



  • sarah-seltzer

    I am totally cool with Joan deciding to have a kid, even to have Roger’s kid (although that whole military wife getting knocked up while hubby’s overseas is quite the cliched plotline). I was annoyed with the hackneyed, stereotype-laden trip to the clinic that played on anti-choice sensibilities, and the smug way that liberal viewers cheered at the idea of Joanie’s waiting room change of heart. ICK.

  • oodlenoodle

    I was hoping that Joan didn’t get an abortion before the episode with the clinic scenes (just guessing she would end up pregnant from their alley sex), but that’s because I love her and Roger. However, she does deserve better than Roger, and seeing as how they are both married, I am in no way expecting that she kept it. I wouldn’t bet money on it either way.


    Mad Men is a very intelligent show, which is why I’m flabbergasted by the idiocy of some of the comments on boards and blogs. Some plot lines are really missed or misinterpreted by people who watch the show.

  • trudestress

    Ms. Smeltzer, thanks for your clarifying comment. It’s important for us in the pro-choice movement to emphasize that “pro-choice” does not equal “choose abortion.” The anti-choice movement likes to characterize us as “promoting” abortion and somehow being disappointed when women don’t choose it. However, when debating the issue I always emphasize to that I strongly believe abortion should be safe, legal, and accessible, but that if a woman chooses another option for dealing with an unplanned pregnancy–carrying it to term and either keeping the child or seeking to have it adopted–I recognize those as equally valid choices. The bottom line is, it’s up to the woman. Now, as Mad Men fans, we can debate whether Joan’s choice was true to her character–I’m undecided about that, but I did suspect, when she showed up at work on what I took to be the next day, that she did not have the abortion. I think she’s grasping at some way to have that white-picket-fence life. And I actually didn’t think the clinic scene was an appeal to antichoice sensibilities–Joan thought it over and made her choice.

  • arekushieru

    I agree with Sarah, actually.  The problem was about the expectations anti-choicers have about abortion clinic offices.  That it’s a period of agony, trauma, guilt and self-blame, about the decision to have an abortion, itself, when, in most cases, it’s the exact opposite.  And when those expectations aren’t met, anti-choicers presume that the woman made what they consider the ‘correct’ option.

    I don’t think only having fewer than 2% of the pregnancies actually portrayed on TV being terminated rather than continued to term can be considered ‘promotion’ of abortion, itself, either.  Rather, I see that as promotion of abortion as an immoral choice, which is hardly what I, or any ProChoicer, should or would want to see, I believe….   

  • rachel-larris


    Thanks for pointing out that the 1965 feeling of getting an abortion and the general cultural mores about it are completely different than what it’s like in 2010. I hadn’t even thought that the “waiting room” scene actually would have been unlikely. Women wouldn’t have talked about getting an abortion, even if legal!

    I’m not even sure Weiner would have known he was transposing 2010 projections onto a 1965 characters.

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