Each character on Mad Men has enough depth and complexity to warrant a Ph.D. dissertation, but perhaps none more so than Joan Holloway. As portrayed by Christina Hendricks, Joan is the self-aware muse that enraptured not only other characters in the show, but audiences watching at home as well. Over the course of the series, she progresses from being the office manager keeping the secretaries in line at Sterling Cooper to being a partner at the ad firm to eventually running her own film production company. Despite these eventual successes, Joan constantly struggles to find a balance between her personal desires and the expectations placed on her by society, which makes her the embodiment of what Mad Men was all about.
As the above analysis from ScreenPrism notes, Joan’s awareness of what the culture of the ’60s expects from a woman doesn’t stop her from falling into the binary trappings of the culture. Her attempts to fulfill the role of “the real woman” finds her in a loveless marriage and an unsatisfying career. It’s not until the later seasons when she starts demanding more well-deserved responsibilities that Joan as the individual starts to truly emerge. But in order to get those achievements, she must navigate the muddy waters of the patriarchal society she inhabits and continue to use her sexuality as currency. This is often juxtaposed with Peggy, who is driven purely by ambition and often attempts to de-sexualize herself, and Don, who trades in sexuality as Joan does but without any of the negative consequences.
Joan’s ultimate triumph in the series finale, which finds her as a successful business owner and single mother, perfectly encapsulates what makes her such a badass. She understands the system, she plays within the system, and, in the end, she beats the system. It was a long, harrowing journey to get there, but it’s hard to imagine a better result for such a beloved character.