When Deb mentioned in her recap of Mad Men’s The Forecast that Joan’s holding on to her tiny old apartment and relying on her mother and an NYU student for babysitting was unrealistic, given Joan’s newly minted millionaire status, it got me thinking that this was the second time in the past week that a TV show that I otherwise love got it staggeringly wrong about how rich, powerful moms deal with having young kids at home. The first time was the April 15, 2015 episode of Nashville, Nobody Knows But Me (318), in which 25-year-old country-pop superdiva Juliette Barnes has her first baby and is left seemingly all alone with the kid, all day, with no one to help her and no resources to call on, like she’s in a Topeka trailer park living out Loretta Lynn’s 1971 hit “One’s on the Way.” Really?
(I will be writing more extensively about Nashville later on, hopefully as a regular recapper if the series is renewed, but I will at least be writing a retrospective in any case. If you haven’t seen it yet but plan to, the spoilers I provide here are very minor.)
Sure, Juliette has had some career setbacks, but as with Joan, there’s no indication that she can’t afford outside help, and the best money can buy, to boot. Juliette still owns a private jet, not to mention a mansion with bathrooms bigger than Joan’s entire apartment! Both of these women have serious control-freak tendencies and egos the size of Jupiter, and the sad part is that the writers could have come up with an explanation for both situations that sounded plausible. Joan irrationally loves her apartment, secretly likes having her mom around, hates moving with a purple passion? Juliette wants to prove she can handle a baby on her own and doesn’t need any stinking nannies, doesn’t want to threaten her less-successful husband by throwing money around, doesn’t want to leave her baby because she felt abandoned by her own mother? Both of them are worried about money, even though on paper they look loaded? Fine. Then tell us, or show us that. Because what we’re seeing on screen makes about as much sense as that Darth-Vader-in-the-ocean memepic.
For example, a month after giving birth, Juliette discovers—all on her own, using the magic of her Macbook—that she can hire a nanny through a company that will screen candidates in advance! This is a superstar singer who has a manager, an assistant, and a female record label boss who’s had kids of her own, and even if those were the only three people she ever spoke to (besides her husband), you’d think the subject would have come up. A “real” Juliette (she’s kind of a Britney Spears version of Taylor Swift) wouldn’t already have received offers from people who wanted to help take care of her kid, maybe even from aspiring singers or songwriters looking to get ahead? (Her mom isn’t around; I’ll say no more than that to avoid spoilage.) But paying people to help her with this stuff is what rich and powerful moms do, even if they’re scaling back their careers. And Juliette isn’t, not by a long shot. She’s not about to quit music and become a happy housewife. (Juliette, a happy housewife? BWAH.) How could someone in her position be that ill-prepared for a baby? Even if she had no idea what was coming, surely someone in her inner circle would have.
Similarly, we’ve seen Joan blow a wad of money on clothes at Bonwit’s; as of this episode, she’s obviously not hurting for money. Why would this be the one area in life she’s cheaping out on? Maybe those things got written and then cut, but it wouldn’t have taken much to let us in on what was going on, a line here or there. It’s plausible that, in both cases, the writers got spoiled by the monster talents playing these parts. Everyone reading this blog knows all about the awesome sauce that is Christina Hendricks, but maybe you don’t know as much about Hayden Panettiere, who plays Juliette, so let me fill you in.
Juliette began the series as a villain, a phony-baloney pop-tart who existed to make the female lead, Rayna, miserable. But as the series went on, someone must have noticed that Hayden Panettiere could do it all—act, sing her butt off, and play both physical and verbal comedy like nobody’s business. This woman could scramble an egg for five minutes and have you in stitches. And so Juliette has done a reverse Walter White and become that rarest of birds, a convincing young female antihero who’s actually funny. (You haven’t lived until you’ve watched her trash an ill-fated baby shower.) And the more unhinged she gets, the funnier (and paradoxically, more moving) she is. They can get away with things with Panettiere in the role that nobody else would be able to carry off, so you can almost believe that Juliette would have alienated everyone who wanted to help her and therefore had to be at home alone during the later stages of her pregnancy and the month after giving birth, without the script having to say it. But even Panettiere can’t paper over the gaps here, although it’s vastly entertaining to watch her try.
Though Joan and Juliette are about fifteen years apart in age, and live in different eras, one thing they have in common is that their ultrafeminine appearance and demeanor both helps and hinders them in their careers. Their looks and charm get them a foot in the door, but they have a hard time getting taken seriously for what they’re best at. Joan’s impeccable business acumen is buried under pounds of hairspray and her fellow partners’ knowledge that her position came from holding her nose and sleeping with a client she detested. Juliette’s powerhouse mezzo-soprano and genuine songwriting skill are masked by all the glitz and cutesy wiggles she has to indulge in to please her audience. (Juliette’s “I’m a Girl” can be seen as either celebrating or mocking this phenomenon, depending on how you look at it. Lyrics are here.)
Probably due to the different eras in which they live, it’s taken Joan until later in life than Juliette to notice how ambitious she really is; although she tells Richard in The Forecast that now she has “the job I’ve always wanted,” when we first met Joan, she was telling Peggy that the ultimate female fantasy was marrying an account exec, not becoming one. And when she was married to Greg, she so completely downplayed her importance at Sterling Cooper that Greg thought she was still typing and filing all day. Juliette has sung professionally since her teens, and never didn’t know that she wanted to be a huge success. But she, too, knows how the game is played, and doesn’t like it one bit. Behind the scenes she’s far more overtly abrasive than Joan, and had a much more traumatic childhood, but her public image when we first meet her is all syrupy peaches and fluffy cream, America’s sweetheart. No wonder she’s chafing.
So we have two otherwise brilliantly drawn characters, whose apres-baby living situations are just not believable. These are not lunch-bucket moms we’re talking about here, these are filthy-rich, tough-as-nails women who did whatever it took to succeed, and you know what? Viewers tune in for exactly that; we don’t need them to pretend they’re “regular.” I can believe that both 1970 Joan and 2015 Juliette would feel comfortable going to work and leaving the kid at home; that’s who they are, and that’s fine. But it’s hard to believe that either of them would balk at parting with the money necessary to make sure they and their families aren’t spread too thin taking care of the kids (and in Joan’s case, that she had space for the kid to run around in), or that they would even given it so little thought. (Joan’s mom and Juliette’s husband seem to be perfectly fine caregivers, but why take over their lives completely if it’s not necessary?) Mad Men and Nashville, please put back the missing lines in these women’s scripts.