Is Harry Crane a bad guy? We’ve seen him do bad things, certainly — but that’s true of everyone on Mad Men. Everyone cheats on his or her spouse (except Ken Cosgrove) or says cruel things to one another. As Dawn pointed out this week, everyone cries in the bathroom and feels ignored. But Harry’s sins seem more sinful somehow, more inappropriate, more wrong. And that’s because we don’t really know Harry’s big secret or origin story. We just know he struggles with ignorance. Struggles and loses, mostly.
Pete’s a slime ball, and he treats other people like garbage — but we know why. His horrible relationship with his parents explains, but does not excuse, his behavior, so it’s easier for things to seem like “typical Pete.” When his lover shows up at his house, after being severely beaten by her husband, of course Pete’s response is, What did you do? Because Pete only thinks about Pete. He only thinks about what’s best for him, easiest for him, most power-enhancing for him; whatever makes him feel like a big boy is the right thing to do. It’s not that different from how Don operates, because Don, too, had no real relationship with his parents. Pete and Don are callous and self-absorbed. But they’re no dummies.
Peggy’s occasional unethical or mean behavior — pitching Heinz Ketchup, even when she knew that was a betrayal of sorts for Stan, or being too hard on her underlings — comes from a profound need to be recognized. Peggy’s struggled for ages to be seen for who and what she is; her mom doesn’t see it, sometimes it seems like Abe doesn’t quite see it, and her colleagues at SCDP didn’t see it until long after Don did. Joan, too, deeply fears and resents being disrespected, but for Joan, even worse than being insulted is being ignored. She was “raised to be admired,” and being beheld is where Joan derives her sense of self-worth. That’s what was so infuriating for her in this week’s episode, “To Have and To Hold,” when Harry wanted to un-fire Scarlett: Joan can happily have a fight, but Harry pretended like her actions didn’t even happen.
We don’t know what Harry’s enduring psychic wound is. But we do know that he makes dumb choices, a lot. He set fire to his own trash can, accidentally. He could have hired Joan to be part of the TV department in season two — she read all of the scripts and was dynamite in the sales pitch. He hired someone else, though, and not because he hates Joan or thinks she did a bad job. He just never even thought of hiring her. He asks for a raise from $200 to $310; Roger gets him to accept $225. (And Harry’s proud.) He got duped into hanging out with the decoy Rolling Stones. He sleeps with Lakshmi, Paul’s girlfriend from the Krishna Consciousness Center, so she doesn’t scam Paul for money — and then he winds up giving his old buddy $500. And his office décor is grotesque.
Harry’s not quite as capable as Peggy, so his ambition seems silly. He’s not as manipulative as Pete, so his demands are easier to ignore. He’s not charismatic like Don, or charming like Roger, so no one has an urge to help him. (Except maybe Scarlett. Who he is maybe sleeping with.) He can’t dress people down like Joan can. He isn’t as decent as Ken or as determined as Ginsberg or as confident as Stan. He can’t wear a French maid costume like Megan. Harry doesn’t have a thing. So when he complains loudly that Joan slept her way into a partners’ meeting, it’s not that he’s factually wrong. She did. But that’s a really narrow description of how Joan landed at the top; her institutional memory alone makes her incredibly valuable to the company. That’s Harry in a nutshell: not wrong, exactly, but definitely not right.