Mad Men – “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”

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“Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”

September 20th, 2009

If I had to suggest a single challenge in writing about Mad Men each week, it’s often where precisely to begin. Mad Men is a show defined by density, of layers of new and pre-existing storylines entwined around a theme central enough to be apparent but vague enough to be open to enormous amounts of interpretation. So when I sit down to add my thoughts to the chorus, illustrious and diverse as it is, my biggest challenge is finding the right angle at which to approach the material at hand.

But this week, “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency” is so defined (perhaps justly, perhaps unjustly) by a single scene that not starting with it seems nigh impossible.

I’ve seen this episode be tweeted about on numerous occasion as being fantastic (which it was), but more interestingly as proof that things actually do happen on this slow-paced show. However, the episode on numerous occasions indicates that the world (if anything) is moving too quickly, and that the central drama facing its characters is that when the show’s pace is disrupted by something tragic or sudden the common response is like a turtle hiding in its shell rather than a bird spreading its wings.

Of course, how this is read entirely depends on where you sit on the Mad Men spectrum; and, as someone who firmly believes the show’s slow pace is ideal for the stories being told regarding that constant tension between these characters and the world revolving around them, I’d say that the handling of a shocking moment in the midst of this contemplative show demonstrates yet again just how good this two-time Emmy-winning show really is.

Guy McKendrick got his foot run over by a lawnmower.

I remember now that Alan Sepinwall tweeted about Chekhov’s Gun earlier in the week after watching the episode, something that I had forgotten before now. It makes sense, really: Cosgrove driving in with that lawnmower was the epitome of Chekhov’s famous proverb, although a more subtle variation. What makes it work is that we don’t necessarily affiliate the lawnmower with some sort of accident, as it logically fits in with Cosgrove’s more bombastic and excited response to his Head of Accounts job. He and Pete are very different, and I had expected (early) for the lawnmower to simply be an example of an easy-going, fun-loving Sterling Cooper that the visit from PPL would tend to disrupt. But when the lawnmower emerged during the party, it was far more clear that something was in fact up, and when Lois took to the wheel and things begin to fall out of control I smiled a little, just as soon as I finished jumping at the site of blood spatter.

When Don, at that time, is talking with Conrad Hilton (who he met with at Roger’s party, a fact which the show appears to believe that we would have picked up on from “My Old Kentucky Home” considering how little exposition is done to place him), Hilton asks him what he’d like. Don asks for a chance at his account, which leads Hilton to warn him that he should be somewhat more ambitious when someone like himself offers him such an opportunity. However, Don responds with a tale of a starving snake who is so hungry that he suffocates on the food he finally finds in his excitement, indicating that he’s fine to take things slow but acknowledges just what Hilton is indicating. For Don, who had just come from a personal disappointment after getting his hopes up about a London promotion which never materialized, it was a chance to escape from a job he no longer seems inspired by and yet one which seemed too quick, too hasty for the careful and calculated Draper to consider.

What’s so interesting about the rise and fall of Guy McKendrick is that his arrival means something different for pretty much everyone. For Lane Price, it’s a quickening of pace and level of change he doesn’t agree with where a snake in a box means a trip to Bombay while his wife and son are only now getting used to time in New York. In that scene, we learn that Price is PPL’s go-to man for such transition roles, someone who always does what he is told with no complaints. What Price learns as the episode unfolds is that, much as his Tom Sawyer reference indicates, he has seen his own funeral and doesn’t like the eulogy. When McKendrick loses a foot, PPL laments that he will never golf again, and says that his career (predicated entirely on his ability to smooth talk people, something potentially left untarnished barring some form of Post-traumatic stress disorder) is over. Lane can’t help but imagine that their eventual parting plans for a middleman, who gets none of the glory and certainly none of the hype, may well be even less ceremonial, and even more quickly dished out should something go awry.

For many others, though, the problem with McKendrick’s plan is that nothing changes. Only Harry Crane, heading his own media division, gets what one would call a promotion from the deal, and there’s a clear indication from Guy’s overhead projector presentation that Ken will become full time Head of Accounts at Pete’s expense. When McKendrick loses a foot and, as a result, his position at Sterling Cooper, everything reverts back to the way it was. It’s like an offside penalty in (American) football, in a way: McKendrick was blitzing, but he moved too soon and fate decided to chop off his foot with a ride-on lawnmower. Everyone saw what he had planned, too, which means that now Pete knows he’s somewhat behind in the eyes of at least one Englishman, and Harry knows that a promotion was possible but taken from his grasp. And Roger Sterling, who was left off the chart entirely and hilariously added on with an overhead marker in an amazing sight gag, is forced to reflect on the potential uselessness of his job only as long as he must, with the creator of said chart no longer in charge of the New York office.

Of course, McKendrick wasn’t the only person to suffer a setback in the episode, although his is the only one people are really aware of. Christina Hendricks has a fantastic Emmy submission with an episode where Joan Harris finds her life’s goal falling apart in front of her, as Greg returns home drunk after losing the Chief Residency and, in the process, any chance of a surgical career. Joan’s life has always been, to an extent, about masking reality: her real age has always been a shock to most, but it’s a sign that she isn’t necessarily the kind of person she pushed Peggy to become during the early parts of the first season. She’s only now, years after she had likely expected, achieving the husband and the future ahead of her, and what she’s found is a man who rapes her to regain control of their relationship and who has proven to be both a personal and professional failure with “no brains in his fingers.” And while Joan says she married him for his heart, I can’t help but doubt that this is true. I believe she married him because she finally found a man who fit her own stereotype of the perfect husband, and in the process settled for a colossal failure.

In some ways, Joan finds herself at a point where she, by instinct, wants to take control but is not allowed. She’s the one who put the tourniquet onto McKendrick (saving his life, and paying for a new dress in the process) as soon as the accident occurred, but when Greg returns home drunk she is quick to comfort him and try to make things better by reassuring him and offering alternatives in a wifely fashion. When Greg suggests that she needs to keep her job, it’s not because he needs her support, it’s because it is her duty to keep working while he remains a lowly resident. And yet, to the people at Sterling Cooper, she had finished her duty and was off to live what she once sold to Peggy as a dream, one which Peggy reminds her that not everyone can live. Little does she know how much Joan already realizes this, and how much her tears are less an emotional sendoff to a job she cherished than they are knowing that in leaving it she isn’t going on a good voyage at all.

Don’s final speech to Sally in the episode is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned. He tells her that Gene is just a baby, as opposed to a ghostly apparition of her dead Grandfather sent to terrorize her, and that you don’t yet know who he’s going to become, and that it’s an amazing thing. For Don, it’s something to be said about himself and his own childhood innocence. For Joan, it’s a reminder of how Greg has turned out to be not quite what she imagined. And for just about every character, it’s a reminder that in some ways their fate is pre-determined and in other ways they all started out like Gene, and could easily take their life (or have their life taken) in another direction. And, barring a sudden lawnmower accident, a lot of their future will be determined by the choices that they make in the midst of this tumultuous decade.

When Roger Sterling cracks a joke at the expense of McKendrick, laughing that it’s a sin what happened considering “he just got his foot in the door,” there’s understandable laughter amongst the assembled copy writers and account men. However, the entire scene, I was watching the window in behind them as a worker squeegeed off the blood from the window. They can get new carpet, and they can clean the windows, but that accident is going to be the kind of event which sticks with these people. While on some shows it would be a huge event that exists more for its shock value and excitement (it’s certainly the most action-packed Mad Men has ever been), here it’s just another layer, here effortlessly weaved into an episode that is as traditional as it comes for the show both as if it never happened (as it undoes a series of changes) and as an event which will not quickly fade away in the minds of those who witnessed it.

Cultural Observations

  • I’m really curious to know what Peggy got Joan as a gift, and presume we might see in time as Peggy tracks her down to give it to her and discovers the lie she had to live in leaving Sterling Cooper as organized.
  • Joan’s moment with Don at the Hospital was a great scene for both of them, and they’ve always had a sort of understanding between them. What was interesting, though, is that Joan could have told him about Greg in that moment, and asked for her job back or for some form of advice. But Joan’s professionalism is her strongest quality, and as such she remained radiant and smiling, effortless in playing this particular role. While Peggy relies on Don for advice, Joan has largely been independent in the office environment, and now when she needs support she finds that asking for it is incredibly challenging.
  • Roger and Don’s bonding session at Angelo’s was not entirely a success for Cooper, who wants the two of them to reconcile so they can stop putting on a show that they’re getting along. They are congenial, and agree to stop discussing the issue at hand when Roger gets his back up about Don judging him, but they don’t really solve the underlying issues at play – something tells me they’re not going to have a frank discussion about affair ethics anytime soon.
  • I enjoyed how Don’s shave, which he resisted, gave him a different sense of pride and self-worth, and that once he learned he had no promotion he started doodling stars (something supporting by Price, who at that point had about as much interest in what was being said). He’s really a small child in some ways.
  • I know Sally is the problem child when it comes to baby Gene, but I found her association less creepy than Bobby’s “Can I pet him?”

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Mad Men – “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”

  1. Rosie

    “I enjoyed how Don’s shave, which he resisted, gave him a different sense of pride and self-worth, and that once he learned he had no promotion he started doodling stars (something supporting by Price, who at that point had about as much interest in what was being said). He’s really a small child in some ways.”

    Congratulations. You’re the first person to point this out in a long time. Frankly, one might as well say the same about all of the major characters. However, I’m in the dark about Bert Cooper. Do you see any signs of lingering childishness in his character?

  2. Rosie

    Hmmm . . . you might have a point.

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