If last week’s Mad Men was all about the inertia of jobs and families, and how difficult it can be for people to seize opportunities and reorder their lives, then this week’s is all about the inciting incident—the moment that forces change.
The episode opens with Don comforting Sally, who’s feeling anxious in the wake of her grandfather’s death—and, perhaps, her baby brother’s birth—and wants to leave her lights on at night. Betty, in her usual “my daughter is just a little me” way, decides to defuse Sally’s anxiety by giving her a Barbie doll, intended to be a peace offering from the baby. But as I think we’ve seen over the past two seasons—between the secret drinking and the fascination with burning monks—Sally's not on pace to be a Barbie gal. (In fact, she strips the doll and tosses it out the window.) One of the most potentially rewarding aspects of Mad Men—if it runs as long and as far as Matthew Weiner intends—will be watching Sally get absorbed into the changes of the late ‘60s, and seeing how Don and Betty react. Don, I think, will admire his little girl’s pluck. Betty, I imagine, will feel betrayed. Witness her snippy reaction to Sally waking up screaming at the end of the episode: “I don’t even know what to say.”
Meanwhile, across town, the Betty-without-portfolio we know as Joan Holloway is finding out that studying the moves of Marilyn Monroe and Emily Post haven’t prepared her for a husband who’s not on the fast-track to success. When Dr. Greg tells Joan that not only did he fail to get his promotion, but that he’s so ill-regarded by his peers that he’ll never be a surgeon in New York, she tries to buck him up by telling him that “I married you for your heart, not your hands.” (A devastating comment, given how black we know that heart can be.) Joan’s been settling for a less-than-perfect version of the dream she’s been following her whole life—a dream that Peggy sincerely congratulates her on achieving—but when she breaks down crying during her farewell party, it's like it's almost as bad to her as when she was raped by her future husband. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joan’s arc through the rest of the series ends up being something like Sally’s. At the moment, Sally’s stuck with a tiny, smelly, noisy, fragile version of her beloved grandpa, while Joan’s stuck with an insensitive, unpopular version of the dream man she’s been trying to land. I can’t see either learning to live with such poor substitutes.
And speaking of substitutes, back at the office, everyone’s cranky about having to work on July 3rd, because the Brits from PPL’s home office are flying in to explain who’s going to be taking over for whom in their grand reorganization plan. Bert Cooper believes that they’re really here to take a closer look at Don—who has some “American” quality that they can’t glean from reports alone—and he orders Don and Roger to reconcile before the bosses land, which they begrudgingly do. (Don, I think, has so little regard for Roger right now that he’s fine with lying to the man’s face and telling him that the hatchet’s been buried.) But then the Sterling-Cooper power trio meets this episode’s title character, Guy McKendrick, a young PPL hotshot who may be the Don Draper of the UK (or maybe the Duck). Guy, we’re told, will be taking over for Lane Pryce, who’s being bumped to Bombay. Don will remain in charge of creative, Harry in charge of TV, and accounts will continue to be split between Ken Cosgrove and, Guy says ominously, “Mr. Campbell, for the present” As for Roger, he’s been inadvertently left off the flow chart. (“Being punished for making my job look easy,” he complains.)
Don’s reaction to these changes is odd, and telling. Unlike the people last week who were lost in “The Fog,” Don generally has no problem with embracing new realities. When Bert Cooper suggested that PPL might want Don to move to London, he seemed excited by the idea. (Betty responded to the possibility by tersely quipping, “I could get a pram and a real nanny.”) When he finds out instead that he's going to be getting another boss, he looks crushed. Lucky for him, fate intervenes, twice. First, he excuses himself from PPL’s “let’s get acquainted”/“goodbye Joan” party when he gets a call from Conrad Hilton, the man he talked with at Roger’s Kentucky Derby party. Connie wants Don’s professional opinion on an ad campaign he's worked up featuring a friendly cartoon mouse. (Don: “I don’t think anyone wants to think about a mouse in a hotel.”) But he also wants to take the measure of Don, and frankly at this point in time, with so much in flux, having the respect and attention of a man as powerful as Conrad Hilton has to be awfully reassuring.
As for the second twist of fate… well, it's crazy. As in: so crazy it’s almost like the punchline to a joke. Guy walks into an advertising agency, and a drunken secretary riding a John Deere lawnmower severs his foot before smashing into a glass wall. As unexpected, what-the-hell scenes go, this one’s a doozy. The fact that it happens as the background to Peggy trying to pay her respects to the departing Joan only heightens both the oddity and the significance of the moment. People are being pulled along inevitably to their fate and then… slice. (“He might lose his foot,” the S-C brain trust sighs in the aftermath. To which Roger coldly, hilariously replies, “Right when he got it in the door.”)
I’ve read a lot of criticism—in the comments section here and in other places—that while Season Three has featured a number of memorable moments, it hasn’t really cohered. The leisurely pace that’s been Mad Men’s trademark mode has, at times, seemed a little indulgent, as though creator Matt Weiner were trying to convince us that there’s more happening than there actually is… if only we’d look hard enough. Since I enjoy spending time in the Mad Men universe whether it's drama-filled or not, I haven’t minded the slow-drip, scene-by-scene approach. I think of this show as being like one long novel, and though each chapter has its own careful construction and unique themes, it often feels wrong to judge the individual elements of the composition until we’ve seen the whole picture. Three years from now, when we see how much (or how little) everyone’s lives have changed over the course of Mad Men, those “not much happening” times we’ve spent with them will be all the more meaningful, because we’ll have come to know these people.
That said, it’s nice when Mad Men comes up with an accelerant, even if—as in the case of Guy’s quick turnaround—it ultimately only serves the status quo. The end result of Guy’s removal may well be the return of Joan to her old job and the continuation of Don’s journey of self-discovery on the company dime. But at least the restoration is more likely to be on their terms, and under their control. The bizarre mowing down of Guy may be like what one of the PPL suits says of the Broadway play Joan steers him to: “A tragedy with a happy ending. My favorite kind.”
-A nice ending to this episode, with Don reassuring Sally about her badly named baby brother by insisting “We don’t know yet who he’s going to be.” So much can be read into that line, given who’s speaking it. Don’s got a unique personality, at once cautious and open to new possibilities. He believes in a perpetual process of adaptation—even substitution. One identity for another? No problem. All of which makes the closing credits song especially apt. It’s Bob Dylan’s “Song To Woody,” released in 1962, and dedicated to a musician that Dylan (not his real name, by the way) wanted to emulate when he was first starting out, then wanted to put in his rearview mirror once he began to find his own voice. “I’m a-leaving tomorrow, but I could leave today,” Dylan sings, partly as a way of paying his respects, and partly as a warning. After all, what’s that he once said about the times?
-A lot of to-do about snakes in this episode, yes? Pryce gets a stuffed snake from his bosses to celebrate his imminent trip abroad, while Don deflects Conrad’s criticism of his not-so-much-a-go-getter style by offering the analogy of the snake who waits for months to eat and then gets so hungry that he chokes. I’ll be honest: I can’t unpack the meaning of either of these tidbits. That’s why I’m glad we have such insightful commenters on the case. Get to it, crack team of Mad Men analysts!
-So now we know (maybe) exactly how much Don made in the PPL deal. According to Roger, it was a cool half-mil.
-Roger has some interesting ideas about what his job entails. When told to treat PPL as though they were clients, he says, “They’re flying across the ocean to have their knobs polished?” And he later describes what he does as “listening to people and never saying what’s on your mind.” The open contempt Roger has for the people who sit across conference tables from him probably explains why he’s not on the PPL flowchart.
-Harry’s frustrated demand to be put in charge of television last season continues to pay off. I wrote once that I imagine he’ll end up being the most successful employee of Sterling-Cooper by the end of the series. Given where his arc began, that should be interesting to watch.
-I still can’t see Ken without thinking, “I’m Ken! Cosgrove. Accounts.”
-When Joan reminds her husband that he has glowing recommendations, he explains, “Doctors don’t write bad things about each other.” I couldn’t help but think about Pryce, being told that his Bombay move is a promotion when he knows otherwise. It’s all smiles and bullshit in the advertising business too.
-Joan, picking on Hooker regarding the bosses’ visit: “We could hire some prostitutes; I know your Prime Minister enjoys their company.” Now how many shows on TV would so casually drop a reference to the Profumo scandal?
-Clever of Joan to request all deliveries come early, so that the office will look busy for the bosses. She’s too valuable to let go, don't you think? And speaking of which, I thought that was a nice scene between Don and Joan at the hospital after Guy’s accident—in an episode full of well-observed one-on-one scenes—though I kept waiting for her to ask for his help in staying on at S-C.
-I don’t want to make too much of this, but I loved that the carnage of the lawnmower scene comes almost immediately after some of the creatives are talking about the American campaign in Vietnam isn’t so bad.
-Conrad Hilton on the Waldorf-Astoria: “Best kitchen in the world. Got a salad named after it.”
-Y’know, cold chicken salad on Ritz crackers sounds like a pretty good dinner to me.
-That Dr. Pepper machine in the hospital may be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.
-My gratitude to Keith for letting me fill in for him while he’s away. I’d missed the Mad Men beat.