Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" (season 3, episode 6)

Mad Men - "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" (season 3, episode 6)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 20, 2009/written by Robin Veith, Matthew Weiner; directed by Lesli Linka Glatter): Everything is about to change. The characters know this, they've been expecting it for a while, but even so the changes are happening in a way they don't like and didn't expect. And then, without warning, everything changes again in an instant, leaving them to wonder what other shocks the future may hold. That's the story at Sterling Cooper anyway. In the Draper household, change is more ingrained, gradual, and perpetually unclear - baby Gene has unsettled the household, particularly Sally who is terrified of her new brother. She's convinced that he is the reincarnation of his ancestor, sharing not just Grandpa Eugene's name and living quarters but (according to her at least) his looks. Betty tries to playfully assuage her daughter's concern with a present on the infant's behalf (a Barbie doll wrapped inside a comic strip) but this only creeps Sally out more, investing the unspeaking child with uncanny powers that are cemented when she wakes up to find the Barbie sitting on her dresser after she chucked it out the window. Don has his own reason for discomfort with little Gene's resemblances... "He hated me and I hated him," he snaps at his wife. "That's the memory." As if to console himself and not just Sally, while cradling the baby he tells her that they don't know who this Gene will be yet, and that's a good thing.

Indeed, the episode is filled with such reminders about the dangerous fragility of certainty. When Joan cries at her farewell party in the office, these aren't tears of joy. Greg is devastated to discover that not only has he been passed up as Chief Resident but he'll never be a successful surgeon ("You have no brains in your fingers," a mentor informs him) - they're going to need Joan's job, or a new one, after all. Suddenly her ten years at Sterling Cooper seem not just like a fond, bittersweet memory but a desperate economic, and probably emotional, necessity (I also love the subtle hints that she and Don once had a romance; I can't remember if this was ever explicit, was whispered in previous episodes, or is simply something I'm reading into the situation). Her party unfolds against a much broader backdrop, a British business invasion preceding the broader musical one seven months later. The agency's new owners Saint John Powell (Charles Shaughnessy) and Harold Ford (Neil Dickson) arrive on July 3, pointedly putting their American employees in their place on the eve of Independence Day. Don has reason to suspect that he's going to be promoted and transferred to London, a transatlantic deliverance that makes him giddy with anticipation. Instead, wunderkind Guy Mackendrick (James Thomas King) lands cheerfully arm-in-arm with Powell and Ford, spreading disappointment in his wake.

A crestfallen Lane, already struggling with the New York relocation, is exiled to India. Bert is relegated to "chairman emeritus," Roger is left off the new organizational chart altogether (ostensibly by accident), and Don remains head of creative but firmly underneath the leadership of young Cambridge-educated Guy. Only Harry receives any sort of promotion, but the situation starts to turn at the office with two incredible, unexpected events. First Don receives a phone call from Conrad Hilton; he ditches the festivities for an impromptu meeting and finds out that "Connie" was the man in the white tuxedo at the country club bar, with whom he shared his humble background. Playing hard-to-get but also modest in his ambitions, Don reluctantly advises Connie on a new campaign featuring a cartoon mouse ("no one wants to see a mouse in a hotel") and, having been burned by the London disappointment, he asks only for Connie's business account. When pressed, Don relates the story of a snake that hasn't eaten for months and then chokes to death when it gorges itself. Meanwhile, back at the office, the celebratory Guy's foot is chopped off by a panicked secretary riding a John Deere tractor between the desks, unleashing a gruesome torrent of bloodshed.

My Response:
I was not expecting that. "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" (oh, what a cheeky title) features a marvelous series of twists and turns, with an open-ended denouement as morbidly satisfying as anything to be found in midcentury absurdist literature. There's something to be said for the power of contextual shock; I've seen far bloodier scenes in many movies, but this particular accident shook me up pretty thoroughly (and admittedly mixed dark laughter with astonished outcry as I tried to quietly view this episode in a public library). You just don't expect to see such a violent sight in the corporate world of Mad Men, and the buildup, the moment, and the aftermath are all wonderfully executed by the always brilliant Glatter. The danger escalates to the point where you know nervously that something's going to be wrong but somehow I didn't foresee this particular development, despite all the pieces that had been perfectly put into place. Guy's misfortune (his handlers blithely assert that the newly disabled golden boy is of no use to them now) is almost certainly an eleventh-hour reprieve for everyone at Sterling Cooper - except poor Lois, who rode that tractor right out of a job. Lane may get to stay, Don may get to leave (though how the show continues with him overseas is anybody's guess), and everyone else gets to grab what they can while chaos reigns.

As for the others, I don't think Joan's engagement lasts the summer, and I wonder if his season two assault was written in part to anticipate and offset any negative feelings about her dropping the doctor when his career goes south (maybe literally, as he mentions moving to Alabama). And what about Gene? I was expecting a stillbirth in episode 5 and if the family made it through that potential crisis, I still don't have a great feeling about the destiny of this child, himself the embodiment of Don's and Betty's delicate rapprochement. As '63 progresses - we're past the halfway point now - it's beginning to feel like anything might happen.

Next: "Seven Twenty Three"Previous: "The Fog"

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