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'Mad Men': 'Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency'

September 21, 2009 |  6:53 am

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“That’s life: One minute, you’re on top of the world; next minute, some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower.”

Ah, the wise words of Joan Harris nee Holloway. This was Joan’s episode to shine. Seriously, what can’t this fire-haired beauty do? Not only is she a bastion of bafflingly astute office management ideas like scheduling all the deliveries for the same time so that Sterling Cooper looks all aflutter when the Brits invade, but she can soothe her husband’s insecurities and manage her temper when he’s blunderingly insensitive, which is pretty much all the time.

Oh, and did I mention that she not only knows where the office first-aid kit is (quick: do you?) but can actually demonstrate how to use a tourniquet? Now we know that Joan is the one with brains in her fingers. This is a woman whose capabilities are out-leagued by the sexist but oppressively civilized times she’s living in. Joan would be better off conquering in the wilds of the Middle Ages like her French namesake. Or, in lieu of that, 10 or so years later when the work of women’s liberation really starts to kick in. Hang in there, sister.

In Episode 6, “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” arteries of all kinds are severed and fused, the blood leaking out or coagulating, opening new veins of hope or humility. For the unfortunately positioned Guy MacKendrick, the Cambridge/London School of Economics prodigy brought in to lead the sweeping reorganization of Sterling Cooper, it means a literal severing of his right foot. According to the ghastly predictions of overlords Ford and Shaughnessy, the young titan who gave even Don Draper a moment of pause will never work again. This is a full decade before the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Here’s hoping that Guy gets a steel boot on the end of that right leg and delivers a solid kick in the buttocks to Ford and Shaughnessy.

For fans and agnostics who have been complaining that “Mad Men” is too slow or has too little action, “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” should satisfy the appetite for a while. Not only did we get a bona fide “action” scene with that “American Psycho” spray of crimson blood on white collared-shirts, many plot wheels productively turned. For one, Conrad Hilton returned to flirt with the idea of hiring Don Draper.

Speaking of Don, he shined as brightly as Joan this episode. As we’ve seen in seasons past, Don, in many ways, is the stronger parent. Sally, convinced that her grandfather’s ghost lives on in her baby brother, doesn’t get comforting or illuminating advice from her mother. Instead, Betty, operating under good but flawed intentions, insults Sally’s intelligence with a gift supposedly delivered from baby Gene with a handwritten card by, you know, those fairies who do things for babies. When Sally is reluctant to open her present, Betty gives her the stink eye and says, “It’s really from him -- I’m not kidding.”

Betty thought she could dissolve something as potent as her child’s fear and confusion about death and spirituality with an anatomically impossible plastic doll. No wonder the creepy little thing gets chucked in the bushes. Once Don comes home, he returns Barbie to her dresser, recharging Sally’s fears. But the difference is that he tries to allay them in a real, tangible way, telling her that there are no such things as ghosts and that baby Gene is just himself -- and that no one really knows what that means yet. His innate mystery, his emerging self, “is a wonderful thing,” Don says, stirring up the show’s ever-frothing pot of identity issues.

The same magic of possibilities was summoned when Bertram Cooper speculated that the British ghouls wanted to harness Don Draper’s “particular American genius.” Don bounced the London idea off of Betty, who saw it as an opportunity to score a real pram and a nanny. But once the reorganization plans are laid out, it's obvious that long shopping jaunts at Harrod’s won’t be in Betty’s future any time soon. It all seems for the best -- Draper’s special vintage of everyman mystique needs American air to run on.

But let’s get back to that ill-fated fete in Ms. Harris’ honor and Joan and Don’s resulting moment. Before the actual party, we saw the inner machinations of office power plays and betrayals. Lane Price’s prize for devoted fat-trimming is to be shipped off to Bombay with condescending care reserved for his family and personal wishes. Meanwhile Roger Sterling, who’s getting more and more sullen as he feels power running through his fingers, is left off the flow chart of command, with only his name to be hastily written in with marker. Nothing says business virility like being forgotten altogether.

And nothing says disaster-in-waiting like multiple glasses of champagne and a trophy tractor taken out for joy rides. Goofball secretary Lois gets in the driver’s seat, Joan’s woeful tears barely dried on her cheeks, and rips through Guy’s fancy suit leg and straight into a bloody mess. As the office looks on in horror, Peggy faints and just happens to be caught in Pete’s arms, a little detail you couldn’t help but love for its classic Victorian take on the sexes that might nevertheless be completely apt, given the context.

At the hospital, Joan and Don meet for a de facto farewell and that’s where Joan, swigging from a soda pop, says her line about life's unpredictabilities. For Joan, possibilities are hinged on Greg, who might whisk them away to some dull Southern hamlet. For Don, his world and all the privileges associated might deliver him to London. Sure, there is no sense in denying the charms of Sweet Home Alabama, but we all know Joan wouldn’t be suited to sipping lemonade and filing her nails on the wrap-around porches in smothering humidity. Nope, she’s got better things to do: like saving a life, with barely a scarlet strand out of place and only a few drops of blood on her wool dress to prove it.

-- Margaret Wappler

P.S. Congrats to "Mad Men" on scoring three Emmys on Sunday, including the best dramatic series for the second year in a row. I knew you could do it, you elegant cads.

Photo: Jon Hamm as Don Draper. Credit: Carin Baer

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