Tuned In

Mad Men Watch: Independence Day

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, drive your John Deere riding mower across the living room and watch last night’s Mad Men.

Some weeks it takes some doing to tease out the common theme in the subplots of a given Mad Men episode. Not this week. In “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” it was promotions: some people got them, and some people got, ahem, cut down.

But before we get into that: last week I did a call-in chat with the good folks at Mediaite, and among other things we talked about the complaints by some fans that not enough was happening in this season of Mad Men. I didn’t have that problem, and to me, I said, it was becoming like the ritual that set in with The Sopranos, in which a few episodes into any given season, fans would start grousing that not enough people were getting whacked.

Well! Let no one say that nobody gets whacked on Mad Men! Maybe weed-whacked, maybe accidentally and maybe not fatally, but the short tenure of COO Guy MacKendrick–a Guy who “walked in” to Sterling Coper but most assuredly did not walk out–was a sufficiently stunningly bloody episode to make up for several episodes of smoke exhalations and brooding looks.

Lois’ takedown of the new British viceroy–just in time for Independence Day–was more than just a shocking moment, though. By putting in place a reorganization, and then suddenly reversing it, it allowed several folks at Sterling Coop the chance to, as Lane put it, “live through their own funerals” and see what the British had in store for them, had John Deere not intervened.

Except for Harry Crane, who continues to inexplicably fall upward, the glimpse was not pretty. Roger was left off an organizational chart, confirming bluntly and graphically that he is an afterthought at the agency he created. (Bert Cooper too–having wrongly anticipated a fat promotion for Don–shows himself to be completely out of the loop now.) Pete, while not demoted yet, got to hear a chilling phrasing of his position (Accounts would be headed by “Mr. Cosgrove. Mr. Campbell for the present”), which may leave him wishing he’d jumped at Duck’s offer.

Don, meanwhile, having seen himself remaining static at best, with a boss committed to cost-cutting over growth, is now left to consider his options. He’s tentative, though, when “Connie” from the country club turns out to be–as much of the Internet figured out three weeks ago–Conrad Hilton. He explains his modest request–a crack at the Hilton account–as not wanting to be like a snake that suffocates by trying to eat too much; but is he really limited by his swallowing capacity, or by his imagination?

Joan, meanwhile, ran up against her husband’s limitations in what was probably Christina Hendricks’ best performance of three seasons. It’s not just how she communicated Joan’s sense of loss and disappointment as she realizes that she’s invested so much in Greg and put up with so much from him, only to have him wash out of his surgical residency. It’s how she takes the news, trying to pin down Greg on the practical terms of their situation–what kind of career can he have now? did they fire him?–as he responds with fuzziness and self-pity. Much as she does later saving Guy’s life, there’s a kind of battlefield competence that kicks in, and Hendricks beautifully shows Joan forcing herself to think clearly through the emotion of the situation, while showing in tiny glances how deep she’s struck.

The irony is lost on no one, of course, that in the middle of her crisis–leaving a job that she’s too proud to tell anyone she now needs because her husband’s fingers have no brains–that Joan ends up being the one to step in coolly and literally save a life by putting a tourniquet on Guy’s leg. It’s her own small declaration of independence.

In the hospital scene between Hendricks and Jon Hamm–for actors playing such important characters, they get relatively little screen time together–what she doesn’t say (that she’s in trouble, that she needs work), and the will she exerts not to say it, is heartbreaking. To bring everything back to The Sopranos again, it reminded me a little of the closing scene in which, after her rape, Dr. Melfi–for very different reasons from Joan, of course–refuses to ask Tony for help.

Poor deceased Grandpa Gene, for his part, has apparently been promoted to the dual positions of newborn baby and terrifying ghost haunting the Draper household. Who knows what thought process leads Sally to think that Baby Gene literally is Grandpa Gene–obviously she’s working through a lot of grief and change. But on some level she’s as perceptive as Don and Betty, and maybe more: something, she picks up, is deeply wrong in this household, and the baby is doing nothing to make it better.

It’s a credit to the writers that I can’t quite decide how much to sympathize with Don or Betty in their final fight. On one level, Betty is right: it’s not a bizarre or unhealthy thing for someone to name a baby after a recently deceased relative. (Though if she doesn’t want Sally investing too much superstitious energy in the baby, she might have reconsidered saying that the baby got “fairies” to get a present for her, a gesture that fools Sally not for a second, though Betty is extremely self-satisfied for it.) On the other hand, to use this name at this time, in the high-handed way she did–part grieving, part belligerently–is not exactly bringing Baby Gene into the world under the most loving circumstances.

At least Don has the presence of mind to drop the fight and go to sit with the baby and Sally, assuring her that the baby will not be anyone but himself. It is going to be a long night.

Now for the volley of fireworks:

* “Fourth of July. Subtle.” Yeah, but I didn’t mind Mad Men using the holiday to show a war between the British and Americans, shot through with storylines about independence and the lack thereof. What was unusually unsubtle was the dropped-like-a-brick mention of Vietnam in the office conversation. It’s plausible that people were starting to talk about Vietnam in 1963, but there are better ways than by kicking off a dialogue, “My dad keeps talking about Vietnam.”

* Loved Moneypenny’s uncharacteristic display of humor: “And Mr. Kinsey, you might want to shave your beard.” “What! Who the hell are you people!” “That was a joke.”

* Speaking of which, if Joan really is out of the picture at Sterling Cooper, I’m going to miss lines like, “I’m going to go home and make a celebratory dinner for my husband. And when you wake up in the middle of the night and wonder what you forgot, don’t call me.” Joan is a freaking samurai–slice, slice, slice.

* Don and Roger’s makeup date at the barber was one of those scenes I’d enjoy just for the atmospherics–the chance to hear Roger hold forth with another line of blarney–but I only realized when reading over my notes that it foreshadowed the episode’s money shot, involving as it did the story of a sheared-off limb.

* Speaking of Roger: this is the man you want around in an emergency, if not to actually handle the crisis, then at least to stand on the side and make dry one-liners about it. “He might lose his foot.” “Just when he got it in the door.”

* I’m a bit disappointed that Guy’s tenure ended up being so short. Once we saw his signature move–telling everyone he meets that he’s heard all about how impressive they are–I was curious to find out more about just what species of weasel he was.

* Was anyone else surprised that Don was upset as he was by not getting the imaginary London job offer? When Bert Cooper first spun the theory, I thought Don seemed, if anything, a little put off by the idea.

* Yes, TIME magazine really did used to make cover subjects out of men like Conrad Hilton. No I do not know if Glenn Beck was presented a similarly framed copy of his cover.