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One if By Land, Two if By Sea: Great Expectations on "Mad Men"

"I feel like I just went to my own funeral. And I didn't like the eulogy."

Throughout its two and a half season run so far, Mad Men has been positively overflowing with shocking, memorable, and sensational moments but the scene in this week's episode of Mad Men ("A Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency") has managed to walk away with one of the most gasp-inducing scenes ever glimpsed on the period drama.

Yes, I'm talking about that foot.

This week's stunning installment, written by Robin Veith and Matthew Weiner and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, was notable for several reasons beyond the morbidly hysterical bloodbath at Sterling Cooper. Centering as it did on the upcoming Independence Day holiday, the installment revolved around several story strands: Joan's departure from Sterling Cooper as she awaits the news about Greg's residency, Sally's inability to let go of her grandfather even as she cannot deal with the arrival of her baby brother, and Don's future at the agency. In other words, each of the three characters experienced the sensation of emotional whiplash as they attempted to look forward and backward at the same time.

In looking at this week's episode, I want to reiterate something I mentioned to Matthew Weiner on the phone the other day: while most series treat their younger characters as one-dimensional props in adults' storylines, Mad Men has excelled at developing Sally Draper (played with staggering skill by Kiernan Shipka) into a three-dimensional character, as complex and complicated as the adults on the series, especially this season where we see her attempt to process Gene's death even as the adults in her life return to life as usual. Her efforts to move past the death of her grandfather are hampered, of course, by the arrival of Baby Gene.

For Don and Betty, Gene is a symbol of hope. As Don tells Sally at the end of the episode, they don't yet know who Gene is nor what he'll become. He represents the very promise of the future, a new person who is as yet unformed by experiences or disappointment; he's also a figurative new bond to hold Don and Betty together after the fragmentation of their relationship last season. Anything is possible for Gene, who has his whole life ahead of him. The same can't still be said for Don and Betty, trapped as their are by the choices they've made in life. Betty selected Gene's name as a way of honoring her father and keeping his memory alive, but to Don it's a bitter reminder of the mutual hate experienced between him and his father-in-law.

For Sally, however, Gene is a literal reminder of the death of her grandfather. As she tearfully tells Don, he shares the same name as her grandfather, looks like him, and sleeps in his room. In other words: he's Gene's ghost come back to haunt the Draper clan. It's a more intellectual fear than that which Betty surmises is troubling Sally; she believes Sally is jealous of Gene and the affection being heaped on him and attempts to bring the two together by giving Sally a Barbie doll she says is from her little brother. For Betty, the problem is an emotional one: Sally is jealous and she has to stop the jealousy now. But Sally isn't jealous, she's filled with dread. She can't let go of the past or her grandfather. In other words, even if there is no ghost, she's still haunted.

We can be haunted too by our own anticipation. Lane Pryce, Don Draper, and Joan Holloway all pin so much on their own expectations, that they each have their hopes brutally dashed by other people's decisions. Lane, hoping for a reward for making Sterling Cooper so phenomenally lean and profitable, instead finds out that he'll be transferred to India; the accountant fools himself into thinking he's a golden boy when he's really just a snake-charmer, someone paid to do the dirty work. Bert Cooper makes Don believe that he's being groomed for a major promotion so he's crushed to learn that the new corporate restructure has him reporting to Guy Mackendrick (Jamie Thomas King). Joan quits her job before she knows whether Greg will get the chief resident position and learns from her drunken husband that he's been passed over. Told that she can't leave her job, Joan tearfully acknowledges that it's too late and is instructed to then find work elsewhere.

Yet each of them rises to the occasion, proving their worth in different ways. Their separate storylines dovetail nicely into one when a humorous incident involving a John Deere lawnmower turns the Sterling Cooper offices into a literal bloodbath. It's a joyous prank gone horribly wrong, resulting in the severing of Guy's foot and the destruction of one of the office walls by the hapless Lois. The sight of the wolfpack getting sprayed by Guy's blood (all over their pristine white shirts) was staggering. But Joan quickly steps in to save Guy's life, organizing the chaos and applying a tourniquet before accompanying him to the hospital.

Guy's foot is a goner, as is Guy's career in advertising, according to St. John. It's a shocking reminder of just how we're each hanging on by a thread. It's a painful reminder of just how much Sterling Cooper will lose with Joan's departure: a cool head who is able to keep the office humming along even as the walls come crashing down around them.

Lane, meanwhile, isn't going anywhere. Guy's life-altering injury means that he won't be sent to Bombay after all but will remain in New York at Sterling Cooper. Plus ce change...

During the madness at the office, Don was meeting with hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, who turns out to be "Connie," the mystery man Don met at Roger and Jane's party. (Nicely accomplished plant and pay-off.) Connie wants Don's opinion about an ad campaign and seems to be offering him a golden opportunity, something that Don turns down, saying "one opportunity at a time." Why does Don not want to attempt some sort of arrangement with Connie? Is he afraid of getting hurt by anticipating something that won't materialize? Or is he loyal to Roger and Bert, despite the many changes that have come about since the merger? Hmmm...

My favorite small moment from this week's episode: Pete catching a fainting Peggy after the lawnmower incident. Despite the recent coolness in their relationship this season, the look of worry on Pete's face spoke volumes about his true feelings towards Peggy. It's a tiny fragment in a larger tapestry in this week's episode but it also connects to the past and the future. Despite what's happened between them, there's still the possibility of rapprochement for these two star-crossed lovers.

In other words, it's a reminder that there's always the glittering prospect of hope.

Next week on Mad Men ("Seven Twenty Three"), Betty tries her hand at local politics; Don is forced into thinking about the future; Peggy receives a luxurious gift.

Comments

Marjorie K. said…
I've been admiring Kiernan Shipka all season as one of the best actors on the show. She should be considered for an Emmy next year.
Alexia said…
Christina Hendricks was brilliant in this episode. I loved watching her take charge of the "lawnmower incident" even when, just minutes before, her heart was breaking. Sterling Cooper could not possibly be the same without her and I'm interested to see where Joan's storyline will go now.
ewench said…
I don't understand why Roger was left off the organizational chart?

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