Well, that was pretty awesome.
As long as I seem to be writing this paper on Mad Men and its historical moment one week at a time, I might as well continue. This episode actually seemed to have quite a bit less to do with cultural or political context, as the events inside Sterling Cooper were without question sufficient to distract from anything going on in the world outside. Who has time to watch the evening news when a young upstart has shown up to demote everyone and you’re being relocated to India and your loser sexually abusive husband can’t even stay on his career path?
But what Mad Men may have neglected in the way of subtle cultural hints, it traded for full-blown historical allegory. This episode was potently American in a way the show has often played with but seldom taken on with full force. What could be more suggestive of an old world/new world divide than rehashing a question of leadership between Britain and America? As represented by St. John, Lane Pryce and the doomed Guy McFerland, Britain means class, sophistication and privilege, and Betty glows at the possibility of living in London with a pram and a real nanny. Britain is also unmistakably the old way of life, stuffy and staid, and thanks to its British overlords, Sterling Cooper seems to be sinking further into the past while Don Draper courts new American royalty in the form of Conrad Hilton. How appropriate that the British invade on the 4th of July, forcing the Sterling Cooper secretaries to ironically reverse the significance of the holiday with tiny British flags on their desks. Watch the episode again, and just keep an eye out for how many times there’s a tiny British flag in the foreground. Even the uncharacteristic (and thus, impressively shocking) bloodiness was carefully woven back into the allegorical fabric, with Roger commenting that the office looked like Iwo Jima and young copywriters musing about Vietnam. And then to have a John Deere tractor, symbol of hardworking American agriculture, literally mow over poor Guy McFerland, the young, posh, well-educated Briton’s Briton?
An episode like this could have been completely absurd. The allegory, so markedly drawn, could have been unsubtle, thoughtless and simplistic. Instead, “Guy Walks Into an Advertising
Agency” was saved from obvious metaphor and transformed into an absolutely gorgeous piece of television by the funny, tragic, sick, uncertain, contemplative mess that surrounded it. Roger Sterling learns he’s not even part of the old guard, he’s actually been written out of the company flowcharts, and he does not find the discovery reassuring. Pete Campbell, so desperate to be respected and viewed as an older authority figure, slides down the ladder a bit and ends the episode with the same thwarted ambition he’s always felt. What most saved the allegory from over-determined silliness, though, was the persistent sick humor of the aftermath. Guy loses his foot, jokes Roger, “right when he got it in the door.” Of course, he can never be an accounts man now because the doctors say he’ll never golf again. And finally, the underlying joke of the whole episode, its title – “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” but he does not walk out. The sick humor keeps us laughing uneasily, probing our reactions and preventing us from tying it all up in a neat little bow.
The last word about this episode should belong to Joan. It is a testament to Christina Hendricks’ portrayal of her as well as the amazing writing of this show that in an episode where a guy’s foot gets mangled by a tractor and blood literally spews across the office, the real tragedy and humanity of the night came from Joan Holloway Harris on her last day at work. I was horrified and moved when she actually wept in the office, I was impressed but not surprised when she ably administered a tourniquet on Guy’s bleeding leg, and I was both thrilled and saddened by the final moment of mutual appreciation between Joan and Don. I don’t know what will happen to Joan, now that she’s left Sterling Cooper and is stuck with her awful, incompetent, sexually abusive husband. The best hope for Sterling Cooper is that she’ll be coming back soon, because a day on which Guy McFerland walks into an advertising agency and Joan Holloway walks out does not spell a happy tomorrow.