Great Expectations (Mad Men S3:E6)
Posted by Christopher Moltisanti on September 23, 2009
“That’s life. One minute you’re on the top of the world, the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawnmower.”
It’s certainly not the best, but it’s easily the most memorable episode in the history of the show. In short, the British invade on the Fourth of July and their young, fearless leader is cut down by one of the most American of institutions — John Deere. “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” is a wonderful title because Guy in fact cannot walk out of the advertising agency. It’s an episode full of “fireworks.” It’s got violence, office and domestic intrigue and plenty of new questions raised.
Beyond the “fireworks,” though, this episode is all about unrealized expectations, for the characters, and for the country. Don thinks he’s going to be living the glamorous life of a globetrotting ad man. Joan thought she married a fast-riser who would bring her the only conception of success she has: wealth. Pryce opens a box from his bosses and finds a snake. Just like that, the dreams of something better are gone (just like the lights that go on and off throughout the episode).
Then there’s the Guy McKendrick incident, which is absurd, but in a wonderful way. I’ll admit that at first I hated it. But the more I think about it, it is a very strong way to showcase the fragility of every facet of life, the disappointments that can strike at every turn, which is especially pertinent at a point in history when the youthful hope of the nation has only a few months to live and words like “Vietnam” and “draft” are being tossed around. It’s the most direct foreshadowing of the Kennedy assassination we’ve seen yet.
The only real gripe I have with the episode is that some of the dialogue in the hospital waiting room, most notably “The doctor says he’ll never golf again,” seemed more like what someone would write for a Mad Men parody than an actual Mad Men episode. Just a minor gripe. Now moving on…
The British/American contrast is another interesting facet of this episode. The British arrive like a conquering army and speak to the Sterling Cooper employees like kings on a stage. Every action they take is controlled and planned. The Americans, as we’ve learned throughout this season, are more slipshod. They don’t like expense reports and structure, which they feel stifles productivity. This stylistic contrast is further revealed in Don and Betty’s sharply different views of parenting. As I’ve discussed the past few weeks, Betty is focused on a misplaced idea of family legacy (which one could argue is a more British perspective). Don, on the other hand, believes in new beginnings and in identity that’s not tethered to the past or burdened with unfair expectations. As he says about baby Gene to close the episode:
“We don’t know who he is yet. We don’t know who he’s going to be. And that’s a wonderful thing.”
This episode was also a wonderful thing.