How very topical. Who knew the corporate mindset of squeezing pennies and demoralizing staff went back 50 years?
The art of combining period detail with foreshadowing of current events has been perfected by “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner.
Last week racial issues were just about to explode in AMC’s hit show (as noted by my colleague Mary C. Curtis), just as we, in our own time, watch our first African-American president endure a racial melodrama foisted on the nation by conservatives.
Sunday night we saw Sterling Cooper’s cool, elegant world threatened by British bean counters who absorbed the firm the same way today’s mergers and acquisitions are decimating good companies.
Matthew Weiner co-wrote (with Robin Veith) Sunday night’s episode. He was picking up his second Emmy about the same time “Mad Men” viewers were yelling: “Oh my god!” I’ll bet Weiner found the timing agreeable.
I was already on the Roger Sterling love train, but now I know Roger has mystical powers, too. So a young, glad-handing efficiency expert from across the pond thinks he can just write Roger out of the organizational flow chart, does he?
Early in the episode Roger smoked a cigarette and told a grisly tale about a car accident severing his father’s arm. The next day, the pompous young efficiency expert is in the hospital and out of commission just as surely as if Tony Soprano had ordered a hit.
And Roger is still the picture of calm. “Looks like Iwo Jima out there,” Roger quips as a janitor squeegees blood off the glass wall.
Here’s what happened: The exuberant executive who bagged the John Deere account had driven a riding mower into the office to show off. You know the theater commandment that you don’t bring a gun on stage unless you’re going to fire it? Well, I’d pretty much forgotten the tractor by the time we got around to Joan Holloway’s going-away party.
The champagne began to flow and the horsing around commenced. One secretary sat on a lap, laughing and drinking, as another secretary stood on the tractor an executive drove into room – unthinkable into today’s risk-averse, litigious, button-down business world.
The frumpy woman who proved incompetent during her brief stint as Don Draper’s secretary wanted a turn at the wheel. But she couldn’t steer. Or stop. She ran right over the advertising prodigy’s foot and shredded it.
He lay on the floor screaming in agony. “What have I done?” the secretary said.
“Get her out of here,” Joan ordered.
You just know if Joan had been on that tractor instead, things would have turned out differently. In fact, Joan saved the young man’s life by getting down on her knees and administering first aid.
Don Draper, who was out of the building at the time, caught up with Joan in the hospital waiting room. He glanced at her blood-spattered dress and said, “My god!”
“I know,” she said. “It’s ruined.” She wasn’t joking.
The young man’s foot had to be amputated. His career, say the top brass, is finished.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Don countered.
Oh yes. “Doctor says he’ll never golf again,” came the answer.
When you mix a Sopranos mindset with Madison Avenue, this is what you get. And it’s potent stuff.
“That’s life,” Joan said. “One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary is running you over with a lawn mower.”
Joan, you existential little minx you. Go carpe some more diem for me.
Many other nice touches in this episode. A Barbie doll that looks like it got slightly twisted during manufacturing. A stuffed snake presented as a “gift” to announce that Sterling Cooper’s reluctant hatchet man from Britain is being farmed out to India. (Sound familiar?)
In the conference room, where we’re used to seeing slides, we have the once-ubiquitous overhead projector. Can’t you just see the dust particles floating in mid-air? And smell the mimeograph ink? Sure, Sterling Cooper has a copier, but my school didn’t.
The overhead projector illustrated the management shake-up for all in the conference room to see.
“They keep adding people above us,” an executive muttered.
“One more promotion and we’re going to be answering phones,” said another.
The employees had been warned that top brass was visiting and so work areas should be shipshape and staff should look productive. But as the new bosses stroll around Sterling Cooper, in the background we get a quick glimpse of a copywriter playing guitar with his office door open. Take that!
Satire this biting and subtle doesn’t just happen. It is written, and then fleshed out by a brilliant cast.
“Mad Men,” welcome back. You prove TV fare is NOT all pedestrian. Like the early “Three Stooges” TV comedies, which after 80 years of fan clamoring have been remastered and reissued, your genius will hold up. I predict that next century they’ll still be talking about “Mad Men.”
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2009]