“Mad Men” gets real with disability

mad men office

By BA Haller
© Media dis&dat, Sept. 21, 2009

The AMC drama “Mad Men” doesn’t typically deal with disability themes, but in the Sept. 20 episode, “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency,” the dark, brooding show reflects the disability reality of the past and present. (Even using the word “walks” in the episode title is a bit of foreshadowing about the disability theme.)

For those who don’t watch the show, here’s a bit of background. The drama, which is in its third season, follows the work and personal lives of the men and women who work for the Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling Cooper in the early 1960s. The show has about a dozen main characters, but the main main character is Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm, pictured far right in photo), the agency’s creative director, who represents the American ideal that anyone with smarts and savvy can reinvent themselves. (For all the details about this complex drama, visit The NY Times “Mad Men Watch” blog about the show or “Mad Men” footnotes, which catalogues all its amazingly accurate 1960s details.)

In the Sept. 20 episode, Sterling Cooper receives a visit from its new British owners. Last season, the agency owners, Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper (played by Robert Morse, pictured center right in photo), sold shares of the agency to a British company, PPL, for boatloads of money, but retained their leadership roles at the agency. A British executive, Lane Pryce (played by Jared Harris, center left in the photo), was sent to Sterling Cooper after the sale to help run the agency. Three British executives, Guy MacKendrick, Harold Ford, and Saint-John Powell, from PPL arrive on July 3, 1963 and announce a planned reorganization of Sterling Cooper. Lane Pryce is out (to be shipped off the Bombay) and Wunderkind British ad exec MacKendrick is in.

The disability theme occurs in the last 10 minutes of the episode. Sterling Cooper is having a going-away party for the voluptuous and assertive Sterling Cooper office manager Joan Holloway Harris (played by Christina Hendricks). As it was supposed to be a day off (July 3), the workers are in a real party mood, become drunk and start goofing around with a new John Deere lawnmower that an account manager rode into Sterling Cooper with a flourish early in the episode after landing the Deere account. (Who knew it would play out like the Chekhov’s gun theatrical device, which says anything introduced in the beginning of a play must be used by the end of the play.) The lawnmower was that metaphoric gun and just as damaging.

So… one of the ad copywriters and a secretary were riding around on the lawnmower in the office and the drunken secretary then drove it by herself, very badly, and she ran over Wunderkind MacKendrick foot and the whirring blade of the lawnmower sliced off part of his foot, sending a spray of blood across everyone standing nearby. Joan kept her head and jumped into action to put a tourniquet on MacKendrick’s ankle to keep him from bleeding to death.

Only Joan and Don Draper from Sterling Cooper showed up at the hospital waiting room to check on MacKendrick. This fact gives interesting insight into their two characters, both of whom typically come off as somewhat abrasive, but it’s clear that they both have real concern and compassion for others, unlike their upper crust colleagues who just pretend at niceties. Joan and Don are not schooled in the ways of insincere caring or snobbery, because they are both graduates of “the school of hard knocks,” rather than the Ivy League.

Joan and Don share a bit of gallows humor before the three British execs show up in the waiting room to check on the situation with MacKendrick. (They aren’t really there to check on the man himself.)

Joan: I’ll bet he felt great when he woke up this morning. But that’s life. One minute you’re on top of the world and the next some secretary is running over you with a lawnmower.

Don laughs.

The three British executives enter the hospital waiting room.

Saint-John: I’m heart broken.

Don: It’s a terrible tragedy.

Harold Ford: One that surely could have been avoided. Mrs. Harris, thank you for your quick thinking.

Lane Pryce: You may have saved his life.

Saint-John: Such as it is. He was a great account man. A prodigy. Could talk a Scotsman out of a penny. Now that’s over.

Don: I don’t know if that’s true.

Harold Ford: The man is missing a foot. How’s he going to work? He can’t walk.

Saint-John: The doctor said he will never golf again.

Harold Ford: I’m afraid we’ll have to reevaluate our entire strategy (referring to the reorganization of Sterling Cooper.)

Saint-John: Lane will remain here permanently.

Sadly, I would like to think this attitude toward someone acquiring a disability is only applicable in 1963, but the above scene could easily play out in 2009, I believe. Many business people easily dismiss someone with any disability as unemployable and not able to engage in social activities.

MacKendrick’s life is over because he supposedly can’t play golf? In the business world in 2009, some people probably still believe this. Don’t forget the major disability rights issue that surrounded golf when pro golfer Casey Martin wanted to use a cart because of his disability. Many, including the PGA, thought he was destroying the purity of the blessed sport (read sarcasm here.)

No matter what the “Mad Men” writers were trying to say about 1963, they hit on an ongoing truth in 2009 about how society devalues people the second they acquire a disability. Remember that MacKendrick was the Wunderkind of the agency until his foot was gone. The “Mad Men” scene illustrates the ableism that continues to permeate all aspects of society.

We can rejoice that many of the “isms” of 1963 are not as rampant as they once were. But, in many ways, ableism remains as deeply ingrained in society as it has always been.

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