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'Mad Men' Mondays: 'Chinese Wall'

Is Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce dead?

Don Draper suffered a panic attack near the end of last week's episode, "Hands and Knees." This week it was the entire firm's turn. And Roger Sterling's to blame. No, it wasn't his fault that Lucky Strike took its business elsewhere (although Don wasn't wrong when he said his old friend could have worked harder babysitting his only account—or worked, period). But it was Roger's fault that the company was caught unprepared. Roger had wrested a 30-day stay of execution from Lee Garner Jr. to break the bad news and come up with a plan of attack. Instead, what Draper and company got was an ambush that didn't have to be an ambush, with Roger covering for his duplicity by staging an Oscar-worthy one-way "phone call" with the client, then embarking on a phony rescue mission to North Carolina that took him no further than a New York hotel room. The agency is now living on borrowed time. And this week's installment (written by Erin Levy and directed by Phil Abraham) captured the chaos of such a scenario—panic leading to a lack of confidence among clients, leading to yet more panic.

When you're down, some people can't resist kicking you. As soon as news started spreading on Madison Avenue that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had lost most of its revenue with a single announcement, clients and colleagues began running for the lifeboats. Don's call to a representative of Glo-Coat—the company for which Don masterminded a Clio-winning ad—was supposed to be a Hail Mary pass, or at least damage control. But as we've seen before, Don's not very good in a crisis—at least not one that can't be solved with a clever slogan—and the scene where we saw this demonstrated yet again was wonderfully written and played. Don stood by his desk, steeling himself, commenced with the usual "Hail-fellow-well-met" pleasantries, then almost instantly freaked out out, sounding more like a jilted lover than a creative executive. Then he blamed Pete—who's sitting on a motherlode of incriminating information about Don—accusing him of letting his anxiety over his impending fatherhood distract him from reassuring the client. When the incorrigible Ted Chough buttonholed Pete in the hospital and suggested he start over as a partner at Chough's firm, I found myself talking to the screen for the first time in several weeks: Just do it.

"It's the last days of Rome," Stan says, presaging his latest clumsy pass at Peggy. "I was in an agency that went down. The women got sex-crazed." Wishful thinking? Not entirely.  Megan seemed to sense Don's momentary estrangement from Faye, or maybe she just shifted into Gal Friday mode at the sight of Don suffering, as so many "Mad Men" women are inclined to do. She seduced Don and saw him off the next day like a wife-in-training. (The way she looked at him I half-expected her to hand him a bag lunch.) Peggy bedded Abe after seeming to write him off weeks earlier: Was it Abe's too-short bathing trunks that did the trick? (The ensuing crisis at work didn't manage to kill Peggy's post-nooky buzz; the woman's damn near unflappable.) Don drove away Faye by pushing her to give him inside information about her clients that he could use to staunch the firm's red ink hemorrhage. She walked away—a stand-up-and-applaud moment—then showed up at his doorstep to tell him she'd finagled him a meeting with a representative from Heinz. Between the psychology of the character and the politically delicate position of working women in the mid-'60s, this turnabout felt believable to me. But it was still depressing. Peggy consistently shows more backbone in similar situations. So does Joan, which seems rather remarkable considering all that she's been through. "I'm not a solution to your problem," she told Roger, when he came sniffing around her door yet again. "I'm another problem." After all she's endured, she proved herself capable of making a rational decision under horrendous circumstances. That's more than you can say for most of her coworkers.

On an a mostly unrelated note, it was great to see Ray Wise showing up in a small role as Ken Cosgrove's future father-in-law. Beyond being a world class character actor and the proud owner of one of the most charismatically cryptic grins in show business, Wise is a living shout-out to one of the great, groundbreaking series in TV history, David Lynch's "Twin Peaks."  Wise played the demonically possessed Leland Palmer, the hounded-to-death newscaster Don Hollenbeck in Good Night and Good Luck, and the bad guy in Rising Sun, among other juicy parts. I seriously doubt Wise will get to raise hell on "Mad Men" in quite the same way as he did on "Twin Peaks." Nevertheless, his one modest scene seemed a harbinger of more to come.  

Matt Zoller Seitz is a contributor to Salon and the founder of Slant's “The House Next Door,” where he has written extensively about “The Sopranos” and other series.

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