Last week on AMC's The Wide World of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Matthew Weiner and Co. took a head-first dive into the morbid and macabre, and the sudden, atypical shift in tone unsettled many viewers (to say the least). Last night's episode opened with dire footage of real-life car wrecks, and yet another true American horror story — the infamous University of Texas tower sniper — served as the hour's official historical signpost. Instead of yet another grim tale, however, we were treated to some of the best laugh-out-loud comedy the show's ever provided. As a bright-eyed teenage girl said last night, "Things seem so random all of a sudden." She was talking about the times, an early symptom of a culture starting to careen into the tumult of the next three years. But she could've been speaking about Mad Men itself, which so far has zig-zagged from mod French musical to poignant domestic melodrama, from gothic accounts of spine-chilling mass murder to the giddily satisfying sight of Lane Pryce thumping Pete Campbell to the floor. More than ever, I have no idea what to expect when I tune in. I don't know about you, but I'm digging the fizzy uncertainty.
This isn't to say "Signal 30" — the pulpy, sci-fi-y title of the driver's educational film Pete had to watch to (finally) get his license — didn't dwell on some dark issues. Both Lane and Pete confronted feelings of purposelessness and alienation, of hidden vulnerabilities and the deficit between their starry-eyed ambitions and the ledger of their actual lives. And it was hilarious.
Let's start with Lane. It was July 30, the day of the 1966 World Cup finals between England and West Germany. But Lane wasn't exactly leaping at the chance to head out to a local English ex-pat pub to watch the game with his wife Rebecca (Embeth Davidtz). "You don't even know what's good for you!" she said, exasperated. Lane, though, was firm: These were her friends they were to meet up with, not his. He's never liked football — that's his father's game. And, besides, "I hate this business of bringing England over in pieces," he said. "It's strictly for the homesick." Rebecca tried a different approach. The pub was "for immigrants, like us!"
The argument worked, but it also underlined how much Lane is a man without a country. He yearns to make a clean break from the oppression of his fatherland, beguiled by his adopted home, what with its kept women who flirt with strangers on the phone and its exotic mistresses who wear bunny costumes to work. But he still cannot help but feel a mad rush of national pride after England's 4-2 World Cup victory. (It remains England's only World Cup championship, due in part to a controversial goal that many believe should not have been counted.) Better yet, Lane's heritage also provided him with the chance to feel truly useful at the office; Edwin Baker (David Hunt), the husband of Rebecca's new friend, was the PR chief at Jaguar, and the company was looking to break into the U.S. market in a big way. SCDP was to be the one and only potential suitor for the gig.
It was a big get: A car campaign, the firm's first, a chance to burnish their rep as a serious place of business. The rest of Lane's fellow partners saw the potential immediately. Well, except for Pete, who was reflexively jealous that he hadn't landed it. "We'd probably have to hire 10 people who will be on the payroll for months!" he sneered before attempting a comically awful British accent: "My lordy! New business! Not here, sir!"
Naturally, everyone ignored him. But he wasn't the only one whose judgement was hobbled by a fragile ego. When Lane was offered help to close the deal, he waved it off, confident he and Edwin could relate to each other, "Englishman to Englishman."
NEXT PAGE: Roger shares some trade secrets with Lane