Lots of intrigue, if not a whole lot of action, in this "Mad Men" seg, "The Gold Violin."
For all the plot seeds that appear to have been planted in this hour, the one image that really stuck with me in this seg -- penned by the quartet of Jane Anderson, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton and Matthew Weiner and helmed by Andrew Bernstein -- was the shot of the Drapers packing up from their picnic. Litterbugs! Miscreants! Eco-terrorists!
It was one of those moments that that took advantage of "Mad Men" being a period drama to get us to thinking about how far we've come in our attitudes about how we treat Mother Earth. It was bad enough that Don crumples up his beer can and pitches it as far as he can into the bucolic setting where this increasingly estranged family has stopped for a respite.
But when Betty shakes out their picnic blanket, letting the paper and food trash hit the grass without even giving it a second thought -- I shuddered. Yes, I know, the mind-set was very different back then -- interesting to note that Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" was published in 1962, same year as we're in on "Mad Men."
Still, I gotta believe plenty of people back then would've naturally been inclined to tidy up after themselves, if only because it's the right thing to do. I think trashing the countryside is a sign of Betty's growing detachment from reality. Certainly, she's becoming the ice queen as far as her children are concerned -- she seems to treat them more like a nuisance. It's quite a 180 from the picture-perfect mom she was striving to be in season one.
But let's back up a bit. I think the overarching theme of this seg is about materialism and the moral decay that conspicuous consumption represents.
Don buys his Cadillac and seems to worship it like a lover because he thinks it signals he's arrived. Bertram Cooper shells out $10,000 for a Rothko painting, not because he likes the red "smudgy squares," as new-girl Jane puts, but because he thinks it'll double its value in just a few years.
Ken Cosgrove, in his "Far From Heaven"-esque visit to Salvatore and Kitty's home for dinner, spells it out during their discussion the inspiration for his latest short story, and the title of this episode. "It was perfect in every way, except it couldn't make music," Ken tells them of the gilded fiddle he saw on display as an objet d'arte the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As if that weren't enough, Kurt and Smitty, the hot-shot twenty-something creatives that Sterling Cooper has hired (and I'd forgotten about), lecture Don on how the younger demos are steadfastly rejecting his Cadillac-coveting ways and going for a more idealistic way of life (Students for a Democratic Society, anyone?). They're more susceptible to be sold on a "mood" or attitude in connection with a product than being sold hard on the virtues of said product. And if it comes with a catchy Calypso tune, so much the better.
The 411 from Smitty and Kurt (why was Kurt wearing a jump suit?) must've put Don in the mind of his Beatnik ex-lover Midge. And it occurs to me that Don's interest in hifalutin things like fancy cars and the museum board membership that he's offered with much fanfare is another sign of his personality transformation of the past few years.
The Don Draper who was boffing Midge in her seedy apartment wasn't so hung up on status symbols as he was on the art of seduction. Remember how he handed Midge his $2,500 bonus check that night when he realized she was hung up on the other guy?
Meanwhile, back in his fractured marriage, Don once again treats Betty as his eye-candy trophy in attending the "Grin and Barrett" pickup party at the Stork Club -- albeit with disastrous results. When Jimmy Barrett is taking the high road and calling you "garbage," you know you've sunk to a new low. Kudos are due thesp Patrick Fischler for his skill in handling the slow-build of the confrontation at the party between Jimmy and Betty, in which he enlightens her to his gut sense about Don and Bobbie's affair, and then the "you're garbage" tongue-lashing Jimmy gives Don.
Betty's violent vomiting in Don's precious Caddy in the closing scene was completely unexpected -- I figured they'd just drive home in stone cold silence, again. But it was just the right payback for Don's philandering with Bobbie and his sudden bout of auto-erotica. (The selection of Brenda Lee's "Break It to Me Gently" for the closing credits was inspired too.)
As for the biggest mystery element of this episode, it's Don's flashback to his days as a used car salesman (why am I not surprised?) and a pompadour that looks awfully cute on him (hey, it was the mid-50s). Who is that blond woman who comes into the dealership to confront the faux Don Draper? Hmmm, we're not given much more to go on, but of course my mind started to gallop ahead with speculation about how Don might've dealt with this threat -- after he slept with her, of course.
The other big storyline in this episode, Ken's dinner date with Salvatore, also seems to fall in line with the status symbol theme. Salvatore's wife, Kitty, a nice girl from the Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up, is not so much a status symbol as a social symbol -- a beard for Salvatore and live-in nursemaid to his ailing mother.
Kitty's anguish after Ken leaves is clearly not just about that night, but pent-up frustration stemming from her husband's obvious inability to be a traditional husband. (The way he fondles Ken's left-behind lighter ought to be a big clue for Kitty, but again, it was a different time...)
Guest star Sarah Drew does a good job of fleshing Kitty out for us in a short amount of screen time; "Mad Men" regular Bryan Batt shines in the first major Salvatore seg of this season.
Among the other highlights of this seg:
**A smokin' showdown between Joan and the conniving Jane, who seems to have some agenda beyond trying to snare herself a husband. I'm wondering if she doesn't come from money herself? It might explain her sense of entitlement, or fearlessness in barging into Cooper's office. I'm sure Joan isn't done with Little Miss Crafty yet, and my money's on Joan.
**Parents across the country did a spit take during the conference room scene where the boys are discussing a new product, Pampers disposable diapers, and Salvatore notes their exorbitant cost of "10 cents a piece."
**"Are we rich?" Once again, Sally Draper gets a killer line. Her mother's response ("It's not to polite to talk about money") is so, so Betty. Something makes you uncomfortable? Definitely better to NOT talk about it, especially among your closest kin.
**Had to chuckle at the approving reaction shot on Salvatore's face when Ken makes a "West Side Story" reference. I don't think Salvatore has any delusions of making a move on the bachelor Ken, but he just likes the company of smart men who think about more than sex and sports.
**Guest star Adam Godley was great as the overbearing Brit car salesman Wayne Kirkeby. (Thanks to reader Allison Waldman for pointing out that "Al Kirkeby" is also the name of a character in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment.")
STUART LEVINE'S THOUGHTS
Yeah, lots of great stuff here, but what I took home was Don's inability to commit to the Coupe de Ville at first, and why he walked away from it before finally closing the deal.
Don had probably just transformed his persona from Dick Whitman shortly before he became a car salesman in the early '50s, and that change in his life continues to hang over his psyche. We're still not sure why he took he felt the urge to stop being Dick and become Don, but wanting to buy the $6,500 Caddy — and that was some serious coin back then — brought back some powerful memories. Remembrances that stopped him from even going for a test drive.
The car could be seen as a metaphor for a new life, and Don isn't quite ready yet to make that commitment, still haunted and unable to get past his Dick Whitman days.
During the flashback, it's tough to say who that blond was who walked in the dealership when Don was a young salesman, but it was nobody who he immediately recognized, so probably not a past girlfriend. Maybe a remote family member or friend of a friend who knew the real Don Draper, or perhaps Dick. The way Matt Weiner and his writing staff are parcing out these small but vital looks into Draper's past life have been remarkable.
What I also found interesting was how when car salesman Wayne Kirkeby was selling Don the Caddy, how he was using all his best catch phrases to try and convince Don to buy the car. Don, of course, is the guy who comes up with these slogans at work, so they probably felt like nothing more than a slick way to get him to buy and would turn him off immediately.
-- I didn't think Jane would play as big as a role as she has, and her oneupsmanship on Joan has the makings of a fiery showdown between the two. She comes off as demure but don't let that fool you. We don't know her backstory but something tells me she's more of a leader rather than a follower.
-- With his family disintergrating and his prized dog gone, Duck has buried himself even more into his job, doing some nice work in helping land the Martinson's Coffee account.
-- Jimmy and Bobbie, in a dead marriage, use each other to advance their careers and neither seem to care all that much who they hurt. They're both unnerving leeches, and both Don and Betty have been sucked in by their dark maelstrom.