Let's call this the long, awkward pause edition of "Mad Men" There are some good ones in this third installment of the season,"My Old Kentucky Home."
It's also an insightful, oh-so-telling study of the nature of couplehood in all of its many stages. In another life, Matt Weiner surely would have been a marriage counselor. He has a keen eye for those little details and small gestures that reveal everything about a relationship.
And any episode that gives us Joan playing the accordion ("C'est Magnifique") and Peggy Olson, proud graduate of Miss Deaver's Secretarial School, smoking her first joint has got to be a goodie. I nearly choked on her declaration to Paul Kinsey et al: "I'm Peggy Olson. I want to smoke some marijuana."
Overall, this is an interesting episode for the women of the Sterling Cooper mob. We're seeing more assertiveness, certainly from Peggy (when Paul tells her to go get the blender, she shoots back "You get it"), but in subtle ways from other characters -- even Carla, the Drapers' housekeeper, in her dealings with Gene, Betty's batty dad. I think it's all part of the theme of great social change enveloping our characters. The show is a Petri dish for all of these New Frontier experiments, and we get to watch how various personality types react. (Harry Crane is so voting for Goldwater. And Nixon.)
It's no accident that one of the two headline news items of the day that are referenced in this episode is the then-scandalous marriage of socialite Margaretta "Happy" Murphy to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, barely a month after she got a divorce and had to give up custody rights to her four children. Betty has clearly followed this tabloid affair (she's a closet New York Post reader?) because she knows all the details when the surprise marriage is referenced.
The other news that seeps into this episode, penned by Dahvi Waller and Weiner, is the radio report that references Birmingham, Alabama. (Try as I might I could not make out the first part of the report, the sound was too muddy). If this episode is taking place on May 4, 1963 -- the date of the Rockefeller wedding -- then the radio report is clearly about the civil rights demonstrations led by Martin Luther King Jr. against segregation in Birmingham ("greatest city in A-la-bam," per Randy Newman). These were protests that yielded scenes of unbelievable brutality -- children and teenagers getting beaten with billy clubs, bitten by police dogs and cut down with fire hoses -- that helped turned the tide of public opinion and pave the way for landmark civil rights legislation in the years ahead.
The news report comes across as background noise in the Drapers' living room as Don mixes a drink while waiting for Betty to get ready to go to the lavish party that the Sterlings are throwing at their snooty Long Island country club on the occasion of the Kentucky Derby. The reason for the report is made clear moments later when we see Roger hamming it up at the party in black face, crooning to his newly beloved. You gotta love Don Draper for being disgusted by Roger's crassness, on so many levels.
As Don explains in his odd, wonderfully written exchange with the older man he runs into behind the country club bar, Don Draper (nee Dick Whitman) comes from the kind of stock that also wasn't allowed to use the bathroom in the realm where "fancy" folks came to play. Between the constant references to Kentucky and his feeling of not belonging that he shares with the old man, Connie, who's at the country club to attend a wedding he couldn't care less about, Don can't wait to get out of there. I enjoyed Don's cool James Bond move of catapulting himself up and over the bar ("I don't have a lot of time," he explains to Connie.)
Another terrific touch throughout this episode -- credit goes to the writers of course but also to helmer Jennifer Getzinger -- is the dramatic tension that builds from explosions you're sure are coming but never materialize. The story thread involving Gene and his search for the missing $5 is a good example. You expect him to explode on Don and Betty as they're leaving for the party, but Don cuts it off.
Then we expect Gene to explode on Carla and accuse her of stealing simply because she's the help and she's black. But it doesn't happen. And at the very end, when Gene has realized that Sally swiped the money from his money clip, you expect him to unload on her -- but no. He engages her in what has clearly become a pastime for her in reading to him from a grown-up book (couldn't catch the title but AMC says it's "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"), which is clearly a source of comfort to both of them. Even if the book doesn't seem entirely appropriate for an 8-year-old. When she stumbled on "li-cen-tious-ness" I got a slight chill. There's such a sense of foreboding around these scenes with Sally and Grandpa. And I'll say it again: Kiernan Shipka is talented way, way beyond her years.
The first Big Pause one is the most fraught with tension. Jane meets Joan on the floor of Sterling Cooper. Jane, who I am on record as having hated at first sight last season, is strutting around the place like a conqueror, which she is in some sense. Less than a year ago, she was one of the secretarial prols -- and not a very good one at that -- and now she's returning as Mrs. Roger Sterling. But her new found wealth can't buy good taste. She's dressed like something out of Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," with her black-and-white diamond checkered dress and two-story white hat (the evil queen of diamonds, maybe?).
You can hear the acid sizzling on the carpet as Jane and Joan exchange pleasantries, after the loooooong awkward pause. ("It's so great to see you." "Likewise.") Joan's expression says it all, and proving that she's still the queen of Sterling Cooper, her steno-courtesans don't move a muscle until Joan dismisses them ("I'll catch up with you girls"). Fantastic work in this scene by Christina Hendricks (the camera's on her most of the time).
Joan draws a bead on Jane with a stare that clearly makes Jane squirmy. But while we're expecting a verbal fusillade from Joan, Jane pipes up with the request for a "tiny favor" of having Joan send "one of the girls" down to the street to flag down her circling driver. It's an ostentatious, narcissistic display of Jane's new riches -- so much so that it throws Joan off her game, rendering her without the sharp retort that Joan is known for. On reflection (and a second viewing), it's obvious that Jane is nervous around Joan, but in the moment it's just comes across as tawdry and tacky -- which pretty much sums up Jane in my book!
The second Big Pause is a pregnant pause in the scene with Betty and the man outside the ladies room at the Derby Day party. It's seems to be Betty's version of Don's encounter with the older guy behind the bar. But this scene is even weirder -- it's like a little slice out of a Cassavetes movie. The man, who we later learn is Henry Francis and works for Gov. Rockefeller, flirts mercilessly with Betty while she's waiting for Trudy to come out of the loo. But his expression changes and he asks to touch her belly.
Betty, understandably, takes a few beats but then nods to give him the go-ahead. He's respectful -- nothing licentious -- but they both seem so unnerved by this physical connection. Betty apologizes that the baby she's sure is a girl isn't moving. The weird vibe is broken by Trudy coming out of the bathroom. But the way they later introduce the man very specifically as Henry Francis with a close up of the strange longing look that he gives Betty -- I'm guessing he'll be back.
The third Big Pause comes during Joan's dinner party, when her insensitive cretin of a husband thinks it's a good idea to have Joan entertain the guests with her squeeze box. Memo to Greg -- this is the kind of thing you discuss beforehand. (I can testify from personal experience that musicians don't take kindly to being treated as jukeboxes. You wouldn't ask a mechanic friend to go tune up your car after a nice meal.)
I'm also on record as saying that Greg must be a pretty crummy doctor, after he raped Joan last season. Now we have the medical evidence. Amid the dinner party chatter comes word that Greg bungled a surgery recently, and Joan is clearly not happy to have been in the dark about it. The clear hint is that it might compromise his ability to advance to chief resident status, while Joan keeps telling everyone that she's only going to be working at Sterling Cooper a little while longer.
Meanwhile, Greg's crummy doctor-ness is neatly foreshadowed in the earlier scene where Joan scolds him for hastily yanking the vacuum cleaner plug out of the socket, telling him it could easily break. His snippy answer is that he'd just get a screwdriver and fix it. Not as easy to just fix it when we're talking about internal organs, is it Greg? I really hate that guy. And doesn't he notice that she seems to wince a bit every time he calls her "Joanie." She is sonot a Joanie. Sheesh.
Big Pause No. 4 comes toward the end of the seg between Sally and Grandpa, as discussed above. I found it to be the creepiest.
Now about those couples ... Roger and Jane put on such a display of garish behavior that they made Don and Betty look like a model marriage. For sure, those two were having a good day, as demonstrated the tres romantic final scene of Don walking, slowly but deliberately, the long stretch from the party tent to Betty waiting on the edge of the field. The closing shot was nicely framed, as they embrace passionately enough for Don to drop Betty's coat and purse -- a nice payoff for the funny shot moments before of Don walking through the party area with Betty's baby-pink accessories on his arm. (Wow. According to the "Behind the Scenes" vid on this episode on the AMC website, I couldn't be more wrong, according to Matt Weiner. He says they're both wishing they were embracing other people at that moment. Hmmmm.)
In the last scene we also see Don taking a last look at Roger and Jane alone on the dance floor as the party winds down. As we saw in last season's "Jet Set" episode, Don's disdain for Roger's juvenile behavior inspires him to man up and be a better husband. He's susceptible that way, that Don Draper.
As for the others:
Harry and Jennifer: She's trying to help him get over his social awkwardness but he's his own worst enemy. And he can't read her for nothing, or he wouldn't have pulled her off the dance floor.
Joan and Greg: These two are headed for big trouble. Joan's choice of Cole Porter's "C'est Magnifique," about loves ups and downs, was pointed.
Pete and Trudy: Who knew they could dance? It shows their upper-crust upbringing -- cotillions and formals and all that. I noticed both Pete and Trudy were working the room for all it was worth. Trudy obviously sees Betty as way to woo Don to her side in the Pete v. Ken competition. I do love Alison Brie in this role.
Peggy Olson also has found herself in a new relationship, and her name is Olive. Peggy's new secretary is part loyal assistant and part mom. I think she was introduced to emphasize the contrast between the world unfolding for Peggy and the norms for women of earlier generations. "I'm in a very good place now," she insists. Granted she'd just been smoking pot for the first time, but Peggy delivers the strangest line to Olive: "I am going to get to do everything you want for me." It's strange because Peggy is so buttoned-up and intensely private, and she's barely known Olive for a few days. But somehow they seem to bond.
More, more, more:
** Betty, can you be such a narcissist that you can't see Sally's cries for attention? Yes, you can. Sally to Betty is a dressing assistant and convenient scapegoat. Heartbreaking.
** Noticed that Sally calls her grandfather "Grandpa Gene," even though she knows no grandparents on dad's side.
** With the drama stirred up in the Draper house by the arrival of Gene, I can't help but think back to Betty's line in the season opener about wanting to bring the new baby into "our family at its best."
** Smitty's back! Along with his leather vest. But what happened to his openly gay creative partner? (Who was also named Smith as I recall.)
** Paul Kinsey is such a hypocrite. He paints himself as a progressive and an artist-type etc, spouting T.S. Eliot ("This is the way the world ends..."). But he's upset about the social snub of not being invited to Roger's Derby party. And when it comes time to fire up the weed and Smitty asks for his sweater to stuff in the door crack, Paul's first reaction is: "It's mohair." (I'm sorry to say that until I read other "Mad Men" bloggage, I didn't pick up on the significance of Paul's dealer friend Jeffrey outing him as a scholarship kid who once had a thick Jersey accent.)
** What's up with the advice that Joan gets from Mrs. Chief of Surgery. "The last thing you want now is a child." Not exactly the kind of thing you'd say to your hostess the first time you meet her.
** Don Draper tells it like it is: "No one thinks you're happy. They think you're foolish," he tells Roger after he helps his drunken wife to her feet. Clearly Don senses Roger's falling star at the office. And come to think of it, I didn't see any sign of Lane Pryce at the Derby party.
** I was shocked to find on the home page of the official Kentucky Derby org a link to the complete 1970 Hunter S. Thompson story "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." This is one of the best pieces of fiction-y non-fiction I have ever read. I've never been to the Kentucky Derby, but thanks to Gonzo, I will always know how to tell the real Kentucky colonels from the fakes. It's a great read and a great ride. Miss you, HST.