Were “Mad Men” set in the 1980s and not the 1960s, I’d be tempted to make a “working for the weekend” joke at some point in this recap. Tonight’s episode, the third of the young season, focused on several scenarios in which various people in Sterling Cooper’s employ were forced to work overtime while officially off the clock. It also set the scene for the impending generational divide that will only become more pronounced as the season and series progress.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (Aug. 30) “Mad Men” after the break…]
At one point in tonight’s episode, Paul Kinsey quoted the end of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” The world didn’t end with a bang nor a whimper in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it’s clear that the events from last season’s finale still casts quite a shadow over the lives of these characters. And yet, the world stubbornly moved on after the stand-down, leaving these people to exist under an ever-growing sense of apocalyptic doom. Instead of feeling elation over their survival, they instead live with one eye constantly surveying the landscape, and react to uncertainty in various ways. They lung at any type of happiness, desperately grasp onto to any semblance of the past, or burst forth to create some new type of landscape that can survive the oncoming onslaught. In honor of the book Gene Hofstadt makes Sally read to him, let’s call it “The Decline and Fall of the Old America.”
Take Sterling’s horrific blackface performance of “My Old Kentucky Home,” the song which gave this episode its title. Garish? Yes. Racist? Beyond question. But it’s also a kind of statement on Sterling’s part, a futile one in which the world in which he was raised somehow can continue at this point in time. One can look at his marriage to Jane as not merely a mid-life crisis but a sad attempt to stave off mortality itself. Contrast that performance with Pete Campbell’s dance-as-audition, using moves familiar to Sterling’s generation not to entertain his wife but in order to claim sole possession of Head of Accounts. He undoubtedly learned those moves from a generation he loathes, but isn’t afraid to use those moves in order to get ahead. He’s OK with killing their generation with flattery. (And Harry Crane’s wife is killing herself for marrying a man with so little game.)
Speaking of flattery, Betty Draper certainly didn’t shy away from the dotage bestowed by a member of the NYC Mayor’s office while waiting for Pete’s wife to emerge from the powder room. With Don itching to escape at any given moment, it’s Betty who not only insists they attend in the first place but keeps them there until almost everyone else has left. But she’s not in love so much with the attention from Francis as she is intoxicated by the atmosphere generated by Sterling’s country club. A handsome stranger touching her pregnant belly is a byproduct not of a woman jealous of her husband’s past indiscretions, but a woman longing for a time and place that probably never existed.
We’ve previously seen Betty’s attachment to her childhood home. She idealizes that abode to the point of fetishism; as her brother pointed out last week, she subconsciously omits the years spent fighting with her father in that house. But just as Roger longs for the quote-unquote “good ol’ days” as evidenced by his performance, so too does Betty long for a time in which a posh country club could feed the fantastic lie that life as a whole was somehow alright. For a price, you could purchase happiness as well as immortality. Too bad Jane’s drunken confession that she knew about Betty’s supposedly secret separation punctured that illusion by night’s end.
Behind the scenes, however, the façade fails. In perhaps the stand-out scene of the episode, Don mixes drinks while conversing with a man escaping a wedding being held simultaneously in another part of the country club. This man, Connie, describes the wedding as a “match made in the board room,” and the two bond over their lot trapped at work events posing as social functions. Connie also wistfully points out that as a penniless child, he enjoyed looking at a nearby mansion in much the way Betty views her childhood home. However, he enjoys the view inside the mansion looking out to be much less agreeable. It’s a conversation that’s met with understanding by Don. Pete Campbell would have undoubtedly not understood it at all.
With all this going on amongst the senior level players at Sterling Cooper, the lower rungs on the ladder did not escape their fair share of extra off-the-books labor. Due to a last-minute request from Bacardi, the creative team had to stay all weekend to pitch five new ideas. Kinsey and Smitty took this opportunity to smoke dope under the excuse of “inspiration.” Peggy took that opportunity in order to more fully ingratiate herself into the male-centric office with a quote that I hope will someday be featured on dance remixes: “I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana.”
What followed was unfortunately stereotypical drug banter, the type of obvious dialogue that the show usually so masterfully avoids. However, I am curious as to whether of not Peggy’s final “I am woman!” speech to her overprotective secretary was supposed to be triumphant or hopelessly delusional. The show is obviously striving to show her trying to come out from the doormat under which she lived for most of Season 2; let’s wait and see if she’s flying high or pulling a modern-day Icarus.
While Peggy achieved a new level of consciousness, Joan suffered a new level of indignation while hosting a dinner party for her husband’s coworkers. Looks like Greg isn’t exactly the most well-respected surgeon in his hospital, with his mistakes vaguely alluded to by his colleagues to an unsuspecting Joan. As such, his constant degrading of his wife seems a by-product over his own shortcomings at work. Not the most original character motivation, but at least the show finally gave him one.
But just to ensure the party didn’t linger on his less-than-reliable hands, he turned his wife into a prop, strapping an accordion around her and all but shouted, “Dance, monkey, dance!” While Joan performed enchantingly, she shot daggers with her eyes at the man she more than likely regrets marrying. Had she attended the garden party, she might loathe her station less. But Jane’s earlier appearance in the office only served to remind her of the road not taken.
Threaded all through these various Sterling Cooper-centric stories lay the most problematic one of all: Gene Hofstadt and the Case of the Missing Five Dollars. I will admit to spending most of my time during these scenes praying that Gene didn’t one-up Sterling’s racist performance or straight-up strike his grand-daughter. Were Sally’s theft a way to try and keep her father in the house, I would get her actions. But “kids sometimes just steal” isn’t dramatically interesting in the least. As such, I experience of mixture of horror and utter boredom during these scenes. Not the best combo. I understand that Gene’s presence is meant to disturb as much as depress, but I’m hoping his presence inside the Drapers’ household is short-lived. In a show in which silences say much more than anything verbalized, it’s jarring to insert this much shouting into the mix.
In short, the good outweighed the bad, but there was plenty of both to be found. Sterling’s continuing self-destructive behavior in the wake of his firm’s sale continued to fascinate. Pete’s literal nimble footwork to secure his promotion delighted. Don’s conversation with a kindred soul was beautifully written and gorgeously played. But Peggy’s ham-fisted dialogue and Sally’s kleptomania failed to reach the show’s usual heights. Hopefully next week’s episode will find more elegant ways to have these characters try and maintain their balance while the world shifts under their feet.
Thoughts on the “My Old Kentucky Home” episode of “Mad Men”?