Monday, September 08, 2008

Mad Men: "The Gold Violin" (2x06)

It seems like every episode of Mad Men leaves me saying that was one of the series’ best episodes yet, and this was no exception. It’s not so much the overall narrative, of which there wasn’t that much, it’s individual scenes and moments that shone, for their sadness, awkwardness or funniness. Amidst this series of interesting singular moments is a continuing shift in Don’s character, as he moves up in society and is again confronted with what his serial philandering has done to his character.

Let me start with the first standout scene, Harry Crane and Cooper’s discussion of the painting. This painting has been built up so much, Harry just needs to comment on it, and in the process, winds up opening exactly the problematic door he was hoping to avoid. The verbal tennis is fantastic, with Harry seemingly winning when he asks Cooper what he thinks of the painting, only to be totally shot down by Cooper, who’s actually trying to do work. It’s a mix of humor and awkwardness that would make Ricky Gervais proud.

The next striking scene is the strange moment where Don is called into Cooper’s office and offered the chance to ascend to the elite of society. Is he an initiate of the Illuminati, a Freemason now? Will he and William Gull be working on the Queen of England’s secret agenda next? In our world, the rulers of society aren’t an elaborate secret organization, they’re right there for all to see, the heads of corporations, making the choices that affect all our lives. I really liked the odd tone of the scene, the way Don is somewhat confused about this social promotion.

Don lives with this constant fear of being exposed as a fraud, of everyone finding out that he isn’t who he’s supposed to be. At the end of season one, Cooper made it clear that he didn’t care who Don was, he just cares who he is. But, when he’s thinking about buying the Cadillac, he flashes back to a moment when he was exposed as a fraud for the first time. I feel like the whole adopted persona functions as an allegory for the way everyone feels as an adult. Getting older, I still find it hard to believe I have a ‘real job,’ my own apartment, all that stuff. There’s no moment where you wake up and realize you’re an adult, but at a certain point, you just are.

For Don, the process of forming a self identity is wrapped up in the adoption of the Don Draper persona. If his “true identity” came out, everything he has could be stripped away, he’d be exposed as a fraud. Betty may have ostensibly fallen in love with a lie, but he’s been living that lie so long that it’s a more real identity than Dick Whitman. Don doesn’t buy the Cadillac at first, he’s scared that everything he’s got could come crashing down. Cooper welcomes him to the club, reassures him that he’s safe, and at that moment, Don decides to fully embrace the thrill of writing a $6,500 check and not caring.

Don loves the car, and driving in it, he seems to re-embrace the role of husband and father. Sitting in it, he and Betty are drawn to each other in a way we don’t usually see with the two of them. It’s like buying the car seals him into the Don Draper persona, he’s not faking it anymore, he’s made it and he can fully embrace the excess of suburban life.

This excess is depicted wonderfully in the picnic scene, where Don and his family stake their claim on the land. There’s the literal act of Bobby pissing on a tree, as well as the hard to believe dumping of garbage at the end of the scene. How could people be so careless of the environment back then? Notably, this is probably the happiest we’ve ever seen them all together as a family. Don seems to totally embrace the role of father, he’s relaxed, watching the clouds, not worried about work or anything else. Sally asks if they’re rich, a question that’s likely prompted by the sudden change in attitude. Don has accepted his role in society, yes, they are rich, and he’s going to live that way.

This all leads up to the party at the Stork Club, where new Don goes out to live it up with the rich and famous. Here, the perspective shifts, and see things through Betty’s eyes. Jimmy once again lavishes attention on her, though in light of the end of the episode, his motivations with her are a bit less clear. It would seem that he’s trying to sleep with her, but could he actually be motivated by a desire to get back at Don and ruin his life. Jimmy claims he’s at the “kids’ table,” which in business is more typically the womens’ table. He’s sitting over there with Betty, out of the loop. The only way to reassert power is to attack Don through Betty. And, when she doesn’t take the bait, he decides to go after Don himself.

The scene with Betty and Jimmy is another example of Betty using her “sensitive female disposition” as an excuse not to confront a real issue. Is she really so sensitive that she’s unable to deal with those issues, or is it an act she puts on so she doesn’t have to confront any real problems. It’s what she did with Arthur earlier in the season, and what she does with Jimmy now. She is repressing all these feelings, trying to live up to the image of the perfect family when in reality Don is once again betraying her. I’d argue that she knows exactly what’s going on, her fury evident when she throws up at the end of the episode, a closing moment as bold as anything on the series to date. It’s amazing that things could slide from that utopian moment in the park to something this bad so quickly.

The confrontation between Jimmy and Don is another fantastic moment, one in which Don’s status as a “man-whore” is brought to the forefront. There is an unspoken code that you don’t sleep with another man’s wife, Don has brazenly broken it. When Jimmy says that Don gave him everything he wanted, but he still hates him, it’s exactly the same sentiment that Betty has. They are both dependent on Don, he gives them their dreams, but takes their hearts in the process. The Jimmy/Don confrontation was brutal, if that’s the last we see of him and Bobbie, they went out on a high note.

Reading some online discussion about the series, it seems that people didn’t like the Bobbie/Jimmy arc that much. I find it hard to discuss the series on that level, there’s scenes I like more than others, but pretty much everything with Don is great, and feels integral to better understanding the character. Talking about the painting in this episode, they bring up the idea that art isn’t so much about specific meaning as it is about the feeling it gives you. This show is as close to “abstract art” as you’ll see on television. The narrative is very minimal, the payoffs are emotional rather than story based and so much is unsaid and subtextual. It’s not the story that leaves an impact, it’s the intangible something that knits each episode together. I loved the Bobbie/Jimmy arc, but even if I didn’t care for the characters, I think Bobbie in particular is integral to our ongoing understanding of Don this season.

The arc reminds me a bit of the backhalf of Sopranos season six in that it forces us to acknowledge that our “hero” really isn’t a good guy. Don tying her up and walking out last episode was a brutal act of emotional violence, after Bobbie sinks to the dark place they usually work from, Don all of a sudden decides he’s better than her. But, in so doing, he only seems even scummier, reinforced by that haunting final moment where he looks at his daughter and sees Bobbie. The first season version of Don wasn’t exactly a character you loved, but he seemed like a good enough guy for his time. This season is gradually tearing down the illusions he’s built up around himself. The world is changing, as we saw with the super young team at the ad agency, and Don’s burn through everything and leave charred remains behind approach might not work so well for a generation that ostensibly cares more.

I didn’t write up last week’s episode, but I want to quickly discuss the idea that Don has a “reputation” among a certain class of women. Last week’s episode again raised the specter of Tony Soprano in the way that Don has a loving blonde “virgin” wife at home who is utterly dependent on him, while he seeks out dark haired professional, powerful women “whores” to sleep with. The Sopranos was largely about a man trying to live like his parents did in a world that’s changed and left him obsolete. Don is still in a world that works with his morality, but it’s changing fast, and he has to try to keep up. Later in the 60s, Don’s adultery won’t be seen as acceptable, there won’t be this huge wall between the office and home. Betty has already expressed how trapped she is with just her and the kids at home.

Don is someone who won’t want to be left behind. He’s more self aware than the other people at Sterling Cooper, who write off any sort of change as just a fad. But, their entire world will soon be gone, Don feels that too, and it’s why he doesn’t want to be seen as just a man in a suit. He couldn’t make it with the beats last season, but he still resented being told he wouldn’t like a book of poetry in this season’s premiere. I could see the entire series ending with Don having reinvented himself again for the late 60s, abandoning his wife and kids and starting a new life out West, with long hair. You could read Dick Whitman’s adoption of the Don Draper persona as America itself adopting this suburban ideal after the war. So, as America changes again, he might as well.

Of course, that’s assuming Don can give up the trappings of luxury and accept a new kind of society again. He couldn’t do it with the beats, but he was willing to run away and start all over with Rachel last season. He doesn’t seem to have any emotional attachment to Betty. He performs the role of husband, but it’s hard to think of a time when he genuinely cared for her or the kids. Perhaps at the end of last season, in light of his Carousel presentation, but wasn’t that falling in love with images, with the life he’d created for himself more than the life he was actually living.

Elsewhere, the Sal/Ken dinner party was practically painful to watch, but still a fantastic scene. And, the Jane/Joan rivalry is full of spark and one upsmanship. Joan, who was publicly outed as 31 is getting shown up by this 20 year old, the first person who outplayed Joan at her own game. If Jane can stick around after getting fired by Joan, how fast does Joan’s power over the department evaporate? Either way, she’s a perfect representation of a new kind of woman emerging in the 60s. Even more so than Peggy, she’s not scared of traditional power structures and is making her own way.

So, a top notch episode in what has been an astonishing season so far. The style of storytelling on the show is so far beyond anything else in TV or cinema at the moment. Individual scenes have the resonance of entire films, and compounded, it becomes something even more transcendent.

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