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"Mad Men": "My Old Kentucky Home"

By admin Published: August 31, 2009

The delicate, and sometimes brutal, dances among the characters were many on last night's "Mad Men." And my favorite may have been the nimble stepping by Joan Holloway ...

It was a densely plotted episode, with four different storylines going: Roger and Jane's Kentucky Derby party, with Don, Betty, Pete and Trudy among the guests; the dinner party at Joan's for Greg's chief of surgery; Peggy, Paul and Smitty having to work on a Bacardi account, and Sally's stealing $5 from Gene, whom no one really believes has lost any money.

The Gene storyline was the simplest, and the most simply resolved, with him choosing not to confront Sally when it was obvious she took the money she "found." From what we've heard, Gene was hardly the ideal father, but he is filling the role well as a grandfather -- simply because he is around, and seeing Sally in a way that the distant Don and Betty have not. I also liked some of the flourishes with Sally: not only that she never does the big confessional scene, but that she unquestioningly reads to Gene from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" without stopping to ask what a word like "licentiously" means. There's an implied conversation here between Don/Betty and Sally, to just go along with Grandpa Gene no matter what. (And it was very interesting that Sally calls him Grandpa Gene, since there's no other Grandpa from Don's side to distinguish him from.)

Of course, reading about social decline fits in more broadly with "Mad Men," especially in terms of Roger's decadent, antebellum party, and its absolutely squirmy Roger-in-blackface scene. The overarching idea, though, was that Roger is not merely "foolish," as Don perhaps too bluntly tells him, but completely out of step.

I was reminded of the lines from Henry James's "The Bostonians" (which I am reading for a class) in which Ransom's attempt at a commentary "on the rights of minorities" is rejected because "his doctrines were about three hundred years behind the age." Roger has seemed a decade or so out of time up to this point, but the Derby party made clear that he is more like a century off the mark. And, in a business where timeliness is becoming more and more important, Roger is in ever deeper trouble. The only way he can seem contemporary is to be involved with a much younger woman, and look how that's going for him.

Of course, if Roger is out of time, Don remains somewhat out of class. Betty's enthusiasm for the party indicates how little she gets out, and that one reason is that she is still able to be dazzled by a glittering social occasion when all Don sees are those people into whose trunks he used to urinate. Connie, visibly older than Don, indicates that things won't get any better for Don as he grows older. He will always feel like the outsider. And that goes to Don's inability to be happy. As silly as Pete and Trudy looked when they danced, they were having fun. Don cannot do that; fun exposes him in a way that he just won't allow. Same thing with Don and trust; he let his guard down with Roger, only to hear Jane blurt his confidence in front of Betty. When Don zaps Roger, he may be right, but he is also angry -- betrayed by Roger, who actually believes in talking to his mate.

As for Peggy and the boys, as much as the pot-smoking allowed Peggy an epiphany about her own happiness (and set her apart from Don in the process), the scene was also a peek into Paul's past, and into the way Paul has aspired to remake himself a la Don -- the scholarship kid from New Jersey turned into the patrician-sounding capital-W Writer from Princeton -- without nearly the same success. His reinvention is a little shopworn, too obvious, with a past he can't quite pull away from; his dope dealer knows all of Paul's secrets.

Great performance again by Elisabeth Moss as Peggy, though. And I love the way Christina Hendricks plays the different notes in Joan, and not only those found on an accordion. The dinner party is tremendously important to Joan to begin with, because it is a chance to help Greg bring her to a higher social plane; it is made more so when she encounters Jane at the office, and sees what someone with far fewer smarts and cunning has made of herself.

But just the way Don doesn't share with Betty, Greg has kept things from Joan. The first clue is when Mrs. Ettinger ominously refers to Greg's good future "no matter what happens," the second when the conversation reveals that Greg has botched a surgery. It's not all going to be the way Joan hoped, at least not yet, no matter how perfectly she sets a table.

The accordion scene was superb. It could be read, as the AMC synopsis claims, that Greg wants "to deflect attention from himself." I think it was far more complicated. He is not only trying to get away from the discussion of the botched surgery, he is trying to bring down Joan -- the perfect wife -- a peg by putting her in a comical/humiliating situation. When he brings out the accordion, we can easily anticipate "Lady of Spain" or some overdone polka, with Joan forced into cliches and forced jollity. But she is too smart, and she enraptures the group with a gentle, charming "C'est Magnifique." Joan may have done a lot for her man, but she still holds onto her dignity.

Good episode.

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