Spoilers for "Mad Men" season two, episode seven coming up just as soon as I track down the original version of the Port Huron Statement, not the compromised second draft...
"I don't think it's supposed to be explained." -Ken Cosgrove
"I'm an artist, okay? It must mean something." -Salvatore Romano
"Maybe it doesn't. Maybe you're just supposed to experience it. Because when you look at it, you're to feel something, right. It's like looking into something very deep. You could fall in."-Ken Cosgrove
A part of me is inclined to take that exchange in Mr. Cooper's office as a meta commentary from Matt Weiner and company about how we should really view "Mad Men": not as a mystery to be dissected, one 2,000 word blog entry at a time, but as a deep emotional experience where we're supposed to simply fall in and experience it -- to paraphrase the words of the shorter Mr. Smith, to just be with it.
But if that's the case, I might as well run a photo collage every week, and where's the fun in that? So attempt to explain the unexplainable I shall continue to do.
There are three key images in "The Gold Violin," one described and two seen. The first is the violin that gives both the episode and Ken's latest short story their titles, and which Ken describes -- without irony -- as "perfect in every way -- except it couldn't make music." The second is Bert Cooper's painting, which everyone on the staff assumes says something about the old man's tastes, but is really about his bank account. The third is that long, lingering shot of the Drapers leaving their idyllic picnic getaway and casually leaving all their litter behind, in a tableau that would make Iron Eyes Cody weep if he ever found his way to Ossining.
The gold violin is aesthetically beautiful but doesn't serve the function for which it was designed. The hypnotic painting is just a means for Cooper to make some extra cash. The picnic seems so marvelous, but there's a literal trail of garbage underneath it. All throughout this episode, we see men who appear to have everything, but what they really have is either not as useful as it looks, or else there's a lot of trash lurking directly underneath.
Don's life appears to be in ascension, as he has the money to buy a top of the line Cadillac and the social clout to be placed on the board of what might be a prestigious museum. But the museum invite comes from a job where Duck Phillips did all the heavy lifting while Don fought him every step of the way, and as he shops for the car, he flashes back to his earliest days as Don Draper and we're reminded once again that his entire life is a lie.
Ken envies (at least a little) Salvatore's married life, but we all know it's a sham -- and in our first prolonged exposure to Sal's wife Kitty, we see that she at least suspects this.
Jimmy Barrett tells Don "Thanks to you, I got everything I wanted," but both men realize that he got it -- the TV show, a strengthened relationship with his sponsors at Utz, more money -- because Don is sleeping with Jimmy's wife.
"People buy things to realize their aspirations. It's the foundation of our business." -Bert Cooper
Of all the characters on "Mad Men," Don has come the closest to realizing his aspirations, and yet he hasn't realized them at all. He seems to have everything -- gorgeous wife, prestigious job, cute kids, new Coupe de Ville, etc. -- but he only occasionally enjoys any of them, in part because he knows it's as much of a lie as his name. The flashback was an opportunity for Jon Hamm to again show us how easily he can flip the switch between Don Draper and Dick Whitman (in 1952, he still hadn't perfected his new role yet), but also a reminder of his terrible secret. (As was Cooper's "Would you agree that I know a little about you?")
And it also acknowledged that there had to be more to the identity theft when we saw in season one. The real Don Draper was a successful, educated man, and an officer in the military -- there had to be someone in the world who knew and cared about the guy whose life our Don is now living. Don's life has been spinning out of control all season; is it just ennui over the life he has but doesn't really want, or is it guilt over some other dark secret in his past we're about to learn about? What exactly did he have to do to shake this woman loose without having to give up his new identity?
(And is there a chance that the 1952 blonde was the recipient of the poetry book? I was starting to worry that we wouldn't get any follow-up on that, but when this episode brought back Mr. & Mr. Smith after they were absent for five episodes, I felt reassured that the events of the season premiere actually happened.)
Whatever the reason for Don's downward spiral, it's going to get worse before it gets better now that Jimmy has confronted both Don and Betty about the affair. Along with the fate of Pete Jr., the question of what happened between the Drapers after she came back from her Thanksgiving trip in 1960 is the big mystery remaining from the 15-month gap. There have been hints here and there, like Betty saying Don promised he wouldn't "disappear" any more, but nothing beyond that. But as much as Betty hates to confront truths about her life, she can't hide from this one -- her vomiting on her blue gown was yet another of this episode's ugly blemishes on a postcard picture life. If we thought she was emasculating Don at the start of the season, what'll that relationship be like now?
Salvatore's spotlight in "The Hobo Code" was one of my favorite stories from season one, and after keeping the married Salvatore in the background (and the closet) for much of this season, his second spotlight was almost as wonderful as the first.
Sal's encounter with the gay cosmetics executive forced him to confront his sexuality, and it scared him -- a good Catholic boy who still lived with his mother -- into diving headfirst into a hetero lifestyle. But being gay is part of who Salvatore is, not something he can switch on and off through sheer willpower. And as he gets some insight into Ken Cosgrove -- part-time author and far more complex than he seems when he's (literally) pimping for clients or sexually harassing secretaries -- he can't help but feel attracted to him. He likes Kitty and feels guilty when he realizes how much he's hurting her, but I can guarantee you that he has never looked at her with the kind of ravenous expressions that he gave Ken throughout this episode. More great work from Bryan Batt, who, when given the opportunity, continues to do wonders with this character we all wanted to dismiss as a two-dimensional stereotype early in the series.
Some other thoughts on "The Gold Violin":
• What a magnificent bastard is Roger Sterling. The pretty new secretary comes crying to him about getting fired by his ex-mistress, and though he promises to take care of it, he doesn't bother to talk to Joan at all, because in any scenario, he wins. Either Joan realizes what's what and lets Jane keep her job (and therefore increases the odds of Jane having sex with him), or Joan boots her out a second time and then comes screaming to Roger, who clearly enjoys it when she's mad at him. One question: while Joan was 100 percent justified in firing Jane for that kind of insubordination, do you think she resents Jane because she didn't play the game that way when she was coming up in the steno pool, or because she played it exactly that way? My money's on the latter.
• Duck is absolutely drinking, maybe not all the time, and maybe not even in the scenes where we see him. But he's carrying himself completely differently -- far more outgoing and uninhibited than his previous appearance -- and we see him stare somewhat longingly at the wet bar after Don leaves his office. If I'm right that he's on his way out, it'll be not a minute too soon in terms of giving Roger something to do at work. Judging by how he had those sections of the newspaper spread out on his couch, he'd spent most of his day doing nothing but reading them.
• Don's the main character and therefore dominates every episode, but all the other characters fade in and out as needed. Pete's again absent (for what I assume are budgetary reasons), and Peggy's presence is minimal. But at least we see that Peggy is sticking with Joan's advice to stop dressing like a little girl. The checkerboard dress was far more stylish than anything we've ever seen her wear in the office before, while still making her look professional.
• Students for a Democratic Society, the group the Smiths' friend in Michigan belongs to, were arguably the most important organization in the New Left political movement that would gain greater prominence as the decade went along. Among the group's more famous members: Tom Hayden and Jeffrey Lebowski.
• At first, I was bothered by the fact that we haven't seen Smith & Smith since they were presumably hired after the season premiere, but then I realized that they're likely only working on this account for now, and that they would have no interest in socializing with the rest of the younger Sterling Cooper types (and vice versa). I do like how American Smith seemed unfazed by Don pointing out the hypocrisy of their working for an ad agency, and I'm damned if I can get their French New Wave-style Martinson's jingle out of my head.
• The series hasn't featured much casual anti-Semitism from the characters since the first few episodes with Rachel Menken, but Betty's "You people" comment to Jimmy -- whose real surname, Bobbie told us a few weeks back, is Bernstein -- was clearly her attempt to get out of an ugly situation with an ugly but veiled slur.
• I loved how the shot of the closing elevator doors transitioned into a shot of the Sterling Cooper building's exterior, which now resembled both the elevator and Mr. Cooper's painting. And speaking of the painting, from what little I've been able to gather about Mark Rothko in my internet travels, Cooper's belief that the painting will double in value is another sign of Sterling Cooper being behind the times, as by 1962 the art world was already moving away from Rothko and towards the pop artists.
• Another sign of the difficulty of embracing new ideas: Salvatore thinks these new disposable Pampers (which actually launched in 1961) are so expensive (at 10 cents, which would be about 68 cents in 2007 dollars) that you should be able to use them more than once, when in fact what you're paying for is the ability to not have to use them (or, more importantly, clean them) ever again.
• Interesting that Don now seems willing to offer up stories of life on the farm without prompting, at least to his family. Maybe the "We have to get you a new daddy" bonding moment he had with Bobby allowed him to let go of some small amount of paranoia about discussing that time in his life. And speaking of Bobby, my wife immediately went to the sad clown face when Bobby proudly announced that he had peed behind the tree and no one in his family even paid attention to him.
• The ABC exec's lack of interest in Bobbie's product placement concepts for "Grin and Bear It" stood in stark contrast to guys today like Ben Silverman whose primary agenda seems to be product integration, but was it accurate? There's the myth that network executives in the days before corporate synergy really only cared about programming and beating the competition, but product integration was just as important a part of television in those early days of TV as it is now, if not moreso.
What did everyone else think?