"No one thinks you're happy. They think you're foolish." -Don"My Old Kentucky Home" is one of those "Mad Men" episodes where very little seems to happen in terms of story, but where the atmosphere and character work are both so rich that plot becomes irrelevant.
"That's the great thing about a place like this. You can come here and be happy, and you get to choose your guests." -Roger
Class, and the challenges and disappointments that come when you move from one class to another, are the big issues at work in this one. We spend a lot of time at Roger and Jane's country club Kentucky Derby party, where Roger and Betty and Pete (all of whom grew up privileged) feel right at home, and where Don and Jane (who didn't always have silver spoons) feel they're out of place. Jane retreats by drinking heavily and not eating at all, while Don finds temporary refuge in the club bar, where he bonds with a fellow climber of the social ladder, Connie (played by the fine character actor Chelcie Ross). Connie talks of growing up dreaming about what life must have been like in a fancy house on a hill; now a wealthy man, he knows that "It's different inside."
Connie's not the only person to understand that lesson by the end of the hour. Harry, despite his own ascension at Sterling Cooper, fits in no better at the party than Don. Joan throws a party of her own, where she learns that the vile Dr. Greg is the one gaining social standing due to their marriage, when she had always assumed she was benefiting from him. We meet Paul's old college buddy Jeffrey, who reveals that all of Paul's scholarly affectations are a put-on from a former scholarship kid with a thick Joisey accent, and we see that Paul's insecurity at being found out keeps him miserable.
The one person relatively content in their move up in class is Peggy, who partakes of some Jeffrey-supplied weed - after delivering possibly the funniest "Mad Men" line to date: "I'm Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana." - and, high on the stuff, tells her overprotective new secretary Olive that she's doing just fine as a single career woman who lives her life the same as the men around her.
Peggy is inside, but she still sees with the eyes of an outsider, as do people like Don and Connie. But the characters who have always been upper class are too far inside to have any idea how their world really looks, or how it's going to change. Roger has no idea how offensive his blackface performance of the titular song will seem in only a few years (let alone how disturbing it is with nearly 40 years distance). Pete and Trudy don't recognize how sad their well-rehearsed Charleston is. Dr. Greg has no more idea how valuable Joan is to his career than Harry did during her brief stint with the television department.
Let's start with Joan, who didn't have much to do in the season's first two episodes. We see that Greg is the same prideful, violent oaf he was when he raped her in Don's office last season. He hates not getting his way, and he especially hates being reminded that his wife is often smarter and more worldly than he is. Joan, at least, has gotten better at handling him, as she shuts down the argument about the seating arrangements before things get too physical. But as the dinner party goes on, and she starts to get clues that Greg isn't quite the hospital superstar she thinks he is (he killed a patient due to a surgical error, and the chief of surgery's wife doesn't have a high opinion of him), Joan's ability to grin and bear it becomes more strained. When a flop sweat-covered Greg all but pushes her into playing her old accordion(*) to entertain the guests - and to distract everyone from thinking about his "bad result" - she chooses Cole Porter's "C'est Magnifique," whose lyrics are about the kind of perfect romance Joan wants to pretend she has. The melancholy look on her face suggests anything but.
(*) And I'm told that's actually Christina Hendricks playing the accordion. Don't be surprised if this episode leads to a boom in accordion lessons for and/or sales to young women.
If Joan's world is getting smaller and sadder as time goes on, Peggy's finally realizing that her own world is full of nothing but possibility. She's becoming more and more like Don, going through multiple secretaries and sampling a bit of the counter-culture to expand her sense of perspective. Elisabeth Moss has been maybe my favorite part of the season so far; she still plays Peggy as somewhat Sphinx-like, but the character and the performance are both much more confident and funny and sexy than they were even late last season. I'm sure Peggy has some tough times ahead, but it's a real pleasure to watch her ascendant and in command the way she is here.
Peggy's storyline also puts Paul together with Smitty (though Smitty's buddy Kurt has yet to appear this season) in one of the more interesting culture clashes "Mad Men" has to offer. Paul and Smitty are maybe five years apart in age, but generationally they seem as far apart as Paul is from Bert Cooper. Paul wants to seem older than he is, and is so insecure about his standing that he has to constantly recite his credentials. Smitty, on the other hand, is content with his youth, and even celebratory about it. It's so rare to see anyone on "Mad Men" this comfortable in his own skin - even if this is a persona Smitty assumed in the same way Dick Whitman became Don Draper or Jersey Paul became cultured Paul, it's a persona he's made his peace with - that he becomes an interesting, amusing foil for nearly every other character on the show. I remember Joan having no idea how to respond to Smitty's flirtation in last season's "The Jet Set," and I would love to see Smitty have to work directly with Pete on something.
Because the episode spends so much time at Sterling Cooper and at Joan's apartment, and because the Derby party is more of an ensemble piece, this is a more Don-light episode than usual. But the scene with Connie reminds us again of the very different world Dick Whitman grew up in, and in the present, we see that even though Don and Betty are both making more of an effort in their marriage, there's still a gap that can't be closed. Don will always feel out of place in Betty's life because he can't tell her who he really is. (I doubt he'd feel comfortable even telling her a relatively safe story like the one about parking cars at the roadhouse.) And in Betty's reaction to the attentions of Henry Francis, we see that her dalliance with Captain Awesome in "Meditations in an Emergency" didn't so much satisfy her need to understand adultery than it gave her a taste for it, or at least for what she's missing from Don. Don's trying, really trying, but it's been a long time since he looked at Betty with the awe and hunger that was on Henry's face when he asked to touch her belly. Before that encounter, Betty warned Don that she wanted to get some dancing in before the night was over; after it, she told Don she wasn't in the mood to hit the dance floor.
There's also, of course, some leftover tension from their separation, which comes to the forefront when a drunken Jane mentions it to Betty, who doesn't like that Don's former secretary (and Roger's current unpopular wife) knows about this, and who maybe wonders if Jane was with Don before she was with Roger. And Roger has the bad timing to come upon what looks like Don making a move on Roger's wife, just as Don once walked in on Roger actually making a move on Don's wife.
After briefly enjoying the role reversal, Roger falls back on his sheltered, delusional belief that his old friends are all just jealous of him. Just as he doesn't understand that blackface is past its sell-by date, Roger doesn't recognize that he's become a bad joke in his old social circles: a mid-life crisis cliche who has no discernible function at work, who's drunk all day (though never as impaired as his wife is here) and who has no idea he's becoming as obsolete in America at large as he is at Sterling Cooper. So long as he has his country club membership, and can retreat on the old comforts that his class provides, he can avoid facing reality.
The story of Sally stealing five bucks from Gene may not at first glance seem that connected to the rest of the episode. It's a well-played vignette about how difficult life is with Gene in that house, even (or especially) on days when he's relatively lucid, and it also shows that Sally is trying to learn how to lie like her parents do so often. But it's important to note that, in the happier moments, Sally's bonding with her grandfather by reading passages from Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." What's about to happen to the America of this era won't be quite as drastic as what happened to Rome, but thanks in part to the complacency and willful ignorance of people like Roger Sterling, Gene is more prophetic than he realizes when he tells Sally, "Just wait. All hell's gonna break loose."
Some other thoughts on "My Old Kentucky Home":
• I should say that, while Jane is usually a fairly unlikable character, "My Old Kentucky Home" did make me feel some sympathy for her. Yes, she got what she wanted by landing Roger, but she's in way over her head socially, she knows everybody hates her, and on top of that, Roger (in terms of stature and possibly finances, based on how quickly he seems to be burning through the PP&L sale money) is no longer the man she thought she was marrying.
• Also, shocking as the blackface moment is to modern sensibilities, the concept wasn't entirely dead after Roger's day. In the early '90s, Ted Danson got in some hot water for donning blackface for a Friar's Club roast of his then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg. (Goldberg later said she helped him come up with the idea as a response to the hate mail they were getting for their interracial relationship.) And Spike Lee's 2000 movie "Bamboozled" was all about blackface, albeit with black actors donning the makeup themselves.
• It took me until second viewing to realize that the Peggy/Paul/Smitty scenes were largely taking place in Paul's office, and not Peggy's, as the layout was identical. (I'm assuming it was the same set, redressed.) When Peggy moved into Freddy's old office late last season, guys like Paul and Harry were outraged that The Girl got her very own office before they did. Apparently, the firings by the PP&L folk cleared out enough dead weight that Paul doesn't have to share anymore.
• I couldn't help noticing Gene tell Sally, "Go wash your teeth." I assumed that was some outmoded phrasing, but "wash your teeth" turned up over 40,000 hits on Google (albeit compared to over 800,000 for "brush your teeth"). Is it maybe a regional thing?
• Michael Gladis, who plays Paul, and Rich Sommer, who plays Harry, don't look exactly alike, but their build is similar enough that I imagine they were confused for each other early in the show's run, which in turn led to the joke here where Paul offers to borrow Harry's glasses and pose as him at the Derby party.
• Pete and Trudy's Charleston was the second time in three episodes where Vincent Kartheiser has been able to show off some ridiculous yet limber dance skills. His legs almost seem to be made of rubber for parts of this one. The dance seems absolutely like the kind of thing these two might throw themselves into learning; they can't have children (though it's clear Trudy still longs for them), so instead they find another way to compete with the couples around them by rehearsing and rehearsing their dance steps to show off at an occasion like this.
• I'm hoping Carla is more involved this season, as she has a unique perspective on the Draper family. We see that she's already figuring out how to deal with Gene, and she's savvy enough to realize, just as Gene did, that Sally stole the fiver before she "found" it.
• The real world comes up a few times, as we're reminded that the First Lady was pregnant at this point (it wouldn't end well), and that the '63 Kentucky Derby took place on the same day that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller married his second wife, Happy. As alluded to in the brief discussion of that, the marriage (only a month after Happy's own first marriage came to a legal end) was a major turn-off to many Republican voters. It not only damaged Rockefeller's own national ambitions (though he'd wind up as Gerald Ford's appointed VP), but arguably was the beginning of the end for the national dominance of the more socially moderate wing of the Republican party, since the marriage to Happy led to Barry Goldwater getting the '64 nomination, which led to Ronald Reagan's ascension, etc, etc. I bring this up in spite of the usual No Politics rule only because Roger is a classic Rockefeller Republican, and the ascension of people like Goldwater will likely create yet another part of his life where he's going to be left behind.
• A few people complained last week that their recording was cut off before the show ended. That's not going to stop, unfortunately. The episodes are now all going to run a couple of minutes past the hour to allow for more commercial time (while simultaneously keeping Weiner from having to cut any story time), so until/unless AMC and the various programming guide services can get their stories coordinated, I'd strongly advise padding your recordings by at least 3 or 4 minutes, though theoretically you should only need 2.
Finally, I want to again commend you guys on both your insightful comments and on your sticking to the commenting rules even as the number of comments each week rises to a level not seen on this blog for anything but maybe "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica." You're bringing up things I didn't necessarily think of, and you're playing well with each other. On the internet, those two qualities are still an unfortunate rarity. So thanks.
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