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'Mad Men': the golden violin

September 7, 2008 | 11:10 pm

Although ‘Mad Men’ has dipped (and since rebounded a bit) in the ratings since its Season 2 debut, creator Matthew Weiner remains such a hot commodity that he’s shopping around for the big bucks. And while it’s not hard to understand that more money can, as Homer Simpson’s brain might point out, buy more peanuts, I caught a glimpse into the young Matthew Weiner’s motivation when my husband located his high school yearbook. You see, in that yearbook was Weiner’s senior page, and on that page was this quote from Thomas Wolfe’s "Look Homeward Angel": “Eugene wanted the two things all men want: he wanted to be loved and he wanted to be famous.” Are you listening, AMC? What demonstrates love better than money?

Of course, in the world inhabited by the characters of "Mad Men," it’s not that simple. Most viewers, I suspect, have now become accustomed to the sense of unease that pervades every episode, that feeling that the rug is going to be yanked out from beneath one or more characters at any moment. (The writers of this episode used that tension to great advantage this week when they broke it with a quick bit of physical humor at the end.) In this episode, Don Draper got at least part of the rug yanked out from under him, and Sal Romano and Joan Holloway felt some tugging. Fine, the rug metaphor may not be as extensible as one might have hoped. That’s why I’m not shopping around for a megadeal for my own show right now.

This week, unaware of my personal maxim that one of the most freeing things the urban driver can do is to own a car he or she doesn’t care about, Don Draper buys a gleaming 1962 Cadillac Coupe DeVille from an unctuous, English-accented salesman and spends the rest of the episode hoping his children don’t get their grubby little hands on the upholstery. It is therefore rather unfortunate when Betty Draper abruptly vomits up several cocktails inside the vehicle.

You see, things had been looking up for Don and Betty. At work, Don’s trust in the youthful creatives Mr. Smith and Mr. Smith resulted in a win on Martinson’s Coffee (started by Joe Martinson -– hence “cup of joe”) and bonhomie between Don and Duck Phillips. The car made Don seem manly, and it allowed the family to enjoy pleasant roadside picnics back when you could just litter freely when you packed up to go. But the spurned Bobbie Barrett is still calling Don at the office -– he doesn’t answer –- and Jimmy Barrett calls Betty at home to flirt and to ask the Drapers to a party celebrating ABC’s pickup of 39 episodes of “Grin and Barrett.” At the party, everything seems to be going well enough until Jimmy, sitting with Betty, asks her what she thinks went on between Don and Bobbie. As is typical, Betty responds that she doesn’t like what he’s implying. But Jimmy correctly points out that “they don’t care we are” -– indeed, Don and Bobbie are immersed in conversation. “I don’t like it any more than you do,” he tells Betty, and she exclaims that “you people are ugly and crude.” But not wrong!

As Don waits for Betty, who’s now "not feeling well," Jimmy informs him that Don got him everything he wanted, but what did Don get out of their acquaintance? “Bobbie?” Jimmy asks. “Lots of people have had that.” Don pretends not to know what Jimmy means, but Jimmy continues, saying that he goes home at night and laughs at Don, and that if Don wanted to get some action on the side, he should go to a prostitute, “but don’t screw another man’s wife. You’re garbage, and you know it.” And then during Don and Betty's tense, silent ride home, Betty barfs. Also worth mentioning in this episode -– though it seemed a bit forced –- was a standalone flashback in which a younger Don Draper (his youth signified by poufier hair) is a used-car salesman who is approached by a woman who says that he’s not really Don Draper. That's all we get.

In other news at Sterling Cooper, Don’s secretary, Jane Siegel, is stirring things up. She’s an interesting character, and it’s not clear exactly what she’s up to. She always has men in the office flirting shamelessly with her, including Roger Sterling, but she brushes them off. She does, however, spearhead a highly illicit incursion into Bert Cooper’s office to look at his new Rothko painting after hours, and Joan Holloway gets wind of it. After Joan fires Jane for trespassing and her unrepentant response to the accusation thereof, Jane appeals to Roger, offering him some information –- where she lives -– that she had previously refused to tell him. Roger promises to fix it. But when Jane returns on Monday, Roger has not spoken to Joan, so Jane, on her own initiative, essentially tells Joan that Joan is known for being impetuous and that Roger said Jane shouldn’t worry about it. So it appears that Jane is here for the time being, and she’s developing into a worthy adversary to Joan.

Finally, in what I thought was an affecting storyline, we see more of Sal Romano and his home life. After Ken Cosgrove decides that Sal has the aesthetic sense to appreciate literature, he asks Sal to read his latest short story, “The Golden Violin.” Sal says he’ll get it done quickly and invites Ken to dinner with him and his wife, Kitty, on Sunday night to discuss it. Obviously excited about Ken’s visit, Sal prepares dinner himself. Throughout dinner, Sal’s attention is only on Ken, which Kitty obviously feels acutely. After Ken leaves, Kitty breaks down, saying that Sal doesn’t notice her at all. He apologizes –- sincerely, and it seems as if he’s shocked to have been so transparent –- but he also tucks Ken’s left-behind lighter into his pocket. On Monday, when he sees Ken in the office, he is again stiff and formal, not familiar at all. Bryan Batt’s performance was excellent, I thought. Did you?

-- Sarah Rogers