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Window Dressing: Three Weekends on "Mad Men"

Just a few quick words about this week's gorgeously evocative episode of Mad Men, which I loved.

On this week's installment of Mad Men ("My Old Kentucky Home"), written by Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, we bear witness to three very different weekends, although all of them captured a portrait of people engaged in business-driven activities, despite the social setting.

There was the opulent Kentucky Derby-themed "soiree" of newlyweds Roger and Jane, the dinner party hosted by Joan and Greg aimed at impressing the chief of surgery at Greg's hospital, and the marijuana-fueled weekend brainstorm session between Peggy, Paul, and Smitty at Sterling Cooper. Three very different gatherings, yet there was no mistaking any of these events for anything other than an outgrowth of business itself.

So what is Matthew Weiner saying then about the true nature of social gatherings? That they're all at their heart based in commerce, whether that's overtly stated or not? It might just be. Betty's stroke-afflicted father in fact best sums up the episode's underlying theme: "You people think you can solve everything with money."

Is Jane's behavior--both her catty comments at the office and drunkenly at her own party--excusable now given her new station in life? Does Roger's money excuse the offensiveness of his blackface routine? Is Joan forced to quite literally sing for her supper now that she has a doctor for a husband? Why is Peggy's new secretary so fearful for her employer's social standing?

It all comes down to money and to public perception. Roger believes that people around him are jealous of his marriage because he's happy but Don is quick to point out that people don't think he's happy, they think he's foolish. Trudy may have felt left out when Betty and Jennifer discuss their pregnancies and babies, but it's Jennifer who is shocked and jealous when Trudy and Pete light up the dance floor with their Charleston. Could it be that Trudy is happy even without the child she so desperately wanted? That she can throw her childlessness in the face of society and prove that she too can be fulfilled without society's own expectations of what's expected of her?

Peggy realizes that she's gotten to where she's at through her own pluck and merit. She doesn't need her secretary to look out for her as though she were a child. She is strong enough to make her own choices and take her own risks in life, to experiment and test her boundaries by smoking pot with the men and defying her defined role of blender-carrier. Peggy is toeing the line between the old guard and the future, between status quo and revolution. Her very presence at Sterling Cooper, the fact that she has her name on the door of her own office and a secretary is an anomaly. But she's not another girl in the secretarial pool; she's realized her status gives her a power that Olive doesn't, hasn't, and will never have in the business world. "I am going to get to do everything you want from me," Peggy tells Olive and we do believe she shall.

(Aside: I loved seeing stoned Peggy--who does seem to work better on marijuana--almost as much as I loved catching a jubilant Pete dancing the Charleston with his wife at Roger's party.)

Joan, on the other hand, discovers that her happiness and future are inexorably tied up with Greg's. In another humiliating turn, he forces her to perform for his guests when the topic of conversation turns towards a recent failure of his during a procedure. Grabbing Joan's accordion, he turns the hostess into a plaything, a bauble to entertain the guests. That she sings and plays "C'est magnifique" is both heartbreaking and ironic. Things are far from magnificent in their household, despite their outward appearances. We can pretend that the past never happened but that doesn't mean it actually didn't; Joan and Greg may never have discussed the rape in Season Two but it doesn't mean that the slate was wiped clean for either of them.

So too do Don and Betty engage in a complicated dance of deception. They've been so focused on Betty's pregnancy that they appear to have made a concerted effort not to recall the period of separation that occurred last season. But it happened. As did Don's affair with Bobbi Barrett and Betty's rendezvous with the handsome stranger. Jane's drunken remark ("I knew you two would get back together. I never had any doubt, no matter what the problem was") cuts so sharply for its truth; they were separated, their marriage on the brink of destruction. And so it still is, judging from Betty's reaction to Henry Francis touching her belly.

We can't escape the sense that there's a tenuousness to everyone's actions, a feeling that fear and worry cloud the landscape, much like how a timid Sally Draper pretends to find Gene's missing five dollars (which she stole from him earlier in the episode). I was terrified that Gene would strike Sally or react violently but despite his tantrum Gene allows things to revert back to normal after sternly reminding Sally in his own way of her wrongdoing. That Sally would be reading "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" is a telling sign: as bad as things have gotten, they are only going to get worse.

The old guard will be pulled down, the youth will rise up, Rome will burn, and "all hell's gonna break loose" as Gene succinctly puts it. Social mores are changing, judging from Don and Pete's pained reactions to Roger's outdated and offensive blackface routine and Carla irately telling Gene that black housekeepers don't all know each other. Change is in the air. Whether for good or ill--for these characters, anyway--remains to be seen.

Next week on Mad Men ("The Arrangements"), Gene and Don cross paths; Peggy searches for a roommate; a wealthy new client has very high hopes.

Comments

Beatrice said…
I LOVED this episode. It was beautifully written and gave us a chance to see some of the characters in a different light (Peggy stoned and Pete dancing were my favorite moments too). And I liked that Gene was the only one who really knew what happened to his five dollars. They all think that he's crazy when he's the only one seeing clearly. Brilliant!
LeilaM said…
I thought the conversation Don had with the guy at the bar was great (about work being disguised as a party and so on) and so appropriate for the show. All of these "social" engagements are still always about money and business and power and I think the three different scenarios illustrated that perfectly.

Poor Joan! I wanted her to wack Greg over the head with that accordion. I kind of wanted Peggy to wack her nosy secretary over the head too!
ewench said…
Loved this episode as well, and yes, Pete and Trudy dancing was so great. I too thought Gene was going to flip out on Sally and was glad he didn't though I kind of thought it all sort of pointless until I read your blog and that is a good point, Gene is the only one that really sees what is going on! Wonderful review as always.

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