Mad Men – “The Gold Violin”

“The Gold Violin”

September 7th, 2008

Ken Cosgrove is a man of letters, a published writer who sees everything around him as some type of story, some type of allegory waiting to be turned into words. Having such an interpretative individual in a TV show is an interesting mirror for the audience, as when he suggests that an after hours trip into Cooper’s office to view a photograph would make a good short story, we’re in the process of watching a television show about an after hours trip into Cooper’s office.

Really, though, his story of the gold violin, perfect but unable to play a single note, is really more about the rest of the episode than it is about Cosgrove as a character. It’s not a new theme for the series, but the idea of things being entirely for show, form over function, is nailed home with a group of characters who make decisions or take life paths which will eventually come back to damage them.

But there is just something irresistable about a gold violin: as Cooper himself puts it, people buy things to realize their aspirations. The problem, of course, is when their aspirations are as complicated as Don’s emotional stability, or when they are as confused and ultimately misguided as Salvatore’s decision to get married. Really, the only purchase in the entire episode that isn’t an equivalent to the titular instrument is the painting that everyone presumes is such a prized possession: Cooper’s only in it for the money.

And if everyone else was only in it for money, Betty Draper wouldn’t be throwing up in the front seat of Don’s new cadillac, would she?

Casting Sarah Drew, late of Everwood, in the role of Salvatore’s new wife Kitty was a sure sign that this episode was coming, that we would eventually get a glimpse into what was maybe the most shocking part of the season premiere. After having an entire episode wherein he demonstrates his unwillingness to come out of the closet in the first season, it nonetheless came as a shock to see that he had gone so far as to marry someone. The immediate questions were varied, but the big one was just who this girl was: what would drive her to marry someone who doesn’t love her (in that way), and what does it say about Salvatore that he would let it happen? Part of me was almost hoping that she was a knowing beard, someone who was simply looking for companionship and hoped that she had found it.

Instead, though, our worst fears are confirmed: Sal married her so that he could appear normal, and in the most negative reading so he could invite his crushes over to the house for meals and converse with them as if his wife wasn’t even there. The meal with Ken Cosgrove is almost disturbing, how Sal picks up a souvenir from his stay, how he completely ignored Kitty’s conversations, as he basks in every compliment. When Ken speaks of how the environment was the type that he’d want to have when he settles down, it almost seems as if Sal had literally sprung a trap, knowing that the idyllic scenario he’s so carefully crafted (devoid of any actual feelings or connection) is capable of luring his prey into a false sense of security.

Now, obviously, I’m exaggerating: Sal isn’t a predator, and I certainly don’t mean to say that all he has on his mind are sexual ideas about his colleagues. On the contrary, what he wants is a social connection, to be able to extend that camaraderie amongst his colleagues into his home life. However, if he was a single bachelor, could he ever get away with inviting Ken over for dinner, or even being the one who cooked it? It’s clear that Sal decorated the apartment, that he planned out the whole meal, but without a wife to attribute it to it does make him “different from everyone else.” Ken knew from his reaction to his story that there is something about Sal that sets him apart, and while he isn’t about to change that fundamental part of himself Sal is doing everything he can to normalize it, all while destroying his poor young wife who married an older man for security, for safety, and got more than she bargained for.

The episode’s other major development is that Don Draper buys a new Cadillac, a seemingly insignificant event that triggers a single flashback and again demonstrates his transformation into a man who’s not going somewhere but rather has already arrived. That’s the line that almost sells him on the car, but there’s something dangerous about it: Don, as we know, has always been going somewhere, constantly evolving and adapting himself to stay one step ahead of his own identity crisis, of the people like the woman in the flashback who know that he is a fraud, a fake, a phony. But now, he has a salesman, and eventually Sterling and Cooper, explaining that it’s time to stop running: it’s time to turn in the suit for the tuxedo, and the hard working Dodge for the stylish Cadillac.

Of course, we know more than these gentlemen that Don isn’t going to stop running anytime soon, that he has plenty more destinations he needs to get to before he can come to terms with himself. And when he does put on a tuxedo at episode’s end, he ends up walking into a party where Jimmy Barrett destroys his facade, revealing his relationship with Bobbie to Betty and Don alike. Don’s new life is just like his old one, filled of people who threaten his identity – he can check Bobby and Sally’s hands every time they get into the new car, but there’s nothing he can do that will keep the bumpy road of his existence from causing Betty to get car sick after hearing some less than appealing news.

I was chatting with some folks over at Flow, where Leigh Goldstein has an article about Betty’s relationship with Glen Bishop from season one, and in the process Betty’s role this season was discussed at some length. In this episode, we get the epitome of Betty’s arc: naive to a fault, innocent to a degree, and ultimately incapable of really processing the situation in front of her. She is less angry at the news than she is terrified: while her newfound attempts at confidence this season have demonstrated that she takes Don’s breach of trust to heart, she has no idea what to do with it. While some women in the show’s universe (See: Joan and Jane both, in this episode) know how to react in situations based on either instinct or experience, Betty’s lack of either quality has her self-conscious to an extreme. Not to beat home the episode’s title any more than is necessary, but she’s a bit of a gold violin – Don engineered his life to the point where she has no means of escape, and her attempts to fight it don’t even match Kitty, whose situation with Sal is similar and yet far more objectionable as manifested in her conversations with her husband.

I’m a bit surprised, though, that we got only the single flashback in terms of Don’s past: it’s clear where it was going, sure, but not offering us even the tiniest bit of resolution seems like an odd choice (especially when Don returned to the dealership, would have been an easy connecting point in the episode). But as with most episodes, this is part of a larger tableau – the show has been slow to answer a lot of questions about even the fifteen month gap between seasons, so I can’t expect too much of the past to come flowing forward at once.

The episode’s other image outside of the violin is something similar, the painting that sits in Bert Cooper’s office. As he tells Harry, it’s really all about money, but it means something else. I’m with Alan Sepinwall in that the reading of the painting that Ken offers, suggesting that the painting is about diving into the deep end and not rambling on about it in a brochure, sounds like a meta-comment about how we should be watching the show. Then again, this is one of those shows where I find three of those moments in every episode, and where sometimes I feel like they’re trying to social engineer the audience as much as Don Draper social engineers himself.

That’s why I like scenes like seeing Jane break out of the mould, fighting against what we know as the Sterling Cooper status quo by breaking into Cooper’s office, going to Sterling behind Joan’s back, and anything else she can do to keep her job and gain some control. She’s testing Joan’s monopoly on fun, as she puts it, but in reality she’s also testing herself: one has to wonder whether or not her experience echoes what Joan herself went through, those tenuous first days trying to climb the secretarial pool. I love Roger’s clear enjoyment not at helping the situation, but at just antagonizing it further – one has to presume that he was sitting in his office laughing as he heard the tale of the confrontation that followed. There’s something so fascinating about seeing someone start that process of crafting an identity, especially when pitted against someone who did the same thing and is willing to fight for it to stay that way.

And so the battle lines are drawn: in a season that started with discussions about youth and the new ways of the 1960s, we get our first return to it: our young Smiths writing their fancy jingle and selling Don on the Port Huron Statement, the official word of the Students for a Democratic Society. My time spent studying American history has taught me enough to know that Don is right in pointing out ideals, but this is a generation without them, and a business certainly void of such concepts. We didn’t spend much time with Pete and Peggy, arguably the most in flux of our regular characters, in this episode, but how they end up fitting into this new battle between stark capitalism and an idealist youth future will surely be something to follow into the future.

Cultural Observations

  • I enjoyed the moment where the idyllic picnic lunch that Don and Betty have is literally torn apart by reality: the excessive littering, the need for bathroom breaks, the concerns over traffic. In that single moment, the entire facade is ripped away and all that’s left is piles of garbage and a long commute home. That sounds a lot like the rest of the episode, and a lot like another one of those little memos about how, in the 60s, everyone polluted their lungs and, now, the rest of the environment too.
  • Love that, in falsifying his identity, Don is forced into selling used cars, which is about as fake a job as you can get. The one thing I have to wonder, though, is how he could justify using his “real” name in advertisements. Surely he knew he would get caught if he did such a thing, as even before the proliferation of mass media there were risks involved that maybe should have kept him from making the decision.


Filed under Mad Men

11 responses to “Mad Men – “The Gold Violin”

  1. Jeff

    Another great write up !

    So the theme here is pretty much in regards to the prized possesion. We have cooper’s painting in which he’s just in it for the money, Sal’s wife so that he can blend in the society and of course Betty as Don’s prized possession.
    We understand that part about Cooper and Sal, but what about Don? I just cant see why he would marry Betty in the first place…

  2. Alex

    do you know what song was playing at the end of the episode? right after betty vommitted in don’s car?

  3. Hate to be of no help, Alex, but I stopped watching the episodes before the credits rolled, as A Channel in Canada aired a commercial between the scene and the credits themselves.

  4. Best Mad Men write up on the web. I look forward to it every week, Memles. Totally didn’t catch the meaningfulness of the littering, but you’re totally right…disrupting the Norman Rockwell-like scene with a nearly over the top display of waste.

    One thing not mentioned was the young ad execs being brought back for the coffee account, which coincided with the painting. Both about “feeling,” in the false way where it’s preying on the emotions of people to get the ulterior motive across. I thought it went well with Jimmy’s use of Betty throughout the ep, playing with her emotions in both the good (the phone call) and bad (the party) way in his effort to tear Don down.

    Great job as always.

  5. Héctor

    You certainly have a great thing going on here, man. Excellent written pieces. 🙂

    Greetings from a fellow GAF member.

  6. nizzy

    this is the best Mad Men review i’ve ever run across! :O Is there more? Did you review the other episodes? i cant seem to find them…a link would be helpful if anyone knows 😦

  7. Rosie

    i just got into the mad men craze i like to watch shows after the series is over i hate waiting a week or months for episodes so i will watch the first 5 seasons than wait months if not years to catch up lol…anyways i was so happy to have found your write up…which is def the best i read your article as soon as i am done every episode…i am suprised tho that no one caught on to peggy’s pregnancy…as soon as i noticed they were adding padding and than prosthetics i knew for sure she was gonna be pregnant, but im sure there will be many more pregnancies to come did betty throw up from car sickness or is she too pregnant?? i wonder also has anyone looked at this page in 3 years too……to be continued!!!

  8. PJ

    Interesting…for me, the entire show, not just this episode, illustrates how each of the characters who, with a little examination are all similar to the “golden violin”. To some degree, all are pretty or well packaged on the outside, but when put to performance, can’t respond as expected. Like a spoiled chicken that’s baked to perfection on the outside, once sampled, the substance is lacking and worse, repulsive.

  9. Pingback: Catch Up on Mad Men Season Two | Tired and Bored With Myself

  10. Pingback: Catch up: Mad Men – Season 2 | No Flipping

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