Mad Men – “My Old Kentucky Home”

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“My Old Kentucky Home”

August 30th, 2009

“It’s a mistake to be conspicuously happy.”

Roger Sterling is a man trying to find happiness, but discovering that no one particularly wants to share in it. His daughter and his wife, as we saw last week, want nothing to do with the new woman, and here the employees of Sterling Cooper view their swanky country club soiree as a work obligation more than a chance to celebrate. There’s a fantastic moment during the party where Pete Campbell and his wife Trudy take to the dance floor and show off some admittedly very impressive moves. However, watch Pete’s face: while Trudie is getting into the music, enjoying herself, Pete spends the entire time smiling and glancing at Roger to see if he’s impressing him, to see if he’s got his attention. All social events have a sense of obligation, but this particular one feels more than all others like an event where people do as Pete desires and start handing out business cards.

“My Old Kentucky Home” is very much about the ways in which happiness is a negotiation, a struggle between individual desires (and therefore personal happiness) and the desires and hopes of everyone else around you. For Roger Sterling, his new marriage pits him against the world, having broken the cardinal rule of not romanticizing or idealizing one’s affairs. For Joan Holloway, her knowledge of the world and the customs of society place her at odds with the role her husband believes she should play. For Peggy Olsen, her own self-awareness of her position and her ability to navigate the complex world of a male-dominated business are questioned by those who have seen it all before and who know that it’s not that easy.

And for Don and Betty Draper, happiness is an act, a coverup for hidden desires and hidden secrets which can never be revealed so long as they continue to play charades. In this quasi-musical of an episode, we discover the consequences of being conspicuously happy, but also the consequences of avoiding happiness and finding one’s self just as lost as you would be if you were at odds with society’s expectation.

If there was one part of the episode that really didn’t particularly work, or that I couldn’t immediately wrap my head around, was Sally Draper and the Case of the Missing Five Dollars. There’s no big surprise here: we know Gene is senile, so we’re not surprised that he loses his mind over a missing five dollar bill. I love the way Don reacts to the situation, with complete and utter disinterest: when Gene insists that he thinks money solves all problems, Don coolly replies “No, just this particular problem” and decides that he is finally ready to brave Roger’s party. However, outside of that moment, it’s a strange storyline because it takes two generations who are ultimately “out of touch” (the old and the young) and shows them navigating through their own insecurities and incompetencies.

What fascinates me about the storyline is how savvy Sally is. I’m convinced that she knew what she was doing when she took that money, and knew that to some degree her parents (and Carla) weren’t going to believe him that it was missing. Betty and Don view the five dollars as just another pot of peeled potatoes, and Carla only goes along with his search because she’s afraid he will blame her for its disappearance. Where she gets caught up is that she’s not allowed to be happy about it: she can’t really spend the money (Carla would surely raise an eyebrow), and even if she took it in order to pay for Don’s broken suitcase (which we saw in the premiere) it’s something that she could never get away with. But yet, she took it: like Roger with Jane, she saw an opportunity in front of her and she seized it. However, forced to keep her happiness inside, she breaks under the pressure and “finds” the $5 bill, and thanks her lucky stars that her grandfather doesn’t realize it was her all along.

Or, does he? The entire storyline is built around the idea that we’re not quite sure how much they really know. Is Sally aware of the fact that Gene is senile? And, perhaps more interestingly, is Gene actually aware that it was Sally who took the money, and is simply choosing to ignore it? Mad Men has always been about how much someone is hiding as compared to how much they reveal in public, but both children and someone with dementia are ultimately impossible to read. Some part of me feels that Gene is aware that it was Sally who stole the money, but is too dependent on Sally’s readings from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make much of a fuss about it. Similarly, perhaps Sally’s theft was simply a childhood impulse, and something she would have taken from her mother or father just as easily. I ultimately feel like she was aware of what she was doing, and that he more missed/forgot than ignored her involvement (although the latter is certainly on his face in that final scene), but the uncertainty of it all really fits in with the Mad Men tradition, certainly more than at first glance.

There’s a similar scene at Roger’s party, as Betty waits outside of the bathroom. A man, who we later learn works in the Governor’s office, makes a pass at Betty, who says that she is “waiting for a friend.” As he applauds her pregnant figure and even asks to feel the baby kicking, you get the impression that Betty is waiting for Don, and that any moment he could walk out and see her indulging in the kind of scenario that she fell into at the end of last season. Childlike Betty has always been about hiding her emotions, but she took control with the man in the bar, and for a moment you see her tempting fate with Don apparently nearby and allowing this man into her personal space and into her world.

Then, however, Trudie walks out of the bathroom: as it turns out, Betty wasn’t lying at all, less flying in the face of danger and more simply allowing the event to unfold either out of politeness or out of less defiant desire. It’s a moment that we, as those people who write 2000+ words about each episodes in an effort to deconstruct it, latch onto as a sign of the past rearing its head, but in fact was more innocent than we expected. Of course, it’s still not innocent, and Betty has to feel at least somewhat awkward when she has to shake the man’s hand as he stands next to his date and Betty has to become the professional wife. Her own happiness has always been the show’s most elusive, trapped beneath the carefully articulated exterior, but for Betty her problem is less about being conspicuous with happiness and more about letting her frustration show. When Jane, drunk and stumbling, comments about how she’s so glad Betty and Don got back together (and thus revealing that she knew of their separation), Betty storms off – there is little she hates more than her private life becoming public, unless it’s the kind of sweeping romanticism which ends the episode as Betty and Don kiss under the moonlight.

This separation between the public and the private, and the inability for happiness to really adapt to it, is at the heart of Joan’s dinner party, an affair which means something very different for her than it does for her husband. Yes, we all hate this guy for what he did to Joan, but his concerns here are legitimate ones: he wants to be Chief Resident, so appealing to his superiors (including the current chief resident as well as the chief of surgery) is important to him. Joan, too, is always concerned with appealing to superiors, having spent countless hours knowing how to entertain guests in order to be able to do her job. However, where this couple runs into trouble is that there is no real connection between their two worlds: Joan has no way of knowing the intricacies of the hospital bureaucracy because her husband has never given her the information, following the traditional dinner table setup so as to tell the wives that she knows how to set a table. Her husband, meanwhile, has no concerns about the women, and it’s clear this isn’t their first fight (even if Joan diffuses the situation by suggesting a buffet setup that still appeals to her housewife skills by featuring the chafing dish the chief gave them as a wedding gift while giving everyone the ability to seat themselves) that has erupted over similar issues.

As the party continues, though, the same problems arise. The comment that really gets Greg is the way the guests are impressed by Joan’s intellect: she has a solution to everything, and Greg (as we’ve seen before) is highly threatened by this. He’s even more threatened, however, by the discussion of a surgery he appears to have botched, one which has been giving him trouble. As soon as those insecurities rise to the surface, everyone realizes that they need to diffuse the situation (especially when they realize that he never tells Joan about what happens at work), but Greg wants to be able to control it. And when he leaves the room and returns with an accordion, you realize that he’s about to turn his wife into a player piano in order to entertain his guests, a gorgeous chanteuse but one who is out of place to do anything but sing her charming French ballad (“C’est Magnifique”). He’s desperate in that moment, desperate for something to break the tension and impress his bosses, but you can see the frustration on Joan’s face: this really is like the olden days, and her independence is apparently not part of the deal. The Chief of Surgery’s wife even warns her: she’s on a dangerous path if she has a child, falling too easily into a life she might not quite be ready for.

At this point, it seems as if Greg’s rise to Chief Resident is doomed to failure, and something tells me that Joan will be more likely to rebel should he fall apart professionally and continue to treat her as he does. Joan’s “proper” womanly role is tenuous and ready to fall apart at any moment, but for the most part Peggy’s more progressive lifestyle and employment seems to be going swimmingly. However, the new woman on her desk isn’t as sure. She’s an older woman, someone who has experienced life before, and she looks at Peggy as hope for the future. As a result, when Peggy works on a Saturday, she’s there with here so as to watch over her and give her an upper hand. When she leaves her purse unattended, Olive warns here that someone could have stolen it. And, when Peggy smokes some weed with Kinsey and Smitty, she worries about her level of professionalism and warns her of what she’s risking. She’s gone beyond the role of secretary to the role of Mother, trying to keep Peggy from falling back below the glass ceiling.

But Peggy is just fine where she is, at least for her: last week’s adventure demonstrated the level of control she has over her current life choices, and this week she chooses to smoke weed and emphasizes to Kinsey that her opinion is valuable on all subjects and not just those which specifically speak to women’s issues. While high, she is able to think even more clearly about the task at hand: while Kinsey and Smitty enjoy the drugs (and Kinsey spends time proving he can sing after his drug dealer laments his newfound sophistication as compared to his Jersey accent back in University), they’re flabbergasted that Peggy is actually working. But sure enough, she conceives of a campaign for Bacardi where the urban chaos becomes itself a point of relaxation, a hammock slung between two clotheslines on a rooftop. Peggy might live in a chaotic world, but she’s carefully hung her hammock and feels completely in control of her destiny as she moves forward, and has little time for Olive’s warnings about her behaviour.

There’s every chance this could change, of course. Part of what makes Mad Men so problematic for nearly every character is how quickly things can change. The 60s setting places them directly at the epicenter of change, and yet in many cases that change isn’t easy. For Roger Sterling, he made the change he felt he should make and yet finds everyone judging him for it. Roger, of course, is not a conspicuous man, nor was he particularly humble or honest before: we saw his affair with Joan quite clearly, and know that he was close to fleeing his marriage at that point. Now that he has Jane, however, he’s said to heck with subtlety: he performs the title song of the episode in blackface at his party because his wife enjoys it so much, but perhaps fails to recognize that his wife is perhaps not the best barometer of what is particularly ideal for such a setting. Going beyond the racial insensitivity, it’s an example of Roger taking his personal life and broadcasting it to everyone, rubbing their face in what many feel is an affront to his responsibility. The song is supposed to be a triumphant and emotional tale of strength in the face of adversity, and yet for Roger it’s turned into a farce, even if he can’t quite see it, just like the public perception of their marriage.

And for Don Draper, that’s the absolute worst thing a person can do. His discussion with “Connie” at the bar (who, through the shrewd eyes of Alan Sepinwall’s readers, has been revealed to be at least an approximation of Hotel magnate Conrad Hilton) is about a chance for Don to let his past emerge, and to tell something private about themselves. However, it’s in a concealed location, after he finds a like-minded soul who can share his humble upbringing. It’s a small moment that I don’t think tells us anything particularly new about Don as a character, but rather a reminder of the fact that he does have a past, and yet he keeps it as private as he keeps everything else. He’s been navigating the kinds of struggles Roger finds himself in for as long as he can remember, and he’s gotten so good at it that he can easily slip into the story of peeing into the trunks of cars and then head back to the party where Don Draper emerges yet again. The scene has some connections to Don’s relationship with Gene, but at its heart it’s a small scene of Don embracing the past that we only ever see in his head, and telling a story that feels genuine in a way that Roger’s apparently heartfelt relationship with Jane never has.

Todd VanDerWerff, in his review last week for The House Next Door, asked why the show had to this point avoided us seeing Jane and Greg, the spouses who caused so much turmoil at the end of last season. I think it’s because, to a certain degree, their spouses either should be or are hiding them. There’s a sense that their lives should be kept private, that their happiness is either a front to entertain clients (in Joan’s case, showing off her ring and telling her Subway stories) or as happiness that should remain hidden (Roger’s Grecian artifacts, his late arrivals to meetings). They are a part of their life, but one that either can’t be or shouldn’t be as public as they wish it could be. This is a show where a lot of things are hidden, and “My Old Kentucky Home” demonstrates that this remains the case for nearly every characters, although to differing degrees and with different effects – the question now is how long things stay hidden, and whether the decision to remain open or closed will change these character’s fates as they march towards yet another major event in the decade.

Cultural Observations

  • I’m sure this goes without saying, but just to clarify: really great episode. Probably the best of the season so far, in its ability to be a bit more self-contained and less setup driven compared to the premiere and a bit more diverse in terms of focus compared to last week’s episode.
  • My one observation about Joan: how fitting for Greg to offer her an instrument which protudes from her stomach.
  • The “Mad Men: The Musical” vibe from the episode was a lot of fun (Slattery and Kinsey were surely singing their own parts, but Hendricks’ instrument use meant it was pre-recorded and as a result was tougher to distinguish if she did her own singing), as was the sheer amount of comedy: it seemed like everyone was getting in on the act, with Pete and Trudy’s hilarious dance routine (Harry and Jennifer slowly walking off the floor in shame was entertaining), and the various post-Mary Jane discussions (“I’m hungry, but I don’t want to move”).
  • Loved the showdown between Jane and Joan, which Jane appears to have won considering her snide remarks about both Joan remaining at work and her weight.
  • There’s a whole line of analysis available here about comparing the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the secrets/performances central to the characters in this episode, but my Roman history is shoddier than I’d like so I’ll have to see if anyone else has taken the time to really piece together the metaphor (which was never entirely made clear (in true Mad Men fashion) outside of a brief reference to the role of happiness in the fall of the Prince in Sally’s final reading) [Edit: quick perusal of reviews below show that many did, so huzzah for that]. I’m curious to see if we return to it at all, of if that’s the last we’ll see of that particular tome.
  • Other reviews: Alan Sepinwall, The A.V. Club, Maureen Ryan, James Poniewozik, Tim Goodman.

2 Comments

Filed under Mad Men

2 responses to “Mad Men – “My Old Kentucky Home”

  1. Pingback: Catch Up on Mad Men Season Three | Tired and Bored With Myself

  2. Pingback: Catch up: Mad Men – Season 3 | No Flipping

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