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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iMad Men/i: The Gold Violin
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Illustration for article titled iMad Men/i: The Gold Violin

Hi. I'm not Noel Murray. Noel is off at the Toronto International Film Festival, arguing with other critics about whether the new Jonathan Demme movie is a masterpiece or merely an instant classic. Meanwhile, some of us film-loving types can only read about it from afar. On the other hand, I did watch most of the 1989 comedy How I Got Into College the other night. Can anyone up in Toronto get to brag about that? Being left behind also means I don't have to wait days to watch the latest episode of Mad Men, either. So let's get into it.

Does anyone else feel like they've ready Ken Cosgrove's story without actually reading it? Maybe "The Gold Violin" is wonderful, and as worthy of notice as the story Ken had printed in The Atlantic last season, but it seems like an awfully heavy metaphor on which to hang a tale. The fact that Ken feels the need to restate what I imagine to be its central theme by recalling the gold violin he saw at the Met–"It's perfect in every way. Except it couldn't make music"–doesn't make me less inclined to think of him as an author intent on avoiding the obvious. But his story shares a title with tonight's episode, which is filled with understated storytelling. And it's pretty much the perfect title for an episode consumed by status, its symbols, and the burden of success.

We'll get back to Ken's dinner with Salvatore and his wife Kitty (who, with this episode may have bounded past poor little Sally in the race to become the series' most tragic character). First, let's start with Don and the Cadillac he can't quite bring himself to buy as the episode opens. The salesman delivering the hard sell must know he has a shot at making a sale when he sees Don. Here is a man who clearly wants to look like he wants the world to see him and he's got the clothes and the hair to prove it. ("You don't need to see yourself in a Cadillac. You're walking about in one every day.")

But in the first of what I'm guessing will be a new series of flashbacks as we round the corner on this season's halfway point, we learn that Don knows a thing or two about selling cars, or, more accurately, not selling cars. A cryptic scene of Don in action, with shockingly unrestrained hair, reveals a man who has yet to learn the art of the pitch. There have to be better ways to coax a customer to try sitting in a car again than simply saying, "Why don't you sit in it again?"

We'll doubtlessly be returning to the past again soon. Meanwhile, back in the present circa 1962, Draper has to look to the future in an attempt to win the favor of the fine folks at Martinson Coffee. Everything you learn about Martinson Coffee (formerly Martinson's Coffee), is true, by the way, from the origin of "Cup Of Joe" to Don's offhand line about an attempt to reach younger should-be coffee drinkers with puppets. Well, Muppets, anyway. In 1958 a young Jim Henson created a series of short, weirdly violent commercials for the Washington D.C. coffeemakers Wilkins Coffee, concepts which he revamped and sold to local coffee merchants in other markets, including Martinson in New York. Here's some samples of the Wilkins campaign:

Am I the only one to think those spots are a little ahead of their time? As a cynical Gen X-er, they appeal to my truncated attention span and the jaded skepticism born of being saturated with advertising from the time I was born. Of course, the young turk ad team Don brings is trying to reach a different generation entirely and they apparently succeed, or at least convince the Martinson people, with a nice little calypso song filled with imagery seemingly taken from a stack of exotica albums. Remember, it's not a jingle, "It's a song. And it's a mood. And it's a feeling." We've watched all season as Don has attempted to cope with the times changing beneath his feet. This week, at least, he's made all the necessary adjustments. (With some help from Duck, who ends up getting none of the credit.)

It's Joan who's feeling the generation gap this week in her dealings with Jane, the secretary she handpicked for Don. After firing Jane for sneaking into Mr. Cooper's office to look at his Rothko–How did she find out anyway?–Jane uses Roger's obvious attraction to her to keep her job. Joan should have seen it coming. Jane's playing the game just as she did when she was her age. Maybe playing it better.

About that Rothko: It's a bit like a high art version of the Martinson jingle, isn't it? Just as the Martinson campaign converts the elements of a coffee pitch into pleasing abstraction, the Rothko offers a different experience inside a familiar form. We've still got the canvas, the frame, and the paint, but the contents are different. While others search for an explanation, maybe even a brochure, to figure it out, Ken nails the appeal of abstract expressionism with a few words: "When you look at it, you feel something." And like the Martinson ad, that feeling broadcasts at a frequency that some people, maybe even whole generations, simply can't hear. Even Cooper suggests he picked it up for the money.

Still, I'd bet he's well aware of the painting's power to befuddle while burnishing his own enigmatic image. Although maybe it simply is a status symbol, like Don and the Cadillac he returns to buy (but not until he's sat in it again, of course) after the success of the Martinson pitch earns him a spot on the board of the Museum Of Early American Folk Arts. What it really provides is entry to the ranks of, in Cooper's words, "the few people that get to decide what will happen in our world." He's made it. Now he needs to dress the part, Cadillac and all.

Here's the trouble with making it: You have to keep it. While little Sally could play with Play-Doh in the now-wrecked Dodge, that won't cut it in the Caddy. The kids had better have clean hands before riding in it, too. What's more, the further you climb the more people there are aiming to knock you down. Tonight we finally learn how much Jimmy knows about Don and Bobbie, and a suggestion of what drives him. He sees Don as one of the lucky ones who have always stood in the way of his happiness and it's clear that outsider anger fuels his comedy, and his private conduct. He's watched guys like Don win over women like Betty all his life. And now if he can't fuck Don's wife, he'll at least do his best to fuck up his marriage.

Watching the conflict between Don and Jimmy helped me realize why on some level I continue to like and care about Don. He's done everything Jimmy accuses him of doing but the look of genuine offense he wears seems so real. On some level, at least when Sally isn't staring up in him in admiration, be believes in his own rightness and he's able to separate that part of himself from the part that's earned him a reputation as the best lay in Manhattan amongst a certain circle of women. It's all true, and yet there's something still fundamentally appealing, even sympathetic about Don. When, last week, the show paused for a shot of him wrapped in mid-century suburban angst as he drank milk in front of a Ritz crackers box, it felt like the whole show in heartbreaking miniature. Here is a man doing his best to find the American dream in his own flawed way. And failing.

Still, when Betty ruined the Cadillac in the final scene's shock barf, he deserved it. He deserved worse.

Grade: A-

Stray observations

- I'm sure Noel would have found an artful way to weave Ken and Salvatore's Sunday dinner with Kitty (well, Kitty was there, anyway) into the piece. But I reached the end and realized that I didn't talk about it. Maybe I was stalling. Salvatore makes me so sad. Here he is, like so many gay men then (and now, I would imagine) stuck in a marriage to a woman he probably cares about, and who clearly cares about him, that's just doomed. Has Salvatore even ever been with a man? His new crush on Ken seems almost adolescent, like the feelings of a man who's mostly heard about love in rumor.

– The Draper's messy departure from the picnic scene: Hilarity.

– See you next time Noel wants a break.

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