Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Gold Violin" (season 2, episode 7)

Mad Men - "The Gold Violin" (season 2, episode 7)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on September 7, 2008/written by Jane Anderson, Andre & Maria Jacquemetton; directed by Andrew Bernstein): As "The Gold Violin" opens, Don stares with desire and discomfort at a Cadillac Coupe de Ville; the British salesman gracefully seduces the dapper Draper into taking it for a drive but his flattery backfires, especially when coupled with a memory triggered by the dealership. From the chic, upscale early sixties showroom Don flashes back to a cluttered, decidedly humble early fifties office. This time he is the salesman, no dulcet Anglo tone nor high-powered clientele to soften the blow as he pitches a father (Gareth Williams) and his letterman-jacket son (James Michael Lambert) on a used model. Worst of all, as they hold back from his slightly desperate enticements, a woman (Melinda Page Hamilton) enters the office and tells him he's a hard man to find. As horrified realization dawns on his face, she sighs, "You're not Donald Draper." Back in 1962, an agitated Don declines the Cadillac and flees the dealership, much to the salesman's confusion. Later, he will reconsider the invitation much to his benefit; on a picnic after taking the sleek new ride for a spin, Don's daughter asks her parents quizzically, "Are we rich?" and they smirk at one another. As a complement to this experience, Bert invites Don to become one of the "people who get to decide what will happens in our world" by joining the board of a folk art museum. The car and the museum, however, are the exceptions (thus far) to "The Gold Violin"'s rule; every other invitation - in an episode full of them - backfires.

Bert invites Harry to come up to his office for a morning meeting, and Harry worries that he'll flub the test of Bert's newly purchased artwork. "Two possibilities," he frets. "Either Cooper loves it and you have to love it, like in an Emperor's New Clothes situation. Or he thinks it's a joke and you'll look like a fool if you pretend to dig it." Jane matter-of-factly invites Harry, Ken, and Paul to take a sneak peek at the painting the evening before the meeting - a dare that almost results in her firing; or rather, which does result in Joan firing her, only for a beneficent Roger to undo the damage. Jane cannily exploits his attraction to her, and perhaps even suspects his previous relationship to the woman she defies. The illicit visit to the boss' office spurs another attraction when Sal enjoys Ken's thoughtful musings about the painting (not a real Rothko, by the way, perhaps due to rights concerns). Ken invites Sal to read a draft of his new short story, and Sal invites Ken to share dinner with him and his wife. The dinner is pleasant enough for Ken (despite a vague discomfort at Sal's forwardness) and an absolute delight for Sal (who proceeds to lovingly handle the lighter his co-worker leaves behind). On the other hand, wife Kitty - an old friend from Sal's hometown who sought him out after years apart - is heartbroken. Sal ignores her all evening and she cries when Ken leaves. Everyone in this situation can sense something is off, but none of them - even Sal - seems able to confront what that really is.

The most disastrous invitation of all is saved for last. Jimmy calls Betty to beg her and Don to attend a celebration for his newly-greenlit sitcom; at the event, he continues to lavish her with flattering praise. This time, however, the pretty talk is laced with an ugly undertone: "Look at us, over here at the kids' table... All I know is I know her and you know him and there they are and they don't care where we are." Betty's dawning horror pulls her away, but Jimmy is able to shred Don's confidence too before the Drapers go home. "You don't screw another man's wife," he growls. "You're garbage. And you know it."

On the ride home, Betty throws up all over the nice new Coupe De Ville.

My Response:
If something dramatic is going to happen in the latter half of the second season, this could be the episode that sets it up - both in the past and present. The climax is a marvelously understated surprise: a calm unraveling of the Drapers' illusions, momentarily suggesting an "ugly and crude" (Betty's words) attack on their middle-class propriety...before it sinks in that it's something else entirely. Jimmy may be a foul-mouthed scoundrel, but the venom is in his honesty. Will Betty carry on as she did in the first season when she suspected Don was having an affair - launching her own personal investigation and ultimately accepting the possibility, ever uncertain, with a sad resignation? Or this time will the vicious reality of their life (their lie) be as impossible to restrain as her sickness in the car (a sickness which literally stains the falsehood that Don himself recognized in the opening sequence)? Was Don's flashback also a premonition, the stranger's devastating discovery a precedent for his future wife's? I'm quite curious to see the outcome of his encounter in the fifties dealership...clearly, this is only the beginning of another extended past storyline, like the one that revealed Dick's and Don's Korean switcheroo at the end of season one.

The "B" stories too have their promises, although I imagine the Romanos' delicate nightmare will extend into future seasons before Sal can be truthful with himself, let alone his wife. Ken - often a loutish braggart in the office - gets to unveil a sensitive side here which is a part of the series' intriguing, ongoing effort to balance the hard-edged machismo associated (perhaps mostly in retrospect) with the fifties and the more open, exploratory masculinity which bloomed in the sixties. And the Jane-Joan tension will only rise now that Joan's power has been challenged and Jane's connection to Roger has been established (I imagine the eventual confrontation on this front will be one for the Sterling-Cooper record books). "The Gold Violin" - taking its name from Ken's story about a perfect-looking violin that can't be played - deftly weaves these storylines together, keeping them distinct yet allowing them to echo one another. If Mad Men is weaving a novelistic texture, it's also keen to craft a number of interlocked short stories in episodic anthologies. We are right in the middle of a season whose overall shape remains enigmatic, patiently waiting to reveal itself only when we can stand back and see the big picture. For now, as Ken notes of the Rothko, "It's like looking into something very deep. You could fall in."

Next: "A Night to Remember"Previous: "Maidenform"

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