Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "My Old Kentucky Home" (season 3, episode 3)

Mad Men - "My Old Kentucky Home" (season 3, episode 3)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another 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 August 30, 2009/written by Dahvi Waller, Matthew Weiner; directed by Jennifer Getzinger): In the spirit of "Three Sundays" in season two, "My Old Kentucky Home" zeroes in on the weekend life of the Sterling Cooper-adjacent gang, this time emphasizing just one day. And it isn't a day off - well, not quite - for everyone. Peggy, Smitty, and Paul have to come in and work on ad copy, which means (at least as far as she herself is concerned) that Olive Healy (Judy Kain), Peggy's new secretary, has to cancel family plans and show up for work too. Olive attends closely to her new employer, eventually warning her to be more careful when Peggy gets high with the boys. Paul invites his old Princeton connection Jeffrey Graves (Miles Fisher) to the office where they light up a joint and seek inspiration from that tropical drug for another (they're developing a Bacardi Rum campaign). Little is accomplished, of course; Paul and Jeffrey fight before breaking out into song, Peggy beams beatifically as Smitty goes gaga for her, and finally Peggy has an epiphany which she races back to her office to record. Faced with Olive's reprobation, Peggy realizes (or decides) that the middle-aged woman is fearful for her young boss' prospects and reassures her as warmly - and slowly - as possible that "I'll be fine."

Pete, Ken, and Henry can't attend the session because they're busy at a tony country club, attending Roger's lavish lawn party/tribute to Jane. Embarrassments abound: Roger serenades her in blackface and Jane gets so drunk on an empty stomach that she collapses at the buffet table and then lets it slip that she knows Betty and Don were separated. After a tense interregnum, the night ends with the Drapers embracing in the shadows while a jazzy serenade evokes a certain Gatsby-esque mood; before this, though, they have a couple memorable encounters. Don trades growing-up-poor stories with a mustachioed, white-jacketed old man (Chelcie Ross) at a bar; unless I missed something, the episode never revealed his identity but I'd guess he's someone quite famous (for a moment I considered Howard Hughes, but wasn't he was already deep in his piss-jar/long fingernail phase by '63?). I suspect that we'll see him again. While waiting for Trudy outside the ladies' room, Betty undergoes some heavy flirtation from Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), aide to Governor Rockefeller; given the intensity of feeling with which he woos her (which she seems to reciprocate), I doubt we've seen the last of him either.

In a surprisingly streamlined episode, there are only two other locations we visit: Sally steals $5 from Grandpa Hofstadt between amusing reading sessions of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Joan entertains her fiance's co-workers and their wives at their apartment and begins to suspect that maybe she (not he) is the real catch. Oh, and did I mention that Pete and Trudy can dance up a storm?

My Response:
Within its pleasingly compact format, "My Old Kentucky Home" is very much a character-driven episode. I'm hard-pressed to think of a single plot element significantly forwarded (although a few potential storylines are introduced); even the Bacardi campaign is not part of a larger, ongoing advertising arc. We already know the tensions in the Draper marriage, the discomfort of Gene's new residency, the fragility of Joan's impending marriage, and of course Peggy's social seesawing between bold assertion and uptight remoteness within the office. Episode 3's highly enjoyable accomplishment is to build the muscle around these structural bones, reminding us what television can offer that movies can't (at least not to the same extent). This is also a reminder of the third season's unique place within the overall trajectory of Mad Men. In retrospect, we know we're really on the brink of something but we aren't quite there yet (a point I'll try not to repeat too many times, though it keeps coming up). There's a buzz in the air, like a storm is about to break. Within a few years of these events we'll look back in astonishment at how different everything seemed just a short time ago even if, as we watch it for the first time, it's often the new, promising tendrils (Peggy's newfound confidence, the freedom to smoke pot in a corporate office) that draw our attention.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the episode is immersed in what's fresh and novel. David Lynch once spoke about the difficulty of creating a period piece because you couldn't only borrow from the era being depicted: in the sixties, people lived in houses built in the thirties or forties, their cars or furniture might be a dozen years old, decades past were still alive then just as (mostly) different decades remain alive now. And so "My Old Kentucky Home" features Nelson Rockefeller's divorce, female empowerment, and marijuana reveries, but it's replete (perhaps even more than usual) with relics rooted in previous periods: Edward Gibbon, the Princeton Tigertones, the Charleston, Roger's minstrelsy, Mr. White Jacket's turn-of-the century riverfront reminiscence, soft jazz spilling out from a tent on an early summer evening. And, looking forward, what does the episode promise? Perhaps a new client Don will bring to the agency, maybe a new habit for Peggy...and a new distraction for Betty? Given Don's memorable affairs, it's easy to forget that Betty allowed herself a dalliance too last season. Will she again? And this time will it be an emotional bond rather than an anonymous one-off? In other regards, maybe we're just pausing in a journey to collect a moment, even if we're resigned to losing it later. Gene's discovery of his granddaughter's inner life could simply be a brief way station on his long journey into night, or it could pass a sense of forgiveness and responsibility along to Sally. Is the present the process of the future becoming the past, or of the past creating the future? Even as we linger in the now, it's hard to escape the tug of both directions.

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