Monday, September 08, 2008

Mad Men: "The Gold Violin" - That new car smell

Aside from the ending, for folks hoping for sweeping plot developments, this week's Mad Men might have left them wanting, but in terms of setting up future scenes and incorporating a central theme, it was another strong episode. "The Gold Violin" is both the name of the episode and a short story by Ken, which he describes as "perfect in every way -- except it couldn't make music." That theme, of something that's perceived as perfect and yet flawed in some way, comes up time and time again, along with the detritus we leave behind in our lives rearing it's ugly head.

Don and Betty, both separately and together, are perfect examples of the gold violin. They give off the impression of perfection, when in fact, they have a trouble playing music, but really, that's been the case throughout the series. In the episode, the metaphor of "garbage left behind" enters in as well, so when while Don buys a car to, in part, move forward from the car crash that was the affair with Bobbie, the affair still comes back to haunt his car, in the form of Betty puking on his precious seats. The buildup to that payoff came in many different ways, but the most subtle of piece of setup was Don's seemingly throwaway line to Duck: "I'd compliment you Duck, but I'm afraid you're so full of self-confidence you'd probably burst." The phrase, while it had nothing to do with Betty, was worded to help us visualize all the b.s. from Don that Betty's been holding down. When she finds out from Jimmy about the affair, she's so full, she's about to burst -- and does. All over Don's gold violin. Jimmy calls Don "garbage" to tie it back to the visual of the Drapers leaving behind all their picnic debris from the 'gold violin' setting they occupied, and it also ties into the 'garbage' of his affair that the tried to leave behind.

Meanwhile, who better embodies the Gold Violin than Sal as husband? He cooks, cleans, and pampers his wife, but in no way can he make music as a heterosexual husband. Like the client rep for Belle Jolie last season, Ken unwittingly helps push Sal closer to self-discovery here. It's obvious that Sal has some semi-conscious feelings for Ken, but it's equally obvious that he realizes that bridge leads to nowhere, even as he uses Ken's lighter, that he kept as a memento. Sal first recognizes Ken's sensitivity while they look at the Cooper's Rothko, and that painting provides another gold violin. The painting itself isn't necessarily the metaphor here, but instead Cooper's relationship to it. He's only bought it as an investment -- and it's an unwise one at that. While Rothko got a choice seat at Kennedy's inaugural ball, by 1962, Rothko was quickly becoming a dinosaur himself, complaining about the new pop art of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist that was exploding at the time, calling the painters "charlatans and young opportunists". That Cooper aligns himself with Rothko speaks a lot how he just doesn't get the new generation.

Speaking of which, the new generation creative team assigned to Martinson Coffee, returns from whatever closet office they shoved them into the past few episodes. While the scenes with Kurt and Smitty felt forced in the need to draw these generational differences (ie, the reading of the Students for a Democratic Society's Port Huron Statement) "We don't want to be told what to do or how to act. We just want to be." Which instantly had me thinking of that famous eulogy scene from Roger Corman's The Wild Angels, his 1966 cult film about motorcycle gangs that anticipated Easy Rider by about three years (both films featuring Peter Fonda, no less). The scene has been sampled by many music acts, including Mudhoney ("In and Out of Grace") and Primal Scream ("Loaded,") and has become more famous than the actual movie itself. The often repeated creed goes:

We want to be free! We want to be free to do what we want to do! We want to be free to ride. And we want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man. And we want to get loaded. And we want to have a good time! And that's what we're gonna do. We're gonna have a good time. We're gonna have a party!
Another very subtle reference to someone's tossed garbage coming back to haunt them is Duck having to spend time 'birding' with the client from Martinson Coffee. First of all, I'm sure with a name like Duck, I'm sure he got a good ribbing from his clients, but he's also only a few weeks removed from abandoning Chauncey, an Irish Setter and bird dog. So he had to hunt and hang out with a couple bird dogs, providing him with the painful reminder of what he did to Chauncey. No wonder he eyes Don's liquor cabinet so intently. Good on Don's secretary Jane to snuff out that thought professionally. And what are we to make of Don's secretary now? She's definitely playing Joan's game with the men in the office, even using some of Joan's discarded past in the form of Roger, but I think she underestimated just how much Joan has left in the tank. I smell a cat fight!

Finally, what exactly are to we make of the song, Brenda Lee's "Break it to Me Gently", that closes the episode? Taken literally, following the scene with the Drapers driving home in shock, you would think their marriage is now in it's official slow decay to the final call of 'irreconcilable differences.' But I'm going to take the view that it's meant to be an ironic reference to how Jimmy blows the lid off the Don and Bobbie affair. Break it to you gently? Screw that, I'm going to rub your nose in it, sweetheart.


Monique R. said...

You don't think Betty finding out in public that Don sleept with Bobbie Barrett is a sweeping plot development? It's huge. What would you condsider one, I wonder.

Bumpershine said...

I think you could look at Betty's vomit in the car in three possible ways:
1) It was a physical manifestation of her revulsion with Don's affair,
2) She was drunk, or
3) She's pregnant.

Granted, it's probably a combination of 1 and 2, as she's probably not pregnant because this is only in Season 2 (not Season 7).

The other thing about that "burst" comment, is that when she arrived at the Stork Club with Don, she was so full of pride over Don's accomplishments (as opposed to deep seated resentment over his behaviour) that she was about to burst. Jimmy then went on to burst her bubble with an insult (well, a shocking revelation I suppose), as opposed to a complement.