Here’s a trick: Find a person you love and offer them something no one has ever seen, that no one will ever see again. Admire their astonishment. Then, produce a peanut. It could be anything in a shell—an oyster, say, but that’s messier to share. Crack it open, and each eat one of the nuts. Now you have a secret, a little conspiracy locked forever between the two of you.
Lies make secrets too. And every secret doubles the world. Something shared, something hidden. It works the same even when you are alone. Just crack the peanut and keep it for yourself. No matter if that lie is horrid, helpful, harmless, or forgotten. Something told, something held back. Large features of our lives, fantasies and shames and unbidden memories, remain secret only because no one ever asked. In that case what gets doubled is loneliness turned on itself. But spoken or held all alone, a lie becomes a twin, an image of truth, or a shadow, like a ghost. A phantom.
(This is Part 3 in an ongoing essay on Mad Men. For Part 1, see here: Everything’s Exactly the Same. If you missed part 2, see here: Mad Men is the Superhero Show We Need Now. Yes, there will be spoilers about earlier seasons, if that sort of thing bothers you.)
Among the side effects of doubling are the symmetries it leaves, the reflected pairs of images rippling around the divide. In the wake of the third in this final grouping of Mad Men episodes airing last night, and for the third installment of this essay, I want to take a close look at the third episode from the third season of the series, “My Old Kentucky Home,” featuring some of the most extraordinary and outrageous examples of Mad Men’s style of theater, an episode framed by symmetrical instances of Sally Draper reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to her grandfather.
This is an incongruous bedtime story, for sure. The child reading to the old man seems backward, and the voice of a 9-year-old girl speaking the cadence of an 18th-century work of ponderous history about an even more ancient time only amplifies the absurdity:
“The warmth of the climate disposed the natives to most intemperate enjoyment of tranquility and opulence; and the lively lie—lice—,” here Sally stumbles over the word, “—licentiousness of the Greeks was blended with the hereditary softness of the Syrians. Fashion was the only law, pleasure the only pursuit, and the splendor of dress and furniture was the only distinction of the citizens of Antioch.”
Just the word Antioch sounds antiquated, but this is probably the kind of rigid education Gene Hofstadt is used to. This stern fellow invading his own daughter’s home because he can’t even care for himself anymore wants to oversee the raising of his next kin by toughening her vocabulary and elocution while cautioning that even the olden days were full of pansies. Plus the ridiculous staging of this reference disguises how it lampoons the sensation—splendor of dress and furniture—surrounding the initial reception of Mad Men itself.
Don interrupts the fun by announcing Sally’s bedtime, and Gene consoles the girl, “Just wait. All hell’s gonna break loose.”
But a tiny bit of hell has already broken loose in this episode, which starts when Joan Holloway confronts Jane Sterling, the ex-Sterling Cooper secretary last seen eloping with Joan’s own former paramour Roger Sterling—who never left his first wife for Joan, did he? The pair face off in an incredible exchange of doublespeak, complimenting each other as delightfully as snakes. Jane’s stopped by the office to pick up Roger to prepare for the couple’s Kentucky Derby party at a country club on Long Island next day, and we learn that while the account executives and partners will be drinking mint juleps, dancing and eating hot browns, the underlings on the creative team get assigned to work over the weekend preparing last minute pitches for a Monday meeting. The first Saturday in May! Hurray!
This being Sterling Cooper after all, the young creatives appear there in the morning already drinking the client’s rum, searching for inspiration. But all is not merry, happy and bright; they’re struggling for a way to make Bacardi seem innovative. One copywriter, Smitty, says liquor puts him to sleep. “I’ll take grass any hour of the day. Helps me think.” Paul Kinsey sends Peggy Olson on an errand to find a blender, ostensibly to keep stirring ideas for cocktails but actually so the boys can bake up a plan to get some weed. This is six minutes into the episode.
Meanwhile at the Draper residence, Don and Betty get ready to attend the garden party. A very pregnant Betty calls Sally in to zip her dress. “I just walked backwards all the way from the living room,” Sally says entering. It’s a perfect non sequitur but totally in place in this episode. Betty ignores her. “Don’t bother Grandpa Gene. Go watch TV.” So Sally ignores this instruction: She goes right into Gene’s room and, finding her grandfather has gone to the toilet, steals five dollars out of his money clip.
This becomes one of the first examples of Sally’s private world of mischief that develops throughout the series. In earlier seasons we’ve seen the Drapers’ other child Bobby acting out, lying and breaking things, and he maintains this disobedience from time to time, but from here on Sally takes the lead for good. Eventually she smokes cigarettes, hangs out with a boy she’s been forbidden to see, cuts her hair without permission, masturbates at a sleepover, sneaks off from school. Sally’s naughtiness and mounting secrets, especially her budding sexuality and early witness to several adult encounters as she grows older, make her a kind of parallel or inchoate Don Draper—at first she views it as a curse of his and then later it seals a furtive bond between them. What Sally does with Gene’s money starts as an instinct of curiosity and connection—she just wants to spend time near the old man, however rebellious this may be to her mother’s will—but quickly she observes the secret of her theft turning into a dynamic with power to manipulate the household.
So Kinsey’s drug dealer arrives, a former classmate from Princeton who looks and sounds just like Tom Cruise. Smitty and Kinsey are eager to complete the transaction, but dude just wants to chill and smoke some bud. He lights up himself as they eye the joint, realizing the illicit exchange is growing longer. “You ever look out this window…?” the man says, staring at the glass.
If Mad Men has several steady romances going with intoxicants, alcohol and cigarettes are the marriage: reliable, ever present, and functionally reinforcing the show’s realistic structure. Mood-altering drugs are more like the steamy and rollicking sidepiece. “Like drinking 100 bottles of whisky while someone licks your tits,” describes Don’s ex-lover Midge about the feeling of heroin. But drug sequences in the series offer more than a change of flavor with heightened intensity; they’re a way to escape the rules and habits of its regular order, to indulge in ways of being less accountable to our established realism. When Roger and Jane try LSD for the first time in Season 5, the psychologist friend who doses and chaperones them introduces it like this: “It’s a study of how things are true or false: Some things are possibly true; some are necessarily true. Some things used to be true, some will be true. Some are true on this planet but not necessarily others.” Where the characters’ drug-induced behaviors and epiphanies seem sometimes too exaggerated or on the nose, we excuse the representation for belonging to this kind of relative truth rather than a strict document of their lives—just like the surreal visions they witness, such as when Don talks to the one-armed ghost of Pfc. Dinkins after smoking hashish at a California party or Ken Cosgrove tap dances and Stan Rizzo arrives at “six hundred and sixty-six ideas” after the office distributes amphetamine cocktails (both episodes in Season 6), are understood as subjective experiences. “Only awareness can make reality. And only reality can become a dream. And only from a dream can you awake to the light,” says the acid doctor, quoting the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
So when the marijuana smoke starts blowing toward the windowpane and the scene dissolves to the lush banquet of the Derby party, we recognize that we are looking at things through a new frame and the content of this episode might be continually warped. It lends us to wonder if what happens on Long Island may be seen partly projected by the creative crew alienated by their distance (after all the whole affair takes place on grass at the country club grounds) or at the same time diffracted by Don’s alienation and discomfort on the spot—and either way must be viewed as though through glass.
The edits take us back and forth between the garden party and the closed quarters of Sterling Cooper, as well as two subplots involving Joan’s own dinner party for her husband’s superiors and the controversy over Grandpa Gene’s missing money. Eventually Peggy barges into Kinsey’s reefer-clouded office, but she turns from hectoring the boys to reply to the drug dealer’s introduction of himself (appended with, “Princeton, fifty-fivvve”) by declaring impatiently, “I’m Peggy Olson and I want to smoke some marijuana!” They pass her the joint and as she smokes, concentrating, puffing in and out, the sound of solitary, spaced-out strums from a banjo overlap before we cut again to…
OH MY WORD IT’S ROGER STERLING IN BLACKFACE. And he’s singing, “The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home/’Tis summer, and the darkies are gay-y-y….” If you thought Antioch was out of date there are two words used here in ways that make Decline and Fall sound like it was drafted in the early 2000s.
Notwithstanding this song—still jovially played at the Kentucky Derby in 2015, itself cleaned up from an even-more racist tune called “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night” (intended in its own time as sensitive and sympathetic to slaves, after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel; Frederick Douglass approved!)—Roger on his knees, face (and ears!) smeared with brown grease except for an obscene rictus round his mouth stretching the words cartoonishly, is one of the most stunning depictions of racist folly I’ve ever seen. Jane, seated next to him on the bandstand as he serenades her, absolutely adores it. Other wives stand aside laughing, genuinely amused.
Mad Men has a complicated record with racism, and for the series to resort to minstrelsy before introducing even one major black character must have offended many thousands of people when this initially aired in 2009. Any portrait of a bygone period will include behaviors anachronistic to our tastes but, whereas stories like Selma or Twelve Years a Slave explicitly about racial inequality must include its injustices, this sort of thing may seem exploitative without those themes explored (maybe that’s a reason the Drapers’ maid Carla gets more play in this episode while feuding with Gene). But here instead of plain racism I think the show is highlighting the very-Mad Men motifs of masking and performance. Roger’s routine appears seamless and unremarkably part of the fun for the enthusiastic partygoers, but Don who lives in a nearby uncanny valley and can probably see the strings attached sighs disgustedly behind Betty (who’s grinning as turned up as the rest). Pete Campbell looks at least puzzled, but puts on a different face when his giggling wife Trudy looks up at him, suggesting some guilty conflict there too.
This subtlety admittedly gets lost on first viewing, if only because the setpiece is such astonishing television. The image is offensive, but the surprise that the show goes through with it, the ruthless shortage of fucks given, is so unhinging to our expectations that it leaves us blushing, flushed, our histamines buzzing—dare I say high? The radiating approval by the audience further dislocates our sensibilities. “I did this at home for her with a little shoe polish,” Roger says. “She thought it was a scream!” “I love it!” squeals Jane. He kisses her, leaving makeup gunk all over her face, then: “Wee-eep no more my lady/Wee-eep no more today-y-y….”
Anyway the whole thing obfuscates the real moment. Don tries to get Betty to leave but she wants to stay for the horse race, and dancing. He wanders away until he finds an abandoned bar inside the clubhouse. There is another guest there in a tuxedo, an old man named Connie searching for a bottle of Bourbon. Don fixes the man a cocktail with a few deft strokes. “Who are you hiding from?” “I’m at work disguised as a party.” “I’m at work disguised as a wedding.” Don keeps his thoughts mostly to himself while Connie goes on about how his humble origins didn’t prepare him for fancy clubs like this: “It’s different inside.” The two bond over their shared early poverty. “Where do you come from?” Connie asks. You know Don hates these questions. “Pennsylvania. By way of Illinois. We lost our farm. Ended up in coal country.” “And here you are,” Connie says. “Pleasure to meet you, Don. Hell of a cocktail!”
Now the kids in the office have the munchies. “If you were feeling it, you’d be hungry.” “I am hungry but it’s not worth moving.” They make small talk but no legwork. They dance around ideas but none of the rum puns connect unless the judges can score “Bacard-D. Eisenhower.” Suddenly, a low blow! Kinsey’s homeboy calls out his contrived learnèd accent, reviving hurt feelings from way back in their days on the Princeton pop choir. To settle the disagreement, Kinsey submits the chorus to Tin Pan Alley and Looney Tunes standard “Hello! Ma Baby.”
And he’s not bad. Another of the virtues of Mad Men’s weirdness is the variety of ways it finds to showcase the cast’s performing arts backgrounds. The previous episode was Peggy’s turn to try out a musical routine from “Bye Bye Birdie” in front of the mirror—a dance doubled again in the season when art director Sal Romano does it in his bedroom, disturbing his wife. Elsewhere in the series features showtunes-cavorting Bert Cooper, Megan Draper’s burlesque to “Zou Bisou Bisou” and, as already mentioned, Ken Cosgrove’s soft shoe. This episode we’ve already seen Roger sing; later we get Joan playing accordion and Pete’s miraculous jazz dancing. By the finish of Kinsey’s performance, he and the weasely drug dealer are harmonizing the song together. Peggy comments, “I am so high.”
By this point the episode feels like it’s happening entirely in a bottle, all plotless nonsense and diversion like the time wasted by the brainstorming creatives. But then in the next scene Betty Draper meets her future husband Henry Francis while waiting at the restroom. He puts an intimate hand on her swollen belly. Not yet revealed either is that old man Connie by the bar is Conrad Hilton, whose capricious late night phone calls and business meetings provide cover for Don’s next extramarital affair—and more importantly, whose requirement that Don sign a paper contract with the firm sets in motion the mutiny at Sterling Cooper that scrambles the season’s end. These shifty introductions shelter seismic events not just for Season 3 but for the whole series and these characters’ lives.
Nobody knows the significance when Henry Francis formally greets Don Draper and company on the country club lawn, but even that gets upstaged immediately when the band changes tempo and all the couples rush to the dancefloor. To everyone’s evident surprise, the couple least in step in their private lives, squarest Pete and Trudy Campbell, start immediately winning the dais with a loopy synchronized Charleston. The pair manages to jay-bird and arm-wave and even knee-knock in perfect, exquisite time with each other, until the rest of the dancers literally give up the floor. This appears a dreamlike mystery until Pete scans ominous eye contact at colleagues watching from the side, making ironically clear the childless Campbells are not simple footloose lovers but made a concerted effort to rehearse this scheme to improve Pete’s standing with his peers. As the two enjoy their triumphant dip and applause, once more audio overlaps the cut with a voice chanting,
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
The sun having fallen on the skyscraper window next to where he and Peggy and Smitty still grasp for any useful pitch for Bacardi, Kinsey’s lying on the floor in his office quoting T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” with its Guy Fawkes overtones somehow thwarting the promise of Pete’s dance revolution. Kinsey’s friend has departed, but the stoned haze remains. At last Peggy’s brain starts humming. She sends the boys home so she can develop her idea, pausing at her aged secretary’s desk to make a trance-like feminist speech—Don’t worry about me. I’m going to get to do everything you want for me—before bossing the older lady around.
And so the plots begin to wrap up. A conversation at Joan’s dinner party yields the indelicate discovery that her husband Greg may not have the steady hands to be a surgeon after all, let alone chief resident like he led her to believe—another meaningful turning point in the series. In the crater revealed by this news, the current chief resident’s wife proposes they play charades. Charades! This woman’s husband counters, “Come on, you’re terrible!” “No I’m not,” she says, betraying that this isn’t some agreed joke between them but actually the rude thing it sounds like. It’s a bracingly candid example of the way couples sometimes undermine and embarrass each other, and obviously makes things no better for Greg. Desperate to cover the tension, he begs Joan to haul out her accordion.
She delivers for him, but her face becomes a mask concealing the hurt and worry she has to defer while keeping the party going with Cole Porter’s “C’est Magnifique” in G major. If you are familiar with the usual beats of a Mad Men program, you’re probably ready for it to end with this sad, troubled moment escorted by a stretch of pretty period music. Letting the featured songs play at the ends of episodes is one of the advantages to watching the series on Netflix, even though you have to fight the queue from hastening to the next one. I think on broadcast TV these songs get regularly snubbed by network promotions, so it’s a treat to hear them uninterrupted. The musical selections can be reflective, calming—or unnerving, like when “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” plays after Joan finally breaks up with Greg in Season 5. But they’re always well chosen. And then the rare cases when other noise substitutes for music begs for interpretation, as at the ending to “Babylon,” the sixth episode in the first season, when a montage set to a folk version of Psalm 137 gives way to credits scored by anonymous sounds of automobiles coming and going from the hotel where Joan and Roger have their tryst. Series creator Matt Weiner is so conscious of this effect he made the Beatles stop and start again to finish “Lady Lazarus” in Season 5.
Yet this is not the end. The Kentucky Derby is still decadent and depraved. Jane’s white girl wasted on Long Island. She too lets out some indiscreet information, blurting to Betty how she knew about her and Don’s separation the previous year. That sends Betty stalking off, leaving Don to deal with the stumbling Jane just as Roger appears to see them in a compromising spot. Don’s too fed up to offer a more tactful explanation than, “Your wife’s drunk.” Roger and Don exchange sharp words about happiness:
“It’s a mistake to be conspicuously happy. People don’t like it.”
“No one thinks you’re happy. They think you’re foolish.”
“That’s the great thing about a place like this,” says Roger. “You get to come here and be happy, and you get to choose your guests.”
But you don’t get to pick your grandparents, or something like that. Watching Carla endure indirect blame by Grandpa Gene for the stolen money, and his calling her by the name of his own former black maid while policing the search for it, Sally has remained silent. Carla and Gene continue squabbling at dinner time but Sally convulses with guilt under a table in another room. At last Sally pulls the five out from her stocking and, from behind a doorway, tosses it into the kitchen then walks in and pretends to find it there on the floor. The logic of this is so transparent that Carla sucks in a breath but, with Gene fixing his stare on the young girl, Carla releases it to save Sally and close the drama. “Well, that’s a relief,” she rolls her eyes and eats her meal at the counter without an apology from either. Gene just folds his hands and keeps looking at Sally who averts her eyes.
Later, when Sally tiptoes down the hallway to say goodnight to her grandfather, Gene calls her in before she can slink away. It seems like comeuppance is upon young Salamander. “Sit down,” Gene says. But he only wants her to read more Roman downfall: “Where were we?”
“The rustic manners of a prince who disdained such glory,” reads Sally as the frame dissolves to Don Draper looking for his wife, “and was insensible of such happiness, soon disgusted the delicacy of his subjects; and the effeminate Orientals could neither imitate nor admire the severe simplicity which Julian always maintained and sometimes affected.”
This passage describes a short-reigned emperor from late antiquity, known for his fantastic early success and attempted reforms. Julian was the end of a line, the last pagan Roman Emperor but also last in the first Christian dynasty, so he’s a bit out of place in the history. With Sally’s narration slipped over the image of her father, together with the parallel lack of regard for “happiness” that we just observed in the confrontation with Roger, it’s tempting to hear the allusion to this complex figure as a forecast for Don. The emperor Julian tried to revive the traditional Roman religion and overturn the movement toward Christianity in Europe, but was killed in battle against Sassanid Persians. This is 1963, so perhaps we can also imagine this doomed young “prince” heralded for change as an analogy to Kennedy. Or, since it was in the first season of Mad Men produced after the 2008 election—Obama?
I’m more intrigued by what gets left out. Gene asks Sally, “Where were we?” but the bit she left off reading the night before does not in fact continue right where she starts here. Between these two sections in the Gibbon there is another paragraph:
The arts of luxury were honored; the serious and manly virtues were the subject of ridicule; and the contempt for female modesty and reverent age announced the universal corruption of the capitol of the East. The love of spectacles was the taste, or rather passion, of the Syrians: the most skillful artists were procured from the adjacent cities; a considerable share of the revenue was devoted to the public amusements; and the magnificence of the games of the theatre and circus was considered as the happiness, and as the glory, of Antioch.
One possibility is that these lines seemed redundant after “the splendor of dress and furniture was the only distinction of the citizens of Antioch,” and so were omitted to arrive sooner at the mention of Julian, or purely for brevity. Another way to read it is the episode as one unbroken text, with the interluding spectacle of drug-taking, wacky dancing, charades, racist clowning and opulent luxury standing in as dramatic translation of this passage connecting the two readings.
But the geometry of symmetries always demands a third thing: an angle of reflection. If the instances of Sally reading Decline and Fall form a symmetrical pair, then what’s in between must have a surface like a mirror. And what do mirrors show us? Ourselves. I’ve already suggested that Weiner included the crack about fashion as the only law to critique the contemporary obsession with Mad Men’s material style. It would be a foolishness matching Roger’s happiness to assume the show’s satire condemns the decadence and hubris of the 1960s without considering the present as its legacy, or that the corrupted patriarchy and misdeeds of men like Don Draper died out with his generation any more than Julian’s death reversed the collapse of the Roman Empire. I’m all for devoting considerable revenue to skilled artists, as surely so is Weiner. But the moral abuses artfully and endlessly denied by characters on this series are not a world preserved under glass; it’s life among the ruins. You ever look out your window?
As Don fails to find Betty anywhere near the banquet settings or dance floor, he again walks away from the tented gazebo and finally locates her down a garden path, alone, staring off at the night sky. He circles an arm around her, drops her coat, she returns the embrace and they start making out in the moonlight.
Medieval mystics and astronomers validated their fascination with stargazing according to the phrase “As above, so below,” a principle maxim of theurgy or Hermeticism implying reciprocal symmetry across scales. These traditions believe workings of the heavens viewed in the sky match conditions down below, in the way a portrait contains a version of reality. So Don Draper reuniting with his wife under the starry evening here seems to share the organizing harmonies of the universe.
But whoever said everything had to be symmetrical?
In Mad Men we are constantly shown how what’s visible above the threshold of awareness often contradicts or conflicts with what goes on below the surface, especially when the outward appearance seems tranquil or designed. Just so in this moment of their marriage as the conciliatory kiss serves an ironic foreshadowing of its eventual dissolution. The club band plays us out.
Lars Russell lives in the middle ground between magic markers and permanent ones. He has written for SPIN, the Stranger, the Onion and Eyeshot. He is the editor of Beat Valley.