Season 3's third episode, named for a stunning Roger Sterling musical interlude, is as much about tone as advancement of the plot. And a surprisingly musical tone at that.
As always in these reviews, there be spoilers ahead. So if you've not yet seen the episode, you can't say you haven't been warned.
If you missed the previous episode, here's a quick recap.
"My Old Kentucky Home" is structured around four fronts. Three of them are parties, though only two are scheduled to be parties, and one is the inevitable Don and Betty Draper home front. Which was better than those who don't yearn for the domestic scenes might have expected.
As for the plot, the biggest advances came for Peggy Olsen's storyline. Yes, she does want to smoke marijuana, and yes, it stimulates her creativity. Or perhaps her underlying workaholism is just so strong that she feels compelled to work to compensate for getting high. Yet I digress, for a moment. The rest of the episode focuses on tone, character, and establishing new threads and playing along established threads. And some ominous hints about the corporate disarray at Sterling Cooper.
Back to that episode title. It is in fact the notorious old song, complete with lines about happy "darkies" in the cotton fields, sung by Roger Sterling -- in black face! -- at his "Derby Day" party at a Long Island country club. Roger's actually a good singer, which makes it all the more appalling because he is not playing it for laughs. It may be that Roger Sterling is not as cool as we'd like to think.
Don Draper seems far less amused with his old pal than he used to be. As he and very pregnant Betty prepare for the party -- which serves as a sort of coming out party for his 21-year old ex-secretary Jane as Mrs. Roger Sterling, hostess with the mostest -- he's already grumbling about the party. And his mood is not improved with his father-in-law, whose mental faculties are failing him and who Don rather impulsively installed in their home, proceeds to make a federal case out of a missing $5 bill. Which Don naturally offers to replace, only to be immediately rebuffed. But we know where the fiver's disappeared to; into the guilty little paws of adorable little Sally Draper, who needs even more attention than getting to read "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" to Grandpa Gene.
While this domestic drama wends its way forward, the Drapers make their way from Westchester County to Long Island for the big soiree.
Meanwhile, two other parties are in the works. Because of a screw-up by new accounts co-chiefs Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove, the younger creative types have to work on the weekend to come up with a new campaign for Bacardi rum. Resentful, they proceed to get sloshed on the booze while trying out slogans on one another. Soon they're in search of more potent inebriation.
The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.
In another part of Manhattan, the real hostess with the mostest, Joan Holloway, is putting on a small dinner party for her new doctor husband and two senior medical colleagues and their wives. She's a whiz, naturally, just as good at putting together a dinner party, and saving it, as she is at not so subtly running the office at Sterling Cooper.
Which probably had Joan, Roger Sterling's longtime backdoor girl, recalling her earlier encounter with the new Mrs. Roger Sterling at the top of the episode. Joan hadn't been very nice to Jane, trying to fire her after a harmless prank, which is ironically what brought Jane together with Roger. So Jane, not surprisingly for someone 21 and foxy, rubs her new status in Joan's face.
And all that was probably particularly galling to Joan as she realizes midway through her dinner party that her perfect doctor husband, who has a decidedly nasty side we don't see in this episode, screwed up an operation and may not make it to the top the way she'd imagined. Indeed, the mention of his medical mishap cast such a pall over the gathering, especially over the new hubster's face, that Joan is literally beseeched to save the party through her singing. And so we have another musical interlude, with Joan, accompanying herself on accordion (!), producing a fetching version of "C'est Magnifique."
Somewhat less magnificently, completing the episode's musical trifecta, the unhappy weekend workers (imagine working on a Saturday!) back at Sterling Cooper show us that Paul Kinsey, in addition to being pompous, can actually sing. Which he first does on a dare from his old Princeton classmate-turned-drug dealer who turned up with the marijuana and decided to hang out, then in a glee club harmony with Mr. Pusher Man. To which Peggy says the only appropriate thing: "I'm so high!"
Peggy has a rather motherly new secretary, having dumped the one we saw in the season opener. She had the bad habit of paying much more attention to the attentions of "Moneypenny," the assistant to the agency's new British overseer, than to her own boss.
We don't see the Brits at all in this episode, incidentally, including at the big Roger Sterling party. Which doesn't seem like a good omen for corporate relations.
Peggy's new secretary is worried about her young superior's smoking marijuana and all, which she finds quite scandalizing. But Peggy reassures that she's going to be fine in the agency, which means that they'll both be fine, and that this young proto-feminist is going to fly. And while you're at it, get me a glass of water and set up the dictaphone, because there's some advertising to be conceived.
While that takes care of all the musical interludes, I haven't mentioned the dance number yet.
Yes, this was the variety show episode of Mad Men.
Meet Don Draper, the protagonist/anti-hero of Mad Men.
Don Draper is really not thrilled with the Roger Sterling party, especially after Roger's little vocal performance. He wants to leave, but Betty wants to stay. Among other things, there's lots of really good food, and she's thankfully stopped trying to diet her way through her pregnancy.
Pete Campbell's wife Trudy, who is actually charming, is doing the best of any of the wives at helping promote their husbands, and befriends Betty, who accompanies her to the ladies room. With Trudy stuck inside in a typical line, Betty has a very intriguing encounter with a suave political type who introduces himself only by his first name and proceeds, with Betty's rapt acquiescence, to feel up her very pregnant belly.
Later we find, through his introduction by Bert Cooper, that he's a top aide to not long divorced New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who has that day scandalized the political world by marrying the just-divorced ex-wife of one of Rockefeller's close friends. Cooper's upset, as that means the Republicans will likely be stuck with Barry Goldwater running against President Kennedy in 1964. Why'd Rockefeller do it? "Love," explains the Rockefeller aide, making discreet eyes with Betty Draper.
Earlier, Don Draper has a now familiar character moment, when he encounters a fellow sympathizer to his view that the place is filled with stiffs, an older fellow from the Southwest who I'd bet is actually the richest guy on the grounds. He says he's a registered Republican, like most of the folks there, but he really feels like he wears the head of a jackass. Which is to say, a Democrat.
He also does a "Great Gatsby" riff about being entranced by the lights of the elegant parties as a kid and then finding out it's not nearly so nice inside. Don, who has the amusing habit of opening up to strangers who, naturally, don't know who he is, recounts his teenage story of working at a roadhouse where he wasn't allowed to use the facilities, leading him to piss into the trunks of "the fancy people's" cars.
In case you missed the season opener, here's a quick recap.
Don Draper, meet Dick Whitman.
Roger Sterling, who is not a stiff, urges people to dance, though not, notably, his own very young and not quite steady wife, who's beginning to unfurl her sheets to the wind. Then, in a moment almost as disconcerting as Sterling's black face rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home," Trudy and Pete Campbell cut the rug with a dance contest-worthy version of ... the Charleston!
Speaking of time warps, the show did a good job of getting viewers -- especially those who recall his mistaking daughter Betty for his late wife -- to think that something bad is going to happen between little Sally Draper and Grandpa Gene in this episode. His dissatisfaction over the loss of his $5 bill does not abate during the episode. Now, the actor who plays Betty's father, Ryan Cutrona, played the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 24, so he can do intimidating.
With the tension mounting, young Sally, guilty and scared, tosses the purloined fiver onto the kitchen floor as dinner is about to begin. And then "discovers" it. Grandpa Gene's mind may have some major gear slips at times, but he's no dummy. Nevertheless, the tension builds during dinner as you wonder if he will lash out at the child. After, as she says a half-hearted good night, he grumps as he orders her into his room. But he hands her the big history book and asks her to pick up again where they left off. All is well.
All is decidedly not well at the tail end of the Sterling soiree. The very young Mrs. Sterling, drinking her way through the day to cover her nervousness, has forgotten to eat. With Don and Betty on hand, she gets a plate of food for herself, but drops it and then falls. She babbles about how beautiful Betty is and how Don must love to just look at her and she knew when she was Don's secretary they'd get back together, punching the insecure Betty's departure button.
And since improving matters is clearly not on the agenda, Jane tells Don she's a nice person and wonders why he doesn't like her, all the while grabbing at him in her effort to stand up straight.
Cue Roger Sterling, who wonders what on earth is going on.
"Your wife is drunk," Don says quite coldly to his old friend, who wonders what he did to get under Don's skin.
Oh, let's review. You used Don's line out of context as an excuse to your wife of 25 years why you had to divorce her and marry Don's 21-year old secretary, which caused the sale of Sterling Cooper (in order to pay for your divorce) to a big British firm which is screwing up the business and Don's professional life.
Are we missing anything?
Wounded, Roger tells Don that people can't handle his "conspicuous happiness." In a wounding place, his simmering pissed-off mood breaking through, Don tells Roger that "People don't think you're happy, they think you're foolish."
Yet there Roger and Jane are at the end, poignantly shuffle dancing without music, looking much more happy than not. Which leads Don to seek out Betty at the end of the lawn in the dark, embracing her as passionately as we've seen in a long time.
A most romantic ending for an episode of Mad Men. That means it's probably not a good omen.
Next week, hopefully, on Mad Men: No singing, no flapper dancing.