Mad Men as a Work of Art
Bryan Batt in Mad Men courtesy AMC
As glittery and shiny as the spanking new 1962 Coupe de Ville that Don Draper buys (and whose new-car smell Betty ruins in the stunningly appropriate final scene of Sunday's episode), as rich and textured and ambiguous as the modernist Mark Rothko painting Cooper displays in his office, AMC's Mad Men
is firing on all cylinders midway through its second season. Sunday's brilliantly structured episode, another home run in a recent string of winners, had me looking anew at the show as a work of art, something transcending mere TV. I could devote an entire column to quoting great, meaningful, loaded dialogue from this episode. Surely they'll publish collected scripts of Mad Men
some day. It will make great reading, possibly even as satisfying as watching it.
But let me start with the metaphor of Cooper's painting, an object of fascination and derision among the young staffers at Sterling Cooper. When insecure Harry is called into a meeting, he's worried he'll be asked his opinion of the painting and isn't sure if he should act impressed or scoff. A real "Emperor's New Clothes" situation- not unlike the inevitable backlash mail I've fielded this summer in the wake of the show's impressive Emmy nomination total (16, more than any other drama) and continued critical acclaim, with unimpressed onlookers charging the show is a glossy bore that's hollow at the core. A view I obviously take issue with.
I find myself siding with Ken Cosgrove, who comes along with Sal and Harry on the verboten field trip to the boss's inner sanctum (which almost costs instigator Jane her secretary job while earning her Joan's eternal enmity). Ken takes one look at the abstract Rothko and says, "Maybe you're just supposed to experience it," suggesting, "It's like looking into something very deep. You could fall in."
Which pretty much describes my own obsession with this show. When I get my weekly dose, everything else on TV pales by comparison.
But Cooper (the wonderful Robert Morse) delivers the coup de grace on the art subplot when he tells Harry that what he thinks of his own acquisition is none of Harry's business: "Don't concern yourself with aesthetics. You'll get a headache." He brought Harry in to talk about numbers, not art, and lays out his philosophy: "People buy things to realize their aspirations. It's the foundation of our business." And he reveals that for him the Rothko is an investment, one that should pay off handsomely in a few years.
If there's a true artist in this firm's halls, it could be young Cosgrove, the horniest of the office horndogs. I love that he's the one with the creative gift, not the boorishly pretentious and envious Paul Kinsey. Ken's so casual about it as well (almost reminds me of the Salieri-Mozart rivalry in Amadeus
, on a much more banal scale.) Ken's already had a short story published and is nervously excited to share his latest work- which bears the episode title "The Gold Violin"- with an admiring Salvatore Romano, of whom Ken says: "You've not like everyone else around here." (Too true, unless there are other closeted married gays in the office we haven't yet met.) Ken's story was inspired by an instrument he once saw that was "perfect in every way except it couldn't make music." Which sounds like so many of the characters on this show, who appear so polished and golden until you scratch their surface and see what lies dissonantly underneath.
God knows there was surface tension to spare at the home of Sal and Kitty, where Ken came cluelessly to Sunday dinner, unfazed by Sal's fawning attentions at the expense of poor ignored Kitty, who later wailed, "Do you even see me here?" (Sal was too busy fondling Ken's left-behind lighter.) Kitty, you should meet Betty Draper sometime. We make a lot of fuss, with good reason, over the lead actors on this show, but everyone in these scenes- Aaron Staton (Ken), Bryan Batt (Sal) and Sarah Drew (Kitty)- nailed it. (It wasn't until scanning the credits that I realized Kitty was played by the same actress who played the adorably mousy Hannah on Everwood
This week's episode was enthralling from the very first note, when a haughty Cadillac salesman accosts Don in the showroom with the pitch: "Afraid you'll fall in love?" (Subtext: Pretty much, yeah.) And later: "You'd be as comfortable in one of these as you would in your own skin." (Subtext: Given Don's life of reinvention and deeply rooted self-disgust, that's hardly a recommendation.) Which leads to a 50s flashback in which we learn Don was once a used-car salesman (with higher hair and louder ties), with his own sales pitch interrupted by a woman who sees through him: "You're a hard man to find. You're not Don Draper." Whaat? Add this to the long list of Don Draper mysteries for now.
Don, who's something of a work of art himself (as the salesman admiringly acknowledges and as Jon Hamm proves every week in his performance), is a study in personal highs and lows this week. After impressing his coffee clients with a youth-oriented sales pitch and jingle ("It stays with you," said Peggy), he's invited to join a museum board, prompting both Sterling and Cooper to tell him he's being groomed for greatness. "You have been invited to be part of a group of people who get to decide what will happen in our world." Don immediately heads off to buy the Cadillac, enjoying a nooner with his impressed wife and later taking the family on a Sunday picnic (where they conspicuously leave litter, this being before Lady Bird Johnson's Keep America Beautiful campaign). But this idyllic happiness is, as usual, short-lived.
In the episode's climax, Don and Betty attend a swank Stork Club party celebrating Jimmy Barrett's 39-episode TV deal. There, the hammer falls on Don, as Jimmy calls him out on his affair with Bobbie, spilling the beans to an appalled Betty as well. "You're garbage and you know it," Jimmy spews. Yeah, Don knows it. And Betty's none too happy to be reminded of it again, vomiting all over the front seat as they silently drive home. Off Don's appalled look, taking us back with delicious dark irony to the opening in the pristine showroom, the episode ends.
How will they top this next Sunday? I can't wait to find out. I'm already jonesing for my next fix of TV art.
For Adam's full recap, go here