We generally think of performing as a way of opening up to the people we’re performing for, a way of sharing some bit of ourselves—be it a song or a dance or a comedy routine—with our friends or family or strangers. But that obscures some of the essential truth of what performance actually is, of what our relationship is both with those we’re performing for and those who perform to us. To perform is also to hide, to place a literal or figurative mask over your face and see if you can’t distract everyone from the things you’re really thinking or feeling just long enough to maybe distract yourself as well. When we talk about the irony of a sad comedian or how strange it is that a rock star on top of the world killed himself, what we’re really talking about is how good their games of distraction are. All art is driven by a variety of sources, but a lot of great art, a lot of art that really sticks with us, is driven by pain, even as that art tries to play a quick game of Three Card Monte to keep us from that fact.
Everybody in “My Old Kentucky Home,” written by Dahvi Waller and Matthew Weiner and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, is performing on one level or another. But, then, Mad Men, obsessed as it is with ideas of social conventions and both how we live up to them and subvert them, features a large cast of characters who are almost always performing for everyone they see. In some ways, they and the show take their cues from Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who’s spent his whole life pretending to be someone he’s not, the ultimate example of performance becoming reality. Don has been performing so long that when he has to add on that extra level of it—acting as though he’s comfortable at a party where he’s really not, say—it just doesn’t ever seem to work as well as when he’s striding around Sterling-Cooper or something of the sort.
“My Old Kentucky Home” actually foregrounds this theme almost blatantly, something Mad Men manages surprisingly well in this one. Joan (Christina Hendricks) plays the accordion for her dinner party guests. Roger (John Slattery) sings the song in the episode title while in blackface. The episode even begins with a scene where an actress is called in to audition for the Patio commercial Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) fought so hard against last week, Harry (Rich Sommer) leering in delight as she does the twist. Even if it were just these three characters, it would be something the episode was clearly trying to get at, but everyone on the show seems to be dealing with it one way or another. Even Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) engages in both the performance of a lie and the performance of reading aloud for her grandfather. And what’s she reading about? The end of the Roman Empire, a culture dedicated entirely to the pursuit of self-gratification and pleasure above all else in its dying days, dedicated to performance and self-deception as a way of life (or so the book would have it). Weiner and his writers all but dare you to insert your thoughts both on where the U.S. is heading in the years immediately following Mad Men and the decades to come right after that scene. The episode similarly ends on a note of performance, two people kissing romantically under a moonlit sky, their marriage at some level an act that they both agree to, but a very real and bruised connection underneath all of that that they both are working hard to preserve.
“Kentucky Home” spends most of its time at three gatherings: Roger and Jane’s (Peyton List) party to celebrate their marriage, a brainstorming session for an advertising campaign at the Sterling-Cooper offices and a dinner party thrown by Joan and her doctor husband, Greg (Sam Page). Parties and social outings are places where we put our performance skills to good use, avoiding, say, conflict in our marriages or our concerns about what our friends are doing, the better to have a fun evening that’s not filled with stress or conflict. So it’s an apt series of settings for this episode, with its interest in how we present ourselves to the world at large. I think the central scene here is supposed to be the meeting between Don and Connie (Chelcie Ross), who is likely meant to be Conrad Hilton, if the Internet hive-mind is to be believed. The two retreat to the bar to avoid the gatherings they’re both at the country club to attend, Don avoiding the distasteful scene where Roger performs in blackface. (I should mention that this scene is shockingly funny in a way that Mad Men’s “Hey, the ’60s were crazy!” references often aren’t. The humor doesn’t feel cheap, precisely because the episode pairs this with a rather sympathetic portrayal of the Drapers’ maid, Carla, but also because Roger has no idea how offensive this will seem in even six months, much less six years. Don, though driven by his sense of how out of his depth he is at this level of class, also seems to intuit this somehow. Probably because he’s Don, and that’s what he does.)
Connie and Don are both moving up the class ladder, climbing outside of the established social strata they were born in. Because people like Roger or Betty (January Jones) or Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) were born going to events like the country club party, they don’t quite realize the level of artificiality they’re dealing with, how class constructs pile on top of other class constructs to create something completely false. The level of unease that this causes both Don and Connie is something neither can articulate, most likely, but they feel it acutely, feel in their bones how they’ll never be LIKE someone like Roger. Even if Don couldn’t share the story about how he used to park cars with most people in his life because they would then have the ability to pick at the scab of his horrible secret, he REALLY can’t because they just won’t understand how those feelings, how that old self lying beneath the confident air he gives off, the perfected lie he performs at every moment of his life, lie beneath every inch of his skin. He’s a walking performance, and the incongruity between who he appears to be and who he is only makes itself felt in a queasiness that only someone like Connie could understand.
It’s interesting to note that this sequence features a number of smaller performance scenes within it (outside of the Roger in blackface scene). Take, for instance, Pete and Trudy (Allison Brie) dancing the Charleston to show off for the other guests, in a way that seemed both somehow hilariously desperate and deeply impressive. Pete, to some degree, longs for the way that things were, when his family name was enough to open any door in the city, to get him posh positions. Now, of course, there’s a wave coming that could carry Pete along with it—the youthful wave that will come to dominate the decade—but Pete’s simply unable to see what’s coming. He’s hung up on a world that’s rapidly disappearing, to the point where he dances a step that hasn’t been terribly popular since the 1920s. And yet, something about the joy on the faces of the two makes the whole thing seem worth it. These are two people who can’t have children, who have to listen as Harry and his wife and Don and Betty explain about their own pregnancy processes, two people who have to throw themselves into something to avoid paying attention to the way that they’ve come up short in the eyes of their current society. And the weird joy they bring to it is enough to make Harry’s wife angry at her husband when he drags her off the dance floor, thoroughly upstaged by Pete and Trudy.
The unease over class mobility and the acts of performance that go along with it isn’t confined to Roger and Jane’s party by any means. Indeed, it’s even present in the Sterling-Cooper offices, where Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) calls in his old college pal to deliver some weed, and we learn that Paul, back before all of the pretensions he wears now as a suit of armor, was just another scholarship kid with a thick accent who ended up in the New York area and saw an opportunity to move up in the world. These revelations cause him to become sulky and sullen, even as Peggy finds something in being high that allows her to come up with something approaching an ad campaign. We think of being drunk or high as a way to get past the disguises we wear every day, as something that cuts down to our true core and allows us to express our true selves. What Mad Men is showing here is just how miserable that can make so many of us. We’re not terribly happy with who we really are, and that’s why we put on these elaborate guises of being someone other than that. Anything that unburdens us of those costumes can cause just as much resentment as it does relief.
One of our final acts of performance comes from Joan, who’s steadily realizing that Greg is just as bad as his rape of her might have suggested. Even as she’s able to hold off his temper more and more (her ability to stop it dead in its tracks when he starts to grow angered by her insistence on following the rules of Emily Post by suggesting a compromise shows how quickly she’s learned to live within this marriage), she’s trapped further and further into a role that she feels increasingly uncomfortable with. At Sterling-Cooper, she’s the queen of the office, even if no one can see past her looks to what she could actually contribute (as they have with Peggy), but at home, she’s soon going to be simply a prop in Greg’s ascension to chief of medicine, though a necessary prop (if he’s ever going to overcome the stories of a death that occurred under his knife). What’s interesting about Mad Men’s portrayal of women in the early ’60s is that it doesn’t sink so low as to portray all of them fighting against their invisible cages, all budding, early feminists. They’re simply people who know what they want because they’ve been told that’s what they should want. But everyone on Mad Men is rapidly learning that there’s a vast gulf between what they expect they should want and what they actually do want.
The story where Betty’s dad tried to find the $5 that Sally stole from him and danced around the edges of blaming Carla felt almost like a network-mandated way to offset the Roger in blackface gag with a sympathetic portrayal of a black character, though I find it fascinating that Carla’s prominence has almost exactly conformed to how black people in the U.S. came steadily to prominence in the early ’60s before the mid-decade civil rights battles. Mostly, though, this was just a chance for the show to hit some of the notes it likes to hit—like showing how Don’s sins are reflected in his daughter or having her reading from Gibbon’s work on the Roman Empire as a metaphor for everything that is coming. It was less of a substantive comment on things than a grace note, and as a grace note, it mostly worked.
I’ve read a lot of criticism of this episode around the Internet, irritated that nothing substantive happens in it, that it’s more an expression of character and theme than a straightforward plot. To some degree, I wonder if these people have ever seen Mad Men or if this irritation stems from people who’ve seen the show on DVD and don’t realize how slow-moving it can seem when watched on a broadcast schedule. To me, “My Old Kentucky Home” is a sterling example of nearly everything Mad Men does well. You could, perhaps, complain that nothing happens in it, but Mad Men is less about substantive plot momentum than nearly any great drama in the history of the medium. Every season of Mad Men is a long drum roll that sustains, never quite reaching the point where it would burst forth in cacophony, but, instead, burying our heads in the noise, until all we can feel is the slow, mounting sense that Something Is Coming, and we, like the characters in Mad Men, will be swept aside by it.
Some other thoughts:
• Sorry for the lateness of this write-up. Things have gotten out of hand as I work on various fall TV preview articles for various outlets, but next week (with Labor Day breaking things up) should go better.
• I love Don’s takedown of Roger at the end of the night. “No one thinks you’re happy. They think you’re foolish.” I’m going to have to break that out at parties.
• That whole scene where Peggy and the others get high hits most of the stereotypical marijuana beats, but the fact that it’s these characters saying and doing these things makes them somehow newly hilarious and endearing. All of Paul’s angst about the Tiger Tones is also pretty great.
• I try not to be all prurient in these write-ups, but man, all of the female cast members looked like a million bucks in this episode.
• Looks like Sal (Bryan Batt) will have a storyline again in the next episode, which will be nice.
• Trying to get a sense of what people thought of this episode reminded me of why I try to read so little Mad Men commentary on the Internet. It’s not that I don’t think all criticism should begin from a point of healthy skepticism, but every season of this show has been structured roughly similarly. At this point, we should be used to it, yes?
• In the same week as Mad Men used blackface, Weeds did as well (though in a far less interesting fashion). Was there a third out there? Was this a part of some trend I just missed?