On my first viewing, I liked “The Gold Violin” pretty well but was bugged by a few things, some of which left me with an odd hunch that a number of fans would proclaim it an all-out clunker. A second viewing resolved some of my initial objections by giving me a better idea of Matthew Weiner & Co’s intent, but it didn’t shake my feeling this one won’t be a lot of peoples’ favorite. Some of it is the unexpected return of the Barretts, which both needlessly extended a story that had come to a fairly satisfying conclusion, then pulled a 180 on the conclusion’s message. Another issue might be the relatively large distance between Don’s story and that of the junior executives, which allows the latter to flower but also dilutes the sense of a unified theme.
Like a number of early-mid first season episodes, “The Gold Violin” seeks to juxtapose a story about the tension between Don’s past and future with one about the junior execs living lives of thwarted dreams. But here, the connection felt less organic—Ken and Salvatore’s unexpected friendship felt like a self-contained short story, while Don’s felt more like an excerpt from the novel (or, at the very least, like a non-entirely-hermetic story plucked from a nonsequential cycle). There have been other episodes of Mad Men that did this, but here the seams were just a little more visible than usual.
We begin with Don at a Cadillac dealership, where he’s pondering the purchase of a 1962 El Dorado (Don isn’t just looking for a toy, don’t forget—he’s in genuine need of a new vehicle after totaling his car in “The New Girl”). The dealer’s comment that he bets Don “would be as comfortable in one of these as you are in your own skin” inaugurates a flashback to a moment ten years earlier, not more than two year’s after walking away from his Dick Whitman identity, when he wasn’t quite so comfortable in his own skin. At the time, ironically, he was working as a used-car dealer, and was about to sell a presumed lemon to a high school student when a Patricia Arquette-lookalike startled him by coming by in search of the real Don Draper. Spooked by the memory, Don cuts the sale short and heads back to Sterling Cooper, to meet with Roger and Duck about the Martinson’s (now just ’Martinson’) coffee account that has gone unmentioned for several episodes.
Meanwhile, Peggy, Paul, Sal and Ken are working on the Pampers account that Sterling Cooper hopes to land, all of them vexed by the seemingly-intractible problem of the product’s high price (a necessity to offset Procter & Gamble’s R&D costs). Subsequent interruptions by Harry and Jane, Don’s new secretary, result in Jane, Ken, Sal and Harry sneaking into Burt Cooper’s office for a gander at the Mark Rothko painting on which Cooper just dropped a bundle. To Jane and Harry, it’s entirely abstract—“fuzzy squares”, says Jane—but a deep struck is struck within Ken by Sal’s sympathetic reaction to Ken’s interpretation of the painting as something that’s meant to be experienced rather than merely seen.
“You’re not like everyone else here,” says Ken, by which he means artistically sensitive, rather than queer (Sal gets slightly defensive nonetheless). So it is that Ken seeks Sal’s opinion of his latest story, which in turn leads to a Sunday night dinner invitation that gives us our first good look at Sal’s (relatively) new wife, Kitty Romano.
It’s the characterizations in this scene that left me thinking the episode may get branded a clunker. Ken has been portrayed as little more than Sterling Cooper’s most avid pussy hound for all of the season to date, and Sal has generally come off as (almost) all bitchy snark, all the time, making his sensitivity to Ken’s art somewhat unexpected (to be sure, we saw some of this when he let his guard down in “The Hobo Code,” but that was much less specific). There’s also the issue of his relationship with Kitty, which I appear to have completely misread when I said they seemed like genuinely loving partners earlier this season.
Ken’s statement that writing is something he only does for fun, as a hobby, actually makes sense in light of what we’ve seen this season, and while he sniffs out Sal as more artistic than the rest of SC, Sal too sniffs him out as an idiot savant of sorts. Many people, I’m sure, will predict Sal developing a deep crush on Ken, but I think it’s far more likely that he’ll push Ken to actually put his gift to use, encouraging him to write, taking him to parties where he can make useful connections, that sort of thing….as he drifts all the further away from Kitty in the process.
In Kitty’s first appearances, she and Sal enjoyed a playful, easygoing chemistry that left me suspecting they might turn out to be a happy couple despite the issue of Sal’s sexuality. Sal’s pointed effort to keep Kitty out of the conversation pretty well torpedoes that theory. Still, Ken must have seen some of what I did, or else he wouldn’t have remarked on how their relationship is the kind of thing he thinks he’d want when he tires of skirtchasing.
I’m was surprised by the revelations about Sal and Kitty’s background. She was a neighbor from Baltimore who followed Sal’s mom up to the city when he moved her there, and who kept the torch burning until he finally gave in. What surprised me the most is that Sal’s mom is apparently still alive (unless that’s Kitty’s mom we see dozing off on the couch in the final scene at the Romano home). I guess I figured Sal wouldn’t really feel the need for a full-time beard as long as his mother was alive, and she obviously wasn’t around for the meal—did they park her with a neighbor for the duration, or what? (There wasn’t any sign of her in the brief glimpse of Sal and Kitty getting cozy at home that we caught earlier in the season).
Like Ken and Roger, I’m increasingly intrigued by Jane Siegel, Don’s new secretary (presumably one of SC’s first Jewish hires since the Rachel Menken debacle). She’s by far the sharpest and most professional secretary Don has had yet (I love the way she cock-blocks Duck from access to Don’s liquor cabinet after he’s summoned to Cooper’s office), and she has a three-dimensional view of SC’s workings that lets her see when it’s safe to bend the rules in the interest of satisfying her curiosity (or just having a little fun). She also knows how to play the game much better than Joan does. Her exploitation of Roger’s crush on her as a means of holding onto her job after Joan axes her is pitch-perfect, as is her simultaneous blowing off/stringing along of Ken). A couple of episodes ago, I took her sunburn for a throwaway sight gag, but now I see it was a pretty neat piece of groundwork being layed—thanks to the color, Jane looks like a normal human being in her confrontations with Joan, whose alabaster skin and increasingly apparent insecurity gives her the air of an elegant vampire chafing under the restrictions that limit the powers of the undead.
The return of the Barretts, via the Stork Club bash to celebrate the pickup of “Grin and Barrett” (I never got the pun in the title until now, can you believe it?) struck me as little more as a contrived way to have Betty learn of Don’s affair with Bobbie. Jimmy presumably knew of the affair when he dragged his butt to SC to tell Don his alleged deepest secret, that he’s really not a bad guy, and having him totally renege on that felt, to me, like a needless extension of the storyline (in addition to making Jimmy a less interesting character). And no matter how high the wall is that Bobbie has built between her personal and professional lives, I can’t seeing her being at all cordial to Don after their last encounter, at least not this soon. I love how the episode ends with Betty puking inside the Cadillac, but surely the writers could have come up with a more interesting way to get us there.
At the end of the episode, the biggest thematic question remains unanswered: Who is the golden violin, apparently perfect in all ways but unable to play music? It’s a metaphor for unfulfilled potential, of course, and it can’t apply to Ken because he (unlike almost everyone else at SC) is doing something real with his talent, even if he doesn’t take it very seriously. It could apply to a frustrated Betty, of course, but she has sufficiently few scenes in the episode to be a likely candidate. It could also apply to Don, but his lack of direct involvement in any scenes with Ken and Sal makes him an odd fit. I’m sure someone has a theory that solves everything perfectly, but for now it seems like a metaphor the writers liked too much not to use and chose to shoehorn into the episode to give it more of a theme. That the episode still plays so well under these presumed circumstances is a testament to what a talented team Matthew Weiner has assembled.
Miscellaneous Notes: Don’s invitation to join the board of the Museum of Early American Folk Art (now known as the American Folk Art Museum) arrives right on time: The museum was chartered in 1961, and opened in September, 1963—making it a little hard for Bert Cooper to have already seen the first exhibit. His crack about “whirligigs” is spot on, as the museum put an early focus on weathervanes and quilts from the Northeast.
Mark Rothko, already an established painter at the time, adopted the style of the painting shown in the episode circa the late 1940s, at which point his reputation escalated significantly. This being the case, his work shouldn’t have seemed *that* far out there to anyone at SC, at least anyone who knew the least bit about art (Sal’s reaction struck me as just about right). I can’t ID the painting shown in the episode—I even took a crack at browsing the (incomplete) Google Books scan of his catalog raisonne, but it was definitely a genuine Rothko (a reproduction of one, at least) and not a pastiche thrown together by the art department, as the end credits include a copyright notice followed by the names of the painter’s children, Dr. Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, who control his estate.
I’m sure I’m not alone in having been convinced we’d seen the last of the young Turks that Duck brought by SC in the season premiere. After coming across as such clowns, I was surprised that they basically hit one out of the park with their extended jingle for Martinson’s, which—with the right background animation—could well have gone on to attain legendary status in the world in which Mad Men takes place (I was more surprised still that Don, and not Duck, received credit for the “win”). Students for a Democratic Society, the group Smith’s friend back in Michigan belongs to, was the most prominent leftist student group of the 1960s, and the excerpt that Smith reads to Don is a verbatim quote from the Port Huron Statement, the group’s manifesto, adopted later in 1962 at its first convention. I was a little disappointed that the quote was from the version that passed at the convention, a/k/a the “compromised second draft”; I suppose it was too much to hope that Weiner had somehow gotten hold of a copy of the legendary “original Port Huron Statement,” which one Jeffrey Lebowski claims a hand in authoring.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.