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Mad Men Watch: And You May Find Yourself Behind the Wheel of a Large Automobile

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, be sure to check out the commercials for the new ’09 models while watching Mad Men.

“Would you agree that I know a little bit about you?”

In “The Gold Violin,” Don Draper had encounters with two people who have him figured out. First, the speaker of the above statement, Bert Cooper, who says it both as a congratulation to Don on his coup with the Martinson coffee account and as a goad to prod Don to embrace the step up that it makes possible. “There are a few people that get to decide what happens in our world. You have been invited to join them. Pull back the curtain and take a seat.” Put on your tux. Buy the car.

The second, of course, is Jimmy, who it turns out had figured out Don’s thing with Bobbie long ago. Jimmy suddenly, bluntly, tells Don that he’s garbage: “You want to step out, go to a whore. You don’t screw another man’s wife.” (Question: Is his really angry about his own cuckolding, or Betty’s?)

What do Cooper and Jimmy have in common? Different as they are, they have an understanding of the levers of life and power that the workaday executives off the rest of Mad Men are only fleetingly aware of. Cooper sometimes is treated as a buffoon, but he also clearly has a sweeping overview of American history, of the history of ideas, and he has the Randian idea that greatness is achieved not by the careful following of rules but the inspired breaking of them. That’s what he sees in Don, as he indicated from the time Pete tried to rat him out: the fact that Don has created himself as a fiction is not a mark on his character, it is what gives him the potential for true greatness.

He may be a joke, but he’s a joke who has a Rothko gaining value on his office wall by the day.

Jimmy, on the other hand, has a comedian’s gut-and-gutter instinct for how people act and what they want. He seems to have smelled, more than deducted, that Don and Bobbie have betrayed him, but like Cooper, he sees this as the stuff of which opportunity is made. “You got me everything I wanted. And what’d you get? Bobby? Lots of people have had that.”

The difference between Jimmy—”ugly and crude” Jimmy as Betty calls him—is that he’s one of the few people in this setting who aren’t too polished to call it like he sees it. And his willingness to say it to Betty—who is used to being around people who will politely refuse to say what everyone knows is obvious—results in the best, most striking ending a Mad Men has had since he took aim at the neighbor’s pigeons in “Shoot”: she suddenly throws up in Don’s new car.

Message: Would you agree that I know a little bit about you?

* A lot of subplots this week, but the episode didn’t seem at all rushed or disjointed. I was hoping we’d see more of Sal and Kitty’s home life—whether she was a willing beard or, at least, happily ignorant in a platonic relationship. Turns out she actually thinks she’s in a heterosexual marriage, despite all the obvious-46-years-later hints Sal keeps dropping. (“Don’t forget to put an aspirin in the bottom!”) You realize how, for so many years, everyone managed to believe Paul Lynde was straight. It would have been poignant even without the “gold violin” metaphor: “It was perfect in every way, except it couldn’t make music.”

* Speaking of which, the obvious visual period details are not what make Mad Men’s ’60s setting; it’s the not-so-obvious cultural details. In this case, the littering: Don’s heaving the beer can into the woods was the best they-really-did-that detail since the dad smacking someone else’s kid at the season-one birthday party.

* Joan has an enemy! I like, however, that Jane doesn’t come across as a supremely confident adversary but is clearly spooked by Joan even after outmaneuvering her with Sterling.

* One nit pick: I didn’t buy that Harry—who had that great monologue in “The Wheel” about his student-photography days—would be completely unaware of Mark Rothko (who was well-known by 1962) and say that he knew nothing about art. I mean, it’s not implausible (IIRC, he said he was basically a hobbyist on his college newspaper), but it seems off that the one character at Sterling Cooper who’s shown himself able to talk about visual art would get this storyline.

* So, the Port Huron Statement changed advertising? (“Does your friend know what you do for a living?” “Yeah there was a sh_tty note with it.”) This reference, I’m guessing, puts the action of the episode somewhere early in the summer of ’62. I’m not sure I like having every cultural signpost of 1962 referenced in the plot; the Cuban Missile Crisis is looming ahead like an ICBM. But it was good at least to see the seminal document of ’60s student rebellion used in service of a calypso coffee jingle.

* Interesting that the episode did not follow up on the flashback to Don’s car-salesman days. Will we see those again? Interesting to see someone trying to sell Don, though the salesman’s corny pitch—”This is a car for when you’ve already arrived”—doesn’t work. And interesting that Bert Cooper is able to close the sale to Don. Because he knows a little bit about him.