Mad Men 3.3, “My Old Kentucky Home”

In this episode: Joan and Greg host a dinner party; Roger throws a Derby party; Sally Draper steals, then returns, Gene’s money; Peggy gets high at the office.

I’m not going to do annotations on this site–crowdsourcing has been so remarkably good on this show. There isn’t any doubt as to Connie’s identity, for instance.

Some people claim this is the best Mad Men episode yet, because it makes the show’s theme of cultural change crystal clear. I think it’s one of the most uneven episodes. While this season has been an entertainment machine, I think it’s become too attached to overarching grand narratives at the expense of smaller pleasures.

Care for an example? Let’s start with Gene’s remarkably unsubtle choice of reading material, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “Just you wait,” he claims, “all hell’s going to break loose.” He couldn’t possibly be talking about the fall of conformist culture and the rise of the counterculture, could he?

Or maybe we should consider Roger, singing in blackface? I have to admit, the moment did shock me from my brain down to my stomach. But we can’t be comfortably smug in our disgust. Despite what some may say, this behavior hasn’t disappeared from American culture, and it’s not universally scorned. Every year some college kid makes national news by dressing in blackface–and I’d bet that the unreported incidents at clubs and fraternities far outnumber the ones that make it to press.

Neither of these moments top the inanity of last year’s hackneyed insertion of the Port Huron statement, but I do feel they’re ultimately adding up to something of a lie about What the 60s Mean to Us. Sitting from 2009, many of the innovations lauded today–civil rights, feminism–seem to exist more in word than in act. Similarly, we may not smoke and drink (as often) during pregnancy, but plenty of other health vices have taken their place. The show paints Roger’s decreasing efficacy as an epitaph for an old corporate culture. But that corporate culture was able to twist and absorb the cultural revolution; in the 60s it wasn’t experiencing a heart attack, just heartburn.

I’m coming off like I dislike the show, when in fact I love it. Mad Men forces viewers to attend to the minutiae of interactions in a way few other shows do, and its soap opera has decidedly refined concerns. And its second grand theme (which we might call, after Erving Goffmann, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life), remains fertile. But I do think the show’s gotten a little fat-headed.

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