Mad Men: What’s Matthew Weiner Driving At?

Mad Men

The Gold Violin
Season 2 Episode 7

Last week, Don got a good look at the person in the mirror — and didn’t like what he saw. This week, Don looks in the mirror and thinks he’s figured out what’s wrong: That guy would look a lot better in a Cadillac.

The Pitch
Accessorize your life.

The Campaign
It’s arts week at Sterling Cooper: Accounts man Ken Cosgrove has written another “beautiful and sad” short story. It’s about a golden violin that’s coveted by museum visitors but can’t play music. The blunt and inevitably correct Bertram Cooper provides the aesthetic criticism: “People buy things to realize their aspirations,” he says, describing the Rothko he just purchased. “It’s the foundation of our business.”

During this Sterling Cooper Aspirational Arts week, everyone covets something in the hope that it will make him feel better. Unfortunately, everyone ends up feeling lousy, or at best melancholy. Except Cooper, who just bought that Rothko as an investment. And as we all know, Rothkos have broken auction records, so perhaps accounting is the true path to enlightenment.

Joan flashed that diamond ring — and now people hardly seem to notice her Jessica Rabbit figure anymore. She’s jealous, so she fires Don’s hot 20-year-old assistant — and then Mr. Midlife Crisis Roger Sterling saves her job, tempted, as he is, to possess a young woman who seems like the ‘62 model Joan. The closet case Salvatore becomes smitten with Ken Cosgrove, the office’s horniest hetero (does Salvatore think he’s overcompensating?). He invites the golden boy over for dinner with the wife and practically shudders when Ken lights his cigarette. After Ken leaves, all Salvatore can hold on to is Ken’s fancy, filigreed lighter. Oh, God, will this end badly.

The comedian Jimmy Barrett got “everything I ever wanted” — a big TV show with his name on it — but it didn’t fulfill him, either. He’s still miserable because he’ll always be “standing behind” men like Don. And because he knows Don is sleeping with Bobbi.

Which brings us to Don: Arts-wise, he’s been invited to sit on the board of the Folk Arts Museum — purely for the social cachet. As Cooper puts it, Don’s joining the “few people who get to decide what will happen in our world.” Great news — except, as usual, Draper is a half-step behind the culture, joining the stodgy upper crust of his elders, just as his young, cool-cat idea men are riffing on SDS’ call to replace power with “uniqueness, love, creativity.” (Note: You’ve got to love how Sterling-Cooper immediately co-opt SDS’ lily-white idealism by selling coffee with a Latin tune about “coffee-colored girls.”)

To celebrate, Don shops for a Cadillac Coupe de Ville and is buttered up by a slick salesman. After an abbreviated flashback reveals part of Don’s missing life (he used to sell used cars!), he returns to buy the car without driving it — only caring for how he’ll look and feel. Don puffs out his chest for a bit, but his first night out with the automobile ends awfully: Jimmy tells both Don and Betty, separately, that he suspects Bobbi’s affair. On the way home, Betty pukes on Don’s precious interior.

Little does the Cadillac salesman know that his flattering pitch to Don — “You’ll be as comfortable in one of these as you would be in your own skin” — was actually a curse.

The Early Results
For such a tightly structured show, this episode was a bit messy — what happened to the rest of that flashback? It also felt like the series’ most-reflective episode yet. If any show is as self-consciously aspirational as Don Draper, it’s Mad Men: the name-dropping, literati-quoting, jazz-humming, mid-century-design-flaunting critics’ favorite. Are all these references to art and aspiration just Matthew Weiner’s way of figuring out his own conflicted role in the niche of HBO-ish television? Is he feeling the pressure of building a show that’s rebranding a whole network? Is he feeling the irony of a show that questions the absurd worth of a Cadillac, while selling BMW’s during the commercial breaks? And is he implying that we are all Don Drapers, decorating our lives with his Show You Must Watch, much as these folks decorate theirs with Cadillacs and Rothkos?

Mad Men: What’s Matthew Weiner Driving At?