MAD MEN Season 3: 'My Old Kentucky Home' & 'The Arrangements' reviews

My Old Kentucky Home - AMC - 30th August 2009 - 10.00pm

S P O I L E R S for non-US viewers!

A slightly uneven episode but one that picks up a number of story threads and develops them. One of those focuses on Peggy's attempts to transform herself, emerging from her stultifying chrysalis, to finally seize her independence as a woman and as a creative force within the agency. Here, the need for the creative team to work over the weekend on a Bacardi campaign gives Peggy the opportunity to once again let her hair down. She's at first excluded from the boy's own club of Paul and Smitty but when the boys buy some pot from an old college friend of Paul's (the rather vacuous Jeffrey played by the lovely Miles Fisher) she determines to join in.

In the series Peggy is either advised to use her femininity to get what she wants or is frowned upon by an older woman for her social improprieties, often her mother. Here, she's advised not to get involved in the drug taking by her new, and for the agency, more mature secretary Olive. Olive genuinely worries what will happen to Peggy if she takes the boys on at their own game but Peggy triumphantly challenges them and to a certain extent, even though she gets high as a kite, does the very thing the boys so completely fail to do - develop the campaign. Whilst they are reduced to a giddy bunch of children she gets inspired and attacks the campaign with gusto. Her departing words to Olive are, "I am going to get to do everything you want from me." Elisabeth Moss is just superb in this series and clearly has a handle on Peggy and uncannily inhabits this nervous, shy woman.

Elsewhere, we have three subplots running about male/female relationships. Joan Holloway, that iconic Sterling Cooper employee, played so wonderfully by Christina Hendricks is having a party. I've been worried, as has everyone else, about her engagement to Doctor Greg. He's got a very dark side as we've witnessed, and his temper flares over Joan's seating arrangements. Joan is, by now, getting to know how to dampen his fire and deftly compromises. Their dinner party becomes a not so subtle clash of class attitudes, some woman on woman bitching ("The fact that Greg can get a woman like you makes me feel good about his future no matter what happens"), and a highly revealing moment when colleagues tells us that Doctor Greg isn't the Kildare-like figure he's made out to be. Before it goes further, Greg changes the subject of the conversation by getting Joan to play her accordion and sing C'est Magnifique. That's right. Joan plays the accordion! A tense scene is completely turned on its head by one of the campest, funniest moments I've ever seen in Mad Men. It actually leaves you sympathising with Joan, one of the fiercest women in the office, someone who takes no prisoners, who is now caught up in a weird sado-masochistic relationship with Greg.

There is also a clash of wills between Gene, now living with Betty and Don, and Betty's daughter Sally. I love the way the writers are now developing Sally's character and I feel sure they are going to do the same for Bobby too. Sally steals $5 from Gene's wallet and has the house in uproar trying to find the missing money, even to the point that Betty's maid is accused of theft by Gene. However, when Sally pretends to have found the money, Gene immediately understands what's going on and Sally realises what she's done is wrong. Ryan Cutrona is fabulous as Gene in this episode, oozing threat, blood and thunder and who scares Sally to a point where at the end of the episode she treads down a darkened hallway to his room expecting to be punished when in fact he makes her read to him from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Now, there's a subtle metaphor!

Roger and Jane are also throwing a country club party at which Don, Betty, Ken and Pete attend. There are two moments here that quite literally make you gasp. First is Roger, blacked up, and singing My Old Kentucky Home, to Jane before all their guests. Remember, this is in the early days of the Civil Rights movement so this kind of casual racism would have been the norm. This is one of the things Mad Men can do - really prod you with a mode of behaviour or a character that reminds you just how different things were. Often, a central character acts as a filter for us and here it's Don's obvious distaste for Roger's performance that connects with our own rejection of such attitudes. Secondly, there's Jane. At the top of the episode she's even bossing Joan about and yet when she was employed at Sterling Cooper she was a lowly secretary beneath Joan. At the party she gets horribly drunk and blurts about the problems in Don and Betty's marriage. January Jones is again great as Betty, here looking quite happy to get on and murder Jane for her indiscretion. Don and Roger have a face off and there's that wonderful scene where Roger questions Don why he's not happy for him. "No one thinks you're happy," Don replies. "They think you're foolish." Bravo, Don!

Like I said, it's a fragmented episode and is pretty much the sum of its parts. I often see Mad Men episodes as compact little haiku poems with a series of inter-related scenes all intersecting about a common theme. The tone of the series also lends itself to this idea. With this episode, I just felt they hadn't quite joined the verses together well enough. Still very engrossing and beautifully performed.


The Arrangements - AMC - 6th September 2009 - 10.00pm

S P O I L E R S for non-US viewers!

A week later and the series is firmly back on course, continuing with Peggy's story, with further developments in the relationship between Don and Gene, Sal getting a short-lived boost to his career, a classic Joan moment and the agency dining on fatted calf.

First of all, Gene. I was really expecting them to take the character a lot further than tonight's sad conclusion. After an upsetting talk with Betty about his funeral arrangements, Gene continues to bond with her children Sally and Bobby. Sally especially treasures Gene and goes out in the car with him, she steering the wheel whilst he operates the peddles. It's a poignant moment when he tells Sally "You can really do something. Don't let your mother tell you otherwise." which signals his disappointment in Betty and her marriage to Don.

He also pisses Don off by giving Bobby a war memento, a Prussian helmet, and describing how he shot the soldier in the war. Don is incensed and there is a great whiff of testosterone as the two men argue about the differences between an enemy and a fellow human being. Again, it tells us that Gene's views are no longer seen as particularly patriotic in the 1960s. He's already out of time. When he fails to pick the kids up from school and goes missing, a police officer arrives and informs Betty that he's dead. At the wake, Sally gets very upset with the adults because they no longer see him as a person - "Nobody cares that he's really, really, really gone." Symbolically, she falls asleep that night clutching Gene's copy of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gene's Empire may well have fallen but Sally's generation may see it decline even further.

The fatted calf at Sterling Cooper arrives in the form of rich kid Horace Cook who wants the agency to market a sport no one's ever heard of: jai alai, which his father later dismisses as "Polish handball". After much wringing of hands, Don talks to Bertram and Horace's father about this waste of money. His father basically admits that Horace's scheme is just his latest fad and he'll just take it to another agency if Sterling Cooper don't spend his money. It's like taking money off a child and that's reflected in the later scene where the boys are fooling about with Horace's racquets and break Bertram Cooper's zen-like ant-farm. The broken objet is heavily symbolic of a now much changed and deeply amoral agency perhaps?

There is also much comedy value out of Peggy's ad for a room-mate and the boys mercilessly take the piss out of her with a crank call using Lois to impersonate 'Elaine' who is apparently badly disfigured and packs meat. In steps Joan in one of her wonderful scenes as she advises Peggy on what to do. Listen to your Auntie Joan, Peggy! She tries to tell Peggy that the plan to move into Manhattan and share an apartment is an adventure and not a chore. It's about being women with freedom, something which Peggy has a hard time dealing with. She eventually interviews Karen Ericson as a prospective roomy and bluffs her way around her own awkwardness. Christina Hendricks is again quite brilliant as Joan and what can one say about the already stunning Elisabeth Moss as Peggy that already hasn't been said. She really makes Mad Men such a pleasure.

Sal is offered the opportunity to direct the Patio commercial - the pastiche on the Ann-Margaret rendition of Bye Bye Birdie for a diet drink - and at their apartment, his wife Kitty, after failing to rouse him with her fluffy negligee declares he isn't himself these days. Of course, the audience is in on the game and knows that he's a closeted gay guy and is rarely 'himself', but Sal deflects this by saying he's anxious about the commercial. For me what follows is just a supreme example of the programme's tiny little moments that reveal the characters to each other. Sal proceeds to enact the commercial to show Kitty what he intends to do. He minces about doing an Ann-Margaret impression and if you watch Kitty's face you can see her slide from joyfulness to absolute horror as she realises that her husband is a screaming queen. It's so painful to watch. Toe curling. And you feel so sorry for Kitty as this major revelation bursts open in front of her. Later, we learn that the commercial is judged a flop because, ironically, the girl they use, as Roger points out, "isn't Ann-Margaret". Clearly, Kitty now thinks Sal is!

Finally, Peggy reaches a crisis with her mother, now living with her sister. After buying her mother a new TV she reveals that she's moving into the city. "You'll get raped. You know that," she snaps and decides to disown her, rejecting the gift of the TV, claiming there's obviously a man involved. Perhaps this move will ultimately be the making of Peggy because it's clear her mother has already decided, as her sister remarked earlier in the episode, that Peggy is "...going to be one of those girls". Despite her mother's hostility, it's ironic that as Peggy leaves that we hear her mother turn the TV on.

A sublime episode with a narrative that subtly shifts gears, some genuinely funny moments, major developments for some characters and great ensemble playing.

Thanks as ever to the marvelous Mad Men official site and blog.

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