Mad Men, Season 3

"The Hollow Men"
Talking television.
Aug. 31 2009 7:32 AM

Mad Men, Season 3

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"The Hollow Men"

Roger's mom is probably right: It's a mistake to be conspicuously happy. But I can't help it, this episode was a wire-to-wire delight. I agree, Julia, certainly one of the best episodes in the series to date. You nailed all the important moments. Here's my take on them:

Sally's Amber Alert.Decline and Fall is an unsubtle choice, yes, but I actually find it believable that Gene Hofstadt—Army man, tyrant—is a reader of Gibbon. (A rereader, to judge by his comment to Sally: "Just you wait, all hell's going to break loose." Come on, Gene, how about a little spoiler alert?) I wasn't worried about him molesting his granddaughter. But I was on tenterhooks whenever the episode cut back to the Case of the Missing Fiver, fully expecting Gene to spank Sally or, for that matter, poor Carla. (Wouldn't you love to be a fly on the wall when Carla gets home and tells her husband about the latest antics at the Draper residence? Spin off!)

Pete and Harry's Dance-Off. Loved it. Weirdly made me think that maybe Pete and Trudy are the couple on Mad Men with the best chemistry. Not saying much, but still.

Peggy's Higher Plane. Last week I was disappointed in Peggy—I didn't want to see her flouncing around like Ann-Margret or picking up corny dudes at bars. So when she delivered her speech at the end of this week's episode, I felt as if she was talking to me as much as Olive: "Don't worry about me. I'm going to get to do everything you want for me. I am going to be fine." I bought it.

Kinsey's Jersey Roots. Can we talk for a second about the fact that last night's episode guest-starred Tom Cruise circa 1986? I couldn't get enough of Paul's friend Geoff Graves—for the dirt he had on Kinsey, but also for his comic relief. ("I love the commercials where the dog runs right up to the bowl of food," he tells Smitty. "How do you make them do that?")   Paul's decision to live in Montclair, N.J., is now cast in a different light: He's not a pioneer—he's a scholarship kid and a Jersey boy. * And we now better understand the roots of Paul's pretentiousness, though thankfully it shows no signs of abating. I loved his recitation of "The Hollow Men." A little obvious, too, but it made sense in context—T.S. Eliot knew his way around a mannered patois—and it was a nice, modern echo of the classical Gibbon.

A potential clarification. I was also having a very hard time imagining big ol' Paul Kinsey out there on Lake Carnegie barking "stroke." Is it possible that Geoff's brag was not that he and Paul were Princeton '55's most accomplished coxswains but, rather, that they were its most accomplished  cocksmen? It seems more in keeping with Smitty's comment to the effect of "Youtwo got girls?" when Geoff starts laying it on thick with Peggy (also hilarious).

Don's Vaulting Skills. What a great piece of physical comedy: Don vaults over the bar with consummate suaveness, only to have Connie undercut it—there's an opening at the end here, son. It's also notable, I think, that Don first mistakes Connie for a bartender (somewhat honestly, given Connie's dinner jacket—my fashion statement of the week, BTW). He enters this scene as suave, bartender-bossing Don, but Connie brings out the Dick in him. Both men are escaping functions at a club their parents could never have joined. As a child, Connie could only look on at such festivities from his johnboat; Don parked cars at an upscale roadhouse but wasn't allowed to use its facilities. Connie says he feels as if he always sticks out at such events; Don looks like he belongs, but some part of him is made uncomfortable by Roger's soiree. The part, perhaps, that used to relieve itself in the fancy cars he parked.   

Joanie's Butterfingered Surgeon. I'm not sure Joan is realizing that she married beneath her station—more that her husband isn't going to elevate her station as much as she had hoped. The setup for this was the amazing confrontation between Joan and Jane at the Sterling Cooper offices. Jane is deliciously nasty, rubbing her marriage in the face of her old boss. ("Roger had my rings resized—I keep losing weight!") Joan holds her own, but this is back when she thinks she's married to the future chief resident, not Mr. Malpractice.

Roger's Blackface. I share your reservations about this scene, Julia, but I think I'll defend it. As Patrick has noted, Roger is an incredibly charming character, so charming that it's easy to forgive him his transgressions. But not this one. The blackface scene startled me into realizing how much slack I'd been giving Roger, a man whose recent accomplishments include leaving his wife and supporting Sterling Cooper's merger with PPL so he can afford the divorce and the expensive tastes of his young bride.

The blackface scene also played an important role in the arc of an episode at pains to tell us that the world is about to end. Back when Mad Men first went on the air, real-life ad man Adam Hanft wrote an essay for Slate expressing frustration with the initial episodes, which he thought were too slow to grapple with the reality that by 1960, Madison Avenue was already in the throes of a revolution that would unseat the WASP establishment. The business was being flooded by Jews, Italians, women, and (still closeted) gays. We've seen elements of that revolution over the course of the last two seasons, but I think it's about to accelerate. The cut to Roger's performance of "My Old Kentucky Home" was from the offices of Sterling Cooper, where a woman (Peggy), a state-school grad whose writing partner is gay (Smitty), and a guy who dates black women (Paul) are smoking marijuana. The juxtaposition, I thought, was telling.

The big question the episode left me with is where Don stands in all of this. He seems disgusted by the decadence of Roger's party: He keeps asking Betty whether they can leave, and he flees the blackface scene. He tells Connie the valets at Roger's club are likely relieving themselves in his car trunk—an indication, perhaps, that he knows the next generation is never content merely to park the Cadillacs of the previous one. Will Don survive the sack of Rome? 

Correction, Sept. 1, 2009: The article originally stated that Kinsey's apartment is in Newark. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

John Swansburg is Slate's editorial director. Follow him on Twitter.