All right, gentlemen, you've made a good case that the blackface scene was justified, given how vividly it highlights the generational divisions among the Sterling Cooper crew. But the scene also raises the stakes for Mad Men as a whole. I've always wondered whether the show has anything intelligent to say about the tumult of the '60s or whether it's just a soap opera at heart, content to mine the era for great haberdashery and quaint cocktails while coupling and recoupling its characters. With the blackface scene, and the heavy-handed references to Gibbon and Eliot, the show's creators make their ambitions plain: Mad Men is about something, dammit! What remains to be seen is how subtly and smartly they'll unspool these threads as the season continues. Perhaps the Drapers' maid Carla—who till now has been a cipher—will play a bigger role.
Meanwhile, did it occur to either of you that in this episode, everyone but Don is putting on a show? We see Pete dancing, Paul singing, Roger serenading, Joan squeezeboxing … You could even count Sally lying to Grandpa and the Ann-Margret wannabe auditioning with the twist in the opening sequence. Ace legal mind (and apparent Mad Men fan) Walter Dellinger posted in the "Fray" last week, gently noting our failure "to link up Don's personal and professional lives":
What makes Don so successful as an ad man is his ability time and again to reinvent, reimagine and reconceptualize the product he is asked to promote. His whole life prepared him for this: He has been required literally to invent an identity for himself. … Bring him your product—it may be a sorry thing like a Dick Whitman—and Don will mull it over and imagine how to reconceive and sell that product as a "Don Draper." From life-long personal necessity comes the skill that, at least for now, makes him so good at what he does in the office.
It strikes me that this is a way of saying that Don is always performing, always devising and inhabiting a heightened, altered reality tailored to suit other people's expectations. But in this episode, which showed our troupe singing "antiquated" ditties—all but fiddling as Rome begins to burn—Don seems not to be selling anything to anybody. Indeed, in his conversation with Connie at the bar, he introduces himself as Don but acts like Dick, telling stories that no doubt hail from Dick's childhood. (Note Don's pause when Connie asks where he grew up.) Perhaps this scene, paired with Don's seeming nostalgia for his former identity in Episode 1, suggests that Don will survive the '60s by becoming more like Dick, more in touch with and honest about his past and who he is. Which makes this season's big question: Will Don ever come clean to Betty?
Meanwhile, we have to discuss Connie, the mystery man at the bar. Several Fraysters, including esse and Adobeman, pointed out that he could well be the hotelier Conrad Hilton, who was born in San Antonio, N.M., in 1887. I love this theory. For one thing, the dates check out; Hilton, though 76 in 1963, was still an active businessman with properties in New York. He even appeared on the cover of Time a few months after this party would have taken place. For another, that 1963 Time story is full of details that seem to have been placed like Easter eggs throughout the season. Let me know if you think I've gone too far down the rabbit hole, but: Conrad Hilton's closest friend was his personal secretary, named Olive. (Just like Peggy's!) His preferred consorts were "younger women—mostly airline stewardesses in their early 20s." (Just like Don!) And one of his favorite cost-saving measures at international hotels: Manhattans with cheap bourbon subbed in for the good stuff. (Just as Don subs rye for the missing bourbon in the Old-Fashioneds at Roger's club.)
OK, maybe that last one is a stretch. But I still love the Conrad Hilton theory because it short-circuits the "Now We Know Better" smugness that marks Mad Men at its worst. Connie, as shown here, is a bootstrap-tugging common man who has found financial success but still disdains Roger's privileged world. But the modern viewer can't forget that his own great-granddaughters embody new realms of privileged inanity. A Mad Men that acknowledges that the present has its own flaws—that not all social wrongs melted away during the 1960s—is an even better show than I'd hoped.
Loose ends: Thanks for pointing out my errors—that Kinsey never rowed crew, and that Joan was singing "C'est Magnifique." And in nominating the episode's best outfit, I'm with Frayster Child of the Sixties, who points out that Betty's look was both beautiful and chic:
The pale makeup palette and the "expensive hippy" vibe of the lacy dress were more mid-60's than early-60's—so Betts is bleeding-edge fashion here. And it's hard to ignore the fact that, next to her, all the other women at that party look quite literally like clowns in their bright dresses and silly hats. Betty's not even wearing a hat.
Perhaps Mrs. Draper, too, is more modern than their country-club counterparts?
TODAY IN SLATE
The Irritating Confidante
John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.
My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s
Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band
Can it be again?
The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee
Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?
Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?
Driving in Circles
The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.