Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It's all in the title of the next episode

The virtues of mad men
The Jet Set
I'm going to make just two points this time. I could say a lot more but these two things strike me as so important that they are worth isolating. I'm also going to cheat. Anyone have any objections?

Here's how I'll cheat. I'm blogging these shows after the fact but so far have not resorted, not a lot anyway, to using stuff from I know upcoming episodes to explain the episode I'm blogging. This time I'm going to cheat because what the writers have done here is just so neat.

Point 1: Peer Gynt
The very next episode features Don dropping in on a house where a little boy is playing piano. He is playing In the Hall of The Mountain King from Grieg's incidental music for Peer Gynt. Don remarks that the music is scary and the little boy agrees gleefully.

Okay, what is the mountain king about? It's a fantasy sequence within Ibsen's play Peer Gynt. So what happens in the hall of the mountain king? in the play,
  • The hero, Peer Gynt, is banished to the mountains because of his misbehaviour at a wedding.
  • The mountains are a place rich in mythology.
  • He falls and bangs his head starting a dream sequence.
  • He meets a woman in green who turns out to be the daughter of the troll king.
  • He is offered the chance of marrying the girl by the king but, in order to do so, he must become like the trolls.
I'll stop there for a bit.

Now, the sequence isn't exact here. Don falls at the pool and bangs his head  after meeting Joy but otherwise, let's run through the details.

  • Don is banished from his house.
  • He goes to California, a land rich in mythology.
  • He first sees Joy she is wearing what?

  • Her father is the Viscomte de Monteforte d'Alsace, that literally means the Viscount of the "mountain fortress"in Alsace. (Unfortunately, the actor playing the part mispronounces this title.)
  • Don is offered the chance to live with Joy but in order to do that he must agree to become like then. By the poolside, Joy tells him he will have to get a tuxedo but we know it means more than that.
Be true to yourself?
The key question that Peer has to answer in determining whether to become a troll is what exactly is the difference between human beings and trolls. The answer is given by another character who says that humans have a saying be true to yourself while trolls say "be true to your selfish". 

That character is an old man in the play but here Don is asked the question by a young woman. Joy says to him, "Why would you deny yourself something that you want?" The something in question here being her.

Of course, those of us who have been following the story know that this is the rule that runs Don sexually. All the justification that he needs for a sexual relationship is that the woman be someone he wants. Joy may or may not literally be a dream but she acts like a projection of Don's fantasies. When trying to entice him to become member of the troll/jet set community she even assures him that she isn't "possessive" and that "you can be with anyone you want."

The whole sequence is a projection of Don's wishes. And Roger Sterling's. Joy is a fantasy girl. (An aside, next episode someone will ask where Don is and Roger not only says where he is, he also correctly explains why he is there. Don and Roger are either a lot closer than we are being allowed to see or Betty and Roger are.)

In any case, the dreamlike sequence with Joy, Willy and the boys is also a distorted projection of Don's life. He has in sense become like a troll and married the troll king's daughter by marrying Betty and now he has an opportunity to renew this fantasy only even more of a fantasy this time.

What convinces Don not to stay this second time and be a troll? There is an immediate cause but I think there is something else happening here too. The something else is my second big point.

First the immediate cause. Christian, who is presumably Joy's brother shows up at poolside with two children. We soon learn that he is running from his ex-wife's lawyers because he wants to keep the children. Don looks a this and sees an image of selfishness he doesn't like. It's not so much Christian he sees but a projection of himself.

Point 2:
And the crack in the teacup opens
  A lane to the land of the dead.
Sitting by the poolside after meeting Christian and his two children, 
Don looks at the glass in his hand 
and here is what he sees. 

Why is it a problem for Don that he would be holding a cracked glass on this night of all nights?

There is a big hint in the background music. it's a haunting melody in a minor key. Which religious/ethnic group uses minor key melodies for festivals?

There is also an odd gap in the chronology between this episode and the next.  The day after we see Don sitting by the poolside looking at his cracked glass, we see Pete Campbell arriving at the office in New York to find his colleagues watching JFK give a speech about James Meredith. JFK made that speech on October 30, 1962 so Don sat by the poolside on September 29. The very next episode will open with Betty endorsing Don's paycheque. That cheque is dated October 11.

Okay, I'll stop teasing. September 29, 1962 was Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. Don sees his judgment in the cracked glass because a cracked glass is disqualified for the Kiddush blessing that would take place on the night of October 13 in 1962 to open the Feast of Tabernacles. The cracked glass is a judgment on Don Draper. The gap between the two episodes are the days of repentance during which Don could repent and ask forgiveness. October 8 was the Day of Atonement that year.

No, Don Draper is not a Jew but his creator is and Matt Weiner is a man who does not hesitate to make connections between the Jewish experience and American experience as represented by Don Draper.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next episode blog will be here.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.) 


  1. Jules, I applaud you for all the research you had to have done to make this analysis. I haven't seen anything like this on any of the other Mad Men blogs. There was some talk about the allusion to Peer Gynt but no one ever figured out just how significant it is as you have done, and I never read anything about the connection to Rosh Hashanah. I remember people wondering about the cracked glass but nobody could figure out what it stood for. This is amazing.

  2. Your insight has led me on quite a journey today. Thank you so much for challenging my mind with your words ..even after 5 years your thoughts have impact. I am @DonDraperSCP on twitter, yell at me someday. I hope it is OK that I link to your work from my blog. Later....Don

    PS @JoyDAlsace says hello, along with @WillyDAlsace & @RoccidiPersia