“Break It To Me Gently”, Brenda Lee
The Gold Violin, Season 2 Episode 7
Mad Men characters are manipulative charlatans sometimes. Don’s deceptive past is a testament to that, but every main character lies and cheats at some point, a way to expose the flawed human beings beneath the glamorous exterior. The Gold Violin has plenty of examples of this shady behavior. It’s an early-show standout, with a few plotlines that nearly tip over into uncomfortable revelations and pull back at the last second.
The playful question of why Bert Cooper bought an avant-garde painting hangs over the hour, while some underlings (led by brassy new secretary Jane) go snooping around to find an answer. Tension mounts, but they never get caught and are instead confronted with a mystifying work of art. Jane faces some repercussions, but smooth talks her way out of them. Ken gets a standout story in this episode as well, workshopping his novel unbeknownst to the office and unwittingly toying with poor Sal Romano, who has fallen in love with him. Again, nothing comes of it besides lingering apprehension.
In the A plot, Betty starts to get an inkling of Don’s affair with Bobbie Barrett, and becomes ill in his flashy new car. He had bought it on a whim earlier and made a point of protecting it, so her vomit is an unwitting symbolic form of retribution. The song the credits smash cut to fits in as a riposte to this storyline. Brenda Lee was a well-regarded chanteuse who sang many hits in the early part of the decade. Known for being adept at both belting and crooning, she carries the emotional heft of this ponderous episode with a paradoxical tune that forcefully requests discreetness and sensitivity at the end of a relationship. This also foreshadows the marital problems Betty’s discovery will cause, a tremendous letdown which informs her character for the rest of the series. Season two has many barely averted disasters, but this one has the biggest ramifications.
“Do You Want To Know A Secret?”, Hands And Knees
“Trust In Me”, Blowing Smoke
“Money Burns A Hole In My Pocket”, Time and Life
Besides the one mentioned above, there are several tense episodes punctuated by canny songs. These choices all comment on the problem which brought their episode’s conflict: respectively, a lack of openness, trust and financial control.
The first two tracks complement each other well, since they occur very close together. In an interpersonal sense, so much of Mad Men is about give and take, secrets and lies. So some degree of both codependence and emotional distance is present in every exchange. This boils over in the agency bankruptcy storyline in season four. Blowing Smoke finds Don going behind everyone’s back to potentially save the business, but the secrets and withholding from Hands And Knees resurface to complicate things. Thus, their two closing tunes are about deception and trust. The former is an instrumental cover of a well known Beatles tune, and the latter a classic Etta James soul song.
By 1970, SC&P has become a relic of an outdated era, and the partners realize this in the masterful episode Time And Life. Featured amidst the chaotic paradigm-changing din of the final scene is this track by a crooner who represented an old vanguard of traditionalist musicians riding out the remnants of their career. Truthfully, the Rat Pack and their contemporaries had quite a bit of success in the 1960s (recall the use of Sinatra’s “My Way”, then a number one hit, in The Strategy). As with any era, the changes weren’t instant and absolute. But Dean Martin and his pals were just delaying the inevitable, and to represent this corner of the musical spectrum, Matt Weiner waited until the agency’s glories were equally faded.