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Mad Men Watch: Like a Fatherless Child

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One of the most important and least-remarked-on transitions in life is the death of a parent. While it doesn’t get noted the way other developmental milestones do—puberty, graduation, parenthood, etc.—losing a parent is recognizing that you are ultimately responsible for yourself, and as much or more as those other landmarks, it changes you by forcing you to confront what kind of person you are, and to recognize that you alone are finally responsible for what kind of person you are going to be. (My father died when I was in my early 20s, so maybe I’m projecting a little, but I’m standing by the theory.) And Mad Men is full of parentless children, from infants to adults.

For convenience’s sake, let’s take this one character by character:

Peggy: When AMC sent out this screener, they followed up with one of those urgent, from-the-producers’ requests that we not, under any circumstances, give away a spoiler in this episode. But the spoiler they warned against was the fact that Pete’s father dies. I was so puzzled, I went back to them and asked, “Um, so you’re not worried about critics revealing where Peggy’s baby is?” I got a noncommital response, but unless there was some massively out-of-character red-herring laid here, we learned that: Peggy’s baby is being raised by her sister in Bay Ridge and that Peggy was ruled psychologically incompetent to raise the child (though it didn’t seem like she was interested in custody to begin with). Forced to choose between having a child and having a career, she’s dealt with the conflict by compartmentalizing. Elisabeth Moss does an outstanding job of portraying Peggy and her defenses: so much of her performance is about how well she shows us Peggy not feeling, or at least holding back her feelings, whether it’s biting her tongue in her sexist office or keeping a stone face as she’s handed her own baby to hold while her family takes communion (which she doesn’t, presumably—given her strict Catholic upbringing—because she’s in mortal sin and hasn’t been to confession).

Pete: If Peggy’s character arc is about mastering emotions that she can’t, as a career woman in her milieu, afford to engage, Pete’s is about learning to feel, or to feign, emotions that he’s never learned to have or express. Given his emotionally abusive relationship with his father, he was essentially fatherless before his father was killed in the plane crash, and dealing with the aftermath—and the career opportunity it represents—he’s emotionally rudderless, not knowing how to feel or to behave. The great irony is that he turns, as a surrogate father, to Don, whom he tried to betray last season. (And the further irony is that Don, angry about the turn of events with American and Mohawk Airlines, shoos him away, whereas if he had talked to Pete, he’d have found Pete ready to be told that he shouldn’t use his father’s death as a bargaining chit to land American.) Spurned by Don, he latches on the the increasingly sharky-seeming Duck, bringing us to…

Don: The original baby in a basket, his early recognition that he was the only person he could rely on led him to re-create his identity and makes him capable of being tremendously sentimental (as with his children) and tremendously cold (as with Betty). We see the influence of this in his showdown with Duck over the airline accounts. (By the way, having said I want to resist Sopranos parallels, I’m now seeing them everywhere, and here’s another. Just as David Chase liked to set up Tony with a rival every season to drive the plot—a Richie April, a Ralphie Cifaretto, a Phil Leotardo—Matthew Weiner seems to be establishing Duck as Don’s antagonist this season, now that Pete’s been, for now, put in his place.) As amoral as Don can be in many ways, he also, as we’re seeing early in this season, very attached to certain ideas of honor. In the case of Mohawk, the idea of abandonment deeply offends him (wonder why?). Yet, as mentioned before, his ability to be cold leads him to reject Pete just as he’s reaching out for a surrogate father, a step that, unbeknownst to Don, would have played into his hands. Meanwhile, he seems to be trying to reconcile those two sides of him in his personal life. His new drive to be faithful—turning down the waitress in the Japanese bar (for now)—may at part be an attempt to fight the abandonment impulse inside himself, one he almost indulged when he offered to run away with Rachel Mencken at the end of last season. Speaking of which…

Betty. While we’re on the subject of parentless children, let’s not forget that Betty’s personal crisis last season was triggered by the death of her own mother. Then, she resisted and resented Don’s suggestion that she move on from that loss; now, she’s clearly not ready to let Don dictate when she moves on from his betrayal. They have a low-simmer argument over Francine and her husband’s infidelity—Betty pointedly extracts agreement from Don when she says that the dog’s lucky Francine took him back—and it seems like a good guess that this isn’t the first exchange like this that they’ve had over the past year or so.

Some nice, economical character advancements throughout the episode, but maybe my favorite was the fleshing-out of Paul Kinsey, Bearded New Jersey Poseur. The first few minutes of the episode laid him out perfectly in his home element, from trying to persuade his colleagues (and himself) that Montclair is hipper than the beatniks’ Greenwich Village, to being unable to hide his worry over being caught with the office typewriter, to showing off his black girlfriend as a lifestyle accessory. This last was another example of how Mad Men deals with the social changes of the time without handling them in the obvious, rote ways. And when Joan coolly dissects Paul later for using his arm candy as a token (so to speak) of his open-mindedness, her color matters to Joan mainly as an example of Paul’s phoniness, and thus, as something she can hurt him with. It isn’t that Joan isn’t racist–from the sound of it, she probably is, at least a little–but she has bigger fish to fry, as, in real life, people usually do.

There’s the little matter of her incriminating driver’s license photocopy on the bulletin board, for instance. Isn’t Paul just bitchy enough to have done that?