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Mad Men Watch: Father Knows Worst

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, run away to a neighbor’s playhouse and watch last night’s Mad Men.


Last night’s episode was called “The Inheritance,” and it was certainly about what people’s parents leave them. In Pete’s case, his literal inheritance was squandered by his father, meaning that his primary legacy is emotional baggage—that, and the burden of making sure that his hateful mother is provided for. Yet he gets something, in a way, from his profligate dad: the courage to tell Mom where she can go. (He can afford to, since for all her threats, she’s likely to have very little estate to write him out of. For Pete, character and integrity are things he generally comes to by circumstance, not through force of will.)

Betty, meanwhile, is facing the possibility of her father’s dying while he still lives. Having lost her mother—the parent she was really close to—a couple years back, she now encounters her stricken father not just enfeebled, but turned into something ugly and horrifying, given to uncensored outbursts and, in a horrible but believable scene, feeling Betty up at the dinner table in the belief that she is his late wife. For an adult child, this kind of situation is even worse than the loss of a parent: a surviving parent’s mental breakdown not only takes them away from you but retroactively threatens whatever happy memories you had of them in life. (Not to mention that it brings up intrafamily resentments, especially that of her jealous brother, who resents Don’s money, worries about being punished with his father’s care because he didn’t move away and has to return an heirloom promised to Betty by her mother.)

And yet even in his fog, Betty’s dad can speak a truth, when he tears down Don: “He has no people! You can’t trust a person like that!” It’s not just that Don is an enigma. It’s that—by excising his past—he has tried to become above it all, pretending that he’s free of the filial baggage that other people, like Pete and Betty, have to carry. Not “having people” doesn’t just mean that your identity is cloudy; it means that you have tried to make yourself something not human. Freed by the burst vessels in his head, Betty’s dad tells us what he’s thought all along: that Don has tried to pretend he’s better than us, free from having to slog through all the ancestral crap and entanglements that real people deal with. And who can trust that?

[By the way, it was lost on no one that by the end of the episode, Pete was confiding his feelings to Peggy, with whom he unknowingly fathered a child. Or that we saw him coming around to the idea of adopting, since the idea of a child without his parents' DNA now seems like a benefit, not a liability. Or that we have gotten the occasional hint this season that maybe we don't really know what happened to Peggy's baby. But presumably her child—wherever he is—has already been adopted by now. On another show, I might be wondering if we were actually going to go there, the father-unaware-he's-adopting-his-own-son route. We're not. Right?]

Meanwhile, poor Glen (played with a creepinesss made all the more creepy by the knowledge that he’s Matthew Weiner’s son), who finally shows up again hiding out in the Draper kids’ backyard playhouse, has inherited a doozy of a legacy already. In a remarkably disturbing but understated scene, he tries to take his connection with fellow damaged child Betty to the next inappropriate level on their afternoon cartoon date, taking her hand and asking to run away with her. She’s shocked into action, finally acting the adult and calling his mother. But I wonder if what moved her to act wasn’t so much that she saw him as a child in need of help, but that she was him as Don: a rootless child, sitting at her kitchen table and wearing his shirt, whose reaction to his problems, like Don’s, is to pick up and run away.

It’s the second inappropriate touch Betty has to deal with in the episode, and I’m not sure which was more disturbing. Or the third, if you count her late-night booty call with Don on the floor of her childhood bedroom. Which leads to a complete inversion when they come home and Don misinterprets it as a sign that all is forgiven and he can come back. It’s not; Betty was just coming to him for the contact that she needed in that moment.

She was, in other words, acting a little bit like Don. It is her inheritance. Or maybe her divorce settlement.

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