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Mad Men Watch: Family Entanglements

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, dump your liquor down the sink and watch last night’s Mad Men.

“I was in California. Everything’s new, and it’s clean. The people are full of hope. New York City is in decay. Madison Square Garden is the beginning of a new city on a hill.”

Don Draper is never so insightful about himself as when he’s talking about someone else. Don was in California–not just on business, but, as we learned last seas, it was a central scene of his reinvention. California in the ’60s, like Don Draper, is a manifestation of the American dream, or one American dream: that Jay Gatsby desire that you can erase the past and start fresh. Where Paul Kinsey sees the past as a legacy to be preserved, this view sees it as a burden to be sloughed off.

How well does that work out? For Don, for California, for Gatsby? Or for Madison Square Garden? You have to know something about New York City history to know the irony of the pitch Don is making; the razing of the original Penn Station, which he eloquently makes the case for, is now widely regarded as one of the greatest civic mistakes the city has made. Architectural historian Vincent Scully said that, one used to enter the city, through Penn Station, “Like a god. Now one scuttles in like a rat.” Arguably, it eventually contributed to the very urban decay that Don was talking about.

So, take Don Draper’s sales pitch however you want.

And what is the enemy of detachment and reinvention? Roots. History. Family. “Love Among the Ruins” was, besides ruins, about the complications of family. And the further irony of Don’s pitch to the Penn Station guys–other than the fact that the Brits ended up nixing the account after he landed it–was that this episode saw him taking on a further family entanglement. Indeed, the big one: taking in Betty’s father, who’s alone with encroaching dementia. This is domestic Don at work, the one who wants to be a good husband and a good father, to improve on his childhood not by escaping but by doing better.

So when Betty drops done the vague but unmistakable hint that she wants him to take care of things and frustrate her brother’s designs on the family house, Don goes into full-on Sterling Cooper power mode, laying down terms and telling William to leave Dad’s Lincoln and take the train home. Leaving the Drapers, with a new baby on the way, the caretakers of an elderly man pouring Don’s expensive liquor down the sink because he thinks it’s still Prohibition.

You can feel the roots curling around them. Not necessarily in a menacing way: Betty seem happier than we’ve seen her in a while, if sadly so, and Don appears to genuinely enjoy having Gene around on some level. But this new commitment leaves them as far from “California”–the unburdened state of mind Don described–as is possible.

This new Don wants to do right by Betty and her family out of love, but if love’s not sufficient, he’ll do it out of duty. Which is probably why he now makes no attempt to hide his contempt for Roger, who left his family to follow his bliss and marry Jane. There’s no zealot like the reformed (and reforming) sinner, and the former Dick Whitman can’t respect Roger for weaseling out of his own family complications.

Roger, for his part, can’t understand why the world wouldn’t want him to be happy, and can’t understand why his daughter can’t move past his divorce and welcome him (and her new sister-stepmom) at her wedding. That blessed occasion would seem doomed even without the date engraved on the invitations: Nov. 23, 1963, the day after the Kennedy assassination.

(The JFK assassination, by the way, is the main reason I was a little surprised that Mad Men didn’t jump further in time this season, if only to avoid the event and jump straight to its aftermath. The shooting can be a cliche-trap for period dramas, like NBC’s American Dreams, about which I wrote back then, “the pilot begins on a snowy day in November, setting up the hackneyed loss-of-innocence climax so obviously that you half expect a TV to crackle, ‘And in other news, President Kennedy will be assassinated in three days.'” Mad Men, on the other hand, has been good about showing how people react to history in ways you wouldn’t expect, or ways that the pop-culture narrative has forgotten, so I’m very interested to see how it handles The Big One. And will the wedding still go on? I’m betting yes, and that it will be very uncomfortable.)

The final major storyline belonged to Peggy, who is handling the complications of having avoided family complications. Having given up the baby she had at the end of season 1, she’s a single professional in New York City, successful and on the rise at Sterling Coop, but not so much so that she’s not hemmed in by embodying “the woman’s perspective” in a men’s office. In the opening scene, you can almost taste her amazement that none of the men in the room can see past Ann-Margaret’s looks to her god-awful singing (“Bye! Bye! BIRD-hee!”) or to what a lousy idea Pepsi has to sell its new Patio Diet Cola.

Unfortunately, nobody is interested in the simple notion that maybe you should sell women a diet cola by appealing to women, not to men. What I love about the way Mad Men portrays Peggy, and the way Elisabeth Moss plays her, is that we can see her both repelled by and attracted to the Bye Bye Birdie fantasy—she fights the sales pitch and sings the song to herself in the mirror—and it doesn’t expect us to accept that only one of these represents the “real” Peggy. She’s as complicated and contradictory as Don, and when her appeal to him doesn’t go her way, she unwinds the way Don Draper might: by going out and getting a little something for herself.

Remembering, this time, the importance of protection. Because we all know where family entanglements can lead.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Again with Joan and the subways? Her joke (repeated later by Peggy, as if to assume Joan’s persona) about a crowd of men reminding her of the subway recalls her statement last week that she never takes the subway. Is this about something more than that big rock on her finger?

* The way the London office shot down the Madison Square Garden account—on the grounds that it would cost too much in manpower in the short term—is in its way more menacing than if London had had some grand, nefarious scheme. Don realizes that Sterling Cooper’s new owners either can’t see, or aren’t interested in, the value of investing for long-term growth. Either they’re dense, they’re in big financial trouble, or they’re simply committed to managing Sterling Coop for the bottom line, sucking the lifeblood out of it through payroll savings. The British overlords are in managed-decline mode, not in empire-building mode; their thinking is as un-California-like as is possible. One way or the other, Don must realize, the company is in the clutches of a dying empire.

* What parent did not see a flash of recognition in this Don Draper line? “We are going to Tarrytown, and you’re going to stare at some antique chair so long the buttons are going to seem interesting. Then we’ll go get Carvel.” And you will like it!

* I love the last couple of scenes first with Don brushing his hand through the grass while watching the maypole dance, then Peggy meeting with him to discuss the Pampers account after her one-night stand. Each, in their own way, has been seeking a taste of freedom, which only underscores my image of Peggy as a kind of female Don—not exactly the same in morals or circumstance, but with some of the same conflicts and paradoxes.

* I like how the show has portrayed William, Betty’s brother. At 30, he comes across a little immature and petulant, but at the same time you get the sense that, back in his history, he probably does have legitimate issues with his sister. In little scenes and quick strokes, you get this deft portrait of how a short lifetime of resentment and being under his father’s thumb has curdled in him.

* Fun fact: Ada Louise Huxtable—the powerhouse New York Times architecture critic that the MSG guys disparaged as “an angry woman”—is still doing criticism, for the Wall Street Journal.

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