SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, put on your cesta, make sure you don’t put that pelota through the TV screen, and watch last night’s Mad Men.
“The Arrangements” was an episode of Mad Men about shelter, or rather being sheltered: about characters seeking, offering, losing and rejecting it. At the center of several of these stories was Gene–who of course unfortunately went to his own final resting place by the episode’s end.
Gene’s death was foreshadowed in his reviewing his folder of “arrangements” for his funeral with Betty. It upsets her, and Gene shoots back that she relied on him too much for sheltering–which, he guesses bluntly, is why she went and married Don, “this joker,” as a protector and replacement.
Gene in turn has made a personal project of un-sheltering his grandchildren, exposing them to the kind of responsibility and risk–and, therefore, accomplishment–that he kept from Betty. First, we see him letting Sally drive him around the neighborhood, her face first anxious, then delighted. Later, he whips out a knife the size of a kid’s forearm and has Bobby slice open a box of mementoes—including a Prussian helmet, a trophy he lets Bobby wear, to Don’s consternation.
There are couple obvious things going on in Don’s argument with Gene over the helmet. First, there’s the parallel to Don’s own wartime experience—Don doesn’t like to see Bobby putting on a dead man’s clothes, the way he himself did. And there’s Don responding to the obvious challenge to his authority in his house.
But there’s also a generational difference here. We talk a lot about the difference between how kids were raised in the Mad Men era and today: the BB guns, playing with drycleaning bags, seatbeltless car riding, etc. But there was a similar difference between Don’d post-WWII generation and the one before. Don’s kids may lead a less childproofed existence than kids today, but Don and his generation in turn constructed their own shelters for their kids, because of their own memories of a life that was more brutal and perilous.
There was war, of course: Don wants to raise his kids in a world where they can reflexively answer, “War is bad,” to which Gene replies, “But it makes a man of you.” War, of course, literally made a man of Don, and he has few romantic notions about the way it happened. Likewise, Don grew up in a world of stillbirths and privation—seeing, as he cracks to Pryce, someone throw a loaf of bread to a starving crowd off the back of a truck in the Depression. To Gene, sheltering kids from the brutalities of life is indulgent and unwise (though he’s also glad to undermine Betty by recruiting Sally for a surreptitious ice-cream snack); where Don comes from, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.
Is Don right or wrong? “The Arrangements,” unsurprisingly for Mad Men, doesn’t come down strongly on one side or the other. At the office, he encounters another sheltered child, HoHo, the heir whom Sterling Cooper is about to fleece on his jai-alai-league pipe dream. Don’s instinct is to protect him—partly because Bert Cooper is a friend of the father—but Dad, it turns out, thinks HoHo needs to get ripped off, as a learning experience.”Should you be lucky enough to strike gold,” he says, “remember that your children weren’t with you when you were swinging the pick.”
Even then, Don—who again, had more than enough parental abandonment “character building” as a child—tries to step in, against the father’s wishes and his firm’s. “We will take all your money, I promise you,” Don says. “But I think you should re-evaluate this particular obsession. You can do better.” But it’s too late for the fatherly advice that Horace Sr. should have given years ago (instead of overcorrecting now). And HoHo is so dedicated to his folly that it’s useless, anyway. So an innocent ant farm must perish. “Bill the kid.”
In her subplot, meanwhile, Peggy is literally looking for her own shelter—an apartment with roommate in Manhattan—and looking to leave Brooklyn, which her mother does not take well. Here, Peggy, who’s so competent selling at work, both falls short in the pitch to her mother—who takes her parting gift of a TV as an insult—and has to get advice from Joan, who basically teaches Peggy how to advertise herself. (Her original notice, Joan says, “reads like the stage directions for an Ibsen play.”)
Finally, we also rejoin Sal at home with his wife, whom he’s still sheltering from the truth about his sexuality. Though as she watches him re-enact, step-for-step, the Bye-Bye Birdie Patio Cola ad, there’s a flash of something in her: either a recognition, or an undeniable reminder of something she’s previously suspected. Ladies and gentlemen, it is 1963, and I believe we have just witnessed the invention of gaydar.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Speaking of gaydar, I had to wonder whether the Pepsi people were turned off by Sal’s ad because they sensed he had somehow failed to capture the heterosexual heat of the Ann-Margret original. (“I just can’t put my finger on it…”) They seemed too obtuse for that, however. Regardless, I had to love Peggy’s little smile at the failure of the campaign she knew was a stupid idea to begin with.
* Betty Draper gets a lot of heat among fans as a bad mother, so it’s worth pointing out that this episode instead featured her in the role of bad daughter: “I know it must be horrible to be looking at whatever you’re looking at. But can’t you keep it to yourself?”
* So good to see Carla Gallo back, in something other than a Judd Apatow movie where she gets two lines.
* Speaking of which: so did Joan give Peggy good advice or not? She got Peggy to write a much more appealing notice, but she basically had Peggy sell herself as something–fun and carefree–that she’s not. Will that work out for Peggy in the long run?
* “Let’s get one thing straight: if jai alai fails, it’s your fault.” For some reason, I like this line nearly as much as, “I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana.”
* Finally, I was on vacation last week and so the episode AMC sent out is sitting in my office (unless the network cut me off for mentioning 1963 in my season-opener review). That made this, I believe, the first Mad Men I’ve ever watched with commercial interruptions. And I can see what commenters have said before: they are, in fact, really abrupt and annoying. I strongly suggest you become a TV critic and get the screeners in advance: it really makes things much easier.
I now return to the final day of my regularly-scheduled vacation. see you tomorrow.