Monday, June 21, 2010

Our Father

The virtues of mad men
The inheritance
The way I see this episode, it is all about parents. It is, and I initially found this shocking, a very pro-family values episode. We might miss this because what it draws our attention to is the dearth of family values in these people's lives. The inheritance in question is an inheritance that is missing.

This is a Biblical theme. In a sense, the Bible tells the story of a people constantly in search of their true father. If they can find their true father they can find their true inheritance; meaning by this not a pile of money so much as a sense of who and what they are truly meant to be. Don Draper and Peggy Olson in this series are both fatherless and seem to have no moral inheritance from their families. Oddly, these two are the characters who seem to have the closest connection to the old values.

Betty and Pete are characters who seem most interested in moving into a new world. They both have or had fathers but both fail to inherit anything from their fathers; again, meaning by this not a pile of money so much as a sense of who and what they are truly meant to be.

Many Meanings of inheritance
Once you have a title, prove it. That is a bit of advice given by one of the classic writers of American song, I can't remember who right now. Maybe Ira Gershwin. In any case, it's great advice and it applies here too. The title of this episode is "the inheritance" and the writers make good by delivering many senses of inheritance. Here are some of the ones I noticed:
  • Genetic. First Pete's mother threatens to disinherit him if he adopts. Then Betty's father Gene, after admitting that his recent stroke is not his first, says it runs in the family. There is much emphasis on how Betty inherited her mother's looks.
  • Material. Betty remembers that her mother promised her the ceramic jardiniere. Pete's brother confirms that their father spent away the entire estate. (Oddly, though, Pete says, "this was all supposed to be ours" while talking to his brother this episode but he said to the same brother that he had been disinherited way back in the second show this season.)
  • Cultural: It is made clear that Betty inherited her mother's sense of values and that her brother did not. The converse is true in Pete's family where his brother retains the family values even among the ruins while Pete is reaffirmed in his decision to be the prodigal.
  • Statistical fluke. When Pete tells Peggy that his upcoming plane trip will be the first he takes since his father died in a plane crash, Peggy reassures him with the thought that it is statistically unlikely that two people from the same family would both die in plane crashes. (She is wrong about that by the way. It is statistically unlikely that anyone would die in a plane crash. But if someone related to has already died it doesn't alter the odds in your case.)

What is common in all cases, is that the show uses all these to show how thin family ties are for Betty and Pete. There is no common values beyond a lot of superficial manners connecting these two families.

The uptight white people
This is, I have to point out, a monstrous cliché. It is based on a thin, stereotypical vision of east coast preps that is as realistic as a Minstrel show.  Mostly, this turns out to be harmless. East coast preps are adults and they can take it. But I do want to digress a moment here about one detail that the show gets wrong; something it gets wrong not just about the period but that it gets wrong about istelf.

The childish notion that this show cannot resist is that east coast preps were emotionally repressed. Just as happened with Pete's family following the plane crash, we get a  scene of Betty's family dealing with a  family crisis by all sitting around uncomfortably not knowing how to behave. Similar scenes happen again as Pete and his mother and brother attempt to deal with the crisis brought about by their father's spending.

And then someone goes for a drink.

The stereotype doesn't bother me as much as the belief that fuels it. That is the belief that we'd all be better off if we just let our emotions out. That is nonsense. Controlling your emotions is very important. Controlling your emotions is not to suppress them. And the ability to control emotions was why the east coast preps were such a successful culture. Their controlled emotions served them very well. (And what is wrong with social drinking anyway?)

Return of the creep
The key line in the episode is Betty telling Don that the way they behaved in front of her family was "just pretending" and that there is no togetherness between them. Which way are we going to go with that? One line of logic is to say that Don is just pretending. He isn't who he says he is. But Betty is just pretending too. She has never accepted her adult responsibilities. Marriage and motherhood are just like playing house for her.

Perhaps surprisingly, the show takes Don's side on this one. He may be playing a role but he plays it devotedly. Betty keeps saying the right thing but fails to act the right way.

And we see this when creepy little Glen Bishop shows up again. He has been hiding in the Draoper family playhouse and she invites him in and offers to wash his clothes. He puts on Don's T-shirt and they quickly settle down into a childlike parody of married life. Betty slides into just pretending with him so easily that it's scary. And when Glen ultimately creeps her out it is with his suggestion that he is there to protect her—thereby threatening to usurp not Don's role, which did not trouble her, but her father's role, which does bother her.

And then we get this really ironic scene in which Betty repeats the advice about taking care of your family that Viola gave her to Helen Bishop. The painful irony is that Betty is so painfully unaware of herself that she fails to see that she is as much a failure as Helen.

This is a moment so stunningly "incorrect" I wonder how they got away with it. In the discussion, Helen even admits that her divorce changed nothing.

Children who had children
 One of the really powerful things about shows that trade in stereotypes like this one does is that they can actually touch some issues quite directly without offending. I think that is what happens here.

The divorce rate was still quite low in 1962. It was about to take off but it had not yet. The parents we see represented here are not typical of that era anymore than the blackface characters of a minstrel show were representative of real African-Americans.

But what the minstrel show often did was reflect the life of the whites in the audience back at them in a way that didn't feel too close for comfort because it was all in this weird dress up mode. That is what I think is happening here. What this episode shows us, and shows us very clearly, is not the parents of a past era but the parents of the 1970s and 1980s. They were the ones with the highest divorce rate in history.

Which is to say the parents of the people who watch this show. The mostly twenty and thirty something audience are seeing a portrayal of their parents. It's all here, the absent fathers who lived second childhoods, the selfish mothers who treated having children as being about them and who dumped their husbands (the vast majority of divorces are initiated by women) when the going got tough. But the portrayal is all dressed up in the early 1960s garb so it doesn't get in their faces.

Running awayIn the end, Betty sends Don away again and he deals with his crisis by running away. That may seem psychologically important but (as I'll expand on in end-of-season entry later) psychology doesn't matter in this series. What matters is the narrative reference that opens up. I'll tell you what that is next episode. Think Norwegian if you want a hint.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next episode blog will be here.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.)


  1. I agree that there appears to be a dearth of strong familial ties in these peoples' lives. I don't know how representative they are of that time, but I grew up during the same period in a community of people like those depicted in Mad Men, also in a suburb of NYC. I always got the sense that my family was different somehow and assumed it was because we were of Italian heritage and not WASP. My friends' families (and I'm generalizing here) did not seem as close or as tight as my family was. If there was a problem we dealt with it, and my parents were not as concerned with appearances as others we knew seemed to be. Nor were they big drinkers, my parents had wine with dinner every night (1 or 2 glasses, not a whole bottle), but that was the extent of their alcohol consumption as far as I know. But there was never any doubt or question that they were there for us, which is all that really matters in the final analysis. That was our inheritance, to be able to grow and develop with that assurance.

  2. I guess that's what they mean by unconditional love. I don't think we see a lot of that in Mad Men. Actually, the most "normal" character (and my favorite truth be told) is Trudy, Pete Campbell's wife. I think that she and her family are more a reflection of the majority of people of that time than any of the others.