What struck me most about last night’s episode of AMC TV’s Mad Men was pure, unmistakable unhappiness.
That, in a nutshell, epitomizes the early sixties – surface wearing thin; underlying social problems fomenting discontent. And the warning signs are flashing with each new episode of this finely crafted show.
Don, Betty, and Gene
Mad Men’s creators and writers are clever; the interactions among Don, Betty, and Betty’s aging father (who has come to live with them) touch on contemporary concerns – and not just in a historical context.
Parenting, substance abuse, infidelity, elder care – these are issues for many of us, including baby boomers who are, or should be, watching this drama.
Don and Gene
The friction between Don and Gene is shown with admirable restraint, as the father-in-law adds complications and burdens to the already moody household. Gene’s attitude towards Don is both unfounded and well-grounded. (“He has no people,” he grumbles, in an earlier episode, recognizing that his fair-haired daughter’s husband could be anyone. In fact, Gene is right.)
But it’s Don’s deception and integrity that keep us intrigued. It’s a very human combination. Edgy, and sexy.
On a professional note, it’s Don who has qualms about a million dollar billing from a client who’s borderline delusional. In the domestic arena, it’s Don who suggests taking in the abrasive father-in-law, shows concern for the children, and keenly observes his wife’s behavior, including towards their unborn child.
Despite this, he does not step in except in the most extreme situations, leaving his lately listless spouse to do as she sees fit. Once again, this is accurate to the times.
As for a somewhat Stepford Betty sitting across from her father itching to light up as he discusses matters of final arrangements?
I say bravo to Mad Men! Yet another highly relatable moment for anyone who’s lived it.
Some may find Betty indifferent. Not so. She is a woman of her times and milieu, raised to mask her emotions; think Jackie at JFK’s funeral – poise and stoicism. January Jones does a fine job of expressing the strain of keeping feelings under wraps, in both the kitchen scene and as she receives news of her father’s death.
As for aging parents? Any adult who has endured these discussions can relate to Betty’s denial, and her reverting back to the role of little girl as she leaves the room upset, and says: “I’m still the child.”
By the way…
Did you notice that throughout this episode, Betty is largely without makeup?
Excellent, Mad Men creators! You’ve highlighted her youth, her fatigue, and her vulnerability, keeping us on her side even as her behavior disturbs us.
As for leaving the children to process their own emotions? Don sees their pain but hasn’t the opportunity to deal with it, yet. And the oddly foreboding scenes with the kitchen knife and a 9-year old behind the wheel of a car? And “you’re wearing the hat of a dead man?” That made my skin crawl! And foreshadows what?
After the scene between the partners and the new client’s father, and Don’s gazing at the snapshot dated 1928, we’re wondering what additional exploration into father-son relationships awaits.
A brighter note: Peggy
Peggy’s character is the good girl gone bad, the Catholic with faith on her own terms, and now, the working girl who’s ratcheting up the volume on her social life, albeit properly gloved and coiffed!
She has talent, takes chances, and not only in the board room or trying a little “grass,” but in the bedroom. Apparently, advertising isn’t the only thing that comes naturally to her, finding creative solutions to whatever may come up, including no Trojan when you need one.
Like Don, she’s ambitious and not entirely what she seems. Like Don, she has secrets (her baby given up for adoption), and she neatly detaches herself emotionally when required. At least for now.
I want to savor this delicious drama, from week to week. No doubt Pete and Sal will be unable to hide their stripes as we move forward in Season 3; we’re in for more surprises and plot lines.
Then there’s the magnificent Joan Holloway, who appears to be sucked into a sticky mess of her new hubby’s making, though we know little of it – as yet.
I used to call this my “guilty pleasure.” Not anymore. There’s more pleasure ahead, but I don’t feel guilty about it. This is television at its best. And we were certainly due.
Images courtesy AMCTV.com. Read more Mad Men musings and recaps.
© D. A. Wolf