This week’s superb Mad Men had a subplot that was as urgent for the times we live in as it was for the series’ 1963: what to do with an elderly parent who can no longer live alone. Betty’s dad — the “S.O.B.” to Don; the “jackpot” to Betty’s rodent-like brother William — was the object of enormous tension. (Here’s your Spoiler Alert: Don’t read further if you don’t want to know what happened this week.)
It’s not as though there wasn’t tension already in the Draper household. Betty’s in a permanently foul mood (God help this baby upon its arrival: the kid will be bottle-fed with half-milk, half-gin, I fear). But Betty was fretting about her dad, at first in an oblique way that irritated Don, prompting a terrific line that must have sent a shiver of recognition down the spines of many a married couple watching. Don snapped, “Tell me now, not three seconds after I’ve dozed off.”
Dear old dad, abandoned by his second wife, sliding into senility, had been receiving care from rat-William and his mouse-wife Judy. From Betty’s point of view, this meant she was a terrible daughter. (With Betty, it’s always about Betty. And I don’t say that without affection: When you look and live like Betty, it’s logical that the world revolves around you.)
The result was one of the all-time great Mad Men scenes: Don, using the same skill that enables him to take instant, effortless-looking command of an ad-agency meeting, taking William aside and telling him exactly how this slice of life is going to go down. Dad will move in with Don and Betty (do you realize how huge that is for Don, how much that further cinches the bonds that tie him down into the suburban hell he hates?), while William will pay Draper for Dad’s care (a real period touch, that: I doubt many families now make this sort of arrangement, do they?), leaving Dad’s house — the house William wants to scurry into and make his own — empty and immaculate, a symbol of the hollow shell its owner has become.
The way Don took command was awe-inspiring. The look Betty gave him, when she heard timorous William explaining the new set-up, was subtle yet full of appreciation. Why? Because Don had put into action, had made palpable, desires she could not even articulate. It was one of those rare Mad Men moments when Don Draper was unambiguously doing the Right Thing, even at great cost to himself. And, let’s face it, his family.
This is only one of at least three exceptional storylines that ran through this week’s Mad Men. Make sure to read Karen Valby’s TV Watch for a complete analysis.
Did you watch Mad Men last night? What did you think?