Mad Men recap: All in the Family
- TV Show
To the end of the line! As season 2 speeds toward what feels like the only possible gruesome and hysterical end, the old guard was drooping this episode, their power almost laughably diminished. Betty’s father had a stroke and was reduced to copping a feel from his daughter at the breakfast table. Roger’s usually sly wit seemed silly; he was like your friend’s father who tries too hard to be cool. Don, who seems to be coughing up more and more lung every morning, swanned past the receptionist with a suave “Hello, Donna!” “Allison,” she called after him. “Of course!” He arrived to a largely deserted office, until he heard everyone yell “Surprise!” from the conference room. It seemed like the beginning of Don’s worst nightmare — taken off guard, stuck on the outside looking in on the professional world — but it turned out to be a nifty baby shower for Harry. (Nifty for everyone except for Joan, clenching that cake knife when Harry opened a Tiffany’s box from Jane and his sloshed one-night stand from season 1, who wanted the proud papa to know that she was really, really, hic!, just really so happy for him.) Mr. Cooper, more and more like your mystified great-uncle who always forgets to zip up his fly, wandered into the party and announced “Happy Birthday!”
But the line in question was Pete’s, who was talked into the idea of adoption by an increasingly tolerable Trudy. (In fact, I’m not sure the prig we know and hate to love would have come around so quickly to the idea, but more power to him.) As amiable Bud walked his little bro through their parents’ ravaged estate, Pete fessed up that he and Trudy were thinking of adopting. “People do that,” Bud said, trying in his limited way to be supportive. He should get a medal for compassion, though, compared to Pete’s blisteringly cold mother, who warned that no discarded spawn would ever see a dime of her money. Pete, bless him, told Ma that there was no inheritance left to threaten him with because their bum dad had squandered it all.
Throughout the episode, Pete toyed with the idea of a phantom child who might be in need of parents, still clueless that such a child exists, saddled with a bit of that putrid Campbell gene pool. So every scene between Peggy and him was deliciously fraught. She served him a piece of baby cake! She wants him to get astronaut autographs for her nephews! She was forced to endure him spiraling out nonsensically about adoption! The problem with Pete is that he has no self-awareness. He’s a narcissist, and when he gets drunk or down enough, he seeks out Peggy so he can unload. So he glommed on to her and started reminding her how difficult it would be for him to fly because, his eyes hungry for her attention and sympathy, of his dead dad. Peggy has long since flipped the switch on him and all she had to offer were cold-fish statistics of how he most likely wouldn’t crash and burn. He next tried the I hate my mother route, and then went on about the lousy genes, and on and on and on. When her eyes didn’t go moony with understanding, he spat that “Everything’s so easy for you.” Peggy, so sad, and so shut down — so like Don that it is as if he made her out of clay and sensible knit fabrics in the backroom of Sterling Cooper, reminded him that “It’s not easy for anyone, Pete.”
NEXT: Daddy, dearestLeast of all for Betty, who called Don after she got the belated news that her beloved dad had had a stroke. Don did his best to play the role of perfect husband, enduring Gene’s increasingly erratic jabs about his money and lack of people without flinching. When he tried to take care of Betty, though, fussing after her to eat, she shut him down fast. “Stop it, Don,” she said coldly. “Nobody’s watching.” That night he dutifully took his spot on the floor, though the scene of the fractured couple undressing was strangely sexy and thrilling, so it was not a surprise when, in the middle of the night, Betty pancaked herself on top of Don for a little stolen comfort. But real warmth only came later with her childhood nanny, who took Betty in her arms as she mourned the fact that she was on the road to being an orphan. January Jones continues to amaze me. Her face went from crabby and imperious to chastised child to broken women in the course of that one scene. And, after enjoying a brief few moments of genuine compassion, she still wouldn’t let Don come home. “I know how you feel about grieving,” she said, and sent him on his way.
The next morning Betty found Glen looking his usual colorless self, hiding out in the backyard toy house. While she sent him off to change into clean clothes, she flipped through his comic books, where men in capes saved the day. When goofy Glen sat back down at the table, he looked like a shrunken Don after making a wish on the Zoltar machine — a black-haired, pale-faced child who hasn’t yet let her down. “Why are you alone here?” he asked. “It’s the middle of the day,” she said primly. “It’s lousy,” he observed, nailing her malaise in those two little words. Betty looked like a prim and perky little middle schooler sipping innocently from her soda bottle with Glen on the couch. Just a couple of kids watching afternoon cartoons! The boy finally fessed up that he doesn’t like her ham sandwiches after all, took her hand (squirm alert!), and announced his plan to rescue her, whisking her away with his piggy-bank savings. When Carla and the kids burst in the door, they released their hands like a couple of guilty teenagers who didn’t expect the parents home before dark.
For all of Betty’s clumsy steps towards some self-actualization, it seems like she’d give about anything to go back to just being a little girl. It’s what she was best at. When she got married, it was to a man she didn’t know but wanted to charm and please, to make him proud with her swishing skirts and tasteful conversation skills. But then Don went and ended up only being a shell of Prince Charming. And now her dear daddy is degenerating towards helplessness, a child himself. The only person promising to do what she desperately wants, to rescue and take care of her, is hopeless Glen.
When he realized that she had called his mother, he was shocked by her betrayal. “I hate you,” he cried. Betty, so somber and mature and beautiful in that moment, said that she knew and that she was sorry. It reminded me of the scene when Betty woke up Don in the middle of the night and asked her husband if he hated her. Don was shocked by her question but part of him must hate Betty. He married the most perfect woman a man with dreams of upward mobility could ever want on his arm and still she has not saved him from his dark side. And part of Betty hates him too, for rattling their pedestal and so unapologetically flicking her to the ground.
NEXT: Taking flightIn the end, she finally, finally allowed someone to peer down with her into her cracking world. Glen’s mom, the infamous neighborhood divorcée, came by and Betty pleaded Glen’s case. “He depends on you for everything. You’re supposed to be taking care of him — you’re his mother and he gets nothing,” she said, speaking as well of her own loneliness. Helen admitted she was a lousy mom, and that life hadn’t gotten any easier with Dan (ha!) out of the picture. When Betty confessed that Don wasn’t living at home and she had no idea where the separation was leading, Helen warned her that the hardest part of kicking a husband to the curb is the nauseating realization that you are now in charge. Not Daddy, not Don, not a hero in a red cape. “Sometimes I feel like I’ll float away if Don isn’t holding me down,” Betty said sadly.
And then we ended with a scene of Don up in the air, floating away to La-La land, where fantasies and fables are the stuff of fortune. The sun rose on his face, and he looked like a man who feels free at last, released from the tethers of his real life, like when he rode that train right on past his frantically waving little brother. Damn. I know that rooting for Don and Betty is like rooting for that couple in your life who always fights, whose drama can be tedious and exhausting. And yet somehow you want to believe that they are better together than they are apart, and if they would just cut the crap already — for the sake of the kids, for the sake of each other — they might actually figure out a way to be happy together.
I think in the end that my favorite thing about Mad Men is how the writers are always miles ahead of the viewer, always in masterful control of pacing and revelation. Last week I talked a little about how the black characters on the show are largely invisible to the Dons and Bettys and Rogers, and what must be churning inside their heads as they navigate this slowly shifting world. And boom, we were gifted with the polite smirk on Hollis’ face when Kinsey preeningly introduced him to Sheila and then when Sheila gave Kinsey the business about skipping out on the Mississippi voter registration drive. When Kinsey finally made it on the bus, not out of a sense of duty or loyalty but rather because his ticket to the rocket ship fair went to Don instead, he yammered on about the market and the consumer and advertising. He sounded like a foppish blowhard, spouting off market theory to hide his anxiety, while his fellow passengers ignored him, their concerns different and more pressing. There was a noisy fart of a man in the midst who just didn’t get it.
Best line of the night: “You want to give me your temper?”
Was Betty dropping dream analysis when she mentioned her dream about a suitcase in her phone conversation with Don? If you could slap one person upside the head this episode, whom would you pick? (I call Mrs. C!) Is Don going to end up a short-sleeved suntanned movie producer in season 3? Did I really get called a “chubbo” by a commenter last week? (Wait, wait, I know the answer to that one!)