Early in Sunday's (Sept. 6) episode of “Mad Men”, Sal confesses stress over his impending debut as a commercial director. He tells his wife Kitty, “I don’t wanna fail. A single mistake, the entire shot is ruined.” He’s talking about the shoot for the Patio account in which they have been tasked with slavishly recreating the opening sequence of “Bye Bye Birdie.” And even though Sal manages to mechanically achieve this, both the in-show audience at Sterling Cooper and the at-home audience come away with the same impression: it’s just a pale imitation.
The phrase “pale imitation” works nicely as a way to tie in the variety of personal and professional r elationships on display in this we ek’s episode, entitled “The Arrangements.” Most frequently, this played out as older generations looked down at younger ones with disdain, wondering how an entity with so much shared DNA could turn out so differently (read: inferiorly). We might as well start with the man behind the title, Gene Hofstadt, with our analysis. Previously, we’ve learned that Betty’s memo ries of her childhood were essentially lies constructed to glorify a past that never existed. This week, we learned Gene didn’t have much for their time together, either.
[Full recap of Sunday's "Mad Men" after the break...]
In last week’s episode, I found myself both supremely bored while simultaneously unnerved as I waited for Gene to explode into some form of violence over Sally’s emerging kleptomania. Turns out that look he gave her at episode’s end wasn’t a cautious eye so much as begrudging appreciation. In Sally, he sees the spirit of his deceased wife, Ruth. Upset with Betty’s inability to deal with his funeral arrangements, he blames himself for sheltering her as a child, sputtering, “If you’d even known what was possible…but that’s that.” But to Sally? “You can really do something. Don’t let your mother tell you otherwise.”
In other words, Betty dishonored the spirit of her mother through her sensitive, inactive approach to life. She was obese as a child, and rather than take up work like her mother did during the war, she transitioned from beauty model to stay-at-home mother, content to ride her husband’s coattails rather than make a mark of her own. Gene’s stance towards Sally isn’t exactly feminist so much as a way to preserve Ruth’s existence on earth after her death. This, not his funeral arrangements, was in Gene’s eyes his last great work on this plane of existence.
His attitude as a whole in this episode felt very much like the show’s WASP-y answer to a certain fatherly figure in a certain fantasy series that Shall Not Be Named. If you know of what I speak, then watching lucid, occasionally downright kindly Gene this week sent up the red flag that this would end badly. To recall last week’s invocation of “The Hollow Man,” Gen died with a whimper. He didn’t die as dramatically as Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk mentioned on the television at episode’s end for self-immolation. The only thing fiery in the aftermath of Gene collapsing in the local A&P was Sally’s dramatic outburst over a misunderstood laugh from Betty’s brother. Lisping through the tears after hearing it from her designated hiding spot under the dining room table, she showed more emotion in thirty seconds than Betty’s allowed herself to show in decades.
Before consoling Betty over Gene’s death, Don dealt with a pair of pale imitations at work: Pete Campbell and Horace Cook Jr. The former had idealized Don as a father figure long before his real one died in the Pan-Am plane crash. The latter, flush with both his father’s name and father’s wealth, dreams of forging his own fame in the world of…jai alai. He feverishly pitches his still-born ideas to a room of bemused but stone-faced Sterling Cooper employees, all anxious to gut the “fatted calf” and profit handsomely from his ignorance. Don appeals to Horace Cook Sr., himself a friend of Bert Cooper, to gently guide the lamb away from the slaughter. The response of the elder Cook? In short: let him flame out and earn something in this world in his own merits, not his father’s wallet.
Horace Sr.’s attitude is the same shared by many of the “senior” members of Sterling Cooper: the younger generation consists of inferior copies. Roger Sterling’s blunt assessment of why the Patio commercial failed (“She’s not Ann Margaret”) not only identifies the root of the problem within the ad, but also serves as a useful way through which to see how the elder generations in this show see themselves in comparison with the younger one. They fancy themselves as having the “it” factor, that undeniable if hard-to-identify quality that makes them stand out. Those after them? Just pale imitations. Walking the walk but at a slightly different pace. Talking the talk, but with slightly different inflection. These perceived differences can quickly turn into identified mutations, and as the show pushes its way through the 1960’s, these difference are only going to become more pronounced.
Peggy Olson’s pale face worked on two levels this week. While she might have convinced her new secretary that she was “all right,” her mother is having absolutely none of her move to Manhattan. “You’ll get raped, you know that,” she says, a mixture of bile and concern and Christian guilt all packed into a great big ball of passive-aggressive behavior. Course, that didn’t stop her mom from instantly turning on the television-as-bribe once Peggy politely walked away from the verbal attack.
Then again, it’s unclear exactly how ready Peggy is for the move herself. She plans the move in much the same way she would plan a client campaign: through cost analysis, industry-recognized buzzwords, and marketing. She applies her sense of self to the real world and can’t understand why she keeps hitting roadblocks. Not only do her coworkers prank her initial advertisement (especially her use of “Margaret” as her first name), but the woman with whom she eventually agrees to live makes Peggy feel incredibly unconscious. Peggy fashions herself an urban woman (after all, she smokes reefer now!), but it’s clear that her upbringing still clings to her no matter how much she tries to shed it. She lives up to the reflection of her new roommate as well as she does to the reflection of her mother. She’s in-between worlds now; let’s see how she does with the transition.
Not all pale imitations were generationally based this week. Sal and Joan both attempted to portray a specific type of social “role,” only to fail to live up to even their own expectations. We know Sal can never truly love Kitty, and after his unintentionally robust rendition of the Patio commercial, I think Kitty finally realizes exactly why. Uh oh. And Joan, so well-equipped to sell the fantasy of urban living to Peggy at work, is stuck at home with maudlin clothes performing maudlin tasks. She sells sex and sophistication at work, and lives in rubber gloves after hours. In other words, her apparently impromptu copy for Peggy’s more “laid-back” ad wee in fact a requiem for the live she used to have but can no longer enjoy.
By episode’s end, Don is folding up Gene’s old bed from its place in the former nursery: the baby’s crib next to Gene’s cot with Don standing in between. However, while Gene himself might be gone, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” still resides firmly in Sally’s arms as a remnant of her newly deified grandfather. What do they say about those that ignore the past being doomed to repeat it? And is it worse if they remember those lessons, but misinterpret and misapply them?
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