I’m reviewing all the episodes of Mad Men before the last seven episodes premiere in the Spring of 2015. If you want to see an overview of the episodes I’ve written about so far, click HERE.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s first notable job in the television industry was as a writer on The Sopranos. Which makes sense, since it takes a single episode for one to notice the influence of HBO’s New Jersey mob story over Mad Men. I mean, The Sopranos is probably the most influential drama of the past twenty years, so practically every drama on television right now is built in one way or another in its image, but its influence over Mad Men seems greater: from the structure and plotting of a season, to the low-key focus on character over plot, and even down to the themes explores in both shows.
The Sopranos was largely a show about people who idolized a past that never existed, and seemed incapable of change no matter how many horrible, traumatizing things they did. Sounds familiar? Yes, I agree with you, Mad Men can almost be seen as a response to the themes of The Sopranos. It is too about about people who refuse to change, only this time, instead of looking back at a distant past, they are living in said past, and witnessing the world change around them. However, Mad Men is much more than a show about showing the idealized past as being as flawed and corrupt as the present. Actually, I’d say it’s a show about many, many things (that’s why it’s my favorite). One of those things is being about the scars that shape people into who they are, and how those people go on to create similar scars on others, and so on, and so on in a never ending circle. And yet, the big irony of Mad Men is that no matter how many things change around them, some things are so deeply ingrained in people, that they simply won’t let them fully become who they want to be.
Take, for instance, Betty Draper. In this episode, we get yet another extended look at what Betty’s upbringing must have looked like, as she and Don set aside their break to visit her father, who had suffered a non-fatal stroke. Despite her family’s insistence that everything is fine, Betty’s father is starting to act demential. He is sometimes unable to recognize his own daughter, thinking Betty is his deceased wife. At the same time, his new girlfriend has removed almost every sign of Betty’s mother from the house. This is why Betty cries at the sight of her old nanny Viola, the only remnant from her past in a house that seems eager to forget all about it. We have heard enough about Betty’s mom in the past to know how her worldview must have shaped her into the woman she’s become, and now that we have also met Viola, we see even more parallels between Betty’s life as a child, and the life she is giving her children. Viola was largely responsible for raising Betty, just like Carla seems largely responsible in the raising of Sally and Bobby. Similarly, Betty’s constant criticizing of Sally -especially regarding her weight, despite the fact that she is a small child that shouldn’t even worry about such things and ugh!- seems like the kind of thing that she must have gotten from her own mother.
This episode, like season one’s “New Amsterdam“, knows that if you’re going to have a storyline focusing on Betty’s past, then you should pair it with the other character with a blue-blood background: Pete Campbell. I said when I reviewed “New Amsterdam”, but Pete and Betty are very similar in many ways. They have both been shaped by the hermetic worldview of their families, and educated in largely antiquated ways. However, Pete, unlike Betty, seems to have nothing but contempt for his family. And with good reason. They are pretty awful people. His father was constantly diminishing him, and his mother is completely agains the idea of him adopting a baby. Still, Pete may hate his family, but he is still one of them, and the bitterness of his childhood has payed fruit in his ability to be just as cruel as the people that raised him. How else, would you explain his destructive behavior towards Peggy. There is no question he desires her, but he would never accept her. He can only make sure she is as miserable as he is.
Another person who has been horribly shaped by his past is, of course, our own Don Draper. At this point in the show’s run, we know relatively little about Don’s past. But considering the themes of the series, it’s fair to assume that his rough upbringing at the hands of Archie Whitman must play a role in his behavior as an adult. We might want to find hints at reasons for his constant need to cheat on his wife, but more important to this story is how the past has thought him to deal with his problems. He is quick to embrace new starts -we’ve heard him telling so to both Peggy and Freddie Rumsen- and after all, he did it himself when he turned from Dick Whitman into Don Draper. However, he doesn’t seem ready to leave his family and his marriage to Betty behind, The lovemaking he and Betty engage in in her childhood bedroom gives him hope that his marital vacation might be over, but Betty is still not willing to take him back. Don’s reaction? To flee to California. Is Don once again running from his problems? Well, we’ll have to find out as the season goes along. Anyway, if he were, it would be completely within character.
- This episode also saw the return of Glen Bishop, which means lots and lots of creepiness. I wish I could have better integrated his appearance in the main review, but looking at him holding Betty’s hand was just too shocking. I am also waiting to see what Glen’s character arc looks like on this rewatch, and I would like to see a few more of his appearances before writing about it.
- “I just wanted to say happy birthday!” The self-satisfaction in Cooper’s face is enough to forgive him for having no idea that this wasn’t a birthday party.
- Paul Kinsey is pretty insufferable, but he is also not a bad guy… Still, there is endless satisfaction in watching Joan joyfully tell him he won’t be going on the trip to California.
- “Does she have a lot of boyfriend”? no matter the circumstances, Betty will always be somewhat of a gossip.