Mad Men – “The Inheritance”

“The Inheritance”

October 5th, 2008

Pete Campbell has inherited a lot of things from his parents, but one of them might well be his fundamental lack of humanity. As he greets his mother before a short meeting, they embrace by touching each other’s faces: not with any sort of kissing motion, but this awkward greeting that’s not a hug but rather just a proximity that seems to indicate that they are happy to see one another. But it is this coldness, that his mother seems to share, which makes Pete so incapable of handling the financial crisis she is in, and the own family drama that plagues his home life.

Betty Draper inherited from her mother her looks but also her fragile nature. She has many of her mother tendencies, and even has a housekeeper who appears to have raised her much as Carla is raising Sally and Bobby for most of the episode. It is these qualities, then, which make her so unable to deal with the reality of her father’s ailing health, and why her family didn’t even tell her about his failing in order to help continue her shield from the cold reality around her.

Whereas Don Draper has spent decades resolving his relationship with his father (although last week indicated he still sees that side of him), the inability to handle what they’ve inherited from a generation past is what holds Pete and Betty back, what keeps them from becoming fully realized members of society. What “The Inheritance” becomes is less a mediation on any pivotal moment in either of their development, but a demonstration over a number of days of their reactions to these ideas being tested, of their innocence or coldness rising in opposition to something that needs to be said or done.

The result is an episode that doesn’t quite hit as hard as the past few episodes on an emotional level, and feels like it doesn’t really add things to our story; that being said, it also feels distinctly like Matthew Weiner and Co. moving pieces around in preparation for something larger.

I had a lot of trouble writing about this episode, for some reason. After a few weeks of really focused episodes, this one was quite literally all over the place: new locations, returning characters, new plot machinations, and this feeling (moreso than usual) that we’re only seeing the brief periods in which these characters interacte with the real world. When Don walked into Sterling Cooper and found everyone gone and off celebrating Harry’s birthday party, it was kind of how I felt during the episode: like everything was moving so fast that I was showing up only after the party has been planned and executed.

I think it’s because we start the episode thinking about this very romantic and exotic trip to Hollywood, this idyllic world where nobody works because it’s so warm, and where the conference is about the dream fulfillment which is aerospace engineering. That image is what eventually drives Don to book himself on the trip, to get him away from reality in favour of looking completely towards the future. That the episode goes through the entire motions of setting up, and then shattering, this image before eventually returning to it feels like almost too much movement in a single episode, never letting a single moment settle in. Of course, isn’t that the nature of Don Draper: never letting himself get comfortable, never letting reality drag him down in order to keep from reflecting on his own crisis of identity?

The problem is that Betty, in particular, isn’t able to do this as Don is. What we’ve seen over the last few weeks is her ceasing even trying to convince herself that reality isn’t reality, but let’s remember that she can’t just go cold turkey: she’s stilling lying to Sally and Bobby, and to her friends, about her marital situation. This feels like a trait she inherited from her Mother, and it’s one that returns as soon as she goes home to her father’s house and discovers the state he is in. After multiple strokes, he doesn’t know who she is, mistaking her for her mother and even feeling her up at one point. What results is Betty, caught again in acting like she and Don are together, gets tired of acting and gets out of bed in order to sleep with Don on the floor.

But, as Helen Bishop said later in the episode, the hardest part of being in Betty’s situation is realizing that you’re in charge. Betty gets this lesson when she talks to Viola (Aloma Wright, quite removed from her role as Laverne on Scrubs), her own housekeeper/nanny when she was younger. She tells her that her father isn’t her responsibility: that she isn’t required to be a part of this narrative of lies, pretending that he is less sick than he actually is. When she tells Betty the truth about his diagnosis, and her own less optimistic view on his present condition, it frees Betty to make the decision not to allow Don back into the house even after their brief reconcilation.

But this isn’t even the end of Betty’s saga: in fact, I’d argue that Glen Bishop’s entrance towards the end of the episode was almost too much for a single episode, feeling like a forced injection in an effort to further demonstrate Betty’s slight, if important, shift in philosophy. It felt like too much of a test subject: Glen, sitting in one of Don’s overshirts with his hair slicked back, sits on the couch and tells Betty that he is here to rescue her, to take her away from it all. It’s again one of those romanticized notions of youth, this idea that once away from reality you can find some sort of inner peace or greater purpose. Before, Betty saw Glen as a kindred spirit, but here he’s different: he’s a kid who doesn’t know how the world works, and who is himself romanticizing Betty in an effort to avoid his own cruel reality of divorced parents and their lack of support.

It’s an important step for Betty, her ability to see her own symptoms in others and reacting as a rational adult in the process. But it feels like it’s too soon: it actually gives me some hope that it could be a lasting impact, even when I think the show’s history would tend to indicate that it is not. A lot of times Mad Men’s arcs feel very organic, but this one ended up feeling a bit clunky: like Weiner was searching for a way to make Betty get to this point and dragged his son out of school in order to get the desired effect. It works, but it’s a lot to handle in a single episode: one wonders if there was a reason they needed to rush Betty’s transition in a single episode, especially heading into the home stretch of the season as they are.

The other main storyline in the episode, following Pete, has the opposite problems: rather than feeling like a slightly contrived quick shift in character, it feels like just another drop in the bucket. When Trudy is lying in bed pitching adoption to Pete as an option, she says she knows that he would fall in love with a baby as soon as he saw it. Any Mad Men viewer who actually believes that doesn’t know Pete Campbell, and one would tend to think that the rest of the episode does nothing to convince anyone that he’ll be changing his ways anytime soon.

The problem with Pete is that he, like Betty, tends to personalize his struggles: he makes it out to seem as if he is the only person going through what he is going through, that he’s the only one suffering in this way. Of course, every character on the show struggles in a similar fashion, but none of them are so self-righteous about it: as he talks to Peggy and chides her for having it so easy, it’s something that I don’t think Peggy would ever say, even if she also is constantly racked with guilt and confusion over her position. Pete isn’t complaining about being cold and unable to make people happy because he feels bad about it, but because it’s annoying: it complicates things, and he’s more upset over things which are difficult than those which are unpleasant.

Pete, of course, won’t have an inheritance: the episode says without question that the family’s money is entirely gone, the final holdings officially sold off in order to allow their mother to stay afloat. But his mother’s reaction to the idea of Pete adopting tells you where Pete gets this all: her threat is to cut him off from a now worthless inheritance, saying that this isn’t something that he does. This equation between money and birthright is what he was raised on, and it’s not something that he’s really forgotten: when even the idea of having a child is in some way related to profit as opposed to other concepts of family, it is clear that Pete is his mother’s son.

The problem was that this was nothing new: we knew Pete was this way, and that his mother was broke, and that there was a real irony that, unbeknownst to him, he fathered a child with Peggy. But where else did this episode take Pete? I feel like the character is just circling the same place he was before: ever since he so blindly used his father’s tragic death in order to help draw in American Airlines, Pete had no soul, and I don’t think this episode really went anywhere to change that.

We even, strangely, saw all sorts of other little moments for the rest of the staff at Sterling Cooper. Joan acts awkwardly around Roger, having left his wife for Jane. Harry has an awkward moment with Hildy at his baby shower, who he slept with in “Nixon vs. Kennedy.” Kinsey shrewdly uses his canceled trip to California to get back into his girlfriend Sheila’s good graces, and is able to talk about the elevator operator and take a bus trip to the South in order to demonstrate his progressive views.

But I can’t help but feel, as Don lights up a cigarette on the plane to California while Pete sleeps next to him (Not even apprehensive about the fact he’s on a plane so soon after his father died in one – talk about cold), that we’re still not where the show wants us to be. This episode just felt like a lot of setup: it was full of reminders, signposts, and some reordering of things that should set things up for the final few episodes of the season. So while it wasn’t quite the allegorical and metaphorical masterpiece that the past few episodes have been verging on, it does still add to our understanding of this world: it just didn’t really reinvent the wheel in the process.

Cultural Observations

  • Love the little moment where Don, entering the office, calls the girl at the front desk Allison, and she says “It’s Dawn.” At least, that’s what I thought she said: I don’t think she would ever call him by his first name, so the idea that he can’t remember the girl’s name who has his own name is a really quirky little thing.
  • It’s been a big week for Generation Kill alumni: True Blood, Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fringe and now Mad Men. I was a bit slow with the middle two, but this one was immediate. It’s a tiny little role, William, but we did learn that he (like Betty) found his fortress of solitude in the house. Him climbing back in the window after hiding out in the treehouse demonstrates the kind of distance he has already created: he’s there to show his face, not to actually live within the lie.
  • I love, so much, the comparison between Arthur, Betty’s riding buddy, and Glen here. Whereas her kids were a liability for him during their altercation at the country club, they’re a liability for Betty when they waltz in on her and Glen sitting on the couch holding hands. The episode might not have stood alone as well as it could have, but it did have a lot of neat parallels that we’ll probably look back on much fonder once the season ends.
  • When Betty does eventually open up to Helen Bishop, it never really dawned on me that her experience as a Divorcee was what made Betty do it. Of course, that’s what it is: this is someone who won’t judge her for her separation, who won’t look at her decision to refuse Don entry back into the house as weakness. Remember, we started the season learning that Francine took Carleton back even after she knows he cheated on her in the city, so Betty is moving into new territory as far as her former social circle goes.
  • I do wish that Cooper had more to do on the show, and I’m sure it took a lot of time in hair, makeup and wardrobe for Robert Morse, but there was something so delightful in Cooper sticking his head into the part long enough to wish Harry a Happy Birthday. Such an odd, odd man.

6 Comments

Filed under Mad Men

6 responses to “Mad Men – “The Inheritance”

  1. Rosie

    Why do viewers assume that Betty and Pete are the only characters who haven’t fully matured? Is it because Matt Weiner is obvious in that aspect of their characters, whereas the immaturity of characters like Don, Roger, Joan, Peggy and others are less obvious? Is that it?

  2. Billy

    It was a baby shower for Harry, not a birthday party; that is what makes Cooper’s comment all the more odd and funny.

  3. Annie

    It wasn’t a birthday part for Harry, it was a baby shower. And, when Don walked in the office, he accidentally called the secretary Donna (not Allison) and she corrected him by saying her name is Allison (not Dawn).

  4. St. Augustine

    Helllooooooo Don was only dreaming about having sex with Betty. damn people. what an overrated show. bad acting. bad writing. bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad

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