September 6th, 2009
I can relate to Betty Draper.
I, too, am not a huge fan of the discussion of the inevitability of death. I’m not in denial, of course, but I’m not the kind of person who enjoys talking about it, or who can look past the morbid nature of it all to see the value of the conversation. This isn’t to say that I ignore what is being said in such conversations or anything of that sort – rather, I let the piece be said and then carry on, storing it away while pushing it out of the picture since, of course, it will not matter for a very long time. However, life’s sheer uncertainty means that any moment can be a last, and some people won’t get to make their arrangements and everything will become more complicated than perhaps it needed to be.
“The Arrangements” is very much a companion piece to Season Two’s “The Inheritance,” another episode that dealt with both Gene’s worsening dementia as well as the idea of parents and their role in the lives of their children. However, if “The Inheritance” was about children being haunted by the memory of their own childhood and its impact on their own lives, “The Arrangements” is the opposite side of the coin. This is an episode about children breaking out from within the confines of the family in an effort to make a name for themselves and be able to prove their parents right or wrong about them.
What makes the episode work, despite some reservations about its bombardment of less than subtle thematic connections, is that it more sly in how it relates to the season’s recurring image of Don Draper, barefoot and vividly reliving his own birth. There’s a single scene in the episode where Don pulls out a picture of his parents, and that is all we need to see that perhaps the worst fate is having changed one’s name and entirely disconnected one’s self from one’s family, and being surrounded by events which make you question that entire relationship and remain haunted by its memory. While the other characters are able to talk about their situation with siblings, or spouses, Don has no one to talk to.
And in a show about secrets, that’s perhaps the grimmest fate.
Since this is more than a few days late, as a result of some personal commitments, I figure I’ll take a bit more of a comparative look at this one.
“The Inheritance” was an episode that was largely about people who wanted to be able to maintain some since of legacy, to inherit something substantial from their family connections. Pete refuses the idea of adoption because his mother is willing to disinherit him, and Betty struggles to deal with the fact that she is the spitting image of her mother. It’s about the push and pull of inheritance, that struggle to overcome it (Betty trying to prove more purposeful than her mother and stop pretending she and Don are not having marital issues) and that dependence on its impact (Pete remaining childless to remain connected to a now worthless, financially speaking, family name).
What “The Arrangements” does is present us with storylines where children are, whether they want to or not, breaking free from the security of their parents’ safe haven. While Pete is still comfortable using his heritage in order to appeal to potential clients, and Betty’s concerns for her father remain on her mind as she brings him into her home, Peggy is blazing a new trail independent of her parents. While Pete was desperate to maintain a relationship with his Mother, Peggy’s move away from the family home (where she was living not that long ago) and into the big city is in a sense breaking away from everything her family stands for. It’s about capturing her own independence, much as Betty did by nearly divorcing Don last season: she isn’t trying to be that girl, she *is* that girl, and her realization has her buying her mother a television as a way to assuage the guilt inside of her.
One of the things that “The Arrangements” does is more clearly indicate the parental side of things. Her mother realizes that they’re playing her with the television, and tells her that she’s going to get raped, and that she is doomed to failure. In some ways she knows that she has in some ways become the child: she’s the one living in her daughter’s home, being given gifts and being taken care of. James Poniewozik identified the key issue of shelter in the episode, and in this instance the Mother is in the sheltered position that just a year ago was Peggy’s (after the baby) and thus in some ways forcing Peggy (at least on the surface, presuming her apartment issues weren’t fabricated to sell the move more easily) to make this decision. It’s a complicated situation, but for the mother it’s simple: move to Manhattan (and, as part of that, away from her family), and you are going to get raped.
We also get to see Gene, ever so conveniently, take his daughter to task for refusing to allow him to explain his wishes should he pass away. It’s a bit of morbid TV “magic” that he drafted a new will and delivered it mere days ahead of his death, but the writing was on the wall: he was smelling oranges, and allowing Sally to drive (which might not have been his illness getting worse and just his own strange sense of proper behaviour), so he was going to pass on. However, his final scene with Betty was pointed: he was giving her control of his estate, and his mother’s coats, but Betty wanted nothing to do with it and Gene wasn’t pleased. He was clear that she was being selfish to refuse him the right to talk about this, and that she needed to be more mature. For all of his dementia, he was very clear in that moment, just as Peggy’s mother was quite lucid (despite her Holy Father-related anxiety) when she saw what Peggy was trying to do.
In “The Inheritance,” the parents were the problem, but here it’s the children rebelling to some degree. Betty may have ultimately brought her father into her home, but it was only through Don taking control of the situation, and it really did feel more like a selfish refusal to allow her brother to take control rather than any real desire to care for him (she certainly didn’t show him much attention while he was around, the two barely shared any scenes together). Gene even tells Sally that she, and not her mother, is the most like his late wife, in some ways disowning his own daughter of the true inheritance, at least in his eyes. Betty, for all of her talk of not liking talking about death, takes it better than you might expect: she isn’t as guilty as others might be, and she’s even mature enough to laugh while celebrating his life to the point of angering Sally, who sits watching the television and crying about the loss of a good friend. Betty doesn’t respond to his death like a child, which is a strikingly intriguing moment of lucidity from a character who often falls into disrepair in such emotional moments.
The rebellion of the 60s is beginning, to some degree, and we’re starting to see the sense of consequence. The Jai Alai story is really the ultimate con for Sterling Cooper: they know it’s going to fail, and they know they’re going to make a lot of money, so why would they feel bad about it? When young Horace tells Don at dinner that if this idea fails it’s going to be Sterling Cooper’s fault, you realize the difference between an older generation and a younger one: while Pepsi admits that the failure of the Patio campaign is in the ad concept they requested, HoHo would never admit the same. There is a confidence in him that the older generation doesn’t share, and that’s all about to either blossom into full-grown independence or be shattered and send him running back to his father. Note also that his father is also quite lucid regarding his son’s betrayal of investment logic, but allows him to make his decisions anyways, and allows Sterling Cooper to milk him dry. Whether the same will happen to Peggy, however, remains to be seen.
What I think makes me prefer “The Arrangements” to “The Inheritance” is the undercurrent with Don Draper: rather than dealing with his marriage, here we see that one subtle moment of him handling a picture of his own parents. He never got to inherit anything from them in terms of mink coats or even one of them to take care of in a time of need. Instead, he inherited a complicated past that he can share with no one, one which we saw haunting him in the season premiere and that for all intents and purposes is not going away anytime soon. Dick Whitman never got an inheritance because he died in Korea, and for Don Draper to have inherited someone else’s life is a central point of the series’ dramatic centre. The episode doesn’t turn this into a major theme, but leaves it in that small moment and reminds us that for every bit of story we get on this subject Don has nobody to even discuss his own problems with.
Mad Men has always been about secrets, about deception. After someone dies, you put on a brave face and sit remembering the good times even when you focus on the bad. When you find out that your family is broke, you act as if they aren’t in order to sustain your narcissistic dependence on their reputation. For some, like Peggy, deception is not easy: while she’s learning to be more like Don (hiding her pregnancy, for one), she’s doing so in an era where her act is as a fun-loving working girl who is selling herself as a fun roommate when we know that she is the very antithesis of fun deep down inside. And for Salvatore, who finally finds an outlet for his inner diva with his new gig as a commercial director, his deception with his poor wife breaks down as he performs like Ann Margaret with just a bit too much flair. The kids might be leaving the homestead, but the life outside of its walls is not as safe or as pleasant as they seem to believe it will be.
- Sally’s reaction to their laughter was very emotional, and also most certainly reminds any Nurse Jackie viewers of that show’s similar anxiety-riddled pre-teen (especially with the news story playing in the background, desensitized to the world). It’s an intriguing note, so I’ll be curious to see where they go with it compared to the Showtime series.
- The sequence with Bobby and the German helmet is telling for a few reasons. One, it’s Don trying to maintain control of raising his own children in a parental fashion. It’s also an actual question of inheritance, as Gene wants Bobby to have it but Don is stepping in between to keep it from happening. And, third, Don to some degree likely refuses to helmet as a gift not only for its German connotations but also because his warning “someone wore that helmet” hearkens back to his somewhat traumatic wartime experience.
- Love the shot at the opening of the episode with Gene and the Yellow Pages – it makes no sense until you see the surreal nature of the shot of Gene in the passenger seat.
- Love the subtlety of the idea that there were two Eugene Hofstadts at his bank, so he was known as Eugene Hofstadt 2 – nicely plays into the idea of one’s life being in some way owned/shared by another.
- Peggy’s hilariously terrible ad, the prank call in response to Peggy’s ad, and Don destroying the ant farm with the Jai Alai ball (which was a gag that was set up in the PREMIERE with the introduction of the ant farm) made this a particularly funny episode.