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Mad Men: The Decline and Fall of Dear Old Dad

Just peachy.

Thanks to Emily Nussbaum for recapping this maddening show while we were vacationing. We saw the last performance of Camelot at the Majestic, a great new play by Edward Albee, and even flew on this brand-new 727 jet, but can’t stop crying when we think of Patsy Cline and that terrible plane crash. Anyway, enough about us. Last week, the Boomers got stoned and Mad Men’s elders were revealed to be blackface-wearing, hopelessly irrelevant nincompoops. For several episodes, we’ve seen heavy-handed references to The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But this week hammers the arc home.

Editor’s note: The labeling on this episode’s DVD screener led us to believe that the title of the episode was “The Greatest Generation,” but it is actually “The Arrangements.” Gene Hofstadt would not be considered a member of the “Greatest Generation,” although some other Mad Men characters might be.

The Pitch: What if the Greatest Generation ain’t so great, and the kids aren’t all right?
 
The Campaign
Not the best episode — but maybe the best opening. It’s a sly shot of that big American car idling down the block, and then a reveal: towheaded, easily manipulated Sally is at the wheel, with crazy Grandpa Gene egging her on. It’s the first of many metaphors for this generational handoff: a now-irrelevant war hero handing over the wheel to a clueless brat.

A lot happens, but let’s stick to Gene and the Draper family first: We hear how Betty was viciously raised to be a walking collection of feminine neuroses, forced to stump home from errands to burn off calories. And Sally is seduced into Gene’s sickening, manipulative way, turned against her mother, who is so afraid of her own emotions that she says to her dad, “I’m your little girl. I know it must be horrible to be looking at whatever you’re looking at, but you have to keep it to yourself.” It’s not just that her values have been so warped by the gender roles of the time. It’s that she likes it that way. She doesn’t want to be anything but spoiled and taken care of. Meanwhile, Gene pulls out a soldier's helmet, points out the dried blood, and slaps it on Bobby’s head — both to remind us of how ancient World War II World War I now seems, and so Don (who stole a dead man’s identity) can deliver the insanely ironic line, “Don’t. It was a dead man’s hat.”

Then there’s Godfather death-scene reference No. 43,329: Pops drops dead in the aisle of an A&P attempting to buy peaches for Sally. It’s not an oranges-to-oranges Corleone rip-off; he’s not gunned down. But, in Mad Men’s cruel universe, this is the way the Greatest Generation dies: not with a bang, but with a whimper, in the Wal-Mart of its era. (A&P was such a controversial near-monopoly that Congress passed predatory-pricing laws targeting the company. Wikipedia pulls up this line from A&P’s president in 1950, which was practically spoken by London Fog’s owner in the premiere: “I don't see how any businessman can limit his growth and stay healthy.” Well, nobody on Mad Men is healthy.)

Gene’s impromptu wake in the kitchen drives home the reality of the Greatest Generation: This war that supposedly defined them was washed away by the workaday world soon enough. Gene the War Hero simply became Eugene Hofstadt No. 2. And poor Sally, who delivers an amazingly furious rant, can’t get anyone to listen. “Sally,” Betty tells her, “go watch TV!” (After Peggy’s gift to her mother, this is the second time television stands in for real connection.) What does she watch? It’s June 11, 1963, and Quang Duc has immolated himself to protest Diem’s government (which had recently slaughtered nine peaceful Buddhist protesters who’d flown the Buddhist flag). And, yes, Sally falls asleep holding her copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Is this how ignorance is inherited?

Parents keep clashing with their kids. We meet another brave father mourning the lazy idiocy of his son (with a rant so eloquent it feels too rehearsed), who has pinned his business hopes on the idiotic jai a’lai. (Though there is, by the way, still a venue for the sport up in Connecticut.) Before long, Sterling Cooper has landed the account, and Don has launched a ball through the ant farm’s glass case. So much for the Brits’ efficient corporate system, and so much for a semblance of order. As long as New York’s fickle old-boys’ club still holds all the money, connections will matter more than science.

A quibble: Why does the normally fascinating Peggy lately seem so uninteresting? Is it just us, or are all her recent big lines so on-the-nose they sound like bumper stickers? “I'm Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana” from last episode. And now: “Are you going to be one of those girls?” “I am one of those girls.” We get it. Was anyone else frustrated when her mother barked out, “You’ll get raped”? Or are we expecting too much from one of our favorite story lines?

And another thing: We watched Sal and Kitty’s scene several times — Sal in his full Broadway hamminess, Kitty in an absurd lime-sherbet nightie. Is Sal really so oblivious and confident that he would flounce so flouncily? Does Kitty’s apparent sudden realization seem too sudden? It’s tragic, but, again, this scene seems a little too on-the-nose. Maybe the problem is that we see so little of Kitty; she’s become the one-dimensional embodiment of that one question: Will she figure out Sal’s secret? Now that she has, what’s left?
           
The Early Results
Where’s Don in all this? He’s at a tragic age right now, belonging neither to the Greatest Generation (he served in Korea) nor to the Boomers. This season, he’s caught in the middle — but he’s done little besides watch the world go by. (There are so many shots of him staring at things, wordlessly, as he does in this episode with his father’s photograph.) Still, he’s emerging as a more perceptive guy. At times, he seemed hopelessly stuck in his own past, but now — after his embrace of Peggy and Sal, his rejection of Roger and his dreamy flower-child vision — he seems to be noticing the changes. The question is, will it matter?

This episode operates better at the level of historical metaphor than family drama, from Sal’s Broadway dance and Peggy’s move to all the neatly parallel parent-child dramas, World War I references, and Sally’s self-immolation–Roman Empire combo. But to be fair, think of how much is going on that doesn’t even enter the universe of these white people. By this time, George Wallace, promising “segregation forever,” has been elected governor of Alabama, and Bull Connor has turned the fire hoses on protesters. Sylvia Plath has committed suicide (hello, Peggy). Amid race riots and bombings, Martin Luther King Jr. has written his famous "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." Meanwhile, the Sterling Cooper gang is twittering over jai a’lai and Bye Bye Birdie. The show’s taken pains to show that a whole generation didn’t suddenly turn on, tune in, and drop out. Young guys like Pete were conservatives till the end, joining groups like the nascent, Ronald Reagan–supporting Young Americans for Freedom. As the headlines really begin to heat up, will Mad Men become more straightforwardly topical? If so, will that be such a terrible thing?

Photo: Courtesy of AMC