There are weeks when the theme of a Mad Men episode reveals itself to you only gradually, forcing you to wind your way ever deeper into the show’s intoxicating mood and sense of time and place. And then there are the weeks when the show all but clubs you over the head with what it’s trying to say. “The Arrangements,” written by Andrew Colville and Matthew Weiner and directed by Michael Uppendahl, strays uncomfortably close to the latter for much of its running time, but it manages to avoid falling too far into that particular sinkhole through some deft writing and some unexpected character comparisons.
The theme “The Arrangements” wants us to ponder is that of parents and their children and the various ways both groups disappoint each other. As if we weren’t getting the point already, there’s a scene midway through the episode where Don (Jon Hamm) stares at a photo of his parents, his face pensive and unreadable, considering, perhaps, just how far he’s come from them or how close he still is in his bafflement about how to deal with, say, his own children. As the third season progresses, there’s a sense that those opening scenes did say even more about the season than they seemed to. This is a season about the way things change, the way things are given birth to, be they offspring or cultural movements or new ideas. When the episode ends with “Over There,” it’s a callback to Grandpa Gene’s (Ryan Cutrona) World War I service, yes, but it’s also a conscious reflection of the conflict that made the United States the growing superpower it was in the 20th century. That conflict gave birth to a radically shattered and changed world, in a way few wars before it had, just as the conflict lurking at the other end of this series’ run will give birth to a radically shattered and changed country.
What’s interesting is that the clearest parallels in the episode are drawn between two characters who have had virtually nothing to do with the story so far. Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) has lurked on the edges of the story, mostly there for a laugh or two about how different parenting standards were in the ’60s (one of the most irksome things about the first season) or an ominous note or two about how poorly regarded she is by her mother. Horace Cook Jr. (Aaron Stanford), erstwhile college pal of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and son of one of Bert Cooper’s (Robert Morse) friends, is someone we’ve literally just met, as he appears in this episode like a money providing dream somehow conjured out of thin air by Pete, even as Don feels less enthused about taking that money. The two don’t seem to have many obvious parallels at first, but the way the story forces us to consider them draws out the parallels anyway.
I’ve talked about how Mad Men relies on our knowledge of the conflicts coming in the 1960s to play up the series in our heads, even when nothing seems to be happening. It’s all but inviting us to play a game where we’re trying to guess just how historical events are going to fit into its narrative. Unlike a lot of movies and TV series that use a historical setting, the historical events are rarely the point of things on Mad Men, and the series thinks nothing of mostly skipping over some of the things we consider iconic moments of the ’60s in the present that weren’t perhaps as important at the time (though it always pauses for the earth-shattering stories of the time that still resonate today—like the 1960 election or the Cuban missile crisis).
But the third season seems even more aggressive in this regard than previous seasons (especially the slow-building second season, which made less use of blatant historical event name-checking than almost any work of historical fiction set in the ’60s in many years). At first, I worried that this was a loss of confidence on the part of the show—that it had decided it was time to turn into a mainstream hit and was aping the trappings of what a mainstream story about the ’60s might look like—but as the season goes on, I’m intrigued by how the series is not just showing us the tinier moments of history that we now know to be far more seismic events but how it’s also showing us who’s paying attention to those moments, who’s keyed in to how the world is or isn’t changing. Some of the characters are stuck inextricably in the past (like Roger Sterling (John Slattery)), while some of the characters will occasionally get a bead on the future and then just as quickly retreat to the comforts of the past (like Pete). Others seem to have a firm vision of where the world is going, even if they don’t quite get it yet (Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) would seem to be the best example of this), while still others are free agents, slippery enough to play all sides (Don).
The true free agents here, of course, are Don’s children. With the possible exception of Peggy, who only seems 40, none of the characters we’ve come to know well are going to be young enough to participate in the coming revolutions. Don, for example, may sympathize (though his penchant for irritation at people who make nuisances of themselves may put him against the hippies after all), but he will likely simply not be young enough to, say, go to Woodstock or participate in the Summer of Love. Sally, though, is absolutely at the right age to be rebelling against everything her parents stand for as the end of the decade rolls around, and her already repressed fury against Betty (January Jones) seems likely to pour out as things progress.
That Sally is the only one who notices the story of the self-immolating monk, one of the first really big stories to hit U.S. shores from the conflict in Vietnam, seems telling. Everyone else is dealing with a more immediate problem (Gene’s death), but it’s also something that’s, by definition, glancing into the past. Sally, even though she has no idea, is glancing into the future, forlorn and alone (Uppendahl’s final shot of a small child lying before a TV, lost in sadness, is hauntingly evocative of a time when we’re all shut out of the mysterious world of adults). It’s not that Sally’s parents and uncle are being cruel when they laugh about Gene’s second wife; they’re just talking on an emotional level she’s not yet mature enough to understand, and both the societal dictates of the time and her uneasy relationship with Betty declare that she can’t have someone scoop her up and explain it to her, even though Don clearly longs to. And so even as she seems to be confronted with a family that doesn’t care for her feelings, she’s looking at a world that simply doesn’t care about certain things or even overlooks them as curiosities. (On a more literary note, the parallel between this and a similar scene in Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral—maybe the finest American novel of the last 25 years—is simply astounding. While I doubt the series would similarly turn Sally into a terrorist and completely steal that book’s structure, Weiner may be tipping his hat toward her ultimate estrangement from the rest of her family.)
For his part, Horace Jr., is trying to make jai alai happen in America. All it takes is looking out the window or through the morning paper (or scanning a newspaper Web site, if you’re not on these shores) to see that jai alai simply never took off in America, its many virtues as a sport aside, so it, like the conclusion of the Sally storyline, is consciously calling our attention to the course of history. Unlike in the Sally story beat, though, everyone is pretty aware that jai alai isn’t going to take off, to the point where Horace Jr., is a bit of a laughing stock around the Sterling-Cooper office, a poor little rich boy who can be shaken down for all he’s worth. At first, this seemingly comic storyline doesn’t seem like it’s going to have a lot of parallel with the sadder storyline of Gene’s death, but as the episode continues, it worms its way to a point where it does. Like Sally, Horace Jr., just wants to be included, only he wishes to be included among the important businessmen who make up his father’s world. He, too, simply lacks the maturity to understand why they do what they do, and his parent, too, makes the decision to exclude him via force (in this case, through a long series of brutal punishments in which he will lose all of his money). But the old, moneyed world of Cooper and Horace Sr., (David Selby) isn’t wholly safe either. After all, Bert’s ants are the ones who are killed when Don casually attempts to play jai alai in one of the offices. The crash is coming.
But just like Horace Jr., and Sally are linked by a desire to be a part of a world that doesn’t quite want them, Horace Jr., and Peggy are linked by a desire to strike out on their own and placate their parents via gifts. In Peggy’s case, it’s a new TV for her mother (Myra Turley), both a preemptive peace offering on the occasion of her move into Manhattan (a move that will anger her mother) and a genuine attempt to show her mother just how successful she’s become. Of course, none of this matters. Peggy’s wayward nature, the fact that she had a child and then gave it up, will always be foremost in her mother’s mind, no matter how many televisions she can give her. The difficulty of every parent-child relationship is managing the transition from having the parent be responsible for the child to having the child be responsible for the parent. Peggy’s not quite there yet (Ma Olsen can still take care of herself), but the fact that both she and her mother are adults is causing that delicate dance we all go through in our early 20s—the dance of trying to figure out just how much family bonds trump being on a more level playing field—a dance Peggy is eager to break out of, even as she’s learning to enjoy her youth while she has it. (Hell, there’s even a meta-mother/daughter scene here, where Peggy’s search for a new roommate is helped by Joan (Christina Hendricks), who was Peggy’s maternal figure in the show’s early episodes and has now been supplanted in so many ways by the younger woman, who’s less bound by convention.)
Parent-child conflicts reverberate throughout “The Arrangements” perhaps because that’s primarily how we think of the conflicts of the ’60s (or, hey, how we think of most classic conflicts). The big one, of course, is between Gene and everyone else in his life. We’ve gotten a sense that Gene was maybe not the world’s best father, and we see here that he was unable to figure out a way to improve the relationship between Betty and her mother. But while he’s ensconced at the Draper house, he’s going to do his best to make up for some of that, particularly in paying attention to the under-noticed Sally or in telling Bobby (Jared Gilmore) stories of his time in the war (even if the stories horrify Don, as does his gift of a helmet taken from a German soldier). Gene has loomed as a presence in these last few episodes, one of those vestiges of an America that was just letting go of its grasp on a generation ready to take the country in new directions, which makes it all the more fascinating that Gene was the one who was most plugged in to our two recurring players who are in that generation.
To have a child is to enter into a lifelong compact that you will always be their parent. Negotiating the changes in that relationship, the shifts from dependency to independence right back to dependency, is one of the hardest things for a parent or child to do. “The Arrangements” may have tried a little too hard to have all of the characters reflecting on the ways that these relationships can cause us confusion or consternation, but it was uniquely nuanced in its sense that we never give up trying to understand our parents, that we never stop trying to be a part of their world. But the third season of Mad Men, with all of its Bye Bye, Birdie references, understands the flip side was becoming true as well. You can build a bridge across the generation gap, but you can never really fill it in.
Some other thoughts:
• I’m going to not turn this section into the, “Sorry this was late!” section, but sorry this was late. The fall season is kicking my ass, and if I am too bogged down in the next couple of weeks, I’ll get someone else to cover the show until I can get back to doing this in a timely fashion.
• The one storyline that I couldn’t really fit into my parents and children thesis was that of Sal (Bryan Batt) and his ordeal with the Patio commercial (though I almost did it at the end there with the reference to Bye Bye, Birdie). Even as Sal’s career worries are cleared up with Don assuring him that he’ll be directing more commercials (and he did a bang-up job at recreating the Ann-Margret shot, even if it ended up being lackluster from being ill-conceived and having an absolutely atrocious actress in the lead), he’s sparked a whole new series of worries at home, as his wife, Kitty (Sarah Drew), now is beginning to realize that there’s a whole other reason her husband is not “tending” to her needs. Drew’s one of my favorite journeywomen on the TV guest star circuit, always effortlessly engaging wherever she pops up, and the slow, dawning realization on her face as Sal performs for her was one of the episode’s highlights.
• At first I thought the image of Sally driving the car was one of those attempts to show us how wacky parenting in the ’60s was, and I was prepared to cry foul. I’m glad the episode put it in a character-specific context, since I doubt even in the early days of the automobile, little kids were getting to drive them.
• Mad Men was renewed for a fourth season. Since this is such a flagship show for AMC and since this season has been better rated than the previous two, this was all but a sure thing, but it’s nice to have the confirmation anyway.
• I’ve always kind of found jai alai exciting to watch. I wish it had taken off.
• Another of my favorite TV journeywomen turned up as Peggy’s new roommate, Karen. I still best know Carla Gallo for being the object of the main character’s affections on Undeclared, but she’s bounced around a lot of series over the past decade, always bringing an odd, nervous energy to her performances.
• Two things that have become almost hilarious this season: The choices of where to insert ad breaks have come to seem almost arbitrary (to the point where one in this episode—after Gene says, “There was this girl ...”—seemed to cut a scene off before it was finished), and the “Next week on Mad Men” previews now seem to consist of 11 or 12 declarative sentences lifted from the script at random and stitched together into something vaguely approximating a preview. I’m sure that Weiner prefers his previews to be as oblique as possible, but these have just about turned into those odd, disconnected “This week on” episode previews that used to air before ’80s detective shows. (Moonlighting made fun of them once.) I’d almost rather they not do previews at all if this is what we’re going to get.