Monday, September 7, 2009

'Mad Men' Monday: The Arrangements

*Warning, spoilers ahead from the most recent episode of Mad Men.*

Before I launch into my review of the latest MM episode, I have one, tiny complaint: I'm a patient person, at least when it comes to giving my favorite shows/actors/writers a little latitude to see where they're going, because I've liked where they've gone in the past. Whatever it is that I'm watching/reading/listening has to have a payoff, I think, so I'm willing to wait it out. (That's how Lost gets its fans to hang on through things like the Nikko and Paolo debacle.)

And given that I've expressed my adoration ad nauseum of Mad Men and the genius of a show runner Matt Weiner, you know that this comes from a place of love: What was up with the past two episodes? Have they been dragging and excruciatingly slow, or is it my imagination? I can usually revel and delight in the subtle sophistication of a slow-moving plot, particularly in the case of Mad Men, but the last two episodes have left me feeling distinctly unsatisfied, and I don't know if the pace is the reason. Or maybe it's just me.

Annnywaaay . . . onto "The Arrangements."

After I finish watching a Mad Men episode for the first time, I typically reflect upon it as if it were a puzzle, seeking the connective threads that unify disparate storylines. For this recent episode, with the exception of the advent of Sal the Director, it seemed like the theme du jour was the parent/grandparent child relationship.

Grandpa Gene's Arrangements

The most obvious story that fit into that theme involved Gene Hofstadt who put a concerted effort into his relationship with his two grandchildren, and simply tolerated his daughter and his son-in-law. His efforts were followed, of course, by his abrupt departure from his grandchildren's lives after he suddenly dropped dead in the line at the market. Gene seemed to be trying to bond with Sally and Bobby in his own, eccentric manner, like allowing his little princess Sally to drive (!!) and telling her not to give up on herself (unlike her mother), and giving Bobby some of his coveted treasures from his World War I days. Don -- who'd been a supportive though not emotionally accessible son-in-law -- blanched when he saw Gene giving Bobby the helmet Gene had taken from a soldier he'd killed, a helmet which still had blood on it. Don took the helmet away from Gene and that was that. Otherwise, Don and Gene kept a largely silent distance from one another.

With his daughter Betty, Gene expressed his disappointment over how Betty's life had turned out, in particular by her selection of a husband whom Gene never trusted because Don has no family and "no people." During an awkward conversation at the Drapers' kitchen table, Gene attempted to discuss "arrangements" with Betty in the event of his passing. Betty reacted to this subject matter much like a small child, saying she couldn't handle such talk ("I'm your little girl!") and fled the room. I must say, I am so not liking Betty this season. The self-sufficient, adult Betty of last season, who toughened up in Don's absence, seems to have disappeared. What a damned shame.

Shortly after Gene died -- I thought, that because of the way he was doling out parting words and gifts that he was going to commit suicide -- Betty, Don, William and Judy were sitting around the same kitchen table where Gene had tried to talk to Betty about his arrangements, and they were grieving in a matter-of-fact way, with Betty tearing up off and on. It was Sally, still in her leotard and tutu, who exhibited ferocious, gut-level anger that her grandfather had been unceremoniously taken from her. She was furious and raw. Betty had no patience for that and harshly told Sally to stop being "hysterical" and to "go watch TV." Off Sally went seeking solace in front of TV news footage of monks setting themselves on fire to protest the Vietnam War. Sally must've felt like that in some way, except her flames were of burning rage.

Peggy's Mother Felt Betrayed

Peggy decided she needed to move to Manhattan because her commute to Sterling Cooper was too long and draining. A very reasonable and sensible move. But her mother, once the most vocal advocate on her behalf in the Olson household (while Peggy's sister Anita bad-mouthed her to Father Gil, mentioning Peggy's unwedded motherhood and giving the baby up for adoption), morphed into a bitter, martyred, spurned matriarch upon learning that her daughter was leaving the bosom of Brooklyn. Peggy moving out of Brooklyn was a betrayal, as far as her mother was concerned, and Peggy deserved to be punished for it. The transition from being a supportive mother to a caustic one, was jarring, especially to Peggy, whose apartment hunt provided the few moments of levity in the episode.

Other parent/child scenes:

When Don fetched a box, which contained evidence of his Dick Whitman existence, he plucked from it a photo of his father upon which he gazed. What was he thinking or feeling in that moment? Was he remembering how he felt upon the passing of the father whom he despised? Who knows.

Then there was the rich, young client, the jai alai aficionado friend of Pete Campbell's from college, who wanted to blow $1 million with Sterling Cooper on the packaging of a jai alai star and the sport. Because Don knew the client's father was a friend of Bert Cooper's, Don felt it appropriate to give him a heads-up to his son's misguided business venture. A kind, gentlemanly thing to do, though it is a tad patronizing. The father knew all about the plan and described how he was allowing his son to do this as a form of tough love; when his son loses all his money, then, the father said, he'll have to build character and put his nose to the grindstone. That's the only way he'll learn, the father said.

The Sal story seemed disconnected from the other parent-child-centric ones, but it was nonetheless intriguing. As you watched his wife Kitty, in her sweet confection of a green nightie, practically begging her husband for sex, you felt pity for her, while at the same time, could feel Sal's excitement at being able to release some of his creativity -- some shred of his true self -- through the filming of the commercial. If only Sal could actually be himself, instead of pretending to be a happily married man.

One last tidbit: What happened to the season two Bobby Draper? He was by far the best Bobby. Remember that scene when he told Don that he needed a new daddy? This new Bobby -- what is this the third or fourth Bobby? -- doesn't fit in the way the previous one did.

So what'd you think of "The Arrangements?"

Image credit: Carin Baer/AMC.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Below are my thoughts. Please excuse the bullet list form as I am short on time!

Re: Dragging, slow storyline-
I see your point but I actually don’t mind the slowness thus far. I think Americans are programmed for fast-paced films. Europeans often direct their films in a slower manner and I think it’s kind of neat…as long as the story eventually ends up going somewhere good, right?

Re: Gene-
At first I didn’t understand how he suddenly dropped dead in line at the A & P as he had been physically active (although not always mentally). However, I remember hearing the “theme” of Season Three is about how the characters get comfortable in their lives and then have to suddenly deal with abrupt changes. The Gene storyline probably ties in with that. One day he is watching after his grandchildren and the next day he is dead. The family members left behind have to deal with the abrupt aftermath, especially Sally.

Re: Betty-
I thought her reaction to her father’s attempt to discuss “arrangements” was very typical of her immature nature. I really can’t stand Betty.

Did you really think Betty was self-sufficient and adult last season after she kicked Don out of the house? Although she was visibly broken hearted, I thought some of it was an act to get Don begging to come back into her life, which he did. After all, she went out and had her “own” affair. Wasn't that the immature thing for her to do?

Re: Sally-
LOVED how furious and raw (as you described) she was in that scene. She became my favorite character in that episode! I think there is a foreshadowing reason why Sally was dismissed by her mother and then shown watching a Vietnam War protest. Might she grow up as a hippie and be in drastic contrast to her mother’s upbringing?

Re: Peggy and her mother-
I think this storyline is a result of Peggy’s mother being jealous of the career- and social-oriented opportunities afforded to her daughter that she herself never experienced. Another example of a drastic mother/daughter contrast storyline?

Re: Don looking at the photo of his father-
Didn’t this scene occur before the scene of Gene’s death? If so, I don’t think Don was thinking of how he felt upon the passing of his despised father. Don has been grappling with his father’s actions from previous seasons. Where is this going…?

Re: Sal-
I agree that the Sal story seemed disconnected. I think the writers had to keep his storyline going somehow. It was good that they showed Kitty’s reaction. Think about it – it’s like little pieces of Sal’s truth is beginning to unfold…the attraction to the male client in a previous season, the bell boy encounter, Don’s discovery of Sal’s indiscretion during their business trip, and now the suspecting wife…what will happen next to Sal? Poor Sal!

Thanks for writing about this brilliant show!
-Kris Spazz

Juanita's Journal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juanita's Journal said...

Gene Hofstadt's attempt to discuss his death arrangements with Betty was creepy. It creeped me out. No wonder she didn't want to discuss the matter. And his interactions with the Draper children angered me, because I suspect that he had never bothered to do the same with his own children. It's easier to bond with the grandchildren than with your own children. I suspect it will be the same with Don and Betty.

I just realized that Peggy had been smug over the failure of the Patio commercial for nothing. She thinks she had been right about it all along. She does not realize that Roger had been right - the girl in the commercial was not Ann-Margret.

Peggy's attempts to find a roommate makes me also realize that she lacks a talent for connecting with others. This is not going to help her in the future as a copywriter.

The self-sufficient, adult Betty of last season, who toughened up in Don's absence, seems to have disappeared. What a damned shame.

Of course she has changed. She's back in her awful marriage to Don and she is also in the last stages of an unwanted pregnancy. Why is it that no one has noticed this? Instead, many are ranting at her for failing to be the perfect mother. Which is stupid, in my opinion.

meredithobrien@hotmail.com said...

Great comments!

As for Don looking at the photo of his dad the night before Gene died (foreshadowing?)I have no idea maybe what Don was thinking. I oftentimes have a hard time trying to figure out why Don does what he does. What WAS the reason he got up out of bed in the middle of the night to look at an old photo?

On the question of Betty becoming self-sufficient in Don's absence, I remember seeing her writing out checks last season, dealing with the kids and taking care of the home . . . or just have Carla do it while she went riding and set her friends up to have affairs. She had a long talk with Helen Bishop about how she was surprised that things didn't seem as different, on a day-to-day basis, without Don there. But then she also likened Don to keeping her grounded, so she was sending mixed messages.

I agree with Kris is that Sally's scene was wonderful (good for that young actress) and the shots of Kitty's reaction to Sal acting out the ad he was going to direct was a great move by the directors.

Keep the comments coming folks! Love 'em.

Juanita's Journal said...

On the question of Betty becoming self-sufficient in Don's absence, I remember seeing her writing out checks last season, dealing with the kids and taking care of the home . . . or just have Carla do it while she went riding and set her friends up to have affairs.


As I recall, Betty not only went riding and set up that lunch between Mary Beth and Arthur; she also dealt with the kids - including Sally's little stint with smoking - and dealing with the finances. I doubt very much that Carla would have been able to write check using Don's name.

Do you know what is interesting about the incident between Mary Beth and Arthur? Betty has received more criticisms for setting up that lunch than Mary Beth and Arthur did for indulging in an affair. Like Mary Beth, certain fans wanted to blame Betty for the affair and completely excuse or ignore Mary Beth's actions. I found that pathetic.

Meredith said...

Juanita,

You're right. . . it did annoy me that Betty was blamed for Mary Beth and Arthur's affair. Betty didn't MAKE them sleep together or force Mary Beth to cheat. Betty didn't deserve the blame there.

I distinctly remember Betty signing Don's name on at least one check during last season.