The Children's Hour: Mad Men Recapped
Thank heavens for Labor Day, the much-needed post-barbecue gap required to digest the sharp dramatic turns occupying the latest episode of Mad Men -- the first hour in the history of television to interweave jai alai, pre-pubescent driving, World War I artifacts and the death of two holy fathers as narrative plot points. Where to even begin?
Probably at the beginning, which demonstrated that last week's long-awaited envelope pushing was no fluke: Sally Draper, angling to usurp her father's place atop our Mad Men power rankings sooner than later, goes for a drive with her Grandpa Gene. Like really goes for a drive, behind the wheel and everything while Gene works the pedals. Her taste of freedom and pigtailed rebellion mirrors that of Peggy Olson, who followed close behind with the crazy idea of moving to Manhattan from her stodgy Brooklyn roots. "Are you going to be one of those girls?" her sister asks. "I am one of those girls," Peggy replies. Her mother, meanwhile, whacks her failing TV for an update on the death of the Pope, further widening the generational gap between reverence and rules before we can even get to the first commercial break. Consequences will ensue for both young women.
The young men aren't faring that much better, meanwhile, with the ascoted, 20-something Horace Cook Jr. paying the Sterling Cooper gang a visit to commence his world-conquering jai alai ad campaign. Confident the sport will eclipse baseball as America's national pastime in roughly seven years (right around the time the NFL and AFL will merge as a TV megapower, but who's counting?), he wants a million-dollar blitz on all three networks -- "in color!" ("CBS doesn't have color," Harry Crane reminds him) -- as well as print and radio. Leaving the meeting, Pete Campbell urges his colleagues to enjoy their "fatted calf," but the leery Don wants to vet the deal with Bert Cooper's good friend Horace Sr. The father approves with a heartbreaking sigh: "We didn't know what kind of a person we were making."
The rest of the episode orbits around these general parent/child schisms. They turn increasingly ugly, even by Mad Men standards, such as Gene explaining his will and funeral arrangements to the morbidity-averse Betty, or Bobby reveling in his grandfather's gift of a Hun helmet from WWI (he likes the dried blood inside; Don naturally objects), or Peggy's gift of a new TV to her mother, which doesn't numb her to the pain of Peggy's big-city escape plot. "It reminds me of how stupid you think I am," she hisses, sneering at the device. "You'll get raped, you know that?"
Ouch. But Peggy can (and does) walk away, invulnerable to pretty much everyone but herself. Her ad for a roommate, posted in the Sterling Cooper kitchen, is one of those weaknesses. It draws pranks from Harry and the others while inviting constructive criticism from Joan Holloway, who compares it to the stage directions to an Ibsen play. (First accordions, now Ibsen... if there were a pageant for Miss Sad, Ironic Sex Appeal NYC, Joan would win in a landslide.) "This is about two girls in Manhattan!" she purrs, adding the phrase "responsible sometimes" -- the secretary schooling the copywriter on the adult femininity she thought she had on lockdown. Sorry Pegs (though if it's any consolation, you were right about that Ann-Margret-esque Patio ad -- Pepsi did hate it after all).
And then Gene dies. You knew it was coming, if only because he'd spent virtually the entire episode preparing for it by either giving crap away or writing that will. And the worst part about it, I guess, was that it was a relief as both a viewer and a Draper family sympathizer; Don's magnanimity was getting him nowhere, and Gene's arc wasn't doing much beyond enabling Sally. And once she graduated to driving his freaking car, his work here really had to be done.
But in keeping with theme of the episode and, increasingly, the series, it's the little girl who alerts the adults to gravity of the situation: "No one cares that he's gone!" she screams, as if someone so attuned to death (despite her parents never really discussing it with her) couldn't see the eventuality herself. Her mourning is a little too precise, too ambitious, ultimately recognizing her grandfather's final bequest to her: Resistance. It's the gift that keeps on giving. I can't wait to see what she does with it.