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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: "The Inheritance"

Illustration for article titled Mad Men: "The Inheritance"
Illustration for article titled Mad Men: "The Inheritance"

I know I said back at the start of this season that Pete had become my favorite Mad Men character, but after Roger's speech to Don last week about marriage and desire, I've started to think of him as the Mad Men linchpin. If there's one thing that's keeping these rich, successful, fully indulged folks from feeling satisfied, it's that their marriages are nowhere near as happy as they should be. Following the custom of the times, they got married young, to spouses who fit the needs of upwardly mobile types in their early 20s. Then, decades down the road, they turn into Rogers, cursed with the ability to look at every attractive thing that walks by and imagine a multitude of lives not led.

Of course, in typically perverse Mad Men fashion, Roger barely factored in tonight's episode, though I like to think that his dilemma partially informs what "The Inheritance" is about. This was an episode about how much the employees of Sterling-Cooper and their families have been shaped by the stock they came from. If their choices are limited, is it only because their parents so carefully determined who they were supposed to be, right down to the kind of people they'd marry?

Consider Betty, groomed since birth to be a perfect replica of her perfect mother. Is it any wonder that her stroke-addled father grabs her breast and calls her by her mother's name? Or what about poor Pete, who's still dealing with the financial mess his icy bastard of a father left behind, while also weighing his wife's request that they consider adopting a child? "We're not related by blood and you love me," she half-says/half-asks, as Pete gives her one of his typical "bemused robot" stares. The prospect of a non-Pete becoming part of the Pete clan is a fascinating one. Would an injection of new blood change that fearful family dynamic, or is every child raised by a Pete destined to become a Pete?

That's a question that should resonate with Harry too, who this week is the recipient of a surprise baby shower and much good-natured ribbing about the sleep and sex that he's about to lose. Harry is one of the few people in the Mad Men cast who doesn't seem sculpted and programmed (outside of Don of course, who chose the person he wanted to be and made it happen). And yet Harry's still facing The Roger Dilemma: locked into a life that's seeing its options diminishing, no matter how much talent, gumption and money he tries to throw at the problem. When Harry looks forward to the day that he'll get to jet off to California to meet with the TV networks, his co-workers remind him that he'll have a newborn at home very soon, which means he shouldn't expect to do any traveling or have any fun. I'm sure Harry's going to love that baby; but I'm also sure he's going to see him or her as a burden he hadn't really counted on carrying. (We veteran parents call that realization "the despair phase"… thankfully, it passes once the baby learns to smile and coo.)

There's another significant child in tonight's episode: Betty's ex-neighbor and former confidante Glenn, who shows up in her backyard with a sack full of dirty clothes and comics–including Metal Men, one of my favorites–having run away from his never-home activist mother. Drunken, depressed Betty relishes the opportunity to play Super Mom for the kid, making him a snack of ham sandwiches, Fritos and chocolate milk–which I would go make for myself right now if I didn't have several more hours of writing ahead of me tonight–and sitting next to him on the couch while they watch cartoons. But what Betty doesn't understand–or doesn't want to acknowledge–is that just like her Dad, confused little creep Glenn is seeing her as a potential wife, not a mother (or daughter). Because that's the role she fills best.

Betty is reminded of this throughout "The Inheritance," especially early on when she makes her awkward visit to her father's house. Walking around in the home her mother decorated–and that her family is stripping without her consent–Betty finds herself falling into old patterns, speaking up for the values that her parents instilled in her. ("Daddy used to fine us for small talk," she gripes, while complaining about her nattering stepmother.)

The biggest different in the old homestead is that the patriarch is going haywire. He looks like daddy, and talks like daddy, but he's not always sure who's who, and when confronted with Don's typical inscrutability, he doesn't hold his tongue, and instead barks, "Who knows what he does, why he does it?" It's a question worth asking, actually. In order to keep up appearances, Don accompanies Betty on her family visit. (I liked his resigned, noncommittal "I'm here" in response to the question, "You were able to get off work?") Betty's certain that he's just playing pretend, even responding to his attempt at tenderness with a curt, "Stop it Don, nobody's watching." And yet in the middle of the night, she plays pretend herself, joining Don in his makeshift bed on the floor for a little marital bliss.

So this is marriage in the Mad Men universe: a social obligation through which people, on rare occasions, are able to satisfy their needs. And the family unit is designed to raise kids to enter into their own obligatory marriages. This is what gets passed down.

But of course, Don is an outlier on this particular flow-chart, because Don "has no people." Who knows what he inherited, or what he'll bequeath? You can't trust a person like that.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

-As soon as I saw the title of this episode, I had a feeling it was going to be a classic. Like "The Hobo Code" or "The Wheel" or "Three Sundays," the title of "The Inheritance" just says so much. Alas, the episode fell just short for me. There are times when everything about Mad Men clicks, and the themes and characters ping off each other in perfect resonance. And then there are times when Mad Men feels like one elliptical scene after another, either straining for meaning or straining to avoid it. "The Inheritance" has so much going on, plot-wise and thematically, that I still found it a gripping hour of TV. But it also left me a little emptier than I'd hoped. I liked it, but it's not the episode I'd show to Mad Men detractors in an attempt to get them to change their minds.

-Or maybe it's that I think we need a whole episode about Hollis, the elevator operator. I'm not even kidding about that.

-Seeing Harry in a baby bonnet at his shower reminded me again of what still seems to be this season's overarching theme: adults who are essentially children, trying to make families of their own.

-So, Don and Pete are off to Pasadena to see astronauts. That should be fun. Or at least more fun than Paul–bumped from the trip when Don decided to go at the last minute–is going to have accompanying his girlfriend to Mississippi to register black voters. I felt bad for the way Joan cruelly broke the bad news to Paul in front of all his co-workers at Harry's shower. But not that bad, since Paul's the kind of well-meaning-but-self-righteous asshole who says to his girlfriend of their planned voter-registration trip, "Why can't it wait?"

-Where is the ottoman with the birds?