As many have noted, Mad Men is about generations. Absent parents, neglectful parents, abusive parents, arbitrarily warm and caring parents. And what their kids have made of themselves after these parents shaped them.
Don, Betty, Sally, Lane, Ginzo, Peggy. We have seen all their parents, and it has not been pretty. (Well, Ginzo’s seems OK. But there’s the whole Holocaust thing.)
This parade of parental disaster makes the show’s implicit generational conflict—between the 60s and now—look pretty grim. Look ye on your cultural and psychological past and weep!
To reinforce the point about the inexorable influence of parents, Matt Weiner cast his son as the suddenly Max Fischerlike Glen Bishop. (Speaking of, thanks to the music director for that Lovin’ Spoonful song, which made me realize that there was actually something missing from the Rushmore Soundtrack.
Let’s count up the payoffs from all these parental investments.
1. The biggie. Lane. Lane couldn’t go back to England a failure. But it’s not some bogus patriotism, propped up by Mets flags and Statue of Liberty tchochkes. He didn’t even pay his taxes to England, is how much control it has over him. It’s not even dignity, really, or some personal code. It’s his dad. In England. He couldn’t go back to his father a failure.
Remember? Season 4?
2. Nigel. Lane’s scheming remains enigmatic to us, though this may be remedied in the last episode. Still, he faced considerable pressure to keep his son in a fancy-pants school and ensure young Nigel’s place as a scion of the cosmopolitan elite. How much of Lane’s distress was caused by being a son and how much by being a father?
3. Megan. Continuing her dissatisfaction with the Betty part 2 life Don seems to be foisting on her. A dissatisfaction predicted by whom? Yup. Dear ol’ Marxist Daddy. If only he’d raised her to be admired.
4. Joan. This is an honorable mention, in which she proves paternalistic Don (and me!) wrong by taking front and you-better-believe-it center at the partner’s meeting. Yay Joan! Finally, a good payoff! For now.
But some of the payoffs are for us viewers, brutalized by Lane’s suicide and the morbidly ironic Jaguar joke, and by nearly 5 seasons of beautiful misery. Betty and Don are finally taking care of their children.
5. Sally. The Internet’s cold cold heart melted a little when Betty’s did. Betty tried her best with some loving comfort for what, frankly, could have been much more mortifying a way to get one’s first visit from Aunt Rose. Betty took care of her daughter.
6. Glen. Don tried to refute the poor kid’s insightful assessment of adulthood.He tried to reassure himself, in a moment of tremendous need, by treating this kid pretty well. Don took care of Glen.
7. Don. Mr. Happiness is Nothing But the Moment Before You Need More Happiness. A payoff from his own desolate childhood that structures the whole show. A payoff that is the very principle of advertising: creating a perpetually unsatiable desire. Happiness is a drug, Don? Really? Well, that’s certainly how has treated his own domestic happiness. He’s clearly looking for his next fix and hating himself for it.
At least he tried to offer something more to Glen.
These kids should convert to a fee structure, taking whatever payment they can, when they can. They don’t want a percentage of any of this nonsense.
Too bad that’s not how parental investments work.