MAD MEN, SEASON FIVE/EPISODE 9: MIND THE (GENERATION) GAP

by E.C. Fish on May 19, 2012

Fish here, pinch hitting for Claire, who this week found herself vacationing with neither cable nor WiFi. And as luck would have it, the episode that our resident young whippersnapper has turned over to her crusty old editor is largely organized around what people in the mid-sixties started referring to as the Generation Gap, with characters sorting out and squaring off based largely on age and attitude.

Betty Betty Two-By-Four

We open on a typical 1966 ladies’ magazine diet meal — burnt dry toast, half a grapefruit, and a measured couple of ounces of cubed swiss cheese — being prepared and eaten by Betty Draper. Betty hasn’t appeared much this season, and when she has it’s been as a walking weight problem. The strong implication, voiced by her doctor in Episode 3 (and somewhat offensive for a person of size), is that her added girth is a physical manifestation of her emotional state. Typical, he says, for a woman her age.

Lost in a world that will no longer let her be the best little girl on earth and woefully unprepared for anything else, Betty uses food as a sort of landmark and her relationship to it as a road map for what turns out to be a wild careen through that emotional state. A chance glimpse of Megan — all feminine mystique to her female eunuch — putting her shirt on necessitates a hit of Reddi-Wip right out of the can, which she then spits out into the sink (note to Betty — if you hold the can upright, the nitrous whipping gas will make you feel better than the cream ever could). A late-night bite of the steak her husband Henry made because her diet dinners were boring him sends her into a state of ecstasy that Henry himself might be hard-pressed to match.

Attending Weight Watchers meetings where a half-pound weight loss — a measure equivalent to, for example, a cup of pee — is celebrated, Betty takes their exhortations of relentless positive thinking to heart. Unfortunately, Betty can only feel good about herself by comparison. When a note from Don to Megan turns up on the back of a drawing Bobby made at his father’s house, her jealousy leads her to lash out against them. She uses Sally’s family tree project — and their failure to inform her of the branch composed by Don’s circumstantial first wife Anna — to try to stoke that same jealousy in Sally. Delayed from starting the Thanksgiving dinner that ends the episode — a plate featuring two bites of everything and a lonely looking brussels sprout — by Bobby’s suggestion that they all have to say what they’re thankful for (“She’s hungry, Bobby,” pipes up Sally), she responds with, “I’m thankful that I have everything I want, and that no one else has anything better.” To which we can add, woe to those who think they do. If she can’t have it, neither can they.

Roger and Bert Versus Pete: Man-On-Manischewitz

Bert to Roger: “How is fishing competitive? Man versus fish?” Roger to Bert: “No. Man versus man. The weighing, the measuring… ”

The terms of engagement thus established, Pete enters, passive-aggressively brimming with the news that he had spent an hour and a half on the phone the night before with his “new best friend” from the New York Times who is doing a profile of “hip agencies” (“Hep,” corrects Bert less than helpfully), and eager to take another in a series of territory-marking leaks on his senior partners: “And don’t worry about an interview — he seemed to be only interested in talking to me.”

Later, in Roger’s office, Bert brings Roger “a piece of business — a Jewish wine” and suggests that the two of them handle it on their own — specifically, that they keep Pete out of it. “This requires your finesse… and your Semitic wife.” (“How Jewish are they?” asks Roger. “Fiddler on the Roof — audience or cast?”) As Roger explains to Ginsberg (having apparently decided to up the Hebraic ante by bringing in a Semitic copy writer), “When a man hates another man very, very much, sometimes he wants to know that something is his. Even if, in the end, he has to give it up.”

Roger Versus Roger: Feelin’ Groovy?

Though the newly post-psychedelicized Roger claims no longer to devote his energy to hatred, it is the Old Roger — snide, superior, acquisitive, and casually bigoted — who has come out to play. It’s a point nicely driven home during the dinner with the Manischewitz clients, which is attended by Roger, his estranged wife Jane (there for Semitic appeal, having extorted a new apartment out of Roger in return for her attendance), and the Rosenbergs (no relation). The Rosenbergs’ son, for all the world a slightly more upscale Jewish Pete Campbell, joins them late and immediately begins wooing Jane with chateaubriand, snobbish one-upmanship, and sidelong double entendre. Unfortunately for Jane, Old Roger hates him very, very much, and wants to know that she is his, if only in a bought-fair-and-square sort of way, even though he’s already in the process of giving her up. Insisting on seeing the apartment he’s bought her, he insists on taking her sexually once they get there.

When she tells him the next morning that he has ruined the apartment — a symbol of her new life without him, in whose corners he has now thoroughly pissed — it is the New Roger who is remarkably contrite and chastened. John Slattery’s portrayal of Roger has been a standout in a season full of good acting, and Roger’s acid-fueled transition from WASP caricature to fifty-something Real Live Boy has been one of the season’s more interesting developments.

Pete’s Ego Versus Reality

Pete, meanwhile, has staked his somewhat grandiose expectations on the kind of old-fashioned, upper-class privilege that his prep school background (with which he no doubt bored his “friend” from the New York Times)  has prepped him for. Who else could expect that such a background would qualify him as in any way “hip” (or even “hep”)? Who else could have a sexual fantasy wherein an attractive woman (in this case, Howard’s wife) would be uncontrollably turned on by seeing him in a hoary establishment symbol like the New York Times Sunday Magazine?

After his exclusion from the Times piece in favor of “the usual assholes” (and his dressing down by Don for a Sunday morning phone call spent whining about it), Pete takes his frustrations out on train-mate Howard, laying into him for screwing his girl in the city instead of his wife — whom Pete himself is screwing. It is a key to his character that neither the question of why he’s not screwing his own wife nor the thought of just how unqualified he is to be passing judgment on the man he’s cuckolding occurs to him for one second.

The Devil and Don Draper

Looking over a collection of the agency’s recent work with Joan, Don notices that most of the copy is the work of upstart new kid Ginsberg. More to the point, he seems to notice that none of it is his own. Joan’s praises for the great work he’s done aside, the agency’s creative director has been less than creative this season. Alone in the office on the weekend, Don finds himself chuckling over some of Ginsberg’s loose and irreverent preliminary work for a new client, a frozen Pepsi product called Snowball. Adopting Ginsberg’s freestyle working method, Don tries it himself, riffing into his Dictaphone on the phrase “snowball’s chance in hell” (and wincing past the clichéd “sinfully delicious”), and finally coming up with a satanically themed counter-campaign, which he sells to the client instead of Ginsberg’s “snowball in the face” campaign via the simple expedient of leaving Ginsberg’s work in the cab on the way over.

When Ginsberg calls foul on Don’s hijacking of the account, he is reminded by Don of who he works for, and by Don and Harry that all his creativity and cleverness rank a decided second to the sale and the money. Bummer, man.

Sally: Growing Up Draper

We first see Megan giving Sally an acting lesson — how to fake crying by not blinking until the air stings your eyes — which Sally immediately turns into a lesson on manipulating Don. Megan’s “keep [your eyes] wide open and think about something that makes you sad” is fitting advice for her this episode, especially when her mother tries to use her as an emotional pawn against Megan and Don. “Jesus, who’s the child here?” Don asks when Megan tells him of Betty’s use of Sally to “poison us from fifty miles away.” It clearly isn’t Sally, whose eyes are wide open.

Don: “It’s my fault that you even have to think about things like this. You’re a little girl.”

“I’m not a little girl,” responds Sally, who patches things up with Megan and turns things around on her mother in a way that suggests she may be one of the most mature characters in the series.

Megan in the Middle

Megan, in addition to her role as Betty’s rival, also finds herself on the outs with her peer group, as represented by an actress friend she’s helping to run lines for an audition. When Megan is dismissive of the “piece of crap” soap-opera material (it’s Dark Shadows, which also gives the ep its title), her friend accuses her of being, in effect, a generational traitor. Her marriage to Don and her association with his monied commercial lifestyle has removed her from the struggle her friends go through every day and has placed her firmly and somewhat uncomfortably on his side of the gap.

Peggy Olson Is Not An Airplane

Office stalwart and Don Draper protégé Peggy struggles to claw back some attention, having lost her own protégé, Megan (to the implication that the life she was aspiring to was somewhat silly) as well as her position as hot young copywriter (to “Peggy-with-a-penis” Ginsberg).  Her Snowball campaign suggestion, in the style of a New Yorker cartoon, neatly echoes Pete’s mania for appearing “hip” in the New York Times — an establishment, upper-class referent that is becoming increasingly irrelevant as the sixties go on.

She, too, is caught on the wrong side of the gap between creativity and commerce. Cornering Roger about his replacement of her with Ginsberg as his favorite generational collaborator, Peggy reminds him of her winning work for Mohawk Airlines; when he describes Ginsberg as perfect for the Manischewitz campaign, she responds sadly with, “I’m sick of hearing people think that way. I’m not an airplane either.”

“It’s every man for himself,” Roger responds when Peggy accuses him of disloyalty. She’s certainly sick of hearing people think that way, too. The sorrow and the pity…

A Thanks-But-No-Thanks Thanksgiving

The episode ends with Thanksgiving dinners at the Draper household (where a jellied cranberry sauce still in the shape of the can and a toxic smog alert make nice symbolic touches) and the Francis household (see above), and with conflicts both unresolved and, in some cases, not yet understood. There’s something happening here, and some of them don’t know what it is — do they?

* * * *

E.C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen. He was four years old in 1966.

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