"What does one do?" -Pete Campbell
These things did happen: In real life, American Flight 1 did crash into Jamaica Bay on the same day that John Glenn got his ticker-tape parade through the streets of New York. In real life, Christopher Allport, who played Pete Campbell's cold, disapproving father Andrew in season one's "New Amsterdam," died in an avalanche during a ski trip earlier this year.
Given that Allport only appeared in one episode last year, and that Pete and his father's relationship was clearly so strained, Matt Weiner certainly could have written around Allport's untimely death. Instead Weiner and Lisa Albert took that tragedy and incorporated it into a "Mad Men"-era tragedy to give us "Flight 1," which is less about death than it is about how we're expected to react to a tragedy -- or a birth, or any number of universal social situations -- versus how we actually respond to them. As Weiner described it at press tour last month,
The second episode to me is about... how you should react to anything and what you were told you should do, and I think the word "should" is used probably like a hundred times in that script. To me, we're always torn between the way we are supposed to be feeling and what we actually feel. You know, I can say, just as being a father four times, you know, that when you take that first baby home from the hospital and -- at least for me, maybe I'm a monster I don't know -- the experience of looking at a newborn for a Dad can often be a very strange experience. It's like you're not breastfeeding, you're not doing any of these things. So you should feel something and yet you don't always feel that, and it takes time. At least it did for me. That is sort of what the tension is for me in that, and it's for Pete. It's for Don. It's for Duck. It's for Roger in that episode, for Peggy. That's where that episode lives emotionally for me.During season one, I occasionally complained about the mannered nature of Vincent Kartheiser's performance, how he often seemed to be trying too hard to seem of this era in a way that Hamm or Slattery or Michael Gladis didn't. Even at the time, I was willing to concede that this sort of fit the character -- that Pete is an empty suit playing at being a man -- and an episode like "Flight 1" (where I thought Kartheiser's shiftiness was perfect) supports that. Pete has the blue-blood bonafides, but nobody seems to have raised him, to have taught him a moral code or basic standards of behavior, and so he latches onto the behavior of those around him and does his best to copy it. (Note that his morbid Flight 1 joke follows several others.)
Even here, after this world-shattering moment, which Pete is surprised to discover doesn't feel so shattering, he has to look for other men to model himself after. Whatever past scuffles and disgraces he's suffered with Don, we know he admires the way Don carries himself, and so he turns to him for guidance. (Note that right before he goes into Don's office, we see Pete from the back of his head, a shot that the series has previously reserved for Don.) And Don, briefly, is willing to play father figure to Pete. Don himself is a faker, a man who's adopted a role not his own. He's just very good at it, and as an outside observer to how normal people are expected to behave, he can tell Pete how to act. But then when Pete has the poor fortune to enter Don's office at a moment when Don's mood is sour over the Mohawk/American situation, Don unloads on the kid, and in turn sends Pete scurrying to gain the approval of rival father figure Duck instead. (Or maybe Don's the angel on Pete's shoulder and Duck the devil?) In "New Amsterdam," Pete's father accused him of being a pimp. (He was sitting in the chair where Pete sits while his mother babbles about funeral arrangements and ceramic elephants, in fact.) Now, to gain the approval of Duck, Pete is pimping out his father's death to get an account. Seems about right.
Getting back to Don, just because he's good at simulating polite behavior doesn't mean he completely understands it. In many ways, he's sold himself on the American dream that's featured in his campaigns, rather than the American reality that Roger and Duck and Bert Cooper know all about. Don can't fathom the idea of ditching a loyal, happy, well-paying client like Mohawk for a wink from American, while they can't believe he would be so naive as to risk losing out on such a huge windfall. Roger knows how decent, polite people are supposed to act in this situation; he just doesn't care.
Peggy, meanwhile, continues to chart a course that's very different from what's expected of a woman her age in this time and place. You can tell how much she's enjoying her life as a single career woman -- note the pleasure on her face when she turns down Paul's college buddy, so delighted is she with this unexpected power -- and here we discover the Faustian bargain she made in order to keep that life. After leaving us hanging last week about the fate of the baby she delivered in "The Wheel," here Weiner fills in many of the blanks. Peggy was committed, however briefly (remember, the obstetrician called for a psych consult when it became clear how in denial Peggy was about her pregnancy), and now her sister is raising the boy as if he were her own. Peggy has no apparent affection for her son -- she only looks into his room at her sister's prompting, and looks more scared than anything -- and doesn't seem to have much of a relationship with him, even as his "aunt." (When sis hands her the kid at church, he immediately starts crying; obviously, every baby is different, but if Peggy was holding him a decent amount over his 15 months of life, he would likely be less agitated to be placed in her arms.)
Peggy's choice is the starkest version of the career-vs-family dilemma that women face even today. I'm curious to find out more of the backstory. I know that families sometimes do exactly what Peggy's sister is doing, for a variety of reasons, but you would think her mother would show more disapproval towards her over it, even a year late, as opposed to mild concern that Peggy doesn't go to church enough. In some ways, it feels very appropriate that this is Pete's baby, as we're reminded in this episode that both he and Peggy don't feel the same tug of the family ties that other characters might. The difference between the two is that Peggy has figured out what she wants from life and, for now, has been very successful in getting it, where Pete mostly stumbles through, relying on his connections and the beneficence of others to keep traveling on a path he doesn't even understand that well. I'd feel sorry for him if he wasn't such a weasel, you know?
Some other thoughts on "Flight 1":
-We open the episode with another of the series' signature long party sequences (this one runs about 7 minutes, an eternity for most drama series), as we visit Paul's new apartment in Montclair, NJ. Today, Montclair is a very desirable place to live, enough of a city/suburb mix of space and culture (for most of my life, it's been the only place in north Jersey to see art-house movies). Most of the people in the newsroom I've asked about the state of Montclair circa 1962 aren't old enough to remember the town back then, so I have no way of knowing if Paul's boasts about the place's rich cultural scene are accurate or more of his self-aggrandizement. But the sequence provides opportunity for another salvo in the war between pretentious lout Paul and woman scorned Joan. When Joan psychoanalyzes Paul in the Sterling-Cooper bullpen, her barbs couldn't be more accurate. At the same time, she's quite awful to Paul's girlfriend Sheila, even if she's arguably doing Sheila a favor by chasing her away from a guy who's using her for street cred.
-After watching the scene where Don teaches little Sally how to mix a Tom Collins, my wife warned me not to get any ideas about our own daughter. As priceless as that sequence was, I was even more struck by the later shot of Sally and Bobby sitting on the steps, not wanting to go to bed and fascinated by what they could make out of their parents' conversation with Francine and Carlton, simply because it was something being done by grown-ups. Again, we're still in a period where youth wasn't the be-all and end-all of culture, and the idea of adult conversation being exotic and powerful still lingered. My daughter is growing up in a time where the entire culture caters to her in one way or another, and while she loves and respects us, I imagine if she came down from her bedroom while we were entertaining company, it would be with a request to watch PBS Kids On Demand.
-So what are we to take of Don's contemplation of the waitress' offer? He and Betty seem to have reached an agreement -- unspoken or not, we don't know yet -- to get along better. (Note Don telling her he'd say whatever she wanted him to if it would avoid an argument.) But we also know that he has another woman in his mind, one he sent that book last week, and he doesn't immediately dismiss the waitress, implying that he might have taken her out if he wasn't so busy beating himself up for ditching Mohawk. If nothing else, she seems to tick two of Don's boxes, as an assertive brunette.
What did everybody else think?