Spoilers for "Mad Men" season 2, episode 10, coming up just as soon as I reclaim my jardiniere...
"You're supposed to take care of your husband and your beautiful children now. They're yours. You'll see: the minute you leave, you'll remember him exactly the way he used to be. It's all good outside that door." -Viola
In a commentary track on the "Mad Men" season one DVD, January Jones makes a joke about how she's spending more time with Vincent Kartheiser watching this episode than she usually does in a given week on the set. If Betty Draper and Pete Campbell were to ever really cross paths, they'd find out they have a lot of familiar things to talk about, and those points in common are brought to the forefront in "The Inheritance."
Betty and Pete are the overgrown kids of the "Mad Men" ensemble. Betty has been diagnosed by a shrink as having the emotions of a child, and we've seen Pete respond to much of his life with the petulance of a child (remember him sticking out his bottom lip a few weeks back after finding out Don and Duck were getting together outside of work without him?). Both have been shaped -- scarred, really -- by psychologically cruel and dismissive parents, and have had to deal with ambivalent feelings after those parents died.
In "The Inheritance," both are faced with the metaphorical, if not literal, death of their surviving parents. Betty's father has a stroke and, despite the protestations of everyone else in the Hofstadt family, is clearly sliding further and further into a state of dementia. Pete's mother is healthy physically, but not so much financially. (And to a blue blood like Mrs. Campbell, money is everything.)
The episode's title doesn't refer to any literal inheritances. There's nothing left of the Dyckman Trust, or of most of the Dyckman/Campbell properties for Pete to get even if his mother didn't disapprove of him, and Betty's stepmother seems determined to get rid of any reminder of Betty's late mother, not even telling Betty what she's giving away and when. But the two of them have clearly inherited unfortunate traits from the parents they disdain. Betty is quick to judge her son and even quicker to give her daughter a body complex just like the one her mother gave her, while Pete can be just as cold and cutting as his mother or father. (His "I don't like you like this" line to a happy Peggy last season was at least as devastating as anything we've heard his father or mother say to him.)
But as each of them witness their remaining parent's fade from relevance, they're forced to grow up in one way or another.
The visit to see her father Gene is a horror show, with everyone trying their best to pretend nothing's the matter, even after Gene repeatedly mistakes Betty for her mother and even cops a feel and invites her to go upstairs and get frisky. After getting a talking-to by Viola -- the housekeeper who appears to have raised Betty just as much as Carla is raising Sally and Bobby -- Betty starts to gain in strength. Where before she might have allowed herself to take Don back after he was there for her in this moment of crisis, now she's clear-eyed enough to recognize that nothing has changed.
The real moment of maturity, though, comes after a long and surreal interlude in which Glen Bishop (played, as usual, by Matthew Weiner's son Marten) runs away from home and comes to see Betty for the first time in the nearly two years that have passed since "The Wheel." Because Glen is the only person Betty has ever really connected with (they're roughly the same age emotionally), she invites him into her house, gives him one of her husband's undershirts, feeds him a meal and lets him talk her into eating when Don couldn't, and even sits dutifully on the couch with him to watch cartoons, like a macabre parody of a real courtship. Betty doesn't recognize how inappropriate this all is until Glen takes her hand and solemnly explains that he came here to "rescue" her. That statement, coupled with the timely return of Betty's children (Sally not that much younger than Glen) shocks Betty back into adulthood. She calls Helen Bishop to take back Glen and understands and isn't hurt when Glen insists he now hates her (for ruining his own romantic fantasies).
And when Helen returns after seeing to Glen, Betty's able to have a real, adult conversation with her, first about the state of Helen's own relationship with Glen (in a non-judgmental way that allows Helen to admit she's been a lousy mother), then about the state of Betty's own marriage. Betty's able to open up because Helen's the only divorcee she knows, but also because after the events of the episode -- after the awful role reversal with her father, then the realization of how she was behaving with Glen -- Betty appears to have stopped being such a child. Since Weiner spent a long time on "The Sopranos" writing about how human beings are incapable of changing, I don't know if this is a genuine shift for the character or simply a brief moment of clarity, but it was bracing to see Betty be human and honest.
Betty at least had what seems like a loving father once upon a time, where both of Pete's parents disapproved of him throughout his life. Pete's role reversal is far more pleasurable to him than Betty's was for her, as he gets to tells his mother that she's broke, but even that can't salve his moment of drunken self-awareness when he recognizes that his parents raised him and Bud to be cretins. (Seriously, laughing about killing your mom while citing Hitchcock's "Rope"?) We find out that his resistance to the idea of adoption comes entirely from his mother, and when confronted once again with the fact that nothing he ever does will be good enough to please her, he starts to realize that maybe going outside the Campbell/Dyckman bloodline might be an improvement for everyone. ("Like Bud and I turned out so great. Who's to say (adoption) wouldn't be better? So it's not yours. That could be good.")
Pete being Pete, he inevitably returns to his usual entitled, resentful behavior when he accuses Peggy -- who, unbeknownst to him, bore Pete's biological child and then apparently gave it away -- of having a life where everything comes easily.
"The Inheritance," written by Weiner in tandem with Marti Noxon and Lisa Albert, is one of the more oddly-structured "Mad Men" episodes to date. We spend very little time at the Sterling Cooper office; that's happened before, but here the longest interlude is in the middle of the episode (Harry's drunken baby shower) rather than the beginning or end, and after spending all that time on Betty's father, the episode appears to take a sharp right turn with Glen's arrival. Other than a brief glimpse of Paul and Sheila on a bus to Mississippi and the final scene with Don and a blindfolded Pete preparing for takeoff, the last 10 minutes of the episode is entirely about Betty and Glen.
I can't think of another episode where Don was absent for such a long stretch, or where he was so secondary to the proceedings. (At worst, Don's at least the central figure of the B storyline, and usually dominates each hour.) Still, he had his arc. He goes back to playing dutiful husband, but it's an act that even Betty's father can see through his dementia; Gene doesn't have a more clear-headed moment in the episode than when he tears into Don for not appreciating Betty. ("Nobody has what you have! You act like it's nothing! My daughter's a princess, you know that!") After their surprising late-night roll on the floor, Don assumes that all is forgiven from Betty, not understanding that she simply needed distraction and comfort from a horrific situation. So after she kicks him out of the house again -- and after Don gets a glimpse at Harry's baby shower, yet another reminder of the kind of regular family life he's been barred from -- he decides it's hobo time, even temporarily, and bigfoots his way into Paul's spot on the California trip.
Will he only be gone for a week, or is this his attempt to get away for good from a life where he no longer seems to fit? And will Betty's newfound strength make her more or less happy with his absence?
Some other thoughts on "The Inheritance":
• It took me a minute to place the face because of the '60s hairstyle, but Viola's voice should have been unmistakable to me as that of Aloma Wright, best known as gossipy nurse Laverne on "Scrubs."
• I'm not sure this episode helps answer the question of what Peggy's new status at Sterling Cooper is. At the end of last week's show, Duck looked to Peggy to approve one of Paul's ideas, but here, it's Paul who's supposed to go to the "rocket fair," and when Don refers to the idea of sending Peggy, it's in a dismissive, "You guys are so incompetent that I might actually resort to sending the girl" way. Admittedly, a woman probably wouldn't fit in well at a testosterone-fest like this convention sounds like, but I'm still not clear on where our gal stands in the pecking order.
• Many people remarked on how "Six Month Leave" gave increased prominence to the black characters in this predominantly white world. Hollis the elevator operator remarked on Marilyn Monroe's death, Carla offered Betty some advice on dealing with her depression, and Roger even mentioned a rival ad agency hiring a "colored kid" to work for them. That trend continues this week, not only with Viola talking some sense into Betty, but with Paul getting into trouble with girlfriend Sheila when he tries to bail on a voter registration trip to Mississippi so he can go to the rocket convention. In typical "Mad Men" (and "Sopranos") fashion, Paul makes up with her by pretending that he chose Mississippi over California, when in fact Don took his spot. Assuming season three sticks with the pattern and takes place in 1964, I wonder how much more prominent civil rights and integration will become on the show.
• The other interesting thing about the Paul/Sheila storyline is trying to figure out exactly how much he actually likes her and how much is -- as Joan suggested -- Paul trying to prove how hip and progressive he is. I don't doubt that he enjoys her company, but you can also see him constantly trying to show off in front of other black characters, whether it's him insisting that Hollis call him "Paul" instead of "Mr. Kinsey" or his lecture on the bus about how advertising is color-blind.
• We're reminded again that Pete, like Don, is an imitation human; he has to be told by Bud that adoption is something that people do. Another Don/Pete parallel: we learn that Pete's nickname for his wife (usually to be deployed when he's being patronizing) is "Tweety," just as Don calls Betty "Birdie" when he's trying to sound affectionate. (And Betty has by now figured this out; hence her telling him he doesn't need to pretend like that anymore.)
• I loved the sound design on the sequence of Don and Betty getting undressed after a long and excruciating day at her father's house. The clothes are more formal and complicated than what we're used to now, and we could hear every strain of Don's belt, click of the cufflinks, etc. It was the soundtrack of all that day's strain aching for relief.
• Though Harry's marriage survived his one-night tryst with Pete's secretary Hildy, they still have the awkward situation of having to see each other in the office every day. On a day like the one with the shower, with everyone drunk and with Harry's happy family being shoved in her face, you can't blame Hildy for giving Harry a particularly sloppy hug, can you?
• We know Joan's potential is being squandered after seeing her in the television department a few weeks back, but her brief screentime here was a nice reminder of what a good secretary she is. She anticipates Don's needs, immediately understands and executes his requests and doesn't ask unnecessary questions. Meanwhile, you could cut the tension between Don, Joan and Roger with a knife. She could barely stand to look at him, and Don was only slightly more cordial. And without realizing it, Don gave Joan an outlet for her frustration by telling her to tell Paul about the California trip. She couldn't get back at Roger for hooking up with the hated Jane, but she could at least hurt her other disliked office ex by humiliating Paul in front of the others by giving the bad news in person rather than drafting a memo. You do not mess with Joan Holloway.
• It's been a big week for "Generation Kill" alumni showing up elsewhere on TV. Iceman's the head vampire on "True Blood," Espera was Busy Philipps baby daddy on "Terminator," Capt. Patterson had a raygun on "Fringe," and here we have Chaffin (aka Eric Ladin) as Betty's brother William. I look forward to Salvatore inevitably hanging out with Fruity Rudy.
• Speaking of William, I can't let go of the image of him entering the study through the window, in full suit and tie, having just returned from hiding out in the treehouse -- yet I'm not sure I liked it. It felt very much like the detail you might read in a short story by Fitzgerald or Cheever or one of the other many literary "Mad Men" influences, but it also called attention to itself in a way that the show usually doesn't. Or maybe it's just the formal wardrobe thing again; so many scenes in "Mad Men" feel so strange because people are so over-dressed for them. This exact scenario 36 years later would have played out with William in a t-shirt and cargo pants. (Oh, and he probably would have gone into the basement to play video games instead of hiding in a treehouse.)
What did everybody else think?