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Dead Man's Hat: Life, Death, and the Holy Father on "Mad Men"

"That's a dead man's hat, Bobby."

The specter of death hovered over this week's episode of Mad Men ("The Arrangements") in a major way, from the aforementioned Prussian helmet to Mrs. Olson's distress over the death of the holy father, Gene's discussion with Betty about his funereal arrangements, the burning monk on the evening news, the ant farm, and, well, just about everything.

This week's episode of Mad Men, written by Andrew Colville and Matthew Weiner and directed by Michael Uppendahl, dealt head on with the transience of life and just how fragile we truly are in a poignant and heartbreaking way. Just as Peggy took a firm step into independent adulthood, Betty railed against the responsibility her ailing father Gene wanted to place on her, to include her within the circle of trust and make sure she knew of his final arrangements. Betty not only found this distasteful but attempted to position herself as a child once again, telling Gene that she is his "little girl," even as Gene attempted to replace Betty with his granddaughter Sally, looking to right some of the wrongs done to her by shielding her from the world.

This situation is echoed sharply in two storylines, both involving fathers and sons. Having been to war and seen its horrors, Don wants to protect Bobby from that searing reality, bristling when Gene gives Bobby a war trophy. To Gene, war made him a man; to Don, it's a staggering reminder of unspeakable horror and atrocity. It's symbolized by the Prussian helmet, which Gene sees as a trophy and Don as a painful reminder of death (he even says so, telling Bobby it's a dead man's hat). The two couldn't be more different in their handling of war.

Likewise, Sterling Cooper's latest client Horace Cook (a.k.a. "Ho Ho"), obsessed with jai alai, is shielded from the reality of his pitch by his well-intentioned but ultimately misguided father, who wants to teach his son a lesson about the world, even if it destroys him in the process. Yes, his father's wealth protected him from any truth about the harshness of the world, but it was also his father's duty to give his charmed son some semblance of perspective. From our vantage point in the future, we know that Ho Ho's business plan is built on clouds and gossamer and won't amount to anything. But he needs to face this fact head on in the most brutal way if he intends to step out of his father's shadow.

The price? A million dollars, which Sterling Cooper is only too happy to take from him. One can only imagine that the shock of his ultimate failure will feel much like the shattering of glass of Burt Cooper's ant farm. And likewise, the trail of death that follows will have to be cleaned up by someone else, much as Joan sprays Raid on the survivors of the ant farm. Life is, after all, brutish and short.

So when Betty learns this harsh truth via Gene's death at the end of the episode, she's in total shock, unable to process her feelings in any rational way, a numb mess of cigarette smoke and alcohol. It deeply rankles little Sally, who had gotten to know her grandfather and wants the adults to react accordingly to his death. Her teary rant towards her parents and aunt and uncle in the kitchen is apropos. The others have accepted death as a part of life but for Sally it's theft of her innocence. Gene isn't coming back, he's as dead as that Prussian soldier he shot to death. And her effort to escape--via television--brings only another reminder of the impermanence of our lives, the sight of a monk setting himself aflame. With JFK's assassination just around the corner and more images of death to come, Sally is having her eyes opened about the world in a way that Don and Betty did not and could not.

And yet Don is affected by all of this as well, in his own way. He digs out an old photograph of his parents and solemnly cleans out Gene's bedroom, folding up the old cot and shifting it into the corner. In the end, we leave behind those we love and the things we touched. And it's love--such as Sally's for Gene--that keeps us alive in the minds of those around us. Given the rift between the two in last week's episode, it was touching to see the two interact in such a tender way this week, between the driving scene (um, hello!) and the ice cream scene, in which Gene tells Sally in no uncertain terms that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to and not to let Betty stand in her way.

Hard truths were learned in other arenas as well. Peggy saw her mother refuse to let her go or make her own way in the world, even going so far as to nearly disown her daughter after she announced her intentions to move to Manhattan. "You'll get raped," said Mrs. Olson hysterically, before sending her daughter to Coventry. Peggy knows, meanwhile, that the client doesn't always know what they want and her astute belief (clearly learned from her mentor Don) proves true as the Patio execs are disappointed by the Bye Bye Birdie rip-off commercial that Sal directs.

It's this commercial which also lifts the scales from Kitty's eyes as she sees her husband so perfectly reenact the commercial he intends to shoot, right down to sultry glances, girlish poses, and coquettishness. No, something's not right here, Kitty realizes, just as the Patio execs say of Sal's commercial. The sad fear in her eyes as the truth of her situation begins to dawn on her was absolutely heartbreaking.

Peggy herself learns a valuable lesson from Joan: she too is a product that has to be sold in an appropriate way. After her notice looking for a roommate results in the wolf pack's humiliating mockery of her (that prank call was hysterical and upsetting at the same time), Joan tells her that she needs to sell herself as a fun-loving girl in the city. And so Peggy ends up with a roommate, Karen (played with perfect poise by Carla Gallo), who's vastly different than her but, we can't help but feel, will open her eyes to ways of big city living.

We all need to grow up sometime, one imagines.

Next week on Mad Men ("Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency"), Betty and Don deal with Sally's erratic behavior, Pete pursues a new angle in business, and Betty has a strange dream.

Comments

Rachel said…
Minor note: I believe the ant farm belonged not to Burt Cooper, but to the fired Bert Peterson.
Kate said…
Great as always, Jace! I always look forward to reading your recap. Hope you had a great and deserved break.

I also caught a theme of inauthenticity throughout the show. Sal's commercial (It's a shot for shot copy, but something's "not right") echoes throughout the episode. That it was a product of Sal's was telling - That look of Kitty's was indeed heartbreaking, and both my husband and I gasped "She knows!" Watching Peggy pretend to be someone she's not, while dressed in her conservative suit and headband in stark comparison to her roomie in a sheer, bright yellow sundress, was particulary painful.

It's also this "not right" that Gene picks up on when he makes the comment to Betty about his disapproval of Don. Don's comment to Bobby to take off the "dead man's hat" also spoke to me of his desire for his son to not follow the path he'd taken of inauthenticity, literally taking on a dead man's life. Gene's goading of Don made me think that Gene may have gleaned more of the reality of Don's situation than anyone would ever give him credit for.

Looking forward to next week. Poor Sally...
Jace Lacob said…
Rachel,

Actually, I believe, while that office belonged to Peterson, it was established that the ant farm was Cooper's but "lives" in that office.
Ally said…
Correct about the ant farm, Jace.

This episode made me realize that I've seen too many movies and tv shows. I knew Gene wasn't long for this world, but I was thinking/hoping he'd stick around a few more episodes and do some more damage to Betty and Don. But as soon as he said, "I smell oranges," I knew he was a goner this episode. I'm just glad he didn't drop right then and there in front of Sally.

I think it will be VERY interesting to see Sally's journey through the rest of this season, as we see just how much she has taken in from Betty over the years and her new Grandpa Gene influence.
ewench said…
@Ally - lets hope she got a lot from Grandpa! I am just disliking Betty more and more, esp when she told Sally she was "being hysterical" when she got upset by them laughing after Gene died.

She is so cold and unhappy and bitchy but she shouldn't take it out on her child.

@Kate - I thought that too about Gene guessing Dons past, it would tie into the whole "Gene is the only one that really gets it" theme in the past few shows. And also felt so bad for Kitty, the look on her face said it all! Though Sal's rendition of the commercial was pretty darn awesome :)
Hadley said…
I love how Sally has become such a major character this season. Not only is her innocence coming to and end but so, soon, is the innocence of the entire country. Great parallel and excellent storytelling.

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