Mad Men, Season 3

Week 4: Bad Mothers
Talking television.
Sept. 8 2009 11:23 AM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 4: Bad Mothers

I didn't realize, John, that a jai alai ball through an ant farm spells bad luck. I really need to be more careful. But another "TV Club" a few years back taught me that oranges are a portent of death. So when Gene remarked that his ice cream "tastes like chocolate but smells like oranges," I figured he was a goner. And Gene wasn't even a smoker! It was probably the salt tooth that did him in.

Gene's death was a gratifying twist on a number of levels. Just two weeks ago John complained that "Betty's batshit dad" was moving in: "In a show with as many characters as Mad Men, there are going to be some you like less than others, and Betty's dad is among my least favorite."

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You're a cruel and fickle master, Swansburg, but it looks like you got your wish. And remarkably, the writers have contrived, with a smattering of Gibbon, a few scoops of ice cream, and some underage driver's ed, to make us sad to see the old fart go.

I think you're right, Julia, that the novelty of Gene's relationship with Sally was really just that he showed her some attention. And I agree with you, contra cruel and fickle John, that Kiernan Shipka is doing a bang-up job in a difficult part. I did worry, for a moment there, that she wouldn't have the chops to pull off her funereal harangue. But I bought it—more so than earlier, less demanding performances. Shipka is maturing as an actress. You can almost picture her getting in the zone for her big soliloquy. ("I get my motivation. But do I need to be wearing this tutu?")

Your insight about Betty also seems dead-on, Julia. Between her down-at-the-mouth behavior these past few episodes, her refusal to be an adult when Gene wonders who should get the chinchilla and the mink, and, most devastatingly, her complete disregard of Sally (to the point of shutting the door in her face), I've been finding Betty increasingly loathsome.

In the first two seasons, Weiner skillfully played on our loyalties and emotions—presenting Betty as a venal, childlike, partially realized human being but also imbuing her with a certain simple dignity and making it clear, in episodes like the Coca-Cola ad campaign, that she was the unwitting victim of larger, more cynical forces. Her mother's death was played for sympathy: Here was this fragile, almost porcelain personality who was completely undone by the death of a parent.

This time around, however, I just can't commiserate. It's a very fine line between pity and contempt, and lately Betty has become a kind of Livia Soprano—consistently fascinating but not remotely sympathetic.

Of course, the real Livia Soprano prize goes to Peggy's mom, in all her piety and passive aggression, who showed us, with a few lacerating observations on the life of a single girl in Manhattan, where Peggy got her sharp tongue. "You'll get raped, you know," she snaps. As Peggy flees the claustrophobic Brooklyn pad (I've been to funeral parlors that are better lit), her sister offers, brightly, that the exchange "wasn't so bad." What kind of horror show were they expecting?

Mad Men is so absorbing sometimes that we forget to talk about the acting, treating the characters as fully realized human beings. But if we're going to rate Kiernan Shipka's performance, we should really mention Elizabeth Moss' as well. I don't have any idea where things with Karen, the new roomie, are going—either it'll be a dreadful fit (in which case, hilarity ensues), or Peggy will hooch it up and hit the town, trying to become that very different woman in Joan's copy (in which case, ickiness and more hilarity ensue). But Moss is an extraordinary actress, don't you think? Consider the range of scenarios she passed through this week—the smug look at Don when Patio tanked; the complex supplication with her mother; the humiliation when Lois cranks her; and, finally, the straight-up comic timing of her roommate audition. "I'm fun," Peggy begins, with shades of Mike Myers as Austin Powers. "I like to have … fun."

As for Sal—who, thanks to Don's magic wand of reinvention, is now "a commercial director"—I actually liked his inadvertent coming-out. (He does a better Ann-Margret than that bimbo in the ad—perhaps he should have done the Patio campaign himself.) When his wife asks what the problem has been these "past few months," I did wonder what precisely their bedroom activity consisted of beforehand. But the Patio epiphany worked for me as an echo of that early scene where Don sees a Polaroid of Midge and his beatnik rival and suddenly realizes they're in love. And Julia's right that some of Sal's behaviors may not have scanned so obviously as gay back in 1963. Let's not forget that before she was yukking it up with Paul Kinsey at the expense of poor Ms. Olson, Lois from the switchboard was hopelessly smitten with none other than our Sal, making unrequited eyes at him in the lobby, marveling at his affectionate phone calls with his mother—even hailing him, without success, in la bella lingua.

Ciao! Ciao!
Patrick

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