Mad Men, Season 3

Week 4: Will This Be the Funniest Season of Mad Men Yet?
Talking television.
Sept. 6 2009 11:15 PM

Mad Men, Season 3

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Week 4: Will This Be the Funniest Season of Mad Men Yet?

This is clearly shaping up to be the darkest season of Mad Men yet—last episode was too chockablock with bad omens for it not to be. But will it also be the funniest season to date? Episode 4 had its troubling moments, but it was more notable, I thought, for frequently being an outright hoot, starting with the very first scene. The camera is on young Bobby Draper, sitting in the backseat of the car, but we're listening to Gene Hofstadt, who is holding forth on some poorly executed roofing job he's just driven by in the neighborhood. Only, when the camera moves from the back seat to the front, we see that it's not Gene doing the driving; it's Sally—hands at 10 and 2, brow barely above the wheel. It was a great little visual gag, one I could imagine Billy Wilder admiring.

Later in the episode, we're treated to an even funnier scene. Peggy—I'm sorry, Margaret—has decided to move to Manhattan. ("Are you going to be one of those girls?" her sister asks, wide-eyed. "I am one of those girls," Peggy replies.) Promptly proving she's still not quite one of those girls, she posts her earnest roommate-wanted notice (no cats, dogs tolerated) in the Sterling Cooper break room. Rookie mistake, Margaret! Soon enough, Harry, Ken, and a devilish Paul have recruited the easily manipulated switchboard operator Lois into crank-calling Peggy, pretending to be a disfigured tannery employee looking for a two-bedroom on the West Side. Get the sense Joisey Paul Kinsey was hazed a little freshman year at Princeton?

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

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Even the serious business of creating advertising was played for laughs this week. The big client Sterling Cooper is trying to land is the diminutive Horace Cook Jr.—Hoho, to friends. Hoho's million-dollar proposition? Sell America on jai alai. The boys can barely keep straight faces as Hoho explains that the national pastime of the Basques is going to be as popular as baseball in a mere seven years. How? Well, Hoho has signed up Patxi, the man who would be the Babe Ruth of jai alai if he weren't so damn handsome. Did you guys also catch Pete Campbell swallowing a chortle when Hoho said of his prize pelota hurler, "I'm terrified of him catching balls in the face?" I laughed out loud.

It wasn't all fun and games this episode, though. Everyone knows it's terrible luck to throw a jai alai ball through an ant farm, and, sure enough, shortly after Don does just that, Grandpa Gene meets his maker at the A&P.

If last episode focused on broad generational shifts—the decline of the WASP class represented by Roger Sterling, the rise of young people like Peggy—this episode was about generational struggle within families. Before he expires, Grandpa Gene is determined to impart lessons to his grandchildren that he fears they will not learn from their parents. In a chat over some before-dinner ice cream, he tells Sally she can amount to something—and says not to let her mother convince her otherwise. For Bobby, he produces the helmet of a Prussian soldier he (might have) killed. Don objects to this martial display, which only seems to confirm Gene's belief that his son-in-law is a "joker" and that his grandson will be, too, if something isn't done to toughen him up. "War is bad," Bobby says. "Yeah, but it makes a man of you," Gene replies.

As Patrick has noted, generational tension on Mad Men often plays out as my-war-was-harder-than-your-war swagger. Here Gene pulls rank with his victory medal from the Great War. (The episode sends him off with a rendition of the World War I fight song "Over There.") War is also a subtext for the other major generational divide in the episode, the one between Horace Cook Sr. and Horace Cook Jr. Hoho is a trust-fund kid, the son of a shipping magnate who made his fortune in wartime, and his father is not impressed by his passion for "Polish handball." Horace looks at his son and sees nothing but weakness and dissipation. "Should you be lucky enough to strike gold," he tells Don and Lane. "Remember that your children weren't there when you were swinging the pick."

As silly a character as Hoho may be, the way in which his father throws him to the wolves at Sterling Cooper makes you feel for the ascot-favoring young man. At dinner with Don and Pete, Hoho lashes out at his father, accusing him of being a war profiteer and a racist. And yet like many of the sons of driven, self-made men I know, all he really wants to do is impress his father on his own terms—to give him, for his 75th birthday, a jai alai franchise. 

We should discuss how all this generational tension is affecting Don, who spends some time this episode gazing meaningfully at a photo of his own dad (and who tries, unsuccessfully, to give some stern fatherly advice to Hoho). But the Draper we really need to talk about is Sally. I've enjoyed the way she's become more of a character this season. (Bobby is still a cutout.) Sally's relationship with her mother, in particular, is getting really interesting. Betty seems less and less patient with her daughter with each episode. She dismisses Sally's plaintive speech on behalf of her grandfather with a perfunctory "Go watch TV." Sally complies and is greeted with the consoling image of Thich Quang Duc burning in the streets of Saigon. A powerful sequence, but here's the problem: I'm worried that the series' ambitions for Sally are starting to outstrip Kiernan Shipka's acting ability. Did either of you wince a little during her Grandpa-is-gone tantrum? Or is she doing as good a job as can be expected of any child actor?

I'll leave it to you guys to convince me the bedroom scene between Kitty and Sal wasn't the episode's weak point. Really, Kitty, it took the Patio pantomime for you to realize what the "problem" is?

Enjoy your fatted calf,
John

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