Mad Men, Season 5

Remember When Don Had Swagger?
Talking television.
April 3 2012 1:11 PM

Mad Men, Season 5

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Daughters and fathers, fathers and sons.

Mad Men (Season 5).
Betty Francis (January Jones) receiving news about her possible thyroid cancer

Michael Yarish/AMC.

Julia, Patrick,

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

I hope, for Don’s sake, that you guys are right and he learned more from his backstage interrogation than I thought he did. In his smart take on episode 503 over at Vulture, Matt Zoller-Seitz recalled a moment from Season 2, when Midge took Don to a downtown nightclub for a little avant-garde poetry. Don looked square as hell in those environs, too, but at least he still had some swagger. When one of Midge’s friends asked Don how admen sleep at night, Don retorted, “on a bed made of money.” Take that, beatnik. Zoller-Seitz writes of that era of Mad Men:

Don and his colleagues still had a certain vitality, maybe because most of their ages started with a 3 or a 2. They were at the center of energy in their universe and carried on as if they knew they were. And even ostensible oldsters like Roger Sterling and Duck Phillips carried on as if, mentally at least, they were still young and foolish. But in Season 5, they all seem slower, more tentative and heavy-spirited, as if they're all secretly terrified that they're about to be herded onto an ice floe and pushed out to sea.

I think I was responding to this sense of slowness in the backstage scene. But I agree, Patrick, that Don has always been a great student of the times even if his wardrobe doesn’t show it, and perhaps he jotted down some astute field notes in his journal when he got home, to be followed up with an attentive listen to Aftermath. If so, I eagerly await the results.

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I also agree with our readers who have noted that Don saw his own daughter in that young Stones fan, and that what might have given him pause was the thought of how soon Sally will be, if not necessarily a pot-smoking groupie, at the very least an enigma to him. This was a theme running through the whole episode: Parents losing touch with their children. Don foresees generational misunderstanding with Sally. In the aftermath of the Mohawk announcement, Roger talks about Pete in fatherly terms, describing how he used to hold a young Campbell’s hand as he got into his swing. Now, the son has betrayed the father, and Roger sees himself hanging from the ledge, a young man’s foot on his hands. And what was Betty’s dream—a vision of the world without her in it, her children carrying on in her absence—if not the starkest realization of this theme?

A ray of hope for all these beleaguered parents: Megan. My French is about as good as Don’s, so perhaps our francophone readers will correct me, but the second Mrs. Draper seemed to be having a very sunny conversation with her mother on the telephone, no dark generational divide to speak of. So maybe understanding between parents and children is possible, even in troubled, fast-changing times. Or maybe Canadians were just nicer then, too.

On the subject of in-laws: Did it strike either of you that this was yet another way in which this episode seemed to favor Team Don? The elder Mrs. Francis is as imposing as her son is accommodating, browbeating her daughter-in-law into hopping herself up on diet pills so she can get back into that “incredible closet” of hers. Don, meanwhile, is separated by a phone line, an international border, and a language barrier from his new mother-in-law. He can just hold the receiver and listen in blissful if slightly exasperated ignorance.

A final note on parenting: I noted with interest Don’s seeming unease at the idea of Megan playing the role of mother to his children should Betty succumb to cancer (which some viewers think could yet come to pass—I don’t buy it). Don suggested Megan would give it her best shot, but he didn’t strike me as very confident about the results, mentioning it in the same breath as his own rough experience growing up without a mother. It was difficult to discern whether this was merely Don being realistic (no matter how hard Megan tried, she could never replace the children’s biological parent) or whether he harbors some doubt that Megan is mom material. My suspicion is that it was the former—Don seemed very impressed with Megan’s parental capability last season, when she shed nary a tear after that spilled milkshake out in Anaheim. And in this season’s premiere, I caught Don wearing a “we’ll make one of those together one day” look on his face when Megan cradled young Kevin Sterling Harris.  

Say au revoir,
John

P.S. Lt. Duck Phillips should compare notes with Freddy Rumsen, who took another sabbatical between seasons and did a little work for the LAPD.

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