Ben Tanzer recaps Mad Men’s third episode of Season 6, and comments on the ways in which raising kids is just like being a character in AMC’s hit series.
Mad Men is correctly noted for its spot on sense of period detail, its exploration of gender dynamics, office politics, and identity. It can be literary and it can be tawdry, and Don Draper, its enigmatic centerpiece, is a man who has no center and no past, has come to illuminate the very American ideal that while you can always recreate yourself, you can’t go home again, not when there’s no home to go to. Ironically, maybe, and arguably, Mad Men has come to serve an even greater purpose, and taken on a far more serious role, that of providing insights into how we parent in this age or any other. Has this always been the point, though too subtle as to be obvious in the face of the ongoing discourse of adultery, racism, misogyny, substance abuse, suicide, and mental illness? Matthew Weiner won’t cop to it, so I decided to take a quasi-line-by-line look while deconstructing “The Collaborators,” Season Six, Episode Three. The results are startling.
This is Don Draper’s approach to affairs and spouses, possible dinner dates with both, and in this case with the smart girl from Freaks and Geeks, and later ER. It’s not an admirable trait, not exactly, and I suppose it implies he’s dead inside, possibly sociopathic. Though it also reflects what happens when you grow up in a whore house and watch your pregnant step-mother have sex with your “uncle,” the head rooster, through a keyhole while wearing a very bad pageboy haircut.
This also applies however, to thoughts of childhood Leukemia, school shootings, deadly porch parties, mental illness, bullying, and child sexual abuse among other things I just cannot bear to think about when it comes to parenting, which just may be the absolute worst job in the world. Because if I were to think about things, well . . .what then? I wouldn’t get out of bed that’s what.
“You like to leave.”
Don Draper can’t stay, won’t stay, he does not know who he is, and has no rudder. When Sylvia, his new lover says this, she wants to be cute, playful, things are still fun, and he’s only leaving for work, but of course it is fraught with implication. He will leave, whether he likes it or not, it’s not a choice, and this isn’t LOST, he doesn’t have choices, he is what he is, even if he doesn’t know what that is.
Yes, I want to leave too, and not in a I want to desert my family sort of way. More like, you need me to take a work trip? Of course, okay, happy to, because it’s a lot—parenting, being on, and responsive, all the time, from the second I walk through the door until I leave again. And sometimes because of that I just want to slump by the front door before I even walk in, something Don does as the closing credits roll, and “Just a Gigolo” plays, albeit not the David Lee Roth opus, because this is Mad Men and not LOST and sadly no one is time traveling.
“Sometimes you have to dance with the one that brung ya.”
Man, does Ken want that Heinz Ketchup account. It’s the Coca-Cola of condiments. And the baked beans guy is so bitter, all full of piss and vinegar, and not unlike baked beans themselves. He’s mad at being ignored by those he mentored until now because they love Don’s work and want to love him as well. But Don won’t allow it, can’t, he may be disloyal to wives, friends, co-workers, children, lovers, and younger half-brothers, but not clients, not this one anyway, and not for now.
I know that you know that episode of the Simpsons where Bart and Homer join Big Brother/Big Sisters and find that they much prefer the new father and child they are paired with. Of course, like a new lover, new is always better, more exciting and interesting, but that isn’t parenting. And no, I’m not comparing children to lovers–am I? I hope not—but we don’t get to trade them either. We are expected to put in the work, and we are expected to somehow make it all better and more stable, regardless of how awesome your kid’s friends might be in comparison.
“I walked in on it and I didn’t want to pretend.”
Don’s lover Sylvia walks in on Megan firing their maid, the moment is tense, and Megan is upset. Sylvia explains that she couldn’t pretend she didn’t see what she didn’t see and didn’t hear what she did not hear, something all women in Don’s orbit, or the orbit of any male on the show, must consider when it comes to the men in their lives. For the most part, they choose to not hear and not see, unless they are with other women, among the few times true compassion might be shown. Is Sylvia showing compassion for Megan however? Or something else, something more twisted? Regardless, none of this can end well, and if you doubt that might I present Sally’s former teacher as Exhibit A.
And so it is that we must ask ourselves what it is we are willing to pretend we do not hear and do not see when it comes to our children. How do we assess what’s too much and too little? How do we reconcile the fact that so many of us are the products of the characters on this show who came of age in the fifties and sixties and chose to be hands-off in response to their own parent’s all too suffocating parenting styles? When should we talk sex? When should we intervene with bullies, or call teachers? When do we offer our children advice and when do we hold back? Ideally they know they can come to us when they are confused, the rest of it, though, is a free-for-all.
“You obviously need to talk.”
Sylvia and Megan move to the Draper’s apartment to talk after getting high, and everyone is getting high now on this show, which along with the sideburns and scruffier hair is as sure a sign as any by television standards that we are in The Sixties. Sylvia wants to be available to Megan, but is less willing to be so after Megan implies she is not only relieved to have lost a baby, but would have consciously lost that baby if forced to do so. She wants Sylvia to commiserate, and be empathic, but she can’t be, and she won’t be, she doesn’t believe in what Megan is suggesting. Foreshadowing maybe? We’ll see.
There it is then, empathy, or lack thereof, and how engage in it when parenting, being forced to relate to things we cannot appreciate because we are not seven, eleven, or even fifteen any more. Worse than that, or worse for me anyway, is that we may not feel empathy. I think about how by the time I was my children’s age, no one made lunch for me or worried about whether my socks were comfortable, and I think that would have been nice, and I think I want to do so for my children, and yet when I need to, there is the moment where at least in my head I am lacking empathy. Really? You need this from me? I think. Why, how, and can’t you just suck it up?
“Of course when you want them to be funny they’re useless.”
Oh, Peggy we love you so. She has taken the best and worst of all things Draper, to be better than Don in so many ways, creative, yet grounded, forceful, but in a seemingly loving relationship with the now shaggy-haired, pseudo-hippy Abe, and yet she is still Peggy. She’s not tactful, and she can’t understand why her subordinates aren’t her, always on and probing, insightful, with their finger not only on the pulse of what’s happening now, but on what makes people feel anything at all.
Hence from her perspective, her people are only funny when not actually working. But how can they be? they work in fear of her, sure to fail and fall short of Peggy’s high standards. They will, of course, be better when they move away from her, and this is what we need to remember with our children too. They are not necessarily going to be polite at home, follow our rules, or remember who’s in charge. But they’re not supposed, not exactly, they have to blow off steam and test the boundaries somewhere they feel safe. The goal is that they will be all these things everywhere else. If not, maybe then you can fire them at that point?
“Because it’s an idea you had yourself.”
Herb, how we hate you, first insisting on prostituting Joan, and now forcing Don to lobby for local ads he does not want, while telling Pete and Don that this shouldn’t be a problem because it’s an idea that they had themselves. And so much of this show is about how we deceive ourselves into believing what’s there or not. Don won’t go with this and ruins the pitch by being too exuberant. On the other hand, Trudy has had enough of Pete’s philandering when his latest lover shows up at the door bruised and battered, no longer willing to ignore what’s there.
Which is not to say we ignore what’s in right in front of us when it comes to our children, it’s just that sometimes we do, unable ourselves to handle the realities of their lives and our lives with them. Their pain is bad enough, but sometimes their inabilities are just as rough. Why can’t they make friends or be dropped off at a party, when everyone else is? Of course, sometimes they can be dropped off at parties, and sometimes it’s because we have convinced them that it was there idea in the first place. When it works, it’s wonderful, temporary, but wonderful.
“I don’t know what we’re doing.”
How could Sylvia know what she and Don are doing? Don, who said he and Megan were drifting apart, but still somehow got pregnant. Don, who gives her money after sex and is happy to talk at dinner, because he could want more, though we know better, and so does Sylvia. And while Sylvia is not likely to end up battered on the Drapers’ doorstep, things will end poorly, minimally for her, possibly for her marriage, and maybe even for the Drapers’ as well. They have to. This is Mad Men, and not Two And A Half Men.
Herein lies the rub, you never quite feel like you know what you’re doing when it comes to parenting, and jokes aside about the lack of training manuals, you don’t know, you listen, you lead, you try to stay engaged and be empathic, you read what you can read, but at the end of the day as you lie in bed with your partner or the child themselves, you don’t know shit, and you can’t do anything to quite shake that feeling. The only thing you can truly do is decide whether you’re in or you’re out, and if you’re in, you need to buckle-up.
“I’ve never said no to you.”
Before Trudy slams the door on Pete, she reminds him that she has never said no to him, not about his apartment in the city or his mistresses, to which Pete replies that they left the city didn’t they, and that they are now trapped in the suburbs. Which points to one of the great conundrums of any relationship and possibly all communications of any kind, we know what we know when we say it, and we know what we know when we hear it, it’s just that what we hear, and how we are heard, may have nothing to do with what was said, much less intended. We filter it all through the frames in our heads, and so Pete will always feel put upon regardless of the situation—it’s who he is, and who he will be, which again is Mad Men at is most fundamental: People don’t change, they can’t, they just change houses or jobs, and possibly grow sideburns.
Our children can change, maybe, it takes a while to know anything about any of that, but what we know is that they think we say no all the time, and they are right, we do, sometimes blatantly, and sometimes with our body language. Sometimes this is because we think we are making good choices for them, more candy for example, staying up late, and other times it is selfish, we cannot bear to watch Caillou even one more time. The hardest thing is fighting that, we’re so tired, and we just want things to be easier, which is a tension all in itself. Pete and Trudy want things to be easier as well, it’s just that like our children, they have different interpretations of what that means.
“Well it can’t be that bad when you’re doing something you love.”
If you love what you’re doing it can never be bad, right, another Mad Men trope that they circle back to again and again. Yes, we are selling baked beans or dreams, cigarettes even, but we love the thrill of doing so; the chase, the creativity, the energy of getting it right, and that makes all other behaviors and regrets okay, it has to, aren’t we all just seeking to love something, anything? Of course we are.
So it is with parenting, it’s terrible, painful, endlessly frustrating, and scary, but there is so much love involved so much of the time, we could probably burst if not for the basic physics that govern the world. And this is why we keep going, ignoring our own regrets as well, when it’s right, there’s nothing like it, not unlike Mad Men itself.