Plus, blood and helmets. Skins and carcasses. A salt tooth. Peaches and curbs. And, "Not tonight, dear! I have a Patio commercial to direct!"
So many disappointing and disappointed fathers, so little time. But if you thought Roger in black-face was a shocker last week, we got an opener that was equally surprising: It's morning again in America, and in a beautifully shot scene bathed in reds and oranges, Grandpa Gene takes the kids to school in the Big Lincoln (and is this Bobby replacement No. 2 sitting silently in the back?) He natters on about neighborhood roofing when slowly, the camera pulls back to reveal that Sally (who is what, 8 or 9?) is at the wheel. (Like Hertz, Sally is No. 1. Let Gene put you in the driver's seat!)
The move suggests that he's already handed over the family business to his granddaughter. (While keeping his foot on the accelerator.) In those seat-belt-free days, dads and granddads often let kids drive (and sit on their laps to do so), but mostly on vacation in out-of-the-way places, or in empty parking lots. This is not a dream or nightmare, though, Sally at the wheel. She's steady as she goes, and beams. Indeed, she expresses a lot with her eyes in this episode.
But speaking of high beams, Gene's Lincoln was an award-winning design, with side door handles that famously faced each other. Still, the iconography gets more traumatizing: customized as a convertible parade limousine, this was the same model that JFK would be assassinated in on Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas -- a scant five months from Sally's drive. Gulp.
Yup, the death of the father, holy, and otherwise, hung over the episode, along with the ideas of the passing of the torch, intergenerational disappointment, and the legacy of the lousy mother.
We'll get to Ho Ho and Margaret, but first, let's talk about Betty and the Drapers. We were set up to think that Gene might be some sort of sexual menace to Sally, when in the end he was her ray of hope.
"You can truly do something. Don't let your mother tell you otherwise," he said to Sally during the ice cream scene, which was brilliantly written, acted, and directed. With its two-spoons-in-the-carton, malt-shop-style euphoria, it also mirrored last season's sweet, satisfying, junk-food-eating scene between Betty and Glenn, the little boy who unconditionally loved her.
Sally says that her mom won't allow ice cream before dinner. Gene tells her, "She's afraid you're going to be fat like she was... Her mother used to take her to town and then make her walk home. I put a stop to that." And it becomes clear that much of Betty's brand of cold non-nurture was learned at the knee of her own undermining, competitive, and appearance-obsessed mother, Ruth.
Perhaps Gene was getting glimmerings all week of a coming stroke or heart attack, (blood loss to the brain messes with one's senses), for he said the chocolate smelled like oranges.
Gene also sits his daughter, "Elizabeth," down to show her that he's put his affairs in order. Nervous, distracted, and unable not to smoke, she pouts and says she doesn't want to hear it. He's being "morbid and selfish," she says, and despite being huge with child, or the amount of attention he lavishes on Sally, she's his "little girl." He says that he shielded her too much. (Or, in reality, not enough from her mother.) He called her Scarlett O'Hara, and indeed, fiddle-dee-dee, just like Scarlett, Betty views tomorrow as another day to drink, smoke, and mope.
But even by those standards, when the policeman came to the house to say that Gene had collapsed and died in line at the A&P, where he was picking up peaches for Sally, it was shocking for Betty to respond, "I'm fine," and then literally slam the door in her own wailing daughter's face.
Sally takes up residence under the dining room table, where she listens to adult conversation, and thinks the grownups are laughing, which spurs her "attention must be paid"-like outburst (as in the speech at Willy Loman's funeral): "He was here and now he's not here. He's dead and he's never coming back and nobody cares that he's really, really, gone."
Any of them could have so easily comforted her with a look or a touch or a smile, or a word or two. Instead, her mother dismisses her cruelly and tells her to go watch TV; she pleads with her eyes for her Dad to intercede, and he's afraid to upset Betty.
So she sets herself up in the den, creating her own little pyre with the coverlet, as she watches a terrifying and no doubt traumatizing image of a a Buddhist monk setting himself ablaze to protest South Vietnam's policies. So much for comfort.
On a comparatively lighter note, we also saw Grandpa taking a moment with Bobby to show him his World War 1 prize: a Prussian helmet with a spike on top, which still bears the blood of the dead solider who wore it. Don, who is again being an absentee father reading the paper, is moved to take the gift away from the kid -- war is bad, and "there was a person in that hat." It's especially disrespectful to wear a dead guy's helmet when you yourself have stolen an entire identity from a bloody corpse, don't you know.
The idea of identity comes up again when Peggy, calling herself "Margaret" to seem more sophisticated, decides to look for a roommate to share an apartment in Manhattan (although no one from Brooklyn ever calls it that -- it's always referred to as "the city." Speaking of language, I was waiting for someone to call the TV a "set.")
Though she's becoming a hard-ass and a pro at the office, Peggy has no clue how to be a young woman in her private life. She shut her brain and body down for the pregnancy, and at this point she's relearning how to be a sexual woman as if recovering from a stroke. This is made clear by the stiff, dour ad she writes, in which she describes herself as "clean, responsible, considerate." (Perhaps, here's where the Norwegian background kicks in. But Olson is spelled the Swedish way.)
Joan, who knows all things public and private, tells her exactly how to rewrite it, and copywriter Peggy slavishly copies every clever word, trying on the mantle of a "fun" girl the way a transvestite puts on a bra and heels. Just as Peggy's previous ad attracted only a humiliating inside joke, played on her by the boys and a willing phone operator, the new, lighthearted ad immediately gets results, garnering an eager, swinging single candidate. We'll no doubt see that the fun of being one of "those girls" out in the city, ready for anything, is just beginning.
That's the thing about "Mad Men": none of the characters can be easily classified. There's so much gray area. Still, what's happening when Don is pretty much the center of the moral universe both at home and at Sterling Cooper?
Indeed, Don knows how to play office Daddy when he has to, and the situation with Dodo, I mean Ho Ho, the ascot-wearing rich kid who wants to be the father of American jai alai, proved so poignant that even his ethical sense kicked in. But Horace Jr. really wants to prove something to his own disapproving daddy, so in the end, Don accepts his million-dollar account.
The writers got this right. I do remember my own overly tan and gold-chain-wearing relatives going to Miami in the late '70s to bet on jai alai. Anyway, there were some funny lines attached to the whole balls-in-the-face, Polish handball concept -- including Bert Cooper saying "Perhaps I don't understand because I'm childless."
Speaking of the childless, Sal provided my favorite scene, in which he acts out the Ann-Margret role in his "Bye Bye Birdie" adaptation so well in his bedroom, in his buttoned-up pajamas, that his wife finally sees the light. (Previously, she might have had some doubts, which she denied, along with Sal denying his own bodily cravings to himself. Now she's putting two and two together.) Her attempt at exciting him -- the pistachio-colored nightie from A&S -- was hysterical. It looked like a sleeve from something Ricky Ricardo would wear to bellow "Babaloo!"
The Patio commercial for Pepsi was a disaster, but no one could figure out why. (By the way, what was with the client's Southern accent? Wouldn't that be more appropriate for Coke? Also, what was with the can? It looked like it was made for baked beans.)
Roger said the spot needed Ann-Margret. That, and the fact that it's a fake commercial for an artificially sweetened soda featuring a zaftig, off-key singer crooning terrible lyrics about "when the cake is on the plate," and doing all those embarrassing little Birdie-like moves.
In the end, it allows Peggy and Don to come together and exchange a look, knowing that the client isn't always right.
The final scene shows Don folding up the dead man's cot, to the strain of "Over There" while Sally sleeps with Gene's book clutched tight. They are back to the perfect nuclear family. Make room for more Decline and Fall for Daddy.