This Week on Dear Television:
- “Only Mothers Left Alive,” from Phil Maciak
Only Mothers Left Alive
By Phil Maciak
May 14, 2014
THIS WEEK, Jezebel published a piece by Hillary Crosley called “On Television, Mothers are the Villains.” Central to this listicle, of course, is the deplorably childish, potentially defensible Betty Draper. Two weeks ago, Annie stood up for Betty — for all of her judginess, pettiness, and coldness — as a tragic product of her time. If Betty is unlikable, if she’s rotten, it’s because them’s the breaks when you’re a beautiful, educated woman raised in a “pre-feminist dystopia.” She’s bought into the narratives presented to her, and she’s been nothing but kicked around within them. It’s relatively uncontroversial, even from this perspective, though, to say that Betty is one of the show’s villains. But her villainy is so campy, its psychic roots so clear, that it comes off as disingenuous. Including this week’s episode, how many times can you recall Betty threatening her children (or their friends) with actual bodily harm — broken arms, chopped off fingers, busted heads, rape? This isn’t to say that she threatens them because she loves them, that her urge for violence is somehow a displaced parental love. It’s to say that these don’t seem like real threats. Betty Draper isn’t Joan Crawford.
This season, in her limited screen time, we’ve been constantly, and explicitly, asked to consider Betty Draper as a mother. Do her children love her? Does Bobby deserve to be treated the way she treats him? Aren’t children supposed to be the reward? But it seems worthwhile, in the light of this most recent episode, to consider Betty Draper as a child.
The popular accusation that Betty is a child is an unavoidably condescending one. To succumb to it as a pat explanation for her character’s behavior is the same as writing her off as a storybook villain. It lends Don an unearned maturity by contrast, and it also manages to overlook the valuable cultural context Annie laid out two weeks ago. If Betty is simply a case of arrested development, then she’s exceptional, and Don, Henry, Grandpa Gene, Bryn Mawr College, the fashion industry, and the world of advertising itself are all absolved because, well, how do you solve a problem like Betty Hofstadt?
But, as Annie has so cogently pointed out, Betty’s not an exception. If she’s a child at all, it’s in the sense that she’s a child of the times. That said, childishness is part of the show’s mode of representing Betty — the same way it presents Don as a cowboy hero or Roger as a trickster prophet — and it’s an archetype we’re meant to both see and critique as viewers. If we’re meant to perceive Don’s triumphalism or Roger’s wisdom as uncomplicated, then Mad Men is a much dumber show than I thought. Same goes for Betty. The show’s presentation of her as a child ought to be a prod, a provocation. (For what it’s worth, part of her arc this episode is her developing resistance to being talked down to in this way.)
Elizabeth Draper is a motherless daughter. She has been a part, now, of two marriages in which she’s been treated as a spoiled child rather than an adult. (“You embarrassed yourself more than me,” Henry tells her, as if she’d misbehaved at Father-Daughter Day.) Sally has refused to call her “Mom” for several seasons now. She throws tantrums, she sulks spitefully, she jealously covets her daughter’s friends (first and most notably, Glen Bishop), and she snipes back and forth with Sally like an exasperated older sister. “Girls, girls, please,” Henry yells after Betty threatens to break Sally’s arm, attempting to quiet the fight but effectively equalizing the two women as though they are his unruly progeny. To Henry and Don, she’s a child; to Sally she’s a bitchy tyrant; to Bobby, she’s a monster. To none of them is she primarily a mom. Her question two episodes ago was, “Why don’t they love me?” But, given her blocking with Gene in that frame, it might as well have been, “Why am I not a mother to them?”
I don’t bring this all up in order to rehash the saga of Betty Draper or to make a larger point about Betty. In the context of this past episode, “The Runaways,” though, the foregrounding of Betty’s motherhood, and the ramping up of the show’s self-reflexive questioning of what that motherhood consists in or even means, brings her front and center. “The Runaways” is an episode of television soaked in the images, figures, and dilemmas of motherhood. And if Betty, Mad Men’s only mother left alive this week, is questioning the stability of that bond, then just imagine how it’s going for everyone else.
It’s no accident that Joan, the only main character whose motherhood is not significantly embattled — Kevin’s problem is that he is twice fatherless — is totally absent this week. “The Runaways” isn’t just about motherhood; it’s about failed motherhood. Other than Betty, of the two primary maternal plots this week the first and most obvious is the one between Don and his long lost “niece.” Don is, not coincidentally, the leader of this show’s veritable street gang of motherless children. If we learned anything from six seasons worth of flashbacks — and I’m not sure we really have — it’s that Don Draper is a man, in Matthew Weiner’s words, who was not raised by his parents. Previous seasons have dealt with Don’s absent father issues. The Conrad Hilton arc is basically one abbreviated adolescence, from loving mentorship to disappointment to open rebellion. But since Megan’s maternal instincts with Sally drove Don to dump Dr. Faye — who needs to hop on a plane to Saint Louis and join the cast of Masters of Sex, if you ask me — we’ve been made keenly aware of his constant need for a mother.
But it’s not so much that Megan is a surrogate mother for Don, than it is that the image of motherhood flits in and out around Don all episode, and he’s at turns repulsed and enlivened by it. Don is averse to the comforting maternal touches that are offered to him. Lou’s offer to “tuck” Don in is basically a threat, and when Megan’s friend Amy later tells Don she’s there to “tuck” him in again, it’s the opening salvo of a peer-pressure campaign to stick Don into a ménage a trois he doesn’t want. (Jon Hamm is a shoe-in for the “Most Ambivalent Threeway” at this year’s MTV Awards.) And yet he’s thrilled by the prospect of supporting Stephanie’s motherhood. The deceased Anna Draper has most often been characterized as a sister to Don — and that’s the family relation Stephanie ascribes to her here — but there was always an unmistakably maternal aspect to that bond. And with Stephanie now motherless herself — she brings up her mom on the phone as if to reaffirm that, no, she isn’t cool with Stephanie occupying Oakland with her hippie baby — Don, to some extent, perceives himself to be paying forward the non-judgmental motherly care that would have awaited Stephanie in Anna’s house.
But it’s not Don who does the mother’s work here; it’s Megan who is impressed into service and who enacts yet another scene of failed motherhood in “The Runaways.” Over an uneaten steak, things get awkward between Stephanie and Megan. After prompting Megan to yet another declaration that she doesn’t necessarily want children, things sour. Stephanie is too pretty and too intimate with Don to stick around, so Megan Breaks Betty, plays the secretly malicious good cop to Don’s bad cop, rips off a check for a cool grand, and sends Lady Madonna on her way to the Bay Area. Megan’s forced into a maternal role she doesn’t want and, in order to get out of it, she puts on another. Megan doesn’t need Don defining her place in the world again, and Stephanie doesn’t need Megan to be her mother. That’s what the money’s for.
Oh, and then there’s Peggy, Julio, Ginsberg, and the nipple in a box. We know, from early on, that Ginsberg — like Don, like Betty, like Roger, like Pete — is a self-identified orphan, and that he lives with a man he calls his adopted father in a small apartment. (Whether that’s Ginsberg’s dad or not is unclear, though there’s definitely no mother in the picture.) As Margaret Lyons brilliantly observed in Vulture, Ginsberg’s always been bananas, and his slight instability has been a key element of the show’s creeping uncanniness heading into the heady late-60’s. Once upon a time, Ginsberg told Peggy he was born on Mars, but that his father tells him he was born in a concentration camp. “I never met my mother because she conveniently died there,” he says. It’s one of my favorite moments on the show, one that I think is particularly indicative of what this show can win when it takes a risk. He doesn’t play crazy, he doesn’t play goofy in that moment. He plays it like a personal revelation, like a fairy-tale, like a history lesson, like an ad pitch. His eyes beg Peggy to understand, and she does.
In “The Runaways,” the increasingly paranoid Ginsberg turns yet again to Peggy to reveal himself. But this time, she doesn’t see the pathos in his lunacy in time. Peggy, whose secret giving up of her secret child for adoption gave Mad Men its first inter-season bridge, welcomes Ginsberg to her home at the same time that she welcomes Julio, the little boy from upstairs whose mother isn’t around. The scene begins with Ginsberg as just another kid Peggy needs to babysit, and it ends with him pleading with her to reproduce with him. (Again, it’s not an accident that Stan namedrops Freud at the beginning of the hour.) It’s the only way to fight the homosexual computer invasion! But it turns out, there is another way. Ginsberg cuts off his nipple, which he says was the valve clogging him up, but which might also be the nagging, ironic reminder of the nourishment he never got or that he was forced to leave behind. Ginsberg’s paranoid homophobia — which has always been somewhat out of character for the seemingly progressive Ginzo — begins to feel like a psychotic reaction to and re-inscription of the various homosocial relationships that structure his life, most especially the motherless home he shares with his dad. Ginsberg’s motherlessness isn’t just a fact of life, it’s the site of his life’s founding trauma, and he’s registering it on his own body. He gives the valve to Peggy as a last grasp for connection. But it is a gift — like the gift of Betty’s nose to her daughter or Megan’s gift of cold cash to her niece — misplaced, a gift that makes sense from the perspective of the giver but is meaningless in the eyes of the recipient.
This episode is full of doubled lines, jarring cuts, and visual echoes. Anybody remember Midge’s scraggly boyfriend from the first season?
It’s inviting us to read along with Ginsberg’s parallax view, a view that Peggy inherits by episode’s end. And, to top it all off, there are still more 2001: A Space Odyssey references. (Enough, Weiner, you stoner!) But with all the obelisks and the computers and the lip-reading, what’s the image we don’t get from 2001? You got it: the fetus, the rebirth, the creation. Even without this observation, the episode manages to suggest — in a far less homophobic way than Ginsberg does — that all of this is going nowhere. The nipple-less, motherless masses are doomed. Sure, Don thinks his intervention with Philip Morris might save him, but how, and from what? Don’s rejection of cigarettes was cynical, but it was also one of the only legitimate positive steps he’s made on the show. Is he saving himself by going BACK to cigarettes? Megan can’t reignite her love affair with Don. And once the kids grow up, they’re lost to Betty Draper. Nothing is new, there is no rebirth, the frontier is a dream, the second wife is the same as the first, the new agency is the same as the old agency, Bobby’s nightmares are the same as his sister’s. Don told both Peggy and Lane about how easy it is to start over. Has it been easy for them? There’s no future, just a bunch of cowboys, prophets, and children playing in the yard, out of sight of their mothers.
The very fabric of Scout’s Honor is a joke to you,