This Week on Dear Television:
By Anne Helen Petersen
April 22, 2014
WHEN I WAS A YOUNG GIRL, my Dad was my favorite. It was unfair, really — he was my favorite because he was around less, and thus a rarified commodity, much in the way that Sally thinks of Don amidst the constant presence of Betty. My dad and I would watch Star Trek: The Next Generation and endless Sunday golf tournaments together; we’d go on drives and listen to The Cars: Greatest Hits. Unlike Don, my Dad had weird hobbies: we had four aquariums, and one of my favorite things was going to the dank, cavernous pet store to pick out new fish to replace the ones that died of the mysterious “ick” disease, or had been eaten, or had passed on after my Dad performed impromptu surgery on their bowels when they ate too many grasshoppers. That only happened once, but it was the kind of story I kept like a talisman: my Dad (almost) saved the life of our giant, super-constipated, Oscar fish.
If your Dad was around on a semi-regular basis, you probably have a similar story: something that encapsulates a feeling of Dadness. Of skill, or authority, or bravery or care. Even if your Dad wasn’t all of those things on a regular basis, there’s a story’s there to inflect your understanding of him and his place in your life.
I don’t know if we’ve seen Sally’s Dad moment. He must’ve taught her how to make drinks at some point, and he brought her home a puppy when he got wasted and passed out in the car on the way to pick up her birthday cake. Oh, and there was that time when he came to her May Day celebration and spent most of his time checking out her teacher, or when he begrudgingly took her to work and she accidentally got drunk on whiskey. There’s a decent argument for the time he made her a weird sort of manly breakfast mash in the middle of the night.
Or maybe it’s when she accompanies him to the Codfish Ball, the only kid at the adult’s table, pretending to be Roger’s date. That episode was filled with disillusionment — and functions as Sally’s first “primal scene” as the witness to sex — but Sally’s disillusionment wasn’t with her father.
At least not yet. Because just as we all have Dad moments, we also have the moments when we realize that our Dads are not only not heros, but really fucking human and fallible. Maybe even gross, which is what Sally sees through the cracked door in the downstairs department. If before, her vision of her Dad had been that of Don Draper, then the man she saw in that bedroom, trousers pushed down, with pasty white thighs, disheveled hair, and a red face, was all Dick Whitman.
Sally’s anger and repulsion aren’t just about the embarrassment of finding your Dad screwing the mom of the cute boy downstairs. It’s also with herself, for thinking he was something different — a resentment ratified when Don knocks on her door and attempts to tell her that he was just “comforting Mrs. Rosen.” He’s treating her like a little girl, and that disconnect — between the way he sees her and the way she is — is the sort of thing that, when realized, alienates us from so many once important people in our lives.
That’s how Mad Men does coming of age: sure, Sally got her period, but that moment ultimately matters less, in the grand psychic scheme of things, than catching her father in the lie of his life.
When you’re a teenager, you don’t want to talk about shit like that. I certainly didn’t want to talk about (very different) moments of disillusionment with my own father. You process it obliquely vis-a-vis conversations with friends, reactions to media texts, anger, silence. Even when your father admits to his lie — in Sally’s case, taking her to see his childhood home, and the silent revelation that follows — it can’t and doesn’t make things right. In real life, teenagers don’t have the emotional vocabulary to have intense and therapeutic heart-to-hearts with their parents. The acknowledgment thereof — the very refusal to make reconciliation into a dramatic set-piece — is part of what Mad Men gets so right about Sally.
Mad Men loves a holiday episode that’s not really about the holiday, but the way people deal with the responsibilities the holiday entails. Peggy et. al. smoking weed in the office on Memorial Day; hosting Lee Garner Jr. for the Christmas Party; Betty figuring out Don’s “costume” on Halloween; entertaining the Rosens on New Year’s Eve; meeting Connie Hilton at the club on Derby Day; Father Gil’s acknowledgment of Peggy’s child on Easter, and I’m just getting started. At the end of Season Six, Don picked up Sally for Thanksgiving Break, which turned into a trip to Hershey. Now it’s Valentine’s Day, and everyone’s sending love vis-a-vis gifts purchased by their secretaries.
And Don and Sally are still on near-silent treatment, which is precisely how it should/would be. Don’s been living a lie so long that he thinks that honesty will fix every disaster that lie has wrought, and he’s always surprised when it doesn’t. Betty won’t stay with him, even after he cries on the bed, and even after literally showing Sally his past, she still won’t look him in the eyes.
It’s Sally who’s in control of when, and how, their relationship will repair itself. And that control manifests itself, at least in this episode, in the form of adult behaviors….behaviors that only amplify over the course of the episode. She’s going to a funeral. It may be her first, but it’s still a funeral — the provenance of adults, not children. In our first shot of her, she may be sitting on a dorm bed, but she’s casually smoking. Not tentatively, like she did when Betty let her have a cigarette on the way home from her interview, but like a pro. Her friend refers to her as “Draper,” and she’s the one who goes into the office.
Meanwhile, Don, helpless to control the way his family, wife, or work feels about him, regresses to a teenage state. He wakes up past noon; he watches Little Rascals. He reads an issue of Look Magazine and stops to ogle/be confused by an ad featuring long legs in knee high socks — the same sort of socks that the entire girl teen world (including his daughter) are wearing. He hoovers an after school snack (Ritz) while fixated on the television. Rumor has it that he “pulled a boner,” just like a teen boy, in the Hershey meeting...he might have even cried or punched somebody. When Sally confronts him when he arrives home, he even fakes sick. Teenage boy all over the place.
But then Dawn calls, and he knows that Sally knows he’s lying. They’re still twisted up in disillusionment and anger and regret. When Don asks Sally what he should put in her excuse note, however, she says something that turns the tone of the episode, and their roles within it: “just tell the truth.”
It doesn’t happen right away. Don still asks her “do you need to go before we go?”, which is something he’d have done seven seasons ago. The detente — and some Turtles, total teen music — fills the silence in the car. And Sally’s still acting like an adult, perceiving that her roommate isn’t really her friend. When she makes the incredibly astute observation that catching your father in a lie is far more embarrassing than catching him in the act, Don even starts treating her like an adult: she’s sitting in Betty and/or Megan’s seat, after all, and he yells that she’s been laying it wait with the information, “just like your mother.”
It’s a phrase familiar to any daughter of divorce. It’s one of the most horrible and unfair thing a Father can say, as it simultaneously aligns you with your mother (whom you love, even if in complicated fashion, as Sally does) and decries that alignment. Of course you’re like your Mother — but how is that your fault?
Betty becomes Sally; Don’s treatment of Betty becomes Don’s treatment of Sally. Like everything else in his life, Don’t stuck on the Carousel, doomed to endlessly repeat as he spirals down through the various levels of Dante’s Inferno.
Which is why the conversation that happens in the diner, as unsyncopated as it is, is such a quiet revelation — and, I think, our cue to consider a series endpoint that involves something that is not Draper’s silhouetted form jumping from the top of a building.
At first, Sally’s still filling the Betty role: she doesn’t eat; she’s distracted; she’s inoculated herself against Don’s charms. But then Don lays it all out: “The reason I didn’t tell you I wasn’t working was because I didn’t want anyone else to know.” ‘I didn’t behave well.” “I was ashamed.” “It wasn’t the right time.”
Don’s confessions are almost childlike in its frankness, but it’s all shaded with legitimate introspection. He morphs adult and Sally morphs childlike. Or: more precisely, Don’s child. The power balance has been recalibrated, as evidenced by Sally’s request for permission to buy a Coke.
She’s done with childish things, though: when she’s on the phone with her friend, she can’t even bear to listen to her breathless story of the weird older guy who wanted to take them to the smoker: “You know what, Carolyn? I should go.”
When Sally returns, Don’s ordered her a patty melt. That adultness lingers, but she’s ready to be taken care of, at least in some capacity, again, even as her adult perspective remains: “why don’t you just tell her that you don’t want to move to California?” Don’s lack of reply underlines her perceptiveness — and, I think, his acknowledgement of a new mode of communication between them.
When Don convinces Sally, even for a second, that they’re about to dine-and-dash, you see this look of excitement, of a shared secret….it’s just such an exquisitely perfect Dad moment. And unlike the pomp and circumstance, the performance and lies that surrounded The Codfish Ball, this moment is couched in honesty. It’s Dick Whitman who wants to dine-and-dash, but this time, Sally’s not repulsed by him. Even better: she loves him.
True love is patient and kind, sure, but true love is also honest, without pretense or expectations. One of the many tragedies of Mad Men is just how easily it is to perform love, yet just how efficiently that performance empties you. It might be cliche to say that Don couldn’t love — or be loved — until he learned to love his (true) self. But as we’ve seen it play out over the last seven seasons, culminating in Don’s confused, heart-rending response to Sally’s Valentine’s Day goodbye, it’s anything but in practice.
And it happened not with tearful confrontation or a bombastic fight. I love watching Mad Men before Game of Thrones for precisely this reason: the contrast illuminates just how much of Mad Men’s action occurs when nothing is happening. Life figures itself out as someone looks to the ground, or steps in an elevator, or lays on a couch. Or, in this case, pretends to need to stop for gas; almost does something and then doesn’t.
It’s funny: I don’t remember any big fights with my Dad, even though they absolutely happened. I don’t really remember the times we summitted big mountains, or much about learning how to water-ski or going to France or even learning how to drive. Put differently, I don’t remember the broad strokes of our past: the action and adventure, the pure melodrama. I do, however, remember a handful of moments so slight they could’ve disappeared, which is as good of a metaphor as any for why, years from now, we’ll be talking about one of these Sunday night shows.
I told the truth about myself,