This episode was all about unwanted gifts. Gift-giving is often the most horrible thing in the world, because it is so psychologically fraught. The things you choose to give people reveal a lot about what you actually think about them, and that is stressful as heck. Also stressful as heck is trying to figure out the right way to receive a gift, because if you don’t give the giver the right reaction they are often PSYCHOLOGICALLY DESTROYED. Much of the gift-giving tonight was occurring between parents and children (or people with parent-child type relationships.) Parent gifts are even more stressful than regular gifts–they are pretty much the worst. Parents like to think they are giving you what you need, but often they are just giving you what you need to become the person they think you should be. This is usually tied into their own weird issues. Think of how weird men are always giving their sons footballs when they are little babies. This gift makes no sense because little babies are shitty athletes; it’s completely pointless. So why do weird dads do this? Are they trying to be funny by making fun of their little babies’ athletic and cognitive abilities? Why not give the baby something he really wants, like a stale soggy Cheerio that’s been lurking under the couch for three weeks? Because weird dads (by which I mean all dads) like to project their weird fantasies of who they wish they were onto their unsuspecting children. The little babies don’t care because little babies are less sentient than most cats. But by the time a kid hits five, he’s probably started to smell a rat. By the time a kid hits eighteen, his whole personality has been warped around his parents’ frustrations and desires and unspoken weirdnesses. All of a sudden he starts having panic attacks every time he hears the word Madden or sees a freshly mown lawn, and he has no idea why.
Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and her mom (Myra Turley) played this game tonight. I was actually totally on Peggy’s mom’s side. A lot of Internet talkers thought that Peggy’s mom sucked because of her guiltings and talk of rape and whatnot. I saw it as a deserved lashing out – Peggy’s mom may have needed a TV, but that’s not why Peggy gave her one. Peggy really does think her mom is dumb enough to get bribed out of noticing that Peggy is rejecting her entire lifestyle and values. And her mom was right that Peggy is going to get raped–not literally, probably, but figuratively. Peggy is all about embracing the bourgeois Manhattan lifestyle wholeheartedly, and she’s not putting enough energy into trying to really understand it. She thinks that Don (Jon Hamm) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) really do have everything. If she looked at them critically, she’d realize that they’re totally miserable, but she’s bought into their value system whole-hog. This naivete, which almost reads as willful blindness, is leaving her very vulnerable. Look at the roommate excursion. She replaced her ad with Joan’s, not stopping to think that Joan’s ad is going to attract someone with whom she’ll never be able to get along. This was borne out in the person of Karen (Carla Gallo) who has bad roommate scrawled all over her (probably in red lipstick.) Karen would never rape Peggy, but what about one of Karen’s rejected or drunk suitors? What about the fact that Karen seems less than reliable, and might stick it to Peggy financially? Just because Peggy’s mom started using the TV doesn’t mean that she was appeased or that Peggy was right – it just means Peggy’s mom is thrifty, unwilling to let the gift go to waste. It just proves that Peggy is her mother’s daughter–they’re both practical to the point of being mercenary. I bet Mrs. Olsen will still feel stupid whenever she looks at it.
Another parent-child pairing of interest was Betty (January Jones) and Gene (Ryan Cutrona.) I really enjoyed Gene’s description of how his estate will be disposed of. It was perfectly pitched to Betty’s sensibilities and concerns–it proves he really knows her well. Of course Betty would want to know, above all, where her mother’s coats would be going. But Betty was not receptive having this particular conversation. It would be easy to decide that this is because she is a giant narcissist sociopath with no empathy for others. Certainly there’s evidence to suggest this. But it’s hard not to have compassion for Betty here: she’s pinned down to her life in Ossining like a moth under glass. Her pregnancy damns her to continue the marriage she wanted to end indefinitely. Furthermore, her pregnancy has destroyed (at least temporarily) the one thing she likes about herself and her life: her immaculate appearance. The stunning Mrs. Draper doesn’t lack for beautiful clothes or the opportunity to show them off. Gene’s Scarlett O’Hara reference was extremely apt. Like Scarlett, Betty is fueled solely by others’ envy. But distorted by pregnancy and saddled with a sick parent, her life hardly looks aspirational. Her reluctance to discuss Gene’s will is directly related to dwell on just how bounded her life has become. Bleak as that life looks, her position is understandable. The other consideration here is how important Gene has become to the Draper household. He seems to be taking on a large share of the child care and household duties—playing with the kids and transporting them to school and lessons, doing the grocery shopping. In just a few weeks, Gene’s become a better partner to Betty in managing the Draper’s family life than Don ever has been. Perhaps Betty is afraid to discuss Gene’s passing because she’s afraid to think about how much harder her life will be once he’s gone. There will be nobody to pick up the slack in a household made even more complicated by the addition of a new baby.
So Gene’s gift, while entirely correct for the situation, couldn’t have come at a worse time. By discussing his arrangements with Betty, rather than with Don, Gene was treating her like an equal, like an adult (something Betty is always asking for.) In addition to everything else, he was giving her the gift of his respect. But she didn’t want his respect, she wanted his pity. He can’t help but despise her for that, and she knows it. Gene’s attempt to give her a final gift only underscored how incapable of connection they really are.
Not so Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and Gene! Gene gives Sally everything Betty wants—to be treated like a child, to be kept blissfully ignorant of life’s uglier facts, to be spoiled, petted, and plied with treats. Betty’s devouring of Sally’s peach at the end of the episode was a nice touch—she doesn’t want the adult gifts Gene is offering her, she wants to steal what he tried to give to Sally. But Gene is able to talk more frankly to Sally as well. His relationship with her shows an instinct to course-correct. Sensing that he was mistaken to cosset Betty as much as he did, he pushes Sally to become independent—teaching her to drive, encouraging her to believe in herself. He showers her with the gifts he wishes he could have given Betty, and they fall on fertile ground. His gifts to Bobby (Jared Gilmore) are a little odder, consisting as they do of a dead man’s hat and an activated fruit allergy. Betty seems to project her frustrations with Don onto Bobby; maybe Gene does too. Bobby has to accept peaches because Sally likes them. Maybe this is an allegory for how Gene thinks Don should prioritize Betty’s happiness more often? Hard to say. The hat, of course, is a metaphor for the whole Don Draper/Dick Whitman thing (Dick picked up a dead man’s hat and became Don), but Gene can hardly know that. Perhaps he just hopes that Bobby will be a man after his own heart, rather than Don’s.
On the Sterling Cooper front, we had still more parent-child pairings. The Patio commercial, in its own way, is one of these. The Diet Coke people want an exact clone of the “Bye Bye Birdie” scene, so in a sense the ad is a child of the film. The client-firm relationship is also somewhat parental, as the client is the authority figure whom the team must please. In this case, Sal (Bryan Batt) gave the client exactly the gift they had asked for, but somehow it was wrong. I haven’t been able to tease out the meaning of this. Some viewers have suggested that the commercial didn’t work because it was directed by a gay man. I hate this hypothesis. Perhaps it didn’t work because there was no divine spark of creation to the commercial—it wasn’t the true child of inspiration; rather, it was just a copy. At any rate, it bears pondering.
Speaking of Sal, Kitty (Sarah Drew) tries to give him the gift of her own sweet self, but she’s barking up the wrong tree. Most hetero-sexual men would be happy to take that particular gift, wrapped as it was in filmy green lingerie, but Sal was exactly the wrong recipient. His rejection of the gift, as with all the rejections in this episode, revealed a fatal flaw in the relationship between giver and recipient.
Sal and Don, however, continue to get on like gangbusters. Don seems to have decided to adopt Sal, and Sal’s nothing loathe. But when he tries to reciprocate in kind by being there for Don in his family crisis, Don cuts him dead (just like he does to everybody he’s close to!) I guess that means he’s really a part of the Draper family, then. Don also tries to adopt poor dumb Ho-Ho (Aaron Stanford), giving him the only good advice he’s ever gotten in his life. But Ho-Ho wants to be treated like a grown-up, and to him this means being treated like an authority figure, rather than being dealt with truthfully. It was worth it to see Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) shit a brick. Ho-Ho and his father have the most obvious disappointed parent-sad child relationship. Ho-Ho just wants to give the world (and his dad) the gift nobody has ever wanted—a totally sweet jai alai team. Ho-Ho’s dad just wants Ho-Ho to destroy himself so that he’ll come back as a completely different person. It will be interesting to see how this plot develops, although I think we all know the result: HARDCORE PSYCHOLOGICAL DESTRUCTION.
Which brings me to my alternate Mad Men title of the week: Sweet Mise en Scene and Hardcore Psychological Destruction. Can’t wait for next week’s episode: Anomie and Really Beautiful Transoms.
 God, there was some beautiful mise en scene with that—Peggy’s mother and sister looking like clones of each other, Peggy looking like some alien creature, entirely new.
 Their scene also had a parent-child dynamic. Joan is Peggy’s mentor on business, life, and men, although Peggy doesn’t like to admit it. But Joan gave her exactly the wrong advice. It was advice for somebody Joan wishes she still was, rather than for who Peggy really is.
 The Peggy and Karen situation oddly reminds me of The Bell Jar. Remember when the Sylvia Plath stand-in (“Olivia Slath” or whatever her name was) is rooming with the Southern party girl who puts on millions of coats of mascara? And they go on some weird double date and “Olivia Slath” cannot handle it because everybody is too tacky and the situations they are in are too bourgeois and she just wants to go home and navel-gaze in the bath so she does and then something bad happens to the roommate “offscreen” and she tries to come back into the apartment but she’s locked out and drunk and pitiful and “Olivia Slath” won’t get up out of the bath and unlock the door because it might break the delicate bubble of her depression and her depression is too wonderful for her to threaten so she leaves the roommate out in the hall? There are 3 points to make about that event (which I have imperfectly remembered.) 1. Could totally see Peggy and Karen enacting this. 2. I bet that shit really happened. 3. Sylvia Plath is kind of brave for including that in the novel, but also still kind of a monster.
 Carla (Deborah Lacey) seems to be MIA—perhaps she quit after The Affair of the Five Bucks.
 Lotta clones tonight—Peggy’s mom and sister, the ad, the Ann-Margret clone. If you want to get weird, the character that Lois prank-calls Peggy in works at a tannery, i.e. she works with skins, something that these characters like to pull over their real selves.