Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear TV, “Not all surprises are bad,” an unexpectedly juggling Roger Sterling tells an expectedly glum Don Draper at the beginning of this week’s “Mad Men.” But aside from Roger’s new parlor trick, pretty much all the surprises in “Favors” are of the “bad” variety. The episode turns, in particular, on unpleasant surprises about parents.
While Sally Draper’s discovery of her father and Sylvia rekindling their life-ruining magic provides the episode’s most obvious example, it’s mirrored by a quieter but, in its way, equally devastating moment between Pete Campbell and his mother, Dorothy. Pete has just confronted Dorothy (who, in certain lights, is a dead ringer for Blythe Danner) about the nature of her relationship with her nurse Manolo. “He’s a gift to me,” she tells him (which is literally true). “Manny has awakened a part of me that was long dormant.” Pete, flustered, tries to shame her, only to be trumped by the most brutal parental monologue since Michael Haneke’s Amour: “You were a sour little boy, and now you’re a sour little man. How could I expect you to be understanding? You’ve always been unlovable.”
Let’s consider the charge: Is Pete unlovable? While he’s long been a punching bag for “Mad Men” fans, he’s also one of the show’s most vulnerable and complex characters. In this episode, he’s particularly exposed: We learn for the first time of his fear of flying, an apparent by-product of his father’s death in Season 2, which we’d never seen him dwell on much before. “Please tell me you don’t pity me,” he implores Peggy, in a remarkable moment. “Because you really know me.” And “Mad Men”’s viewers “really know” Pete, too, in a way they don’t most of the show’s repressed, secretive characters. There’s never been a lot of mystery about Pete; for all his flaws, he doesn’t dissemble or hide himself. (Or maybe it’s just that he’s not very good at it.) He’s a spoiled child and—this season, especially—a raw nerve, and it’s refreshing that both these facts are right on the surface.
Is Pete unlovable?
Pete may or may not be impossible to love, but it’s clear that it’s impossible for him to love, or at least to do so correctly (read: unselfishly). There was a lot of misplaced affection in this episode, both filial and sexual: Don’s sudden concern for Mitchell Rosen, Dorothy’s ambiguous love for Manolo, Bob Benson’s ill-fated knee-play with Pete. (Did anyone else feel that it strained credulity that a schemer like Bob would choose this moment, so soon after Pete’s homophobic slur about “degenerates,” to make a move?) There was also lots of caretaking under false pretenses, for the wrong reasons. Don wants to help Mitchell out of a sense of guilt toward Arnold, or to make amends for his own desertion, or residual love for Sylvia, or some anxiety cocktail of all three; in any case, it’s clearly not about the kid himself. Pete’s desire to see his mother “taken care of” is also a desire to dominate and infantilize her. (“She has the mind of a child. That man took advantage of her,” he says of Manolo, but he could just as easily be talking about himself.) Both Don and Pete are playing daddy, but neither out of love.
Furthermore, Don and Pete are both false fathers in another sense. The strings that get pulled on Mitchell’s behalf are pulled by Ted Chaough, not Don; his sense of emasculation in the scene where Arnold and Mitchell express their gratitude is palpable. And Pete’s “gift” to his mother is facilitated by Bob, which is what allows him to throw it cruelly back in the latter’s face: “I told you we needed a nurse and you sent us a rapist!” Don and Pete are men who understand that there is power in generosity, but who seem constitutionally unable to be truly generous themselves. They want to rise above their miserable childhoods by being good fathers, but find themselves stuck playing the part of “sour little boys.”
So it’s not just Sally, ultimately, who is confronted with terrible knowledge about a parent in this episode. For Freud, what he called “the primal scene”—which, like much of human sexuality, he considered mainly from the male point of view—represented a traumatic moment of sexual knowledge, and was inextricably bound up with the fear of castration. (The locus classicus is his 1918 paper “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis,” better known as “The Wolf Man.”) But it also represents a moment of estrangement from one’s parents, where one understands that they have priorities other than to take care of you. What Sally sees is the truth, according to Freud (and to Matthew Weiner); everything else that takes place after this revelation is a futile, belated attempt to cover up that trauma. “Is it really so impossible to imagine?” Bob Benson asks Pete in his office, inviting him to entertain the idea that the love between Dorothy and Manolo is real:
Couldn’t it be that, if someone took care of you, very good care of you, if this person would do anything for you, if your well-being was his only thought, is it impossible that you might begin to feel something for them? When there’s true love, it doesn’t matter who it is.
But of course it does matter who it is, and—though the distinctions may often be lost on us—when and why they’re caring for you. Pete, to his credit, seems to realize this, at the same moment that he takes a page from the Don Draper playbook by reducing the whole situation to prostitution: “Tell him I’ll give him a month’s pay. And tell him it’s disgusting.”
Do not be more specific,
Evan Kindley is a cultural critic living in Los Angeles and the senior humanities editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.