Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Inheritance" (season 2, episode 10)

Mad Men - "The Inheritance" (season 2, episode 10)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 5, 2008/written by Lisa Albert, Marti Noxon, Matthew Weiner; directed by Andrew Bernstein): "The Inheritance" most obviously takes its title from Pete's fraught relationship with his mother; she threatens to cut him out of the (unbeknownst to her, practically nonexistent) estate if he and Trudy adopt a child. Pete later informs Peggy, in yet another awkward office interaction, that he hates his mother and grouses that everything's "so easy for" Peggy. Undoubtedly, the two will eventually collapse under the weight of irony this thick. Pete's two-way parental problems don't get a lot of screentime, but that title stands in for a lot of what we end up seeing in the very family-defined episode 10. Betty's father has suffered a stroke, and the pretense that everything's fine, actually, collapses when he berates Don for being untrustworthy (tellingly, for having "no people") and twice mistakes Betty for his wife, harmlessly at first (he simply calls her by the wrong name) but eventually with immense discomfort, as he makes a coy remark and touches her breast. Don at least is able to be some small comfort during this uncomfortable weekend visit; although Betty exiles him to the floor of their guest bedroom, she eventually descends there to make love to him one night. When they return home, however, she won't even let Don take a shower inside the house.

Young Glen Bishop fares better when Betty discovers the child hiding in her backyard playhouse; he's run away from home and spent several nights in the same clothes, so she sends him off to be washed and lends him one of Don's t-shirts. They even sit together on the couch, watching cartoons and sipping Coke as the boy looks at his much older crush admiringly (at one point, he slips his hand into hers and begs her to run away with him: "I came to rescue you."). What Betty doesn't do - at least not until Carla comes home with her own children and interrupts the odd reverie - is call Glen's mother. When Helen finally shows up to express her worry and take Glen home, he glowers at Betty and declares, "I hate you." Helen returns to the Drapers' to reprimand Betty, but the demure housewife holds her own against the brassy divorcee with surprising firmness and no wonder - as she reveals, she may soon be joining that exclusive social club herself. Admitting she's not a very good mother, Helen sighs: "The hardest part is realizing you're in charge."

My Response: 
As the series continues its progression toward shaking off the order and authority of fifties America to embrace the upheaval of the sixties, familial relationships become thoroughly confused. It's hard not to notice signs of this in every corner of "The Inheritance." To wit... Betty tries to act like a warm mother toward Glen, but comes off more like an irresponsible big sister, while he clearly wants something more than just what he's missing from his own negligent parents. Meanwhile Betty's own father inadvertently degrades her in their family home, where she and Don can't decide if they're husband and wife or "just pretending." (Betty's role as daughter is also confounded by her sister-in-law taking an heirloom intended for her - the other source of the episode's title.) At the office baby shower, Harry himself wears a giant bonnet - as a confused Bert pops in to wish him "happy birthday" - and Hildy, whose fling nearly ended his marriage, attempts to congratulate him in a purely platonic way (boozy, she fails). Pete mutters about how it's "not natural" to adopt, yet it's not as if his actual flesh and blood inspires any affection; his attempt to explain this to Peggy only reminds us of both of their convoluted familial ties.

The end of the episode makes it clear that Mad Men will soon be using geography as well as family to suggest mercurial shifts in the ensemble's atmosphere. Pete and Don approach Los Angeles in an airplane (the sunlight that washes over Don's face as he peers out the window suggests a kind of deliverance; I don't think he'll be returning to Betty's side when he gets back, even if she wants him to). And Paul, who was supposed to go on the Californian business trip until Don - eager to get out of Dodge - pulled rank to supplant him, is heading South on a bus with his girlfriend. We last see him eagerly attempting to convince his fellow activists (or more likey, himself) that admen are at the forefront of some weird Marxist-Madison Avenue antiracist campaign. Apparently, the next episode will divide time between the workaday world of Sterling Cooper, the sundappled prosperity of the aerospace industry, and the violent intensity of the Freedom Rides. Meanwhile, back in Westchester, will Betty see the strange little boy again? It's no coincidence she dresses him up as Don or that he appears when Don is away. With a touch of surrealism, Mad Men is presenting Glen Bishop as the displaced, restless spirit of Dick Whitman, longing from the depths of confusion for his wife to be the mythical, romanticized mother he never had.

Next: "The Jet Set" • Previous: "Six Month Leave"

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