Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Arrangements" (season 3, episode 4)

Mad Men - "The Arrangements" (season 3, episode 4)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Wednesday I will review another 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 September 6, 2009/written by Andrew Colville, Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): With her grandfather now a permanent resident of the household, taking over various activities from her pregnant mother, Sally lives in the brief glow - very brief as it turns out - of being Gene's favorite. He lavishes praise on her, shares (unflattering) memories of her own mother's childhood, treats her to ice cream, and even lets her drive the car around the neighborhood. When Gene suddenly dies in line at the A & P and a policeman shows up at the door with his hat in his hand, the little girl is crushed. That night she reprimands her parents and her uncle and aunt for laughing in the kitchen: "He's dead and he's never coming back and you're all pretending like it didn't happen!" For a moment, Sally experiences the sort of affection her harsh mother and enigmatic father don't offer, despite the bourgeois comfort they provide. Bobby too has some memorable experiences with the old man, who opens a box full of forty-five-year-old artifacts from his trip to Europe as a young soldier. Don is weirded out by the jingoistic appropriation - "that hat belonged to a dead man, take it off" - and the episode ends to the jaunty beat of "Over There," commemorating Gene's passage to a new, old pasture as Don (probably with a decent amount of repressed relief) closes the fold-out and starts to clean out the final earthly room of Mr. Hofstadt.

There are a couple cute tie-ins to another storyline here, as Peggy's mother grieves the death of "the Holy Father" and a member of the Olson family moves away from the homestead, in this case heading for Manhattan rather than heaven. Peggy's effort to find a roommate among Sterling Cooper employees backfires when her too-formal advertisement gets pranked by co-workers. The copywriter ends up seeking assistance from Joan, who suggests bouncy language (deceptively so) and an unnerved Peggy realizes that her new "roomie" is probably going to hate her; Karen Ericson (Carla Gallo) is a freewheeling motormouth who's not the right kind of Scandinavian (or who thinks Peggy isn't). Helpful as Joan's advice sounds, it's premised on Peggy forcing herself to become someone she isn't. Others at Sterling Cooper can relate to that conundrum, as demonstrated when Sal's wife desperately tries to seduce her husband, preoccupied as he is with the Patio advertisement he's been assigned to direct. This is his first opportunity to move into a new field as the art department begins to shrivel. His enthusiasm only emerges when he's acting out the commercial for her (impersonating a fluttery young woman who prances through a single shot), and her face falls as she closely watches his movements and demeanor closely.

The Patio reps have a similarly unsettled reaction to Sal's spot when they screen it; he's delivered exactly what they asked for - a beat-for-beat reproduction of Bye Bye Birdie's opening sequence - but it just doesn't click the way the original did. Is the problem simply, as Ken chuckles, "She's not Ann Margaret"? Or does Sal bring a different energy to the material than the horny men are looking for? Either way, Don brushes it off and reassures Sal: "Don't let this ruin the one good thing to come out of this whole mess: you're a commercial director now." Don's less sure about another business matter; Pete offers the agency, on a silver platter, his college peer Horace Cook, Jr., a scion of immense wealth. The young fool insists that jai alai, the Spanish indoor ballgame, will replace baseball within a decade and wants to throw a million dollars behind a full-color print/TV/radio campaign that the giddy creative and business teams know will never achieve his lofty aims. Don's guilty conscience (he dubs the cashgrab "undignified") is somewhat assuaged by old man Cook, who knows one agency or another will take his kid's money - might as well be his friend Bert's. Perhaps the delusional, spoiled brat will even learn something in the process. Eventually even Don is on board. After accidentally using the young Cook's equipment to smash up the company ant farm he quips, "Bill it to the kid." And then we see Joan spray the little farm's residents with poison, an arch, amusing and...somewhat ominous image.

My Response:
"Grandpa Gene," in the last episode but particularly this one, offers a great window into the personalities of the Draper kids. In Bobby's case (after two seasons, I couldn't have even told you his name until now), this means the kid actually gets to have a scene structured around him. Aside from the anecdote about copying pictures at school many episodes ago, I don't remember him doing anything other than standing in the background until that spiked helmet comes out of the old box. In Sally's case, of course, this means much more. Like Bobby, Sally didn't have much to do in season one - for the first dozen or more episodes, both children served as props to be gestured towards as reminders that Don was a family man as well as adman. In season two, however, her role began to grow: she triggering Don's memorable thousand-yard stare at his own reflection and snuck a smoke in the bathroom before caustically attacking her mom. Her emergence as a full-fledged character is a reminder that while this is a show about the sixties, until now it's been told by folks from the Greatest and Silent Generations rather than the baby boomers who dominate these narratives in most re-tellings. It's Sally who witnesses the burning monk burning on TV, one of the most unsettling iconic images of the decade seared into her memory in a moment of grief.

The image is also an effectively subtle tie-in to Gene's service in "the Great War," a conflict at least as traumatic and chaotic as Vietnam, although Gene's old-timey recollections and the thrust of George M. Cohan's words over the closing credits render it safely antiquated and heroic. When Don digs up an old Whitman photo from a shoebox later that night, is he spurred by Archibald's own experiences in the trenches? Incidentally, with the World War I mementos and the evening news added to the mix, Mad Men has visualized every U.S. war over the past seventy-five years; if it can dig up one of the last supercentenarian (or include a nonagenarian for a Depression-era flashback) then even the Civil War could get a nod. Despite many references, World War II has never received the same visual touchstones that the Spanish-American War, World War I, Korea, and now Vietnam have; I wonder if eventually we'll be offered sequences of an adolescent Dick Whitman on the homefront? Maybe we'll learn why he didn't leave home until the Communists crossed the 38th parallel years later - he was already old enough to serve by '44.

Of course, much of "The Arrangements" is characterized not by world-historical significance but small human moments carrying wallops either devastating or aching. To the latter category, with a healthy amount of mirth mixed in, belongs "Ho Ho"'s absurd athletic ambitions, to the former category, arguably (it's subtle but all the more piercing for that) belongs Kitty's final recognition of who she has married. This is one of the developments I'm most curious to follow up on, and along with Sal's (troubled) emergence as a director it confirms what the season premiere hinted: this season is going to give his character a more central place in its ongoing storylines. Sal's co-workers may not be able to identify what mysterious, impossible-to-name quality is missing from their Bye Bye Birdie re-enactment, but suddenly, horribly, poor Kitty can - and that quality isn't simply Ann Margaret.

Next: "The Fog" • Previous: "My Old Kentucky Home"

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