Out with the Old
Posted by Christopher Moltisanti on August 24, 2009
William: “What year is this from?”’
Don: “I don’t care.”
You know you’re watching a great show when what could have been a throwaway line ends up summarizing the thematic core of an episode. “Love Among the Ruins” (the title comes from a Robert Browning poem about love amid a decaying metropolis) is superficially about Don and Betty trying to figure out what to do about her ailing father and Peggy trying to be as desirable as Ann-Margaret. Underneath the surface, however, it’s about our complex, yet inextricable relationship with the past.
From the opening notes of “Bye Bye Birdie,” longing is at the center of this episode. Longing for a family life that never existed (Betty) and longing for a romanticized past (Kinsey and the anti-Madison Square Garden protestors). Of course, this entire series is devoted to deconstructing an idealized era. Still, this episode makes clear that despite the promise of the future and the flaws of the past, memory is powerful and inescapable.
Betty’s devotion to family, built on a sense of duty and an idealization of her mother that seems to have colored her impression of her father, echoes “Proshai, Livushka,” an episode early in the third season of “The Sopranos,” when Janice attempts to memorialize her narcissistic, manipulative mother (Carmela calls it “crock of shit”). Betty has her entire self-worth wrapped up in her father, in a way that doesn’t correlate with their actual relationship. As William says to his wife: “My father and her fought constantly. She never remembers that part.”
On the other side, there’s Don. While he scoffs at sentiment and nostalgia during his meeting with the Madison Square Garden exec, his deep-rooted desire for family is revealed his decision to take Gene into his home. Later, in one of the one of the more ambiguous scenes in the series, he daydreams at the May Day celebration, fingering the grass and watching the schoolteacher, probably remembering a time, and maybe a person, we’ll probably never learn anything about.
The tragic thing about this episode is that every character is seeking his own “city on a hill.” The alternative is muddy. While Browning ends his poem by stating, “love is best,” it’s not always there for the taking in “Mad Men.” Still, there’s a noticeable emptiness when Peggy leaves the boy’s apartment, and there’s a constant chill in the Draper house. Love is by no means the panacea for these characters. However, it’s a lofty goal, one more important (and fulfilling), Browning would argue, than past glories or future conquests.
But, as the episode ends, Peggy and Don are back at home in their impersonal element, kindred spirits fleeing the past and holding onto fragile identities. And they’re all alone.
(I forgot to give last week’s episode a rating, so, for the record, I give it a B+)