Mad Men review: “Flight 1”

On February 20, 1962 at 14:47 UTC, the Mercury spaceship Friendship 7 containing Col. John Glenn set off from Cape Canaveral. This was the first American orbital flight, coming after several delays while the Atlas rockets were tested and ready for safe use. The five-hour mission was a complete success and the newly minted hero splashed down at 19:43 UTC.

On March 1, Col. Glenn was honored with a ticker tape parade in Manhattan.

But tonight’s episode wasn’t about heroic moments in American history. It was about obligations and expectations. On March 1, while John Glenn was enjoying his parade, American Airlines Flight 1 crashed into Jamaica Bay shortly after takeoff from Idlewild Airport (now JFK.) All 95 souls aboard were lost, and in the world of Mad Men, one of those souls was Pete Campbell‘s father.

For the remainder of the episode, Pete tries to figure out how to behave, how to act, and what to do.

Last season we saw Pete’s father one time. A cold, disapproving man, it was obvious he’d never bothered to teach his son how to be a man. His open contempt for Pete reflected more on himself than on his confused son, struggling to chart a course without sextant or compass. Pete flailed, seeking approval from Don Draper and coming up wanting. In an episode dealing with the sudden loss of his father, we could be sure he would seek approval and guidance again.

But Pete’s problems run deep. He really doesn’t know what to do, so he mimics the behaviors of others when he isn’t given marching orders. Looking to Don for comfort and guidance – the closest he seems to have found to a father – Don tells him to be with his family. It’s what Don would do. Pete actually seems just wise enough to question whether Don really would do that, but follows the advice regardless.

Pete goes to his family. His mother, either in shock or showing the first signs of dementia, babbles somewhat incoherently while brother Bud handles the arrangements. Bud’s distressed to find out their father was insolvent, but it doesn’t phase Pete. He knew he wasn’t getting anything. Their mother’s trust is finished as well, so Pete’s life should become even more constrained in the months ahead.

While Pete deals with his loss and its repercussions, bad things are afoot at Sterling-Cooper. Duck’s got a buddy at American, and he calls him right after the crash. American feels it might need to go another way with advertising in the wake of the biggest air disaster in US history (at that time,) and Duck wants to make sure he can position Sterling-Cooper to make a bid for that business. That means dropping Mohawk.

Moments after hearing of the crash, Don had Harry kill any Mohawk print ads ready to go. It was imperative that no ads for their airline appear next to photos of the downed jet. Not very long later, Don’s in Bert Cooper‘s office with Cooper, Roger Sterling, and Duck being told to cut Mohawk loose. In order to have a foothold on the $7M American Airlines account, they need to abandon their current $1M Mohawk account. Don resists, but eventually loses. His decent adman routine means nothing to the others in the face of that business. Even failing to get that business would be good in Rogers’ eyes, as it would put the firm “on a list, in the New York Times, of big boys pitching for this business.”

Pete goes looking for Don for more comfort, but Don’s too angry about the Mohawk deal to talk with him. That’s a shame for both men, as Don would have had a powerful ally in this fight had he succored Pete. Instead, Pete ends up picking the next surrogate daddy on his list, Duck. Doing that means showing up to help sell the American deal. What agency could be better? Pete’s tacit approval to the deal gives American cover. Look, we killed his dad and he still wants to do business with us.

In the end, Don lets Mohawk go. It visibly pains him, particularly when it’s clear the client saw it coming. He leaves Don alone in the restaurant with words that should be music to an adman’s ears but cut deep: “I’m almost embarrassed to say this. You fooled me.”

Pete’s problems with expectations and obligations weren’t the only ones tonight. We finally find out what happened with Peggy and her baby. Committed for a psych evaluation in the hospital, the baby is now in her sister’s care. Peggy’s clearly happy enough with the arrangement and resents the pressure from her mother to go to church or live anything like the life her mother would have her live. If Pete’s the modern man – unsure and confused as to who he is supposed to be – Peggy is the modern woman – absolutely sure of her path, no matter the cost or opinions of others.

Other Thoughts

Paul’s little party in Montclair, NJ played right into tonight’s themes. Like Pete, Paul’s trying to figure out who he is and what kind of man he’s going to be. Apparently right now, he thinks that’s a beatnik who lives 20 miles west of the Village, dates a black girl for street cred, and wears a scarf like Paul Lynde. He is the consummate poser, and it’s hard for me to feel bad for him when Joan tears him apart in the bullpen.

You, out there in your poor little rich boy apartment in Newark or wherever. Walking around with your pipe and your beard. Falling in love with that girl just to show how interesting you are.

He’s less sure of his place in the world than Pete. Hell, he’s less sure of his place than Sal, married and subsuming his sexuality. At least Sal and his wife seem to enjoy the same things, evidenced at the party as they watch Ken Cosgrove dally with a drunk girl.

Back home at Don’s house, amid all the pressure at work, we see more of the fallout from the lost 15 months. Don’s spirit has been broken, making Betty’s renewed interest in dressage all the more telling. Whatever way she pulls the rein, he turns. Whatever she wants him to do or say he will; he doesn’t want to fight.

It’s nice to be reminded how very bad a mother Betty is, though. I’d almost forgotten. Pity poor Don who sees not the perfect wife and mother but a cruel and uncaring shrew.

Lastly, this episode was dedicated to Christopher Allport who played Pete’s father. It shows Matt Weiner‘s boldness that instead of skirting around the death of Allport – who died in an avalanche this past January – he put it front and center. Pete’s father was always most important in his absence from Pete’s life; now that absence is permanent.

What did everyone else think?