The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance

 Posted by on April 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm  Mad Men, Season 5
Apr 052012

If the Generation Gap was the tune playing softly in the background of the Season Five premiere, this week we got the lyrics. Tea Leaves is an episode filled with kids — actual children and teens, and of course, discussions about them.

“I’m the bay-bee,” Megan tells Don, of her relationship with her parents. “You know I used to love that kid?” Roger fumes, after Pete pops the champagne for Mohawk. 

Then there are the actual kids: young teens smoking in a hallway, forming a flood when the Stones show up; children playing with sparklers on a lawn; and finally, two girls with sundaes. Never mind that one of those girls is the mother of the second: Betty still acts like a child, ensuring that others will continue to treat her as one.

Everywhere the kids appear, I sense something heavy and dark. In the vulnerability of Don’s backstage conversation partner, the gloom of the apartment new copywriter Michael Ginsberg shares with his father, or the dusk overtaking the children on the Francis lawn, I feel something coming for them.

The backstage girl sees only light. “None of you want any of us to have a good time,” she says to Don. “No, we’re worried about you,” he clarifies.

When you have a teenager, you realize exactly how young they are. At 12, Sally is at most a couple of years younger than the backstage girl. Don looks into that child’s face and sees his own. Is he thinking of Sally when he muses to Harry that he’s “not sure” the Rolling Stones are “good” for their young fans?

The kids think they’re fine. They’re healthy, smart, and capable, and they believe they’re ready for anything. “You need to relax,” the backstage girl chides Don. “I apologized because I’m brave,” Michael Ginsberg informs Peggy.

But are the boys ready for Vietnam? Are the girls ready for what free love will do to their bodies, their self-worth, their hearts? They are innocent of the terrible damage even the sun can do: Megan displayed her sunburn with the same pride Jane Siegel once showed in her own. How will they protect themselves against everything else?

History tells us that this generation finds its way, and if you see Mad Men as a story of the 1960’s, that is a comfort. I don’t have that luxury. To me, the show is as contemporary as a young woman bathing herself in ads. It’s as current as a flood of girl-children at a concert: ready to offer anything they have, believing that what they will get in return is love.

It is as modern as a young man who lives with his father. That is a story of now. As a parent of a teenager and a college senior, I know my kids wouldn’t identify with it. They imagine themselves cutting loose at will, enjoying the freedom they are sure is waiting.

I know their culture has something else in mind. And like Don Draper, I am worried.

(Thanks and apologies to Vampire Weekend, for inspiring this post.)


  40 Responses to “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance”

  1. I also have a college student son. Yup.
    But isn’t Don worrying about sex…drugs…and rock and roll here? I guess lots of casual sex and alcohol were OK for HIM, but this new stuff, where very young and even “nice” girls are brazenly seeking sex and excitement is something else. Kind of hypocritical, really. Double standard? He never seemed too worried about the effect of HIS womanizing on the women he messed with.
    Did he worry about Stephanie that way, too? I can’t recall.
    I’ve never been too clear on how “modern” Don is in his thinking. He keeps saying he’s 40 and thus too old … too old for new ideas, though?

    • Don’s approach to Stephanie confused me a little.

      I think she was slightly younger than Megan (she was in college?), but until she dropped the bomb about Anna’s illness, Don seemed pretty interested in her. If also a bit parental, at least in his reaction to the idea of Stephanie hitchhiking home.

      I do think Don now has a double standard. He’s the father of a preteen daughter: of course he does.

      • When Don was in Cali to sell the house, he asked Stephanie if she was going back to school. I don’t think this was small talk. I think he was genuinely concerned for her but just like with the girl at the concert, stopped short of giving advise of what he thought they should be doing instead.

    • Double Standard? Absolutely. We have two standards for minors and adults. No hypocrisy there (in 1966) unless our minor/adult divide is hypocritical too.

      As for Stephanie – Don’s leaning in when he dropped her off was cringe-worthy. But then, he was in a different place, than he is “now”.

      Besides, Stephanie implied she was an “adult” old enough to drink legally. Still made me cringe, however.

  2. “Too old” to truly get the appeal,I guess.
    And as for the double standard? Absolutely! My dad didn’t want me having nearly as good a time as he did, and told me so. I managed to muddle through, anyway;)

  3. Anne, I feel like maybe we should restrict your Mad Men watching; the things it makes you ponder break my heart.

    jzzy, I thought about Stephanie this morning after reading Anne’s post (I’m lucky; I get to see them first). Don was already sliding into post-divorce bottom by that point, he had already slept with Alison, he was, as Matt says on that commercial that AMC runs a lot, “breaking his own rules.” I don’t think a Don that wasn’t deeply depressed or confused would have hit on Stephanie.

    Why do I think that? When Stephanie asks “What are you doing?” he replies “I don’t know.” I think he didn’t.

    • I feel like maybe we should restrict your Mad Men watching; the things it makes you ponder break my heart.

      Mine too. I’m just a ray of freaking sunshine. :)

      Thanks for the reminder about what Don said to Stephanie — I’d forgotten. As Faye said to him around that time, post-divorce Don was confusing a lot of things.

    • He knew what, he just didn’t stop to think about why (wish we had font formatting — desperately need italics here). That’s the Don I don’t like much. Mr. Impulsively and Reflexively Try to Solve Huge Problems with Sex and Booze and if That Fails, Petulant Brooding Silent Don.

      Let’s see if this leopard can change his spots. Tony Soprano couldn’t. If MM is a tragedy (which I think it is), he won’t either. Part of the charm of the show, sadly.

      • If we ever see a paunchy leisure suited Don hitting on women in a disco, I will. Just. Die.

      • jzzy, the comments support basic html. Put the letter i inside angle brackets to turn on italics, /i to turn them off. The same thing with b gives you bold, and u gives you underline.

        The html deletes my attempts to show you angle brackets–they are the less than and greater than signs on the comma and period keys.

        Example, using parenthesis instead of angle brackets: (i)italic(/i)

      • I don’t think Don will change his spots either (I like him because he’s been real good at picking his spots actually, though that’s a different topic entirely), but I think your question “If Mad Men is a tragedy . . .” is a really good one to address in detail sometime, (maybe that should be address again? I’m not completely sure if one of the more dramatic-artsy Basketeers hasn’t written about this thoroughly, lately?)

        I stopped, early on, viewing MM as Tragedy. I don’t think the show completely worked for me, at least not in comparison to my current level of appreciation, until The Gold Violin. The Rothko caper nudged me into a different perspective, and I adopted it. From then on, I’ve felt a unique personal affinity for the show.

        I think I would feel frustrated and somewhat unfulfilled watching it mostly through the Tragedy lens now. (I’m making no particular judgement here, it’s just me theorizing.) I’d be waiting to be paid off at some time eventually, much like Soprano fans wanted Tony to get his (and their anticipated) comeuppance. As another example of filtering through the traditional filters, I think the NY Book of Review piece a while back feels so antagonistic because Mendelsohn has Classically Tragic, and probably Tragically Classic, expectations of MM that weren’t being met.

        I think MM has a deeper connection to the picaresque novel form. Don is the rogue, and always will be. The story does not expect him to become, what is generally considered to be, better. He’s there to be the accepted focus at the center of the circus playing out around him. He’s not written with the meaning or the intention of a classic antihero. Don just exists.

        Excuse the run-out here. I do have to give due credit though, “If Mad Men is a tragedy . . .” opened a floodgate of thought for this old LOM this morning. Funny how that happens. Thanks. Tragically, no work will be done in my cube today. Don’t tell the Work Ethicist though, I don’t want no trouble.

        • I am no literary expert but if I understand your reference correctly, I think you may be on to something.

          I don’t expect Don Draper to have a happy-ever-after ending. Maybe he’ll find a modicum of peace with his own identity. That to me is the big question – not will Don find love or will Don find success. He’s had both of those. It’s will Don find Don? (Or whatever name you wish to use). But I kind of expect to NOT get a definitive answer. I guess in the uber-character-realism that is the world of Mad Men, whatever you are now is just a state of being. Change is inevitable and Mrs Blankenship’s end was a good as others if it made her happy. And she was a masochist and it did make her happy to be Don’s secretary and lug those bottles of booze from the pantry. That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it. That and she was an astronaut.

        • LOM, you marvelous sprite. :)

          Having the usual (for many on this blog) degrees in English, I have often seen Shakepearean universality in the Weinerverse:

          He has mannerisms; but they are mostly worn as clothes—adopted or discarded for fashion’s or season’s sake … When we say that a phrase is Shakespearean, it is rather because of some supreme and curiously simple felicity than because of any special “hall-mark,” such as exists in Milton and even in Dante. […] In fact, it is possible to talk about Shakespeare’s style for ever, but impossible in any way to define it.

          I didn’t write that — it’s here — but I believe it. For me, the attraction of the world Matt Weiner has created is its deft blend of tragedy and comedy at once (Guy got run over by a lawnmower! Lost his foot! Horribly funny!). But it goes deeper than that, as does Shakespeare: Weiner’s facility with language in performance makes so much room for the imagination of the audience that we can literally find something new in every reading.

          Weiner’s characters, like Shakespeare’s, have dimension. They’re good at pranks and disguises. They range from the excellent villain (Iago) to the ambitious couple in love (Pete and Trudy Campbell), and they are as flawed as they are fascinating. In fact, as in Mad Men, the fascination is really in the flaw.

          I don’t know how many times I’ve read Hamlet or seen it performed, and each time I find something new (the seen vs. the hidden, humor and humiliation, etc.). Mad Men does the same for me.

          I know what I’m saying in comparing Matt Weiner to Shakespeare. It’s deliberate. The man is that good.

      • Hey jzzy55,

        Here’s a link to a HTML text formatting work page that helped me figure out how to manipulate the tags and attributes shorthanded below the comment box.

        It’s old school comment formatting round here, not a new-fangled widget or dingus to be found. You want to make your bold italicized omelettes, you have to crack your own eggs.

        Hope this wasn’t obnoxious helps!

        • Blockquote italicizes by default I see. Therefore neutralizes the tag within.

          Formatting FAIL!

          (who didn’t see this coming?)

          • I’ll have to make emphasis the old-fashioned way, I guess — with meaning embedded in the syntax, context and word choice. Oy.

  4. Anne B,

    This is a fabulous post in a narrow analytical sense (the specific content you offer), but even more so in terms of identifying Mad Men as a contemporary show about the “now” of personal and generational tensions and challenges. The 1960s is just the backdrop for more fundamental trans-generational stories about large swaths of the American experience of culture and sexuality, particularly among the (upper) middle class. The intersection of “American Dream presented to us by advertisers” and “American Reality as it is” is a constant feature of Mad Men…. it’s not a past-tense notion or concept.

    Thank you for this!

  5. My boys are 11 1/2 and nearly 15, and just now beginning to appreciate little independencies. And like Don, I worry about them, and I can’t even imagine what life will be like them in 20-30 years. Thanks for the fascinating link and great observation here.
    Every generation thinks that they will be the best, the smartest, and the most productive generation to be born. But economic and social situations of their time cannot always guarantee their dreams. I’ve always seen MM as a reflection of the past with current, real undertones. And just as the kids and teens will face the tsunami of cultural change in the 60’s, our children will have to face the tsunami’s of wars, computer viruses, natural disasters, and problems we can’t even imagine now. As parents, the best we can offer is our continued love and support, and motivate them to work hard, love well, and remember those less fortunate than themselves.

    • For me, the payoff in the Esquire story came near the end, beginning with the line, “Get ready for the summer. It’s going to be hot.”

      Millennials — with all their education and support from well-meaning, loving parents — are un- and underemployed in staggering numbers. The same thing was happening in my early 20’s (just before we elected Clinton); I remember well that feeling of no one I knew having any money. The situation this generation faces is several times worse than that. While I wouldn’t say they are better informed than we were, there are many more of them, and they are better disposed to action than we ever were.

      In Mad Men, we know the Summer of Love is coming. Something else is in store for us now, as young people realize and begin to wield their power. It may be darker than the Summer of Love, but I’m expecting the kind of “dark” I like. That light-between-the-clouds effect is beautiful.

      The weather is changing, both for our friends on Mad Men and for us.

      • Yes indeed. Anne, I love your poetic writing. especially about the clouds. As the expression goes, “When God closes a door, he opens a window” (Of course we knew what Roger did with that expression!
        Thanks, Tess

      • From the Esquire article –

        But the choice young Americans face is between a party that claims to represent their interests but fails to and a party that explicitly opposes their interests and actively works to disenfranchise them.

        Some choice. Hopeless really. We should be worried for ourselves. This is the system we’ve allowed to be constructed and it commands the police-state we permitted to be built. The millenials will have to fight us to take it down. Mrs. Garrett, listen to the thunder.

        The mess is monsterous and global. To co-opt, first, an Einstein quote – it has become appallingly obvious that our Capitalism has exceeded our humanity. Then, a Chinese curse – we live in interesting times.

        • I think we are worried for ourselves.

          The irony of posting the Esquire story in this post is that, as a Baby Boomer, Sally Draper is one of the “kids” whose numbers in retirement may bankrupt the “kids” for whom we worry now.

          Our elders teach us how to live. Their lack of provision for future generations shows us what to value, so that when we are elders ourselves, we follow the pattern: Why should I pay for education? My kids are grown.

          Interesting times indeed.

          • Hey y’all!

            Thanks for this great discussion! It’s amazing that this masterpiece of a Tv-series AND this wonderful site can generate such thoughtful interpretations and analysis about the current state of western societies.

            I’m 26 (not from the US) and I think there is a great feeling of frustration and powerlessness within my generation. We can clearly see that there is so much wrong in the world, but we don’t have the power to really change anything. We have to start building our life right now, but there is no feeling of security whatsoever, everything seems to change so quickly and you have no idea what your life will be like in a year or even half a year or a few months.
            I think this feeling of insecurity and not-at-all-knowing-whats-going-to-happen shortens our time horizon significantly which leads to a feeling of even greater acceleration of time and change and powerlessness.

            At the same time I think a lot of us are realizing that “we” can do a lot to change things for the positive AND that “time is on our side”. The older we get the more important and powerful we are going to be. Can you imagine what’s going to happen in the next 10 years? If these tendencies of change on a global level keep up at this speed? It’s going to be really interesting indeed!
            And I can only speak for myself here, but I am quite optimistic about this distant but not that distant future. Who knows, maybe I’m just naive, maybe one has to be at/in this age… 😉
            I don’t know…
            I’m sorry, I don’t know how I ended up here, I actually wanted to talk about Mad Men too, and what the younger generation represents in the series. I wish I could articulate my thoughts a little better, but english isn’t my mother language.
            I just wanted to contribute to this great discussion and thank everyone for their interesting thoughts and AnneB for this great post!
            Thanks! 😀

          • Muniel,

            Welcome, and thank you for your thoughts! Which are eloquent: I would never have guessed this isn’t your first language.

            I can imagine what will happen in the next ten years, actually. I think I’m looking forward to it. If your generation values change over comfort (and my older kid seems to), who knows what you can do?

            Thanks again, Muniel. I hope we’ll hear from you again. :)

  6. I´m not sure if young people today are unaware of cultural and social developments. I think they are more worried about their future and social and economical development than back then.
    The baby boomer generation in the sixties appears to me as more optimistic, and the huge difference between then and now is, there were more young people than old people and this young people were feeling the power of their quantity (They had the majority in the society), they were going to change the society. May be Don isn´t only worried about their well being, he may be also worried about this amount of young people and the change they might bring.
    Today the situation in western industrial countries is different, there are more old people than young people. The society gets older and this will change the life in the future. Fewer and fewer young people have to take care for more and more old people, plus the recession and further economical decline in the future. I think the biggest demographic group will dominate the social life and values in a country, back then it was the young generation in the future it will be the older generation.

  7. I love your posts. And yes THE message of the episode is that the adults are both worried about them and seeing their own mortality. Clearly they had Don looking his most mature in this episode and a fish out of water next to the “Sally-in-a-few-years” teen he was questioning. But your point about it being so relevant to today is really spot on.

    Parallels I see:

    1967 Summer of Love – expressing themselves through sexuality
    Today-ish Self-ploitation – twitter, facebook, tumbler, how much of themselves are our children giving away over the internet and does it make them lonelier

    1960’s Vietnam – a war not of their choosing, one they were not prepared for, devastating lives
    Today-ish – setting aside Afghanistan for a moment, the war today is the collapse of the New Deal economic theory and an upside down demographic for workers/beneficiaries relationship. Our kids were raised by baby boomers who gave them a good life. They can’t find jobs to live in the manner they were accustomed to, they are sinking under college debt, and the health care crisis is getting worse. Many are not prepared to live with less affluence than their parents but that’s a real possibility. As hard medical choices get made and dreams get dashed, I think many lives will be drastically different than what their parents planned for them.

    1966 – Don’t trust anyone over 30.
    Today-ish – The multitasking, techno-revolution crowd often (no matter what age) has no tolerance for those who are computer illiterate. And the Baby-Boomers screwed up the environment AND the economy.

    1966 – up and comers worked hours needed to get the job done, old-times want a 3 martini lunch
    Today-ish – overtime? get serious, I have other things to do. Most of the overtime is the over-40 crowd.

    Finally, racism/sexism:
    1966 – Civil War movement about to begin, bra burning about to begin
    Today-ish – we may have an African American president but on-line internet hate-speak is horrific and loud, women are in powerful positions and in combat but we haven’t cracked the oval office yet and work distribution at home has not achieved parity for many

    And it goes on and on.

    I really do think Mad Men is about today. And I think I’m just as worried about the kids now as Don was then. The massive demographic shift of aging baby-boomers with single or no children is reshaping our society. I don’t think we’re well structure to handle this.

  8. I’ve always thought that Mad Men was about relationships and the human experience. The fact that it takes place during the 60’s doesn’t really matter to much for me. While there are some things that happened during that time that affect how the characters interact, it really is no different than if it took place in any other time period. We are always affected by what happens around us and most of the time, we can only see how events affected us once it has become “The Past”. The relationships between the adults and the children are really no different today. Don is getting older, and as you get older you lose that feeling of being invincible that children and young adults have. They believe they are “ready for anything” and in reality – they are. Not having the history adults have gives you the fearlessness to experience life. Youth has no inhibitions – which is why we see the contrasts of characters like Megan, the girl at the Stones concert and the new guy (Ginsberg) and some of the older characters. And really that’s the way it should be. We worry as adults because we’ve experienced it already. It’s a rite of passage for youth and it’s timeless.

    On a side note – I disagree with some of the comments regarding Don and Stephanie. I think he was being purely flirtatious and wasn’t really pursuing anything. Testing his machismo so-to-speak.

  9. Great post – I took the opposite take – that Don is now a “square.” Check it out:

  10. I haven’t been able to adequately articulate my sentiments, but agree that this episode, particularly the scene at the Stones concert was significant in the Don / Sally story arc. Many of this website’s community have speculated about what would become of her, child of the sixties, from the very beginning of the show.

    If you were young in the sixties and fifties, everything felt false everywhere you turned. And if you were a kid in 1965, you were on your own, because your parents, God bless them, they could not understand the incredible changes that were taking place.

    (from Bruce Springsteen’s recent keynote at SXSW.* Really a great read on its own, for anyone that is into Mad Men, the 60’s or rock music in general. He touches on identity, authenticity and a Woody Guthrie.)

    While reading it, I was brought right back to the this thread. I think most parents had no clue. Don seems an exception, and maybe that’s what he fears: he’s been to the edge and back, and knows what’s waiting for kids that want to throw it all away.

    * full text:

    • My parents weren’t so clueless. My father came out on the front porch with me and a bunch of cousins and other kids and said, “So let me see what this pot thing is all about.” Talk about a buzz killer. My mother told me stories about wild fraternity parties at Ivy league colleges in the 40s. They were hardly square. I got that Frank Sinatra was my mother’s version of Beatlemania. My aunt was a nut for several Jimmys — Hendrix and Cliff, plus Morrison. But not everyone had parents like that, I realize.

      • Thanks for posting that. It’s what I dig about this site—the personal and informal connections to a history that I wouldn’t get from my own family.

        btw major formatting fail on my Springsteen quote 😮

    • Pete,

      Thank you so much for this. Honestly. I knew Bruce did the keynote at SXSW (friend of mine was there for it), but for some reason I’d missed it until now. Great stuff.

      We can go, “Mad Men: Best show in the history of TV, retro take on timeless themes,” or we can go, “Oh my God, that show sucks.”

      I’m clearly in the former camp. Also, I just feel sorry for people who don’t know what truth core is.

      (Thanks again.) :)

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