Don and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Takes a Sadistic Turn in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Seven
In the midst of the semi-organized chaos surrounding the merger of SCDP and Gleason Cutler and Chaough, Don Draper’s season-long squeeze Sylvia comes down with a fever- and unlike the famous Saturday Night Live skit, it’s not going to be satisfied by “more cow bell.” It’s something only our international man of mystery, Don, can satisfy. Sylvia’s itch becomes Don’s cue to descend into a brand of sadism in the bedroom and the office that was almost painful to watch throughout this episode, otherwise largely about people and relationships in transition.
The world is changing, perhaps too quickly for Don to process. While clients are reviewed and employees relocated or riffed, he decides to bring order to his life by essentially commanding Sylvia to be his love slave, only existing within the walls of Room 503 at the Sherry Netherland Hotel. Linda Cardellini, continuing (and perhaps ending) her brilliant work as the guilt ridden yet compliant and complicit lover, treats Don’s commands with a mixture of shock, disbelief and excitement, delirious to be so desired by her lover but at the same time a bit scared about where this turn into the darkness is taking her. A hot looking red dress from Saks- marking Sylvia as Don’s scarlett woman- does a bit to assuage her concern, but, let’s face it, being locked up in a small hotel room waiting for the man in your life to deign to come around, with no distractions other than the sound of your own thoughts (which run to fury with your husband and motherly concern for your son) can freak out the most ardent lover. The only thing Don didn’t do was handcuff her to the bed, and I was waiting for that. By the end of the hour, Sylvia makes a decision that shifts the balance of power between the two and disrupts Don’s equilibrium, perhaps for good. Plus, she probably avoided the handcuffs, which probably were going to emerge from the Draper repertoire next.
At work, Don moves quickly to mark his territory and show Ted Chaough who came out on top of this “merger of equals”. While sex is not an option as a weapon on Ted, he uses his other favorite pastime, booze, to subjugate Ted to his will. As a peace offering after slighting Ted earlier in the day, he comes into Ted’s office with a bottle of scotch and two cocktail glasses–always appropriate in Mad Men world–and he offers to brainstorm with Ted about Fleischman’s margarine. Predictably, while Ted gets drunker and less able to keep up with our hero, Don becomes more articulate and insightful, ultimately coming up with a fully fleshed out creative concept out of thin air (you can almost taste the pancakes, as Don’s word picture makes margarine seem like a sacrament). As a coda, Ted staggers into the creative bullpen, and veers far away from the oleo and into conducting a straw poll about who the creatives are supporting in the upcoming election. Of course, the majority supports Bobby Kennedy, but one staffer’s support of Nixon seems to be the stimulus for Ted to pass out.
The next day, Peggy Olson makes it clear which side of the Don/Ted divide she is on, when the next morning she quietly reads Don the riot act, telling Don that she understands what he’s is up to and she doesn’t appreciate it. She makes a damning declaration, telling her former mentor that she had hoped that some of Ted would rub off on Don, rather than the other way around. Then, in a truly audacious turn that would have been unthinkable to the Peggy Olson of old, she intimates that the reason Don merged with Ted’s firm was to get her to come back to SCDP. Peggy leaves Don with another Draperism that, from the look on Don’s face really stings, when she advises him to “move forward.” Don has lost the ability to handle Peggy, and his haplessness in sitting still for a brief but scathing lecture from his subordinate is an eloquent counterpoint to his determined domination of his lover, still at the time holed up in Room 503.
This was a revealing episode for the increasingly endearing Ted Chaough, who in ways both small and large reveals a big-hearted sense of humanity that represents a spark of light in an otherwise dark and foreboding episode. Ted gives up his seat in the staff meeting to a secretary after Pete Campbell imperiously demands that one be brought into the meeting room for him. He is egalitarian and respectful with the creatives in soliciting ideas for the margarine pitch, while using words like “groovy” and “rap” in a stilted but appreciated effort to connect with them on their level.
And, he is a loyal and encouraging friend to his dying partner, Frank Gleason (Craig Anton, very affecting here as Ted’s source of moral support) sharing a brotherly moment at a hospital bedside, where the dying man provides some excellent career advice about how to handle his new SCDP situation (He counsels Ted to let Don “win the first few rounds”). Kevin Rahm, who served largely as comic relief as a skittish neighbor on “Desperate Housewives”, does some particularly strong work in this episode, as he continues to subtly reveal deeper layers of Ted’s character, conveying real poignancy in his scene with Gleason. He is becoming the yin to Don’s yang, and by the end of the episode, you begin to root for him to come out on top and give Don a strong dose of his own medicine. He begins to do just that when he literally takes the driver’s seat on their harrowing flight to visit the Mohawk people- the tables turn and Ted is in control and knows what’s coming next, while a sweaty, shaken Don beats a terrified retreat into the book that he has purloined from Sylvia.
Speaking of darkness and descent, it becomes painfully clear that Pete is disintegrating before our eyes, increasingly paranoid and hysterical over real and perceived slights and terrified about losing his rightful place as the lead account man in the merged company. What makes this plot line resonate even more is the parallel descent of his imperious mother, who clearly is suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other mental defect as she still thinks her husband is alive, confuses Judy and Trudy, the two Campbell spouses, and is generally disoriented. She has such little credibility in Pete’s eyes that by the time she informs him in her scattered way that Robert Kennedy has been killed, Pete thinks she’s referring back to assassination of the president and pays no attention to her.
Another glimmer in the darkness is supplied courtesy of Roger Sterling, who fires Bert Peterson for the second time with such relish that you imagine Roger having Bert for dinner with some fava beans and a good Chi-ant-i. His obvious joy at the prospect of ridding the newly combined firm of the sycophantic, ineffectual account man is evident in every word that Roger happily utters. Roger is again a man in full, a major client win under his belt and happy to throw Peterson and his threats of client departures under the bus.
We would have hoped that Don would have reached his limit with Sylvia and been the one to call it quits and try to get his flagging marriage back on track. But it’s Sylvia, with a well-developed Catholic sense of shame and an increasing concern with the person she was becoming with Don, who tells Don it’s over. Don returns to his own apartment a defeated man, barely hearing a word Megan tells him while she recommends they go back to Hawaii together (when you’re hearing music that’s drowning out your wife’s voice while she’s telling you excitedly that she wants to cavort in a bathing suit with you in the middle of Paradise, your marriage is clearly in a world of hurt).
Next morning, Megan sits crying and unbelieving about yet another assassination- Bobby Kennedy’s. Don sits on the bed inches from her but a thousand miles away, grieving not for another dead Kennedy but for the death of another relationship. That final, brilliantly composed shot tells you all you need to know about where the Draper marriage- and the country- is headed.
Submitted by Harlan R. Teller
Author’s Note. So, what’s with this Bob Benson guy? Is he just a brown nose who is a nicer, more tolerable version of Pete Campbell, or is he a truly good person thrown into an Alice in Wonderland environment where he’s just trying to be helpful, get along and make his way in the world? I thought he demonstrated genuine concern with Joanie’s illness, and brilliantly manipulated the crusty nurse who was roadblocking Joan from getting treatment. Joanie is suspicious, but perhaps her mother is right- sometimes you need to accept acts of kindness for what they are. Then again, Joanie did save his job- just as she thought he was trying to do in being her knight in shining armor. Maybe you can be good and do yourself some good at the same time. I think the jury is still out on the bright, good looking young man. Then again, perhaps he’s the “Man with a Plan”, in the episode title. At least one friend of mine thinks his name is going to end up on the door.
And, perhaps I’m looking a bit too closely for connections, but “Reach out in the Darkness”, which closes the episode, was recorded by the now forgotten duo of Friend and Lover. We know by the close, that Don’s own friend and lover one floor below is gone, probably for good.