Sweater Manifesto

A blog about American zeitgeist and other things.

Month: June, 2013

California Dreamin—Going West the Default Option in Mad Men’s Season Six Finale

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The last episode of the season of Mad Men finds a number of central characters seeking a new start and a new life in the City of Angels.   Los Angeles may be “Detroit with palm trees”, in the words of Don Draper (a useful line at the time to get Stan off his back about relocating there), but with the Sunkist account providing the prospect of an anchor client for the firm, it’s time to heed the words of Horace Greeley a century earlier and “go west”.

For Don, it’s an opportunity to give up the bottle and rekindle his flagging relationship with Megan, while reliving the moments when things were still young in their relationship and the possibility of happiness with the younger woman was palpable.   For Ted, it’s a way out of a relationship that will destroy his family, and lead him down the path that has made his nemesis, Don, such a sad basket case.   For Pete, it’s the means of starting over, and getting away from an increasingly manipulative and malevolent Bob Benson (yes, that Bob Benson- the fallen Christ figure who’s beginning to look like Jesus’ opposite, literally killing Pete’s chances of a successful tenure as lead on the Chevy account by suckering the notoriously awful driver into getting behind the wheel of a stick shift Camaro, with embarrassing and career deflating results.  Not to mention his shaky choice of friends– at the very least his pal Manolo has married Pete’s mother for her money, and at the worst, has thrown her overboard during a honeymoon cruise as shark bait to hasten the collection of said money).

Don Draper’s noblest gesture- allowing a stricken, panicked Ted to go out to LA with his family in his place in order to save his rival’s marriage- may ironically have destroyed his own marriage while sending Megan to Hollywood stardom.    Don pleads for understanding from a fed up Megan when he breaks the news to her that LA is no longer part of the plan, and she notes that she has all kinds of meetings with producers already lined up, implying that she’s moving with or without him.    Chalk this up as an ingenious plot device hatched from the fertile brain of Matthew Weiner in order to send Megan to what we’ve thought all along was her manifest destiny.   It’s Don’s idea, but she acts on it by getting herself written off her soap opera, and he’s likely left behind, temporarily or perhaps for good, his vision of a “bicoastal” relationship notwithstanding.  Last year, it was Don walking off the set of Megan’s commercial breakthrough and back to his former ways; this year, it’s Megan walking out the door toward a new life, leaving Don to contemplate what’s next for him.    Whether he intends to win her back or go it alone is left tantalizingly unsaid.

The plot is propelled by Don’s belated but real recognition that he has a drinking problem, when he wakes up in the drunk tank after having punched a preacher who had the misfortune of looking to save souls in the wrong bar, engaging Don in a conversation that harkened back to—what else? —a distasteful episode with a preacher in his former life as Dick Whitman.     Don being Don, thinks that pouring some booze down the sink and moving to California are the only things he needs to do to avoid the DTs.   But as he finds during his pitch to the Hershey’s people, it’s not that easy.

About that Hershey’s chocolate presentation—when a lot of the dust settles from this season, and scenes are argued about for their seminal importance, Don’s true confession about his upbringing in a whore house and what a Hershey’s bar really meant to him (as he calls it “the only sweet thing” in his life) is sure to take on a life of its own as a mini-classic.    It has the emotional resonance of the Carousel pitch from year one, and while Harry Crane wasn’t there to run out of the room in tears, there were no doubt a lot of moist eyes across America watching as Don, channeling the young Dick Whitman, having run out of places to hide and literally spent and dissipated from his lifetime of deceit, unspools the most nakedly honest two minutes of his life in front of total strangers and aghast (and at least in Ted’s case sympathetic) colleagues.   The Carousel pitch was about the “ache of nostalgia” for a simpler time when life was better or more fully realized.  The Hershey’s confessional was about the ache of a scorned young boy searching for something- anything- that would bring him recompense for the rejection he felt every day just by living.     In this scene as in others in this excellent season finale, Jon Hamm has reached for something extra in taking his characterization- and character- to a new level of complexity and richness.   This scene is Matt Weiner’s gift to Hamm and the one that will surely resonate with Emmy voters.

What makes the scene more resonant and ingenious is the reaction the partners have to watching essentially a train wreck unfold before their eyes.   It reminds viewers of how much of the show still rides on the formidable coattails of Hamm, and how often the scenes around the conference room table hinge on the reaction shots of others to his verbal wizardry.   You can see the minds of the old pros Sterling and Cutler (the great John Slattery and the career resurgent Harry Hamlin) spinning, trying to figure out how to weave an acceptable narrative out of Don’s behavior that will keep the meeting from ending in disaster.    You can also see Ted—who may at this point understand Don better than anyone—change his aspect from tortured resignation at the impending implosion of his life to concern and sympathy for Don’s plight.   It is noteworthy that in the penultimate scene of the season, when the partners convene to give Don his temporary walking papers, it is Ted who is elsewhere, perhaps too respectful to be present for Don’s humiliation.

Ted’s crisis is in the form of a beguiling Peggy Olson, who vamps it up in a short, suggestive outfit that clearly is meant to turn Ted’s head and turn on his libido.  And it works—Ted confronts Peggy at her apartment at the end of her date, confesses his love for her and promises her that he intends to leave his wife and start a new life with her.   Since this is Peggy, and her taste and track record with men is ridiculously bad, we have a sense that this is not going to end well, and it doesn’t, with Ted giving her the prototypical “you’ll thank me one day” speech while breaking her heart.   Ted has been the anti-Don all year, and while his behavior with Peggy is Don-like, he really doesn’t have it in him to cheat, lie and break up his family.   We can see that as he slinks into bed with his wife after betraying her, showing her the kind of tenderness and affection that men about to leave their wives generally do not display.   He knows that leaving his wife will destroy a good part of what make him who he is, and so he stops himself at the brink.   What booze is to Don, Peggy is to Ted, and so the two men are looking to go west to avoid the very thing they believe will kill them.  And in a display of selflessness that would have been unheard of before this episode, Don gives Ted what he wants.     As Don says to Dawn on his way out the door, “have a great Thanksgiving, sweetheart”, and he essentially has said the same thing to Ted a few minutes before when telling him that he’s stepping back from his LA adventure in favor of Ted.

Ironically, the move to Los Angeles is considered a “demotion” when Don suggests that he go out there instead of a more junior person, like the eager Stan, who lobbies him for the role at the beginning of the episode.   The partners still see LA as the boondocks and don’t really get the attraction.  What they do know is that they love the Sunkist business, and Sunkist has insisted on an LA presence.    Sometimes it’s not great business decision-making but sheer luck- or an insistent client- that turns a decision of necessity into a great decision.    And, there’s no doubt that with so much economic activity shifting to the West Coast well into the seventies, this promises to be a great move for the firm, especially with the earnest Ted Chaough, newly recommitted to his marriage and his children, at the helm of the enterprise.

Thanksgiving is a mixed bag for Roger, as Joanie allows him to participate in Kevin’s life, but at the price of watching the ubiquitous Benson taking on the head of household role by carving up the turkey.   Benson, now thoroughly revealed to be a manipulator at a world class level, turns the knife a bit into Roger’s gut, by noting that Joanie’s mom went out and had her hair done for him, as if it’s only Gail and not Joan who would be attracted to a geezer like him.

And in a subtle surprise, Thanksgiving is the day that Pete says goodbye to Trudy and his daughter Tammy, to venture out to Los Angeles, ostensibly on his own.    Pete has always been a bit ahead of the game when it comes to where the ad business is going, so perhaps he’s the one SCP person going out there for the right reasons, rather than to get away from or get cured of something.   Carving a turkey for Benson seems appropriate, given how adroitly he carved Pete out of Chevy and perhaps out of the agency for good.     The havoc Benson may be able to cause, given his increasingly iron grip on the Chevy account, is only hinted at, but it’s likely that his guile and amorality will play a significant role in the final season.

The episode’s name, “In Care Of”, comes from the letter from the government requesting Sally Draper’s testimony about the intruder, Grandma Ida, from the past episode.   The irony is that Sally is beyond Don’s care, and charting her own Don-like course as the new scourge of Miss Porter’s.   In a “like father, like daughter” move, Sally uses the alias “Beth Francis” to score some beers and entice her classmates into getting drunk with her.   Unlike her dad, who has gotten away with this behavior for far too long, there are immediate consequences, starting with being suspended from school.    The suspension is yet another signpost along the way that reveals to Don that a new path for his imploding life is called for.

For those who see Peggy Olson as the female Draper, there’s a huge payoff at the end of the episode, as the firm that Don conceived is left essentially in her care.   Peggy, tossed aside by Ted and left again alone with only her work to occupy her, is last seen sitting in Don’s office, feeling her mentor’s vibe, perhaps only a small consolation for the love that she has lost again.

So much of Mad Men’s power are the echoes and reverberations from previous episodes and years.  Three years ago, in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”, it was Don calling the shots, leading the conspiracy that led to the formation of the new firm. In this episode, it was Don taking a seat, as the partnership administered the tough love that at one point—with a Don at the height of his charismatic and creative powers– would have been unheard of.  A subtle irony is that Bert Cooper (the reliably excellent Robert Morse), essentially background noise for much of the year, reasserts himself and takes the lead, much as he did years ago in a more encouraging time, when he first urges Don to take his seat at the table of New York movers and shakers.   Don Draper, the indispensable ad man, is told by the firm’s oldest name partner to go home and not come back until the partners are good and ready to see him again.   In a way, it was Draper’s sheer audacity and innovativeness that emboldened the SCP partners to do away with him, as through the merger he had conceived he bought himself additional management firepower in Ted Chaough and Jim Cutler. The irony of Duck Phillips coming back inside with a job candidate while Don is going down, is a bit heavy handed but appropriate, and Don takes his comeuppance grimly albeit gracefully.

This is the resignation of a man who knows he has a mountain to climb.   What is yet to be seen is whether he decides to take the hike.   The scene with the three Draper kids at the end, where he at last provides the puzzle pieces of himself in a desperate attempt to reconnect not only with the wayward Sally but with his own sad and forlorn past, may be the first step.   Whether it is or not will have to wait for the next and final season of this groundbreaking series.   Season Seven—Bring it on!!

Author’s Note: 

 

  • There’s nothing like kicking a city when it’s down, and Detroit these days is nothing if not down for the count, given the decades of corruption and cupidity that has brought it to the brink of bankruptcy.   For the Mad Men cast, Detroit isn’t a dysfunctional city but a place for dysfunctional clients, and that’s the source of their antipathy—and Bob Benson’s opportunity.   The implication is that among the city’s shortcomings yesterday that led it to where it is today is a case of hubris, borne at a time when it was Motor City and the center of the automotive world.
  • While Don’s “Come to Jesus” moments are more numerous and played for more emotional resonance, the other character who leaves the season in a more hopeful but lonely place is Pete, who is reconciled to his mother’s passing and his failure at Chevy and seemingly is seen striking out on his own in California (although never overtly stated what he plans on doing once he gets there).  Trudy pointedly says that Pete is free not only of his mother, but also “them”, undoubtedly referring to SCP, and the fact that he along with Ted are not present at the partners meeting ejecting Don from management underscores this supposition.  Given how frustrated Pete has become about Don’s antics, if he were still partner he’d want to have a ringside seat for Don’s emasculation, but as he says earlier, he has bigger issues on his mind.  It will be interesting to see where this leaves Vincent Kartheiser in the final season- he has been a worthy foil to Don for all these years, and one can assume we’ll see Pete among the palm trees next season.  He had better learn how to drive proficiently if he intends to stay out there, though.

 

  • One of the loose ends not tied up in this episode is whatever happened to the Avon account.   Joan is still standing and her presence is felt lightly but decisively in the “Don is toast” scene.  So did she get Avon?   It’s not like Weiner to leave a plot point dangling like this, so I’m assuming this will be resolved either overtly or subtly some time next season.  

 

  • Last week, I mentioned that Kevin Rahm, who plays Ted, was not in the opening credits.  I was as wrong as I was about Peggy’s flat being on the West Side rather than the East Side.  For this as well as other small and larger mistakes this year (the use of protégé rather than mentor was a good one), I apologize.   And now I take my leave.  

 

 

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

Don the Merciless Reigns Supreme in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Twelve

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Don Draper as Rosemary’s Baby?    That’s the thought I had watching the ad man crumple into a fetal position after an aggrieved and outraged Peggy Olson, tried beyond her patience by his continued vindictiveness and jealousy about her relationship with Ted Chaough, calls him “a monster.”    Clearly, Peggy’s closeness to Ted brings out Don’s demonic side, and in this episode we’re treated to what petty and petulant lengths Don will go to humiliate Ted and put Peggy back in her place- preferably by his side, as opposed to Ted’s.

When the episode begins, the long-suffering and supernaturally patient wife Megan is reviving a clearly over-served husband the morning after, finding him camped out in the extra bedroom (in and of itself not a good sign for their flagging marriage).  Listless and bored by his life (and his wife) and blocking as best he can his estrangement from his daughter Sally, Don finds something to rouse himself with when he and Megan check out a late afternoon showing of “Rosemary’s Baby”, the cult black comedy phenomenon that made Mia Farrow a star and short hair literally molded to a woman’s scalp the “in” thing among young American women.

On the way out of the theater, Don and Megan run into Ted and Peggy, who have gone to see the movie to ostensibly do some research for a breakthrough TV spot for St. Joseph aspirin for children that parodies the famous final scene of the film.   Clearly uncomfortable at having been caught at the movies by Don and Megan, Ted and Peggy make a hasty retreat, each with separate excuses for not joining the Drapers for dinner- but not before Don’s competitive juices and jealousy kicks in like a balky Jaguar suddenly brought to life.   The last time Don saw Peggy at the movies was when they ran into each other during an afternoon, both seeking creative inspiration.    It was something that Peggy learned from Don- the movies as a creativity igniter- and now she’s sharing the technique with her new mentor and object of affection.

Of all the women that Don has loved, lusted after and seduced, it is finally clear after almost six years of the show’s run that the most important woman in his life is the one he has never known carnally.  Peggy is Don’s alter ego, someone he instinctively feels knows and understands him- someone whose talent he is not too selfish to have recognized, cultivated and promoted.   She is also someone he seeks approval from, as evidenced in the justifiably celebrated episode, “The Suitcase”, when the most important thing in the world to him becomes her endorsement of his “Ali-Liston” Samsonite ad.    He can’t bear the thought that her creative drive and enthusiasm is being channeled, nurtured and cultivated by someone else.   So, he sets out to destroy the bond between Peggy and Ted, and by the end of the episode, an embarrassed Ted treats Peggy like she’s radioactive, and Don has his revenge.  But other than being sweet, it is just another bitter pill that pulls him deeper and deeper inside of himself.

It’s not that Don doesn’t have any justification for taking the action that leads to Ted and Peggy’s extreme discomfort.   Ted and Peggy are literally acting like school kids around their coworkers, taking on the kind of goofy aspect that teenagers have when they are first falling into love.  Virtually everything they say to each other is brilliant and funny, and when brainstorming with the creative staff, they act like there’s no one else in the room, except when Ginsberg suggests a bathroom break.  Ted is smitten not only by Peggy, but by her big idea for the St. Joseph’s campaign, so much so that he’s willing to risk having the agency absorb a huge amount of out of pocket expenses for the concept that he thinks is going to win Peggy a Clio.    Ted figures he can talk the client into spending the extra cash after the fact, but Don scotches that idea by giving the client the heads up about the revised upward budget before they have a chance to shoot the ad.   I’d like to say that what Don did was out of bounds, but in fact it wasn’t.    Spending unauthorized funds on a project isn’t exactly in the account management handbook, and it’s no way to exercise financial responsibility, especially in a relatively small firm.   So on that thread of fiscal justification (which ironically is something in which he has rarely shown the least bit of interest), Don hatches his plan for convincing the client to spend additional dollars on the ad.

He succeeds by making a devil’s bargain—invoking the name of Ted’s partner Frank Gleason to make the sale, claiming to the client (who was clearly fond of Gleason) that it was essentially the dying man’s last idea and his testament to the ad business.    And he makes that outrageous claim while dangling Ted and Peggy over a pit of fire, allowing them to twist slowly enough to feel the heat before springing his particular lie on the client.   There has rarely been a more suspenseful moment in the history of the show than when Don tells the client that for Ted, the commercial was “personal”- looking for all the world like he was about to tell the client that Ted was doing the commercial for Peggy’s love, rather than as a tribute to a dying partner’s final request.     The horror on Ted’s face as he begins to realize the extent of Don’s perfidy and the lengths he will go to mark his territory was certainly as real as anything caused by what’s on the screen during “Rosemary’s Baby”.    So much for that favor Ted did for Mitchell Rosen—for Don that’s yesterday’s news, as is his commitment to play nice in the sandbox with his new partner.   Also forgotten is Don’s promise not to pursue Sunkist, once the orange producer offers to sign on the dotted line for a TV campaign three times the size of Ocean Spray.

If the classics are more to the viewer’s liking than a 60s horror movie, perhaps Don Draper is Shylock.   The title of the episode, “The Quality of Mercy”, is drawn from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, and refers to Portia’s eloquent appeal to Shylock to show mercy to her husband.   Don, like Shylock, is intent on getting his pound of flesh, but rather than money, he’s looking to break the back of Ted and Peggy’s relationship, putting Ted in a subservient position to him and reeling Peggy back into his orbit.   It is a merciless mission, and he executes it to perfection.

More merciful- and perhaps craftier—is Pete Campbell, who takes to heart the adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”   After learning that the mysterious Bob Benson is, above all things, a complete fraud, he decides to let Benson stay at the firm under his conditions.    It is a sadder and wiser Pete who has learned his lesson from trying to out Don for lying about his own antecedents back in Season One, and all it won him was enmity from Don and a lecture from Bert Cooper.  This time, Pete realizes that the rattled Benson will be willing to do about anything to hang onto his job, and uses that knowledge to maintain control of the situation, deciding to handle Benson as one might a cobra.   This has been a great year for Vincent Kartheiser as Pete, but this episode contains clearly his best and most subtle work of the season.   His admission to Duck that he’s seen Bob’s situation before—an allusion to his knowledge of Don’s real past–is so brilliantly played that he turns a simple sentence into a profound and revelatory moment.  His brief and well-underplayed satisfaction at the bargain he has struck from the overmatched Benson strikes just the right balance between relief and joy.  In this episode, Kartheiser milks every potential drop of sympathy for a character that is always complex but very hard to root for.

So, the mystery of Bob Benson is solved.  He may be gay, or may have been using subtle signals as a misdirection play in an attempt to gull Pete into intemperance and self-destruction (which means that I’m sticking with my initial take on this last week that the jury is still out).   He is not a spy, or a counterculture mole digging up dirt on the manipulations of the ad business, or doing an Abe-style expose on the excesses of capitalism.   He’s not- as I perhaps alone have speculated—some kind of Christ figure that has mysteriously landed among their midst to support staffers in times of crisis and preach a self-help gospel.   He’s not Don Draper’s illegitimate child, as some blogs have speculated, but he is in a sense a Draper descendant, someone who has recreated his past in order to shape his future, albeit perhaps more manipulative and calculating than Don in making that future happen.    The battle of wills between Kartheiser as Pete and the impressive James Wolk as Benson- and the subtle slippage of the Benson mask as Pete learns more about him—is one of the most satisfying features of this impressive penultimate episode.

Always impressive as well is Kiernan Shipka as Sally, who decides that her revenge on her father will be to burn up a bunch of his money on Miss Porter’s, one of the most exclusive boarding schools on the East Coast.   Sally’s guileless guile serves her well, as she passes a test from her hazing-obsessed prospective classmates by luring her lifetime pal Glen (now looking leaner and longer in his later teen years) to campus, complete with booze, reefer, cigarettes and a truly creepy friend who’s looking for a make out session with our heroine.   Sally plays the situation for all it’s worth, and learns a valuable lesson about the usefulness of the “damsel in distress” card.    While she doesn’t want to give Don credit for anything in her life at this point, her talent for subtle manipulation comes from her dear old dad.   I still think that Sally has a thing for Glen, and his Sir Galahad routine, somewhat unexpected but truly poignant, solidifies her regard for him and demonstrates her ability to bend situations to her will.   She’s a Draper, whether she stays beyond the reach of her father or not.

This is a season in which some of the strongest and most welcome performances have come from subsidiary players, as opposed to the main cast.   Alison Brie, Linda Cardellini, Harry Hamlin, James Wolk and to a lesser but immensely entertaining extent Julia Ormond have lifted and enriched their material and crafted indelible characters throughout the year.    But this episode was for the big guys and gals, and they come up big.    And I include in this circle Kevin Rahm as Ted, who while still not in the upfront credits has become a huge factor in the show.    His reaction to Don’s spiel to the St. Joseph’s client struck the appropriate balance of shock and horror, and his confrontation that follows makes it clear that while able to mix it up with Don he knows full well he has been wounded and compromised.   The mortification is written on his face, as he has given the hypocritical Draper the opening to take the moral high road about putting the needs of the business above personal feelings.   It’s a sad moment, and Rahm plays it with the right amount of humility and resignation.

But the whole show this week—and perhaps the series as well—comes down to Don and Peggy and the battle of wills between these two strong minded, supremely talented and ultimately flawed characters.    Don and Peggy…Peggy and Don.   Who knew when she was first introduced to Don as his naïve, raw and green secretary that she would one day be more than a match for her charismatic Alpha male boss?   It may be the ultimate genius of Mad Men, that she is all of that, and then some, and that we thoroughly believe it.   The last scene is Peggy as Portia, grieving at the harm that Don has caused Ted, and she brings all of the moral outrage, eloquence and ferocious loyalty that she can muster to the task.   She knows that by scampering home and away from her that Ted has conceded to Don and perhaps given the tormented Draper a bit of his flesh in the bargain.    She may not get what she wants from her passionate diatribe, but what she misses after her departure is that she has reduced Don to a fetal state.   These are bravura, “bet the ranch” performances by two great actors at the very pinnacle of their game, and if the Emmy voters deny Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss their awards yet again this season, it will be at the risk of their own credibility.    It doesn’t get any better than this.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

 

Author’s Note:  I’m sure there will be much ado this week about the clever reenactment of the St. Joseph’s ad for Don’s edification and approval.   For me, the entire bit was worth listening to Jon Hamm channel a crying baby and the sight of Christina Hendricks as Joan role-playing a Jewish mother prescribing chicken soup- a truly inspired bit of business.   But the real question is what Peggy is symbolically doing by offering the hypothetical aspirin to a Don who has been thoroughly distracted by the simple physical gesture of Ted’s placing his hands on Peggy’s hips.   Is Peggy offering Don a sacrament to assuage his tortured soul, or is she the mother that he never had, ministering to him in a way he has never experienced?   Yet another example of how comfortable these two consummate pros feel in the skins of these characters, and the layers of meaning they can convey from such simple gestures and looks. 

One Door Opens, Another Slams Shut in Mad Men Season Six, Episode Eleven

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My favorite band of the sixties was The Doors, fronted by legendary front man Jim Morrison and his brilliant accomplice, the recently departed keyboard genius Ray Manzarek, who kept the flame of the renegade band alive for more than four decades.  The name of the band came from a line from William Blake, referencing the doors of perception, which ostensibly would open up when listening to The Doors’ moody mix of extraterrestrial rock and roll, punctuated by the sultry, evocative voice of the mercurial Morrison, who died from a heart attack (and failed liver) at the ripe age of 27 in Paris in July 1971.     In July of 1968, The Doors– at the top of their creative powers and one of the most popular and revered bands on the face of the earth, released “Waiting for the Sun”, the band’s only album that ever reached #1 on the charts.  The album included one of their most famous–and overtly political–songs, “The Unknown Soldier”, a searing and controversial exploration into the heart of darkness known as the Vietnam War.

It turns out that Sally Draper doesn’t need William Blake– or Jim Morrison, for that matter– to open doors of perception at her tender age of 13; a regular, garden variety door will do. Last year as a tweener, she opened a door that found Roger Sterling and Marie Calvet in flagrante, which was tough enough to handle and certainly enough to ensure that young lady a lifetime of therapy.  But this week, another door opened that provided a bit too much clarity about her philandering father–with potentially tragic consequences to follow.

Her break-in to the Rosen household found her dad collecting on a favor from an old friend– the sensual Sylvia Rosen, her passion for the nonpareil ad man suddenly reignited by Don’s initiative to rescue her sullen, idealistic son from a potentially fatal excursion to Vietnam.   Mitchell Rosen, looking and dressed like a Jewish Morrison, all sullenness and attitude encapsulated in puffy shirt and bellbottoms, stole the heart of the susceptible Sally in an earlier and very brief encounter in the lobby of Don’s coop building, and she was trying to retrieve a missive her mischievous girlfriend Julie had left for the young man that catalogued the extent of Sally’s puppy love.   Sally uses a ruse to con the doorman out of the Rosen’s apartment keys, and while she’s trying to retrieve the letter, she espies her father reunited in a coital embrace with Mitchell’s mom.   Sally’s reaction is shock, horror and betrayal, while Sylvia’s is guilt and humiliation.  Don’s reaction is to try to figure out a way to spin it so that what looked like sex was simply a means of his “comforting” Mrs. Rosen.   As Don says to Sally through a door that stays closed to him, “it’s complicated.”   I’ll say.

What’s complicated is the tangled web of deceit and lies that Don has woven in a desperate attempt to recreate himself.  And, now, as the result of a favor that he does for the Rosen family- courtesy of a favor done for him by his partner and rival Ted Chaough (in return for Don’s granting Ted the favor of keeping his finger off the self-destruct button around his clients), that web finally seems to be unraveling.   Who says that no good deed goes unpunished?

“Favors”, the eleventh installment of this astonishing season of the celebrated dramatic series, is ostensibly about the favor that Don does for a stricken Arnold Rosen in helping to get his son out of the draft, after Mitchell, in a youthful burst of idealism and idiocy, tears up his draft card and is reclassified as 1A.    But it’s really about parents and their children- what makes their relationships tick, the subtle indignities that each party heaps on the other, and the lengths we will go to keep our kids out of harm’s way, even when we’d like to lock them up in the basement and throw away the key.

Pete, acting as “parent” to his own dementia-afflicted mother, finds out that she didn’t really like him any more than the rest of us do when he was growing up, even as he struggles to try to take care of her and pull her away from the clutches of a male nurse that takes his role as a companion to the addled parent perhaps a bit too literally.   Betty, knowing she’s losing control of her intemperate oldest child, and struggling to maintain some semblance of parental authority as Sally heads to Don’s flat for some early teen adventure.   Peggy, reminded about the child she gave away, when Pete’s mother in her confused state mistakes her for Trudy (Elizabeth Moss’ range in this scene, as she migrates from shock and horror to the recognition that the old woman isn’t really talking about her at all, is truly vast).   Ted, tempted by his attraction to Peggy, ultimately resolving to remain committed to a woman with whom he seems to have virtually no relationship with, because of the love of his two boys.  Sylvia and Arnold, clearly angry with their son yet frantic to keep him out of the war, are willing to do whatever is necessary to save him from the consequences of his own precipitate and immature actions.    And Don, recognizing his own terror in Korea and his decision to recreate his life in order to escape from the carnage and potential death, thinks of his own underage children and is moved to find a ruse for keeping the Rosen child from having to endure a war that he finds repellent and unnecessary.

The final shot of the show is of Don walking dejectedly back to his bedroom after failing to reach Sally with his “this is adult stuff that you don’t understand” BS, firmly closing the door to his daughter and puzzled wife and no doubt working his way toward a stratagem that will get him through another day.   At this point, what’s Sally to believe–her enigmatic father or her own lying eyes?   Even at thirteen, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on (the younger Dick Whitman certainly knew the score when peeping in on one of his stepmother’s sessions with one of Uncle Mac’s clients).    One door opens–a door to perception–and another door closes, and we’re left to consider the potential wreckage to Don’s marriage, not to mention any kind of future relationship with his children.

And we find that perhaps the only person left in Pete’s life who is willing to provide him with unconditional love is the enigmatic Bob Benson, who in a truly creepy scene tries to talk Pete out of firing Manolo Colon for ostensibly servicing his mother’s carnal needs while implying that his own feelings for Pete may be not merely Platonic.   Last week Ginsberg, who has no filter and sometimes can be unwittingly perceptive, asked Bob if he were gay.   This week, Bob seems threateningly close to making a pass at Pete; but then again, perhaps it’s just a physical closeness meant to try to reach Pete in a more profound and convincing way than otherwise possible.  So, is Bob the reincarnation of the ill-fated Salvatore Romano, or is this a total misdirection play on the part of Matt Weiner, who wants us to assume that appearances are reality when they’re really not.   Either way, James Wolk as the ubiquitous Benson continues to keep us guessing in a performance has us engaged every moment he’s on the screen, keeping his performance along the surface of Benson without revealing the psyche underneath.

What is most tragic about the episode is that we see a selfless side of the Draper persona in this episode- whether he’s thinking about his own terror in Korea or fear for his underage sons or perhaps the more deeply embedded need to be a worthy friend to a man that he no doubt admires (but has shamelessly cuckolded), there’s no doubt that Don goes out of his way to help Mitchell avoid Vietnam.  When he calls the Rosen household to tell Arnold the good news- that Ted has gotten him a gig as a pilot in training- he has no intention of reigniting his relationship with the tempestuous Sylvia.   But when Sylvia, in a fit of motherly gratitude and misplaced remorse for the way she’s treated Don welcomes him back to her bed, Don’s egotism and self-indulgence gets the best of him as usual, ensuring that his one good deed will certainly not go unpunished.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

Author’s Note:

  • Did everyone else enjoy hearing Ted call Don an “asshole” as much as I did?  Ted is the one person in Don’s life who is willing to confront him with uncomfortable truths, and call him out on his childish and self-destructive behavior.   Increasingly, Ted is the anti-Don– tempted by Peggy, he remains the constant albeit miserable family man, while Don’s recklessness continues to threaten his life, career and marriage.  Ted is as ambitious as Don, if not more so, but he speaks in team-oriented language and looks holistically at the business, while Don focuses on himself and what matters to him.   Even Don’s attempt to generate a discussion of the war with the Chevy execs at dinner, while ostensibly about Mitchell’s predicament, is an exercise in self-indulgence, as it jeopardizes the firm’s relationship with its largest client.  Any rational assessment of Sterling Cooper & Partners has to have Ted’s arrow going up while Don’s is going down- way down.
  • I find it particularly rich that given the many women that Don has taken advantage of and betrayed, Sylvia feels guilty about her treatment of Don.  In essence, Sylvia has become the “Don” in their relationship, with the added element of sporadic Catholic guilt.   Turnabout is fair play, and given that this episode gave us another helping of Linda Cardellini’s compelling portrayal of Sylvia, perhaps that’s a good thing.
  • The conversation about conflicts hit close to my home, as it is one of the key issues any agency has to navigate, especially a smaller one like Sterling Cooper, where the principals are frantic to build critical mass.  We all become attached to our own clients– it’s not a Draper phenomenon.   What’s most interesting is that Pete has seemingly swung over to the Chaough/Cutler “team” by taking over Ocean Spray, and seems happier than when he was carrying water for Don.  This may have a longer-term impact on the agency balance of power.  Time will tell.
  • And will someone give Peggy the phone number for the Orkin man??  They had been in business for 67 years by the time this episode is supposed to take place.   At this point it’s probably a better option than offering sexual favors to your pal Stan.

Across the Great Divide- The Political Becomes Personal in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Ten

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The anti-war demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 form the backdrop for more intimate albeit less physically dangerous conflicts among the Mad Men cast.  The conflict between the demonstrators and Chicago police are mirrored in numerous ways throughout the episode- doves versus hawks, baby boomers versus the Greatest Generation, Democrats versus Republicans, intense New Yorkers versus laid back Los Angelinos, and closer to home, Joan versus Pete, who sees Joan’s involvement in cultivating a relationship with the new marketing director at Avon as yet another encroachment on his turf and diminution of his role at the firm.

The demonstrations and subsequent physical confrontation in Chicago—later termed a “police riot” in the Walker Commission report– is an allegory for the internal conflicts- both personal and political, happening at the merged advertising firm that at the beginning of the episode is still searching for an identity and struggling to migrate from an “us versus them” to a “we” mentality.  The opening scene at the office is almost a tutorial on the need for merger integration and branding expertise, with Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin, continuing to impress) noting that if the firm doesn’t define itself,  “the world will do it for us”.

While the John Slattery-helmed episode is called “A Tale of Two Cities”, reflecting yet another sensual and surreal Don Draper excursion into the foreign country known as the West Coast, it is really a tale of two agencies- the successful one being run by Ted Chaough and an increasingly Machiavellian Cutler versus the fraying-at-the-edges one being at least nominally helmed by a distracted Don Draper and his own Silver Fox sidekick (more silver but perhaps less sly), Roger Sterling.   The divide becomes so pronounced that Ted needs to rein in his older, affronted partner from keeping him from staging a palace coup while Don, Roger and Harry are on the West Coast.   By the end, however, the one consensus builder in the group, Ted Chaough, lands on an elegant solution to the firm’s identity (Sterling Cooper and Partners, which eliminates both he and Don from the firm’s business cards), while demonstrating once again that he’s the one partner capable and wiling to play the long game.

Unless you’re a big Betty and Henry fan (come on, admit it–you’re not), this episode had something for everyone- an increasingly assertive yet still-enigmatic Bob Benson, who provides a Tony Robbins-style pep talk for an internally-riven Michael Ginsberg, the volatile young copywriter experiencing near-paralysis at his guilt over participating in a presentation at Manischewitz; an all-female team (Joan and Peggy) pitching the firm over a business breakfast (ironically to the male marketing director of Avon); a beautifully realized moment where Joan, at home at night folding baby clothes, realizes what she’s looking at on television and is moved to tears, contemplating the world gone mad that her son may be inheriting; and  a brilliantly shot scene where Don and Megan on the phone are watching the riots at the same time across the continent, commiserating with each other while each tells the other exactly what they need to hear (an interesting counterpoint to the Bobby Kennedy assassination scene two episodes back, where the Drapers were physically together but worlds apart).

But the scene that I’m sure will be burning up the blogosphere over the next week are not any of those, as well developed as they were.   And, no, it’s not the great final scene where a stressed-out, outraged Pete, his protests about Joanie’s behavior deflected by first Ted and then Don, retreats to the creatives’ inner sanctum, snatches a joint from Stan’s lips and, surrendering to the “que sera” vibe around him, begins to toke up.  (Whether the joint will lead to Pete’s growing a beard to accompany those long sideburns, or at least mellows him out enough to stop considering any meeting called without him a personal affront, will no doubt garner some speculation.)

What is going to make the biggest impact, however, is the ominous, foreboding climax of the great set of scenes in LA, when Don, once again under the influence of mind-altering drugs (hashish the drug of choice in this case) hallucinates the presence of Megan–her long, flowing raven hair parted in the middle and looking mind-bendingly beautiful as a flower child–who just happens to catch Don in mid-seduction with a spaced out blonde.   Megan tells Don that she’s quit her job to devote more time to him, and has no problem sharing him with the rest of the female population, because, let’s face it, we’re in LA.  Then beatifically smiling at him, she rubs her belly, signifying that she’s pregnant, telling him that they now have a “second chance”- perhaps referring to the miscarriage from earlier in the season, or the opportunity to recommit to each other and save their tottering marriage.   Don follows her to the bar, where Megan disappears.  In her place is the GI from the first episode who was shipping off to Vietnam after marrying in Hawaii.   His right arm has been amputated and he tells Don that he’s dead, and that if Don thinks the GI looks bad as a dead man, he should take a look at himself.    Then, we cut away to Don at the pool, looking in the water at his own floating, lifeless body, when none other than Roger dives into the water, retrieves him and brings him back to life.

For those who are buying into the premise that rather than All My Children’s femme fatale Erica Kane, Megan’s character is actually modeled after Sharon Tate, the ingénue actress and star of Valley of the Dolls who was brutally murdered at husband Roman Polanski’s home in Benedict Canyon almost exactly one year later (while pregnant with Polanski’s child) by the Charles Manson family, this scene is your “tell.”  Polanski urged Tate to live a hippie lifestyle, and her motto was said to be “live and let live”, which would explain why Megan was so copacetic about finding Don in a clinch with another woman.   Also, a lot of strange people evidently kept coming in and out of the Benedict Canyon mansion, in much the same way that strangers and former lovers- real and imagined- seem to find their way into the unlocked Draper flat.

For others who have believed that Don’s steady personality disintegration and obsession with death this season would lead to his own, there’s ample evidence of that, as well.  But one thing is for certain- there is nothing the least bit benign about this scene, and unless Matt Weiner is just messing with our heads, something disquieting this way comes.   Don had also imagined seeing Betty in his first trip to the Coast, but that was for just a moment, and his reverie was interrupted by his encounter with the appropriately named Joy.   This time, there is something so spooky and off-kilter about his conjuring up of Megan- and the juxtaposition of Megan’s appearance with the dead soldier–that the scene has the unmistakable air of tragedy wafting over it.    Remember Megan’s horror earlier in the episode while watching the Chicago riots- at one point, she says, “all it takes is for one blow to the skull to land to change your life forever.”   Keep in mind that, like the kid in “The Sixth Sense”, Don does see dead people- Anna Draper and Adam Whitman have appeared to him in other altered states.  Are we to believe that the young GI has been a casualty of war, and if so, what are we to think of Megan’s appearance, or of Don himself, face down in a California swimming pool?

One plot line that lives on is Joan’s continuing sense of guilt for sleeping her way to her partnership, and her continuing attempts to show that she’s more than a coolly efficient administrator and truly deserving of her partnership status.    Joanie cuts Pete out of a follow up meeting with the Avon exec, after a typically condescending Pete tells her in essence that she shouldn’t worry her pretty little head (and killer body) over the next steps with the client- that he has things under control and she can get back to her real job.    Christina Hendricks, always exceptional, may have done her best work yet in this episode, especially in the penultimate scene in the show, where we see her famous self-control begin to slip while sitting with perfect posture and hands clasped in front of Ted and Pete as they tear into her- then struggling to reassert her sense of poise when Peggy figures out how to get her out of the room.   Peggy invented a ruse to save Joan- a fictitious phone call from the Avon client- that reaffirms the somewhat frayed bond between the two women.   Both earlier had seen the other as having received favored treatment from powerful men as a means of succeeding, and their resentments flared.    For a moment, at least their conflict receded a bit in a show of female solidarity.   We can’t say the same for the other agency principals- or the country, for that matter.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller

 

Writer’s Note: This episode was the most overtly political of the show’s entire run, and featured a truly searing confrontation between Air Force Veteran Jim Cutler and Michael Ginsberg over the war- the older man calling the younger one a hypocrite for taking a salary for working on Dow Chemical, and the younger man calling Cutler a fascist who only cares about business- all in response to Ginsberg’s frustration over the Democrats not putting a peace plank in their convention platform.   While much of Hollywood, including Weiner, veers to the left- and some of this is baked in the creative cake of much movie and TV fare– I find Mad Men to be remarkably even keeled and intellectually honest about the politics of the day and the grievances and fears that divided the country.   Other than one gratuitous swipe last year (when Henry Francis calls George Romney- Mitt’s father- a “lightweight”, clearly meant as a commentary on the younger Romney), Weiner tends to show a more morally and politically complicated world.  For example, while Cutler can be unlikeable, it’s more about his manipulative and egocentric nature, rather than his politics. (In fact, we don’t really know what his politics are—only that he wants to keep them out of the office, which is actually a very good idea).  While the Carnation executive is somewhat of a cartoon cut out of a conservative, with his fear of the Bolsheviks being at the gate and his admiration of “Dutch” Reagan, some of the more annoying characters over the years have been committed leftists like Abe and Roy (Midge’s beatnik boyfriend from Season One whose shallow, formulaic indictments of the ad business Don swats away like flies).    I think Weiner knows that Mad Men fans cut across the political spectrum and is one activity that may truly be considered bi-partisan.