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

by sweatermanifesto

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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.
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