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