Mad Men: Week 6 in Review

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: Don Draper seems to be on the brink of losing it entirely. The scummy way he basically peer-pressured Ted into drinking at the level and speed of his immensely high-functioning alcoholism was sickening and slimy. The absolutely bizarre verbal manifestation of Don’s subconscious view of the purpose of “his” women would make Sacher-Masoch blush. His absolute self-absorption and disorientation during his sex games with Sylvia and after she tells him its over put Don in an immensely compromising position. His return home to Megan and her announcing that they should take another trip brings us back to the suicidal undertones of Don’s tagline for Sheraton in episode one of this season, after he returns from Hawaii. What does this all mean?

What makes this episode so unique, but also so disturbing (yet cathartic), is the fact that everyone seems to be seeing right through Don’s games. Yet, whether or not they see through them is irrelevant to how it affects the way that they act towards him. When Don comes into Ted’s office and starts brainstorming for margarine, Ted seems to be giving off this strange sense of enjoyment in Don’s destructive visit. It feels pleasurable to be the object of Don’s focus, and there follows a desire to please Don and give him what he wants, no matter the consequences. Ted understands what is happening to him. He knows the liquor is strong and numbing, and for that moment there is a connection with the charismatic, elusive Don Draper. Similarly with Sylvia, she knows what he is doing to her is crazy and demeaning, but there is a sense of excitement for her being a “kept” (well, imprisoned) woman. Even when she seems to suspect that this is not just a role play sexual fantasy and that this is what Don really wants from her, she indulges it, because after all there is gratification in knowing you are giving someone what they want. And then it becomes too much. By taking her book when he leaves for his trip with Ted, Don is forcing her into a total state of both physical and mental servitude, where she can’t do anything but think about him and rest up for when he returns wanting more.  But unlike Ted, Sylvia puts her foot down, saying she feels ashamed, and exits Don’s life. His desperate, slightly tearful “Please?” hoping she will stay gives us a window into Don’s soul as he grasps at some semblance of power, dominance, and stability. Peggy is the only one who sees through Don’s games and tells him off to his face, distinguishing her once more as a totally different kind of person that he must deal with, but unfortunately for him she has always been able to put him back in his place.

Are we going to find out what Bob Benson’s deal is soon, because I can’t find any reason to dislike him and it’s scaring me. There is always some reason not to like every single character on this show (yes, even Joan, but she wears bitchy well, so it’s not really a flaw), and Bob Benson seems almost too generous, too self-sacrificing, too good to be true. When he took Joan to the emergency room and got her in to see a doctor with some quick thinking and a white lie, my heart skipped a beat. Can this guy be for real? No one seems to like him very much, and everyone says his kindness is overstepping some major boundaries. Is it because people fear him? He might be a good soul, and hence very dangerous in the corrupt Madison Avenue bubble. What do we have to fear? My curiosity is piqued. Watch him end up being the real “man with a plan.”

NAVA BRAHE: I am so glad Sonia chose to reference Venus in Furs when comparing Don’s halfhearted attempt at dominating Sylvia, instead of the vastly more pedestrian Fifty Shades of Grey. That being said, I, too, was completely horrified by how he treated Sylvia during their tryst gone awry at the Sherry Netherland hotel. That entire storyline illustrated just how twisted Don Draper is. He becomes more unhinged with every episode, yet only a select few are able to see through his façade. Right now, that group includes Sylvia, and ironically, Peggy, who does not seem all that excited to be back in the SCDP fold. Her time away from Don was a period of significant growth for her, and I think she realizes that being back under his thumb is a huge step backward in her career.

In terms of backwards and forwards, I can’t help but think about how this will all end for Don Draper. It’s becoming quite clear (at least to me), that Matthew Weiner is setting him up for a Tony Soprano-esque ending. Remember what Tony said to Dr. Melfi: “There’s only two endings for a guy like me: dead or in jail.”

Once again, the fates are intent on crapping all over Pete. His marriage is over, his career is teetering on the brink of disaster, and now his mother turns up with a rather inconvenient case of dementia. Unlike Don, Pete does not land on his feet every time things go wrong. Yet, he manages to pull himself up and deal with whatever is thrown in his path. Pete and Don are quite similar in that they both don’t have strong family ties to get them through the rough patches, but at least we are given a glimpse of Pete’s humanity, rather than watching him attempt to sweep it aside with alcohol and subjugation. Even a bumpy plane ride can’t ruffle Don’s feathers. If it was Pete in the passenger seat of Ted’s plane, he would have been projectile vomiting all over the windshield.

With five episodes left in this season, it is safe to say that Mad Men has gone from intriguing, to the quintessential train wreck we are unable to tear our eyes away from. Each episode has taken on that “what now?” aura, in which a character like Bob Benson can be viewed as enigmatic, instead of just a genuinely nice guy. There too, I must agree with Sonia, he is most likely not what he seems.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Generally, I like to cover different aspects of the show than the two of you. But this week, I’d like to expand on a pair of observations you made.

Sonia, is it possible that no one on the show likes Bob Benson precisely because his decency is so at odds with the rest of the characters? Seems quite possible to me. Of course, I think it is also quite possible that everything he does is in a desire to get ahead, from his comical attempts to get to know Don and Pete earlier this year, to his treatment of Joan. And the ancillary benefits of getting closer to Joan cannot be escaping Bob: they are as plain as… let’s be polite and say the smile on her face. Still, one of the most successful aspects of Mad Men is the extent to which Matthew Weiner allows his characters to experience, and respond to events, for complicated, sometimes diametrically opposed reasons, instead of a more common television formulation of “event plus single emotion = new emotion”.

As for Nava’s point that Pete doesn’t always end up back on his feet: doesn’t he, though? This particular punishment is spectacular, and seeing Pete at the residence he schemed to buy as a place to keep his mistresses, taking care of his mother, is the kind of karmic payoff Weiner gives us pretty regularly on this show. (That Trudy understood precisely what he was doing, as we found out earlier this season, was another.) But Pete is an indispensable part of the agency. He managed to try to blackmail Don Draper and still kept moving up many moons ago. He got Peggy pregnant. Does Pete ever pay? Not that I can see.

The same has largely, but not entirely, been true for Don. And the double dose of reality late, Sylvia getting out of the hotel room, and Ted flying the plane as Don holds on, green, should make for an entirely different set of circumstances for Don to make his next few choices.

Oh, and if the show had just been an hour of Roger firing Burt Peterson, no complaints.

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