Mad Men: The Quality of Mercy

Posted on June 17, 2013

What a flipping fabulous hour of TV that was, right? Too bad we had to sit through so much Sylvia Rosen in the earlier weeks to get to this point. Season six of Mad Men has been choppier than most, we’d say, with a rather problematic first half to it, but last night’s episode proved that the show hasn’t lost its knack for turning the plot Mad+Men+S6Episode12+2dials up to 11 for the final hours of the season. Practically every storyline  came to a head, some in the most explosive manners possible – and the amazing thing is, nothing has been resolved. All of these storylines are still up in the air. But of course, it’s the Bob Benson story that continues to fascinate the most. We really have to give Weiner & Co. credit for creating a character seemingly out of thin air in the show’s sixth season that managed to captivate the imaginations of the audience as if he’d been there all along. Then again, he feels like he’s been there all along because in a way, he has.

We can see now where we made our mistake in assessing him. It was in assuming that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had some sort of credentials review process in place. Really, guys. Somebody needs to bring that up at the next partners’ meeting. Apparently, nothing’s changed in the 14 years since Don Draper glad-handed his way into a job. Because at the end of the day, that’s what the MUCH-discussed Bob Benson turned out to be: Gay Don Draper. Or more accurately, Gay Dick Whitman.  No, he wasn’t the upper-class striver we figured him to be, nor is he the sociopath, government agent or secret illegitimate child some others thought he was. He turned out to be pretty much what we said he was back in the first Mad Style of the season, “another version of a younger Don coming into the story… He resembles him to the point that he could pass for a younger brother and he’s got the same kind of 3-syllable alliterative name. Plus, Don got his first job at SC by essentially berating Roger on an elevator.”  We just didn’t know how literal that assessment was and how the similarities went much deeper. Bob Benson is, in fact, a poor, gay hick who lucked into good looks and has been conning and sleeping his way through a series of jobs away from his embarrassing upbringing, exactly like Dick Whitman (except for the gay part). And it turns out that, like Dick Whitman, his first impulse is to run away when he’s discovered and start over again somewhere else.

We still don’t think he’s any great schemer, though; despite the uncovering of his past. He’s been working at SC for about a year now and all he seems to have ever wanted out of the place was a decenMad+Men+S6Episode12+5t job where he could move up the ladder, just like Dick. Even when Pete made noise about throwing him off the Chevy account, his first impulse was to defer and be obsequious about it, rather than unleashing some master plan. It wasn’t until Pete made it clear that he had every intention to screw with Bob’s future at SC because of his sexuality that he tried that incredibly clumsy attempt to get Manolo and Pete’s mother involved. But that was not the move of a master con man. That was the move of a desperate Dick Whitman with his back against the wall. He’s never really made an effort toward any other goal than just moving ahead in his job  – and trying to score with Pete Campbell, of course. That was his big mistake. If he’d really been the master manipulator people thought he was, he never would have made a move like that. As we outlined extensively in the last Mad Style, being gay in 1968 was not a minor inconvenience; it was something that could be used to quite easily destroy a life. To us, that declaration last week really was an honest one; Bob really was in love with Pete (or thought he was, anyway), he really is someone who lives a gay life outside that office (“Manolo doesn’t like women!”), and that move was exactly as risky as we said it was, because it turned out to be Bob Benson’s downfall.

Or did it? This season has been all about calling back to or echoing previous scenes from earlier in the show’s history, as well as exploring the concept of doppelgangers. Bob is so obvious a double of Don’s (a bit too obvious, right down to the poor rural upbringing) that Pete recognized it right away. But here’s where Pete differs once again from almost eMad+Men+S6Episode12+7veryone else in this story: Pete learns from his mistakes. The last time he had a sleazy schemer by the balls like this, he let him go, choosing not to use the information to his advantage wisely. He went straight to Bert Cooper with the news of Don’s secret identity and Bert defused the whole thing with a “Who cares?” No, Pete’s no fool. Better to have a desperate, lying Golden Boy who feels like he’s forever in your debt for keeping his secret than to have one who never quite trusted you because you didn’t. Pete knows that the Bobs and Dons of the world can charm their way through almost anything and that he’d do well to hitch himself to a rising star (EVERYBODY in Bert’s office defended Bob to Pete) rather than trying to shoot it out of the sky. We have NO IDEA where this whole thing is going, but the odd twist at the last second into a psychosexual master-slave scenario is utterly mind-blowing. Pete may act like he’s repulsed by Bob’s proclivities, but he’s clearly delighted to have his own little gay Don Draper doll to do as he’s told. We were in love with our “Best Little Boy in the World” theory of the character but we have to admit, this twist is infinitely more interesting – and as far away from Sal Romano as the show could possibly get in devising a new gay male character.

In other news, all the women in Don’s life seem to want to slam doors in his face and run away from him. Except Betty, who literally left her door open for him, and Megan who’s so clueless right now that even 1960-Betty would look at her and say “Honey, wake up and smell the shithead.” The latest to declare her disgust is Peggy, who shocked him to the core by calling him a “monster.” It’s not entirely clear if Peggy and Ted are having a full-blown affair or whether they’re still in the flirting stage, but one thing’s for sure: they are the two most irritating people in that entire office right now. Peggy had every right to be upset with him for blowing up her shot at a Clio (in her mind), but Don wasn’t entirely in the wrong here. Ted was stringing Peggy and the client along by not being forthcoming about the budget issues that come with her idea (although we find it hard to believe she’d need that pointed out to her) and they both were acting fairly foolishly throughout the office. It’s one thing when one co-worker comments on your flirting, but when every co-worker does, then you’re clearly not paying attention to your actions and how they’re coming across. Mad+Men+S6Episode12+9

But let’s not pretend Don was doing anyone a favor here. Don was punishing Ted because the returns are diminishing on punishing himself.  But despite Peggy’s attempt to cast Ted as a “better” man than Don, he was being singled out and punished for doing exactly what Don did: allowing his affairs to spill out in the open, for other people to see. That’s the thing that offended Don so much; not the budget concerns, but the way Ted put his arm around Peggy’s waist in the conference room or giggled through the hallways with her or went to the movies in the middle of the day with her. It was the sloppiness that offended him. And the fact that it was Peggy, of course. If Ted was acting that way with, say, Joan, Don might not have batted an eye. But Ted was playing around in Don’s territory (which is how he sees Peggy) and decided to both humiliate him for it and punish Peggy for it. He really is a monster. He seemed pretty deeply affected by the word when Peggy spat it out at him, but since he’s so incapable of real change or introspection (let alone making apologies) we have no idea how the two of them can ever get back the friendly (if contentious), mutually respectful relationship they once had.

And just to prove that she is every inch Don’s daughter, Sally not only had a drink and a smoke this episode, but she too decided to punish someone else for Don’s sins. She used groovy Glen Bishop to beat up his goofy stoner friend by claiming that he’d tried to force himself on her. “You like to be trouble,” said the bitchy Marcia Brady-esque girl from Miss Porter’s, and we’re afraid we haven’t even scratched the surface of that statement. “My father never gave me anything,” she says darkly to Betty as she drags on her first mother-daughter Mad+Men+S6Episode12+11cigarette. We said last week that she was ripe for rebellion, but it looks like it won’t be taking the bell-bottoms, flower-in-your-hair route so many predicted. For now, she’s going to fulfill all her mother’s preppy Main Line dreams for her – on the surface, at least. She’s declaring Betty her “real” parent while she severs ties from Don and tries to make herself into the daughter that Betty always wanted. But this image of the perfect preppy Miss Porter’s girl is belied by what happens in those dorm rooms at night. Sally’s rebellion is going to be decidedly preppy and plaid in nature, but apparently no less full of drugs, sex and alcohol than a lot of people predicted.

Bullets:

  • Witness Don flipping through the channels, going from Corinne, the evil twin played by his wife on To Have and To Hold, and then to the original twin sitcom The Patty Duke Show, in an episode where his doppelganger is revealed.
  • Poor Kenny. Mazel Tov on the baby. A shame about your eye. Now we know why Stan had that Moshe Dayan poster over his bed last week. There’s your ironic foreshadowing
  • How funny is it that the season’s been full of ominous, violent portents and in the end, it amounted to Abe getting stuck with a knife and Kenny getting sort-of shot in the face? Mad Men just doesn’t do literal. This is a show that embodied the British Pop Invasion in the figure of Lane Pryce, after all.
  • How many people yelled out “Those bastards! They killed Kenny!” Everyone?
  • What the hell is going on with Joan? Because no one, least of all her, is acting like she brought in Avon as an account. The suspense is killing us.
  • It’s amazing how much cheating on their respective spouses with each other has improved Don and Betty’s relationship.
  • We miss Stan, Ginsberg and Roger. They’ve all but disappeared from the story except to make very brief appearances here and there.
  • As fantastic as this episode was, we’re sick to death of Don slapping his dick all over Ted Chaough. This show doesn’t really do redemption or give characters their comeuppance, but just once we’d like to see Ted tear Don down and humiliate him.
  • Bob has been infatuated with Pete since the moment they met. “You complimented my tie. It was the greatest day of my life.” Knowing his background now, his infatuation makes even more sense. Of course poor white trash like Bob would be enamored with a fussy blue-blood like Pete.
  • We’re not so sure Peggy’s Rosemary’s Baby ad was as Clio-worthy as Ted said. For one, it was creepy as hell. For another, ads based entirely on current pop culture references aren’t what one would consider a masterpiece of the form. Plop-plop, Fizz-fizz is a masterpiece because it was wholly original and ran for over a decade. Peggy’s St. Joseph’s Aspirin ad would be dated within 6 months. And we question whether any mother would find the ad, with its references to demonic babies, as comforting as it should be. It’s bold, certainly; but it strikes us as the wrong ad for that client.
  • Seriously, Megan. Wake the fuck up.

 

 

[Stills: tomandlorenzo.com]

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