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Mad Men Review: Not All Surprises Are Bad

Few emotions are harder to process and accept than the blow of crushing disappointment, especially at the humiliating expense of misconstrued assumptions that inevitably crumble in its wake. Sunday’s Mad Men revolves around the various “Favors” each character conduct for one another, but the underlying expectations and ulterior motives buoying their actions is what ultimately lays the foundation for further story development as season six winds to a close.

The intricate relationships forged between each character, both primary and peripheral, stem from a series of differing intentions and subsequent behavior that have shaped the narrative arc throughout the entire series. The chain of events depicted in this week’s episode provides a masterfully compelling buildup that culminates in a jaw-dropping payoff for those viewers waiting weeks (if not years) for the proverbial shoe to drop. While it could be argued one particularly disastrous incident outweighs the rest, this episode confirms Don isn’t alone in his downward descent. His journey isn’t toward a solitary Inferno but rather a full-blown ring of fire, and he’s dragging everyone he can into the flames along with him.

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We open upon Peggy shrieking at the sight of an unwanted intruder in her apartment. Rats are as synonymous with New York living as taxi cabs and street vendors, so it’s hard to imagine this is Peggy’s first run-in with a stowaway rodent. What’s most likely catching her off guard is the readjustment to single life. At the office she’s always felt pressure to work harder than her primarily male associates, but at least there’s an audience to hear her if she speaks loudly enough. At home, there’s no one there anymore to listen at all. Her newfound solitude could have contributed to the more forthright and relaxed demeanor she embraces while celebrating a new account with Pete and Ted, two men who represent two very different examples of romantic tension in her life. She may not have stabbed either one of them with a makeshift bayonet, but there are legitimate sources of pain and discomfort in both unresolved relationships.

Ted’s the designated pilot for the evening and chaperones Pete and Peggy as they let their respective guards down a little more with each passing whiskey sour. Pete’s increasingly troublesome situation with his senile mother has reached a fever pitch, and Peggy tells him Mrs. Campbell had mistaken her for Trudy when she stopped by the agency. The most awkward moment of that conversation, of course, was Peggy’s sheer terror in the moments she thought Pete’s mother knew about the child they had conceived together long ago, but she wisely keeps that nugget under wraps. Instead, she reveals Mrs. Campbell’s confessed sexual awakening courtesy of Manolo, the nurse Bob had recommended as (aha!) a favor to Pete.

Pete’s too sloshed to be seriously revolted, at least for now, and he and Peggy laugh together at the ridiculous thought of Pete’s pearl-clutching mother carrying on a tawdry affair. Pete uses the levity as an opportunity to point out Peggy’s good standing at the firm, especially with Ted, but he’s really expressing his own appreciation for her, even after everything they’ve been through. “At least one of us ended up important,” Pete laments, before imploring Peggy not to pity him despite his obvious struggles. “You really know me,” he admits, as Peggy nods back in understanding. Ted returns to the table and immediately senses the unspoken connection between Pete and Peggy that only friendly exes can have, and begins to reassess his own priorities.

Ted’s crush on Peggy clearly hasn’t dissipated, but his fixation on another SC&P colleague has his wife chiding him for being both literally and figuratively absent at home. He and Don have always made great adversaries, but as opposing forces on the same team their rivalry takes on a distinctly more personal nature. Don’s effortless charisma and laissez-faire approach to his work infuriates the chipper and fastidious Ted, whose good-natured but overzealous effort hasn’t yielded the productivity he’d like. Cutler scolds him for issuing “too many memos,” hilariously pointing out their persistent abundance as the likely reason no one bothers to read them anymore. Heh. Unlike Ted and Don’s antithetical co-existence, Cutler perfectly supplements Roger’s suave buffoonery with absurdist insight of his own. He’s of a more straightforwardly slimy lot than Rog, but the two make a mighty dynamic duo.

Don had no idea Ted, Peggy and Pete had pitched to Ocean Spray, having apparently ignored Ted’s helpful memo on the subject and proving Cutler’s observation true. He and Roger have been busy nailing down Sunkist, a development previously unbeknownst to the rest of the gang who, like us, had assumed all their work in California last week was probably stuffed into a hookah and smoked. The potential conflict of interest for the agency is worrisome, but Ted finds the problem more relevant to internal concerns. “I don’t want HIS juice, I want MY juice!” he pouts, revealing he’s more focused on his perceived competition with Don than comparing apples, er, cranberries and oranges.

Pete’s suspicion he’s become the office outcast have only intensified as he’s watched the partners of both merging agencies find their respective counterparts and team up. Even though some pairings facilitate more negativity than others, Pete longs for the newfound sense of purpose Don and Roger have discovered upon working with Ted and Cutler, respectively. Whether Mrs. Campbell’s purported relationship with Manolo is real or a figment of her imagination is irrelevant to Pete, who finds the mere thought of it unbearable without the help of Peggy’s charms and Ted’s bar tab. It’s also possible his disgust is rooted in a festering resentment toward his mother, whose only moment of cognizance the whole episode seems to be when she calls her son an “unlovable … sour little man.” On that note, Pete and Don might have more to talk about than either of them realize.

Regardless, Pete calls Bob into his office to explain the unpleasant turn of events and is surprised when Bob scoffs and suggests Manolo’s tastes don’t exactly include female WASPs of a certain age, or females at all for that matter. “Oh, great, he’s a degenerate,” Pete groans, and Bob’s permagrin falters for a moment to reveal a crestfallen sadness. The mystery behind Bob Benson’s peculiar presence has been speculated about perhaps more than any other conspiracy theory this season besides Megan’s allegedly imminent murder, but his startling, wistful monologue about unrequited love finally sheds some light on his story, however anticlimactically. So, he’s gay? That’s it? While the revelation does prove at least one person hasn’t been overlooking Pete, our resident Debbie Downer doesn’t see it that way.

Bob’s method of gauging where Pete might fall on the Kinsey scale seems quite forward for 1968 standards, but compared to the late night proposition Stan receives from Peggy, a knowing knee-touch looks downright subtle. Pete won’t be accepting any more favors from Bob for the foreseeable future, but Peggy tells Stan she’ll “make it worth” his while if he leaps out of bed and gets rid of her rat. “I’m not your boyfriend,” he hisses, quite rightfully, before making it clear he’s already got a bedtime visitor of his own. “Oh,” Peggy says, finally catching on. “Well, you can bring her!” Stan still doesn’t bite, eliciting wonder why Peggy didn’t just call sure thing Pete. On second thought, he’d probably be more skittish around the rat than she is.

Don’s found himself in a more serious predicament when Arnold and Sylvia’s son comes home with the news he’s been issued a 1-A draft classification, meaning he could be deployed to Vietnam at any moment. He’d left school and sacrificed his student deferment, sending his military eligibility to the top of the list. Mitchell pays Megan a visit to ask if she has any ideas on how to help him defect to Canada, but she doesn’t feel comfortable involving herself without the Rosens’ input. The situation leaves Don shaken for multiple reasons, the first being his sense of obligation to Sylvia after their misfired affair, and the second his undeniable sympathy for Mitchell. Don might not be able to consciously acknowledge how much of himself he sees in the terrified teenager, but when he remarks how Mitchell “can’t spend the rest of his life on the run,” the relevance is painfully poignant.

Don’s desire to make amends for the way things ended with Sylvia also carries weight in his friendship with Arnold, and the two have a heart-to-heart about fear and possibilities in the face of such a grave unknown. “What would you do?” Arnold asks Don. “If it was my kid, or if it was me?” Don responds, further blurring the line between his past and his present. Mitchell is far luckier than most kids in his situation, considering the helpful connections made available by his wealthy and distinguished parents, but Don really sticks his neck out and even fishes for assistance from the Chevy execs during a business dinner. His ill-advised decision to bring up the war in the midst of otherwise jovial chitchat brings the conversation to a screeching halt, sending Ted spinning into further incredulous frustration with Don and his unorthodox business tactics.

Sally’s pesky friend Julie is creating unwanted mischief of her own, as the girls meet Mitchell, long of hair and tight of pants, for the first time and swoon accordingly. Julie is staying with Sally at the Drapers while they prepare for a Model UN student event in the city, something Betty had dismissed as a simple “excuse to make out.” Sally is actually comfortable just making a slumber party list of Mitchell’s most notable assets, but Julie is willing to go a step further and sneak the note into the Rosens’ apartment courtesy of the infamously Chekhovian service hallway. Julie thinks she’s done Sally a favor by expediting her association with Mitchell, but Sally is mortified and rushes to intercept the letter’s delivery. Well-intentioned doorman Jonesy lends Sally his keys, unaware of the devastating consequences his favor will bring.

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Don is left sheepish and even more desperate after his disastrous attempt to use his GM clients to uncover a solution for Mitchell, but when Ted reams him for his unprofessional behavior the two spark unexpected closure. Ted offers to call his flight instructor, a Brigadier General in the Air National Guard, and request a stateside spot for Mitchell in exchange for a more team-orientated attitude at work from Don. His generosity isn’t a favor without caveats, Ted warns, but rather a binding contract to guarantee the office environment he wants. Don phones the Rosen residence to give Arnold the good news, but is met with Sylvia’s teary gratitude instead. Uh-oh.

The awful, inevitable sight of Don and Sylvia in bed together leaves Sally shocked and saddened, not only because of the illicit nature of their behavior but more importantly due to her now-shattered lifelong adoration of her father. The reactions of all three parties involved are heartbreaking, as Sally flees the scene in speechless horror, Sylvia pounds her fists in agonizing disbelief she could be so careless and stupid, and Don chases after his daughter with frantic anguish to no avail. After seeking escape for the afternoon in a local watering hole, Don returns home drunk and defeated. He and Sally both try to avoid the dinner table, but Arnold and Mitchell stop by to thank Don for pulling the strings he did to indirectly save Mitchell’s life. The juxtaposing results of his actions leaves Don stupefied, as he finds himself simultaneously adored by his wife and friend, and reviled by the last person he wanted, and expected, to discover the truth. “You are the sweetest man,” Megan raves, delighted by the deceptively altruistic nature of Don’s favor to the Rosens. “You make me sick!” Sally cries in return, perhaps recalling Betty’s sarcastic declaration that Don is always “the hero” of the family, a notion that, in hindsight, could finally help Sally recognize the (mostly) justifiable reasons behind her mother’s bitterness.

“Favors” juggles a multitude of narrative tools nearly as deftly as Roger does a trio of Sunkist oranges, but despite the deepening subplots surrounding our supporting characters, everything can still be traced back to Don. He and Pete share devastating pasts with abusive mother figures that shaped their adulthood disdain for women, while Bob Benson could end up being the agency’s next Don Draper, a sly opportunist with a mysterious past, buried identity and perpetually broken heart. Like Don, Ted also has two sons and may have allowed his fatherly sympathies drive his decision to help Mitchell for the good of the agency. When it comes to Sally, however, no favor could possibly help mend the damage of Don’s mistakes. They’ve both now experienced the hurt and confusion of witnessing a parent engaged in unseemly conduct, but this common thread won’t be of any use to their irreparably tarnished bond. Sally’s newfound understanding of her father’s true nature has chipped away a significant portion of Don’s façade, leaving him as limp and bloodied as the dirty rat in Peggy’s apartment.

Was this the final straw for Don? Is Megan carrying on an affair of her own with her much-mentioned television agent? Is there more mystery to Bob than his closeted sexuality? Is Pete going to find eventual redemption or just follow in Don’s footsteps? Will Ted ease up on the memos? How about a spinoff for Roger and Cutler? Sound off on all things Mad Men in the comment section below!

Season 6, Episode 11: “Favors” (originally aired June 9, 2013)

Mad Men airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on AMC.

Images courtesy of Michael Yarish, Jaimie Trueblood, and AMC.

Follow Erin on Twitter: @ErinBiglow

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