‘Mad Men’ review: Might as well be written in steam
Revenge might be one of the most impulsive and immature desires of the human condition, but despite its dramatic nature there’s a reason it’s also known as a dish best served cold. Don Draper’s imminent unraveling has been the pointed focus of Mad Men’s sixth season, as he realizes his ascent from abused, penniless orphan to suave Manhattan executive has failed to fill the cavern of self-loathing his past scraped hollow. His remarkable ability to adopt a new identity and change the course of his life is now matched by an equally spectacular downfall that’s left his future quite bleak. He might be headed directly into an Inferno of his own making, but his calculated attempts to engulf everyone else’s happiness into the flames along with him are derived from the chilliest levels of guilt and regret.
Don’s doomed relationships with women have always imploded in the wake of his inner torment, but the loss of Sally’s respect and devotion has burdened Don with a new brand of heartache he hasn’t experienced before. Any hopes of reconciliation with Sylvia might also be irreparably destroyed, but the demise of another affair is nothing new for Don. Now that his daughter can see him from a similar perspective as his jilted lovers, Don has descended into a whole new realm of sabotaging behavior that extends beyond his own concerns.
“The Quality of Mercy” opens with a shot of Don curled up in a fetal position in Sally’s bed, sleeping off a hangover he attempts to assuage by slipping a shot of vodka into his morning orange juice. Megan is rightfully worried and warns him to “pull back on the throttle a bit,” but she’s under the mistaken impression it’s work stress that has Don grasping the end of his rope. She’s asking him to show himself a little bit of mercy, but instead Don redirects his anguish with ruthless abandon toward others he wants to include in his abject gloom.
Peggy and Ted’s office flirtation has metastasized into a giant tumor of giggles and glee that has everyone within earshot stifling groans. Their obvious attraction to one another would be more palatable or even kind of cute if it didn’t affect their surrounding work environment and, frankly, if Ted weren’t married with children. It’s bearably annoying until Don and Megan catch them at an afternoon matinee together and Ted quickly explains their outing as research for a new ad. Uh huh. Don can immediately sense that a spot for a children’s hospital based upon the closing shot of Rosemary’s Baby is a provocative and risky idea that could prove brilliant, or disastrously ill-advised. Megan is fascinated by the potential gossip the run-in promises, but for Don, watching his onetime protégé find an entirely different kind of inspiration from his workplace rival springboards him into a cyclone of defensive incredulity. He’s already destroyed any admiration Sally once had for him; why not ensure a lifetime of disgust from Peggy, too?
The symbolic implications of Rosemary’s Baby go beyond Ted and Peggy’s unconventional interpretation. Sally was spied reading the novel just before Grandma Ida showed up to ransack Don and Megan’s apartment, and the story itself involves a woman whose husband betrays her by conspiring with their neighbors. Don and Sylvia may not have been practicing satanic witchcraft, but the parallels are still hard to deny, especially in light of the persistent Sharon Tate theories surrounding Megan. Other insinuations include a potential pregnancy at the Draper household, a development that could likely be either the only thing to save Don from the ultimate precipice, or what sends him careening over the edge once and for all. Megan’s concern for her husband is valid and sincere, albeit misunderstood, but Don’s worsening ambivalence toward her makes the idea of a new baby anything but merciful.
Don’s office demeanor presents a completely different facet of his darkness than the blank-faced depression he sports at home. Megan can hardly get him to make eye contact, but during his meeting with Ted and Peggy to discuss their controversial new pitch Don keeps his senses and intuition sharper than ever. The spot is undoubtedly interesting, and watching Ted, Peggy and good sport Joan act out the respective parts is a serious hoot, but basing the idea on a currently popular movie could prove too topical to generate the timeless quality all classic commercials possess. Ted and Peggy are convinced it’s Clio-worthy work, however, and their enthusiasm for both the ad and each other dilutes focus on staying within the client’s budget. Pretty soon, Don realizes the cost has easily tripled and he plans his attack accordingly.
Don first seizes the opportunity to channel his jealous indignation by notifying the client of the updated price tag without consulting Ted, summarily halting the spot’s casting session midway through. Ted is incredulous but asks for Don’s sympathy, pointing to Peggy’s hopeful award success as a reason to allow the massive overspending. The agency’s continued conflict between Sunkist and Ocean Spray had elicited an earlier conversation about facilitating a “coherent approach” to potential business, after Harry broke news from Los Angeles that Sunkist was willing to fork over beaucoup bucks for a TV deal. Ted and Cutler have no idea that Don had originally stuck to his word about resigning Sunkist, until spotting Ted and Peggy at the movies and immediately calling Harry to rescind his instructions and give the final go ahead. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing,” Ted laments, unaware at the depth of truth that statement really holds. “Someone has to look out for a knife in their back.” Unfortunately, Ted doesn’t think to heed his own advice.
The worst part about Don’s slimy handling of the commercial’s budgetary issues isn’t just the way he humiliates both Ted and Peggy in front of their mutual colleagues and client, but also the fact he hides behind a façade of consideration for their reputation and the agency’s benefit. The St. Joseph’s rep is demanding a juicy reason for the financial inflation, and Don’s decision to structure his answer in such a way that Ted can only assume he’s about to reveal he and Peggy’s emotional affair leaves everyone stunned. When Don instead gives the false explanation that the Rosemary’s Baby spoof was Frank Gleason’s deathbed epiphany, Peggy is visibly heartbroken and Ted is downright flummoxed with a combination of anger and sheepish relief. Don pretends he’s showing mercy by snuffing out Ted and Peggy’s puppy love, but he’s really just throwing a Madison Avenue temper tantrum. “You’re a monster,” Peggy later spits. Don crumples into another fetal position, realizing his underhanded treachery didn’t give him the satisfaction he was looking for. In fact, he’s only thrust himself deeper into his misery. There’s a reason Ted asked him to provide the infantile wail during the commercial run-through. Don’s actions are selfish at best and unconscionable at worst, but he isn’t the kind of evil meant for Roman Polanski thrillers. At the end of the day, he’s just a big baby.
Pete’s childish behavior has become something of a trademark over the years, although the source of his immaturity is rooted in a privileged upbringing – something Don certainly never experienced. Being used to the comfort of a silver spoon often renders Pete intolerable when things don’t go his way, but unlike Don’s bottomless hole of despair, Pete’s rough go of it this season has actually steered his trajectory upward. The loss of his marriage and professional esteem has left him vulnerable to a Draper-level pity party, but instead of falling further down the shame spiral Pete discovers a smoother transition out of his rough patch.
The ruthless Chevy execs nearly kill Ken Cosgrove again (you bastards!) after they shoot him in the face during a hunting excursion, beating Dick Cheney to the punch by nearly 40 years. Poor Ken considers this the final deal breaker and confides to Pete he’s had it with the big leagues. After all, his wife is pregnant and he’d prefer to have at least one eye left with which to see the baby. Ken is so downtrodden by the lack of mercy he’s experienced in Detroit, he interprets Pete’s offer to relieve him of duty and be the Chevy point man himself as actual, sincere concern for Ken’s well being. Of course, we know it’s a thinly veiled attempt to regain clout at the office, and Pete’s first order of business is to drop kick that pesky “degenerate” Bob Benson off the account and eventually the agency entirely. When the rest of the partners, particularly Cutler, don’t take to Pete’s suggestions, he enlists the headhunting services of Duck Phillips to try and entice Bob away with a more promising offer.
So far, Pete’s ulterior motives suspiciously align with Don’s brand of self-serving strategy, but when Duck calls back to reveal what viewers have already suspected all season, Pete’s subsequent reaction more closely resembles that of a professional adult than middle-aged child. According to Duck, Bob’s personnel file “might as well have been written in steam,” and no concrete evidence of any aspect of his identity can be proven or even corroborated. He definitely didn’t go to Beloit College or the Wharton School of Business, might not really be 28 years old, and the extent of his employment at prestigious investment firm Brown Brothers Harriman consisted of a stint as “man servant” to a senior vice president. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Duck says, marveling at Bob’s apparent ability to successfully forge an entirely fabricated persona. “I have,” Pete says. So have we.
The revelation that Bob is the agency’s next, or at least newest, Don Draper has been alluded to all season, particularly when considering both men’s similarities beyond their desire to eradicate the past. Flashbacks have confirmed Don was once the wide-eyed ingénue when snowing Roger into his job at the old Sterling Cooper, and Bob’s success at weaseling his way in by merely complimenting Pete’s tie proves the past does tend to repeat itself. Pete makes a surprising decision when confronting Bob about his discovery, however, breaking the pattern with a remarkably diplomatic compromise that might even be considered merciful. Pete wisely remembers that his backfired attempt to expose Don’s fraud didn’t further his own ambitions or help maintain the agency’s integrity. Instead, he looked every bit the tattletale he was, and luckily hasn’t since forgotten the useful lesson to simply mind his own business. Of course, his vow to keep Bob’s secret as long as he chooses another idol to emulate could also be viewed as blackmail, but in 1968 this was about as good of a deal as Bob could hope for.
Sally’s ability to manipulate her circumstances are developing at an impressive rate, as she eliminates the need to come up with different excuses to avoid her father every weekend by simply enrolling in boarding school full-time. Betty is thrilled at the idea of boasting about her daughter being a Miss Porter’s alumni along with WASP queen Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and Don is so excited to rid himself of the tension he almost seems to wire Betty the tuition money telepathically. At the interview, the headmistress tells Sally her overnight visit is designed with the intent for her to learn just as much about the school as they do her. A certain New York ad agency could certainly benefit from such a mission statement.
“The Quality of Mercy” is a productive episode that covers a lot of narrative and allegorical ground in anticipation for next week’s season finale. Despite major emotional upheaval at the office, however, it’s Sally’s adolescent perspective and experience that provides the backbone of the entire series as it prepares for its final season. Her cunning resilience and shrewd intuition when the catty campus tour guides go full Mean Girls shows a perfect amalgamation of her parents that could potentially terrify and amuse both Betty and Don with equal measure, if only they witnessed it. Sally hardly bats an eye when she’s ordered to procure cigarettes, booze, boys or some combination thereof in order to ensure her social acceptance at Miss Porter’s, a notion every teenager realizes carries more importance than anything written in an admissions essay. The fact she’s able to score all three with a simple phone call immediately catapults her into the upper echelons of prep school hierarchy, and she’s not even a student yet.
Don would pretend to be horrified, but probably harbor secret pride at his daughter’s ability to control people and their behavior with the same charismatic nonchalance he has, and Betty’s power over men clearly hasn’t skipped a generation, either. Horny beatnik Rolo might just be acting like a normal high school boy, but Sally isn’t interested in his opinion of her anyway. Her nervousness at his advances endearingly reminds us she is still a very young girl, but the small smile she gives while watching Glen pummel him for the sake of her honor reveals what her real priority was all along. Going away to school is an obvious way to escape the pain of discovering a side of her father no daughter should ever see, but Sally’s decision to run away differs from Don and Bob’s in that she has every intent to remain herself. Don is slowly peeling away layers of the false identity he’d worked so hard to build because he knows in his core he’ll always really be Dick Whitman. Betty’s new role as a political wife has her projecting fantasies about Jackie Kennedy’s glamorous public image. Sally’s parents may never know the real her, but in some ways she knows her parents better than they know themselves. She might not feel like she’s been shown much mercy in her childhood, but Sally is beginning to understand the best way to redeem her tumultuous upbringing is by learning from the mistakes Don and Betty never could. It’s a lesson more virtuous than revenge, but often just as cold.
What’s in store for next week’s season finale? Will Pete be able to handle the Chevy heavies? Did Joan land Avon or not? Will Ted and Peggy take it down a notch? Is Megan pregnant? Or dead? Will Don somehow manage to make his life even worse? Is Sally headed to Woodstock? Post your thoughts in the comment section below!
Season 6, Episode 12: “The Quality of Mercy” (originally aired June 16, 2013)
Mad Men airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on AMC
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Images courtesy of Michael Yarish, Jaimie Trueblood, and AMC.