Mad Men May Be About to Get a Whole Lot Darker

Several potential tragedies emerged from this week's episode. Our roundtable discusses.
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AMC

Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.


Fetters: Welcome back, colleagues, to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Cutler Gleason Chaough Olson Holloway/Harris Campbell, or whatever it's called—where random employees are getting the haphazard chop of the ax to cut costs, everybody's one secretary short, long-since-fired employees get hired into the firm back only to be promptly dismissed again, and the creative execs take turns getting each other hammered before meetings (hi, drunk Ted) or just not showing up to them at all (nice work, Don).

So thus far, the merger hasn't gone so well. Between Pete's unexplained absences due to his struggles with his mother's dementia, Don's unwillingness to cooperate with Ted, Peggy's complicated relationships with both of her bosses, and the general frostiness between Team CGC and Team SCDP, the operations at the newly merged firm have become just as hard to handle as the margarine they spent this episode trying to sell—and could be headed for a meltdown pretty quickly.

Still, there were bright moments throughout the growing-pains process of merging firms. Among them: Joan and Peggy are working in the same office again! Roger fired Burt Peterson like a badass! Ted's partners revealed that he's a pilot, and later he flew a plane! ... And when Ted put those aviators on as they ascended above the stormclouds on the way to their meeting with Mohawk Airlines, he was infinitely cooler than Don for about 1.5 seconds!

Speaking of Ted, I was a little bummed that there wasn't much development in the romantic tension between him and Peggy this week. But this episode found its hint of weird sexual dynamics in the kinky, Secretary-style liaisons between Don and Sylvia. After an argument with Arnold, Sylvia called up Don mid-day to say she needed him—that no one else would do—so he told her to get a hotel room and he'd be there. That hotel room turned into a den of domination and submission, as Don proceeded to issue Sylvia orders for the next day or so that included crawling on her hands and knees to find his shoes, waiting for him naked in bed for hours, stripping on command, and staying cooped up in the hotel room with no distractions or contact with the outside world while he traveled upstate in Ted's plane. "You are for me," he tells her. "You exist in this room for my pleasure."

All was well—Sylvia seemed to enjoy their little forced-obedience game at first—until Don returned from the Mohawk meeting to find Sylvia packing up her things. "It's time to go home," she tells Don.

"It's easy to leave when you're satisfied," he tells her.

"It's easy to leave when you're ashamed," she replies. After a brief, tense conversation, a stony-silent elevator ride ensues.

That was a graceful exit on Sylvia's part, and I hope she sticks to her word. "It's easy to leave when you're ashamed" is a remarkably grounded sentiment coming from a Mad Men character—genuine remorse isn't something that its characters experience very often. And if this is the last we see of Don's mistress from downstairs, maybe now's the right moment to verbally applaud the always-amazing Linda Cardellini for a quietly stunning turn as Sylvia. She's played the troubled temptress at other points in this season, but this week, Sylvia served as the moral voice of the episode; with her sad but firm dismissal of Don, she delivered a much-needed dose of integrity and self-respect that threw Don's ruthlessness into sharp, nasty relief.

The scene afterward at the Drapers' home, though, got me thinking. Don's clearly distracted as he's listening to Megan's words about taking time off from work to go on vacation again, and his thoughts are, presumably, with Sylvia. The "previously on Mad Men" montage preceding this week's episode ominously included Sylvia's heavily foreshadowing utterance "We can't fall in love" to Don, and Don did offer up an uncharacteristic "Please" as she prepared to leave for the last time. Did Don love Sylvia? Eleanor, Amy, what do you think?

Additionally: What's up with Joan and Bob Benson? Was Bob shrewdly cozying up to Joan because he knew his job would be in jeopardy, or is Joan's mom the wise one in pointing out that he did save her life?

And this episode's title was "Man With a Plan": Can anybody point out which man is the one with the plan?


Barkhorn: Ah, Ashley, what is love on Mad Men? Just something invented by guys like Don to sell nylons, right? I do think Don cared for Sylvia more than he sometimes does for his mistresses. But there have been other lovers he's gotten attached to: Midge, Rachel Menken, and Suzanne Farrell come to mind. He semi-proposed to Midge, revealed his past to Rachel, and seemed poised to leave Betty for Suzanne. Don never got that deep with Sylvia. I agree that Don's plaintive "please" was unusual, even shocking. But it seemed more evidence of Don's desperation to stay in control of at least one aspect of his life, rather than a sign of his affection for Sylvia.

The defining characteristic of Don's relationship with Sylvia wasn't tenderness, after all, but control. At a moment in his marriage when his own wife was slipping away from his grasp, Don could count on Sylvia to be at home (or in the hotel room) waiting for him. Don said some pretty ridiculous things to her in this episode: "Who told you you were allowed to think," 'It's over when I say it's over," and so on. But these were very much in line with the sorts of things Don said and did to Sylvia throughout their relationship. He asked her if she prayed that he would come to see her. He dropped in on his own schedule. He gave her money. No wonder the hotel dalliance made Sylvia realize she wanted out—it was a reality check on the relationship. She said she was leaving because she was ashamed, but I hope she was also motivated by good, old-fashioned indignation. What kind of a guy talks a woman into waiting around in a hotel room for him, all day, without reading material? I'm sighing in frustration just thinking about it.

I think control fits into the episode's title as well. At some point in the episode, pretty much all of the male characters had to come up with their own plans to gain control of a situation. Don got Ted drunk at the office to get control of the margarine account. Ted grabbed the power back when he flew them up to the Mohawk meeting. Roger maintained his position of influence at the firm by firing Burt. Even poor Pete Campell came up with a way to control his mother and keep her inside his apartment—by lying to her that it was St. Patrick's Day. Bob Benson found a way to take charge at the hospital with Joan. He also lied, telling the nurse that Joan had swallowed furniture polish. As for whether Bob's care for Joan was an office power play or a genuine act of kindness, who knows? Either way, it worked: He managed to save his job and get in Joan's mother's good graces.

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