Mad Men: 'Who Is Don Draper?' Becomes 'Who Is Bob Benson?'

Our roundtable discusses the 11th episode of the sixth season.
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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 & Partners.


Sullivan: All together, now: OH MY GOD! THEY KILLED KENNY!

Okay, so Kenny just ended up injured and determined to leave the Chevy account—and possibly advertising entirely. But I wouldn't put it past Matthew Weiner to have orchestrated that entire sequence just so we'd all have a reflexive South Park response. Kenny himself got to react with an epic rant: "I hate Detroit. I hate cars. I hate guns. I don't even want to look at a steak anymore ... Did I tell you that on the way to the hospital, they tried to stop for lunch?"

That should have been my clue that this was going to be a terrific--and funny--episode, perhaps my favorite of the season. Call me old-fashioned, but I like episodes that move, that use storytelling. This has been a frustratingly uneven season, in part because Weiner chose as his season-long theme the idea that people don't really change, history repeats itself, nothing new ever happens. That's either incredibly bold or idiotic for a dramatic television series.

It also conflicts, at least on the surface, with the actual events of 1968 that have played out during season six. That violent year was so jarring precisely because so many things seemed to be happening to which Americans did not know how to react. Multiple high-profile assassinations, urban riots, the fairy-tale widowed first lady marrying a Greek shipping tycoon--none of these had precedents or prompted familiar responses.

Don mentioned the last development in a surprisingly flirty phone conversation with Betty, which puts this episode in late October 1968. That means Sally has been refusing to return to her father's apartment for several months now. "She says she's not going again," says Betty, who is uncharacteristically restrained in not pushing Don to find an explanation for Sally's abrupt change in behavior. Don looks destroyed—equal parts anxious that Sally will tell Betty or Megan and devastated that he's lost Sally, possibly forever. The episode opens with him curled up in a near-fetal position on Sally's bed, and he's back to self-medicating with alcohol.

Do we have a running count of how many times Megan has said "I don't know what's going on with you/us" this season? Megan, honey, this is the deal with Don Draper. You'll never know what's going on with him but you can guarantee it's not good. At the office, on the other hand, Don is back on his game—assuming his game is torturing Ted and pushing away Peggy. It was bad enough that Peggy left him for Ted, but now Don has to watch her laugh at Ted's jokes, see Ted putting his hands on Peggy, hear Peggy constantly telling him what a good man Ted is. Running into them at the movie theater together—that's their thing! He and Peggy see movies in the middle of the day when they're stuck!—pushes Don over the edge.

Our Don is nothing if not predictably petty, so we know almost before he does that he's going to blow up his truce with Ted, which lasted all of two months. Don tells himself—and anyone who will listen—that he's doing it for the good of the firm. And it's true that both Ted and Peggy have let their feelings impair both their creative and their business judgment. But Don's actions will have the long-term effect of making this shaky partnership unworkable. He lies directly to his partners, assuring Cutler there will be "no more surprises." He humiliates Ted in the St. Joseph's meeting. And by giving Frank Gleason credit for Peggy's commercial idea, he ensures that if the TV spot does win any awards, they won't go to her. If Don had looked at her face by the end of that meeting, he would have seen what became clear in the last scene, that Don has lost both Sally and Peggy forever.

But as sad as that final image was of Don curled up on his couch, desperately alone, this episode had some wonderfully funny scenes and exchanges. Among my favorites was the telephone call between Don and Harry (note Megan's expression of disgust as she hands the phone to Don—she hasn't forgotten good ol' Harry):

Harry: "I have good news for once."

Don: "You found the fun hooker who takes travelers checks?"

Harry: "Why did I tell you that."

We even saw a few of the characters-we-love-to-hate showing signs of personal growth. When Pete uncovers the deception of Bob Benson—or Bic Bittman, as I'll think of him—he reacts very differently than the Peter Campbell of Season One. Remember that when Pete discovered Don's secret and ratted him out to Bert Cooper, he gained ... absolutely nothing. By keeping his mouth shut for Bob, Pete has secured the very best kind of ally: one who owes him.

I can't help thinking, though, that this could potentially turn out very badly for Pete, particularly if someone else learns the truth about Bob and realizes that Pete knew already. And the last time a partner agreed to keep a colleague's secret was when Don told Lane he'd need to leave the firm because of that missing check. I don't think Bob's going to end up offing himself, but I also don't think this plotline will have a happy ending.

For the moment, though, Betty and Sally seem to have reached a detente. In fact, it's just possible that giving Sally a cigarette is the nicest thing Betty has ever done for her. What say you, ladies? Is Sally on track to become a mean girl like her mother? Or is there still hope for our girl in knee socks?


Fetters: Totally agree on Sally and Betty smoking in the car. It was like once there was a cigarette between Sally's fingers, she and Betty could finally communicate in the between-exhales language of adults. They looked like a couple of smoking-in-the-girls'-room queen bees together, so this certainly could be the pivot point that sets Sally on the path to grown-up bitchery a la Betty Draper. And those catty girls at boarding school could speed up that process even further.

Don's early phone conversation with Betty was really striking to me, too, Amy—but to me, it seemed like Don was pretty OK with Sally's distancing herself from him. When Betty says Sally's not coming up for the weekend, he even says to her, "Tell her if she does come, I'll be working the whole weekend." He offers to pay the entire tuition if Sally decides to go to boarding school, and even offers to pay to get her in.

Defense mechanism? Maybe. But at surface level, at least, it almost looks to me like Don's the one who's mad at Sally. Which is pretty inexcusable on all levels, given just how badly he screwed up and how innocently she just happened to catch him in the act of screwing up. Last week we declared that moment a new low for Don Draper, but I think this might be a step lower: He's now cutting his daughter out of his life out of spite (or, best case scenario, shame) because she may or may not have ruined the illicit affair he was having with his friend's wife. And cutting her off with an offer of money, the way we've seen him do before with his mistresses (Midge comes to mind, and his old secretary Allison).

There were so many callbacks to earlier episodes and seasons.

This conversation, it's worth adding, is what ensues right after Don's channel-surfing encounter with Megan's soap opera. Don lands on a TV station on which Megan is wearing a blonde wig and declaring in a ridiculous French accent, "I am talking to joo! Don't you dare eegnore me!"—and Don promptly flips the channel, almost defiantly. It's like a multi-layered reminder that in all possible ways, Don Draper is awful. Like the worst, sleaziest Inception nightmare ever.

Even with Don's early awfulness, though, I agree with you, Amy, that a lot of this episode was surprisingly funny. The SC&P higher-ups sharing their client-wooing horror stories was darkly comical; even Don's little prank on Peggy and Ted had me laughing in disbelief. The St. Joseph's pitch rehearsal looked like something from The Office; Bob Benson speaking Spanish on the phone came out of nowhere and was bizarre and great. (Any working theories on that, by the way? My thought is that it's related to Manolo. We know Manolo isn't into women, we know Bob isn't either, we know they know each other in some way that's likely not really related to Manolo nursing Bob's dad back to health, because—as some commenters pointed out a while back—Bob's also said before that his dad is dead.) Ted and Peggy had a few funny moments, even if it is getting more than a little out of hand (especially for an office setting). I have to keep reminding myself that Ted's married. I, like Peggy, am decently charmed by Ted, against my better conscience—but Don's right when he says Ted's judgment is impaired.

The last line of the episode, of course, is Peggy's declaration to Don that "You're a monster," after his nasty little stunt in the pitch meeting with St. Joseph's. To my ears, "monster" seemed like an odd choice of words; obviously, as we've seen in the last 11 weeks, my mind usually goes right to "sleazy" or "bastard" or "creep." But "monster" has an element of real, innate malice to it. Peggy's called him something more evil—uncontrollably evil—than I've ever thought to call him. Is that what's going on here? What do you think, Eleanor? Has Don Draper become a monster?


Barkhorn: The monster line got me, too. I saw it as a rare example of someone being unfair to Don. Yes, his behavior has been monstrous this season, but in ways that Peggy knows nothing about: neglecting his own wife, sleeping with his ex-wife, sleeping with his (only) friend's wife, freezing out his daughter after she catches him in the act, and on and on.

In contrast, I thought his behavior toward Peggy, though not perfect, was quite compassionate. Yes, it was cruel of him to deprive her of credit for the aspirin ad. (Though I have to wonder just how good of an idea it is, relying as it does on two ethnic cliches—the soup-wielding Jewish neighbor and the photo-snapping "Japanese"—and inspired as it is by a nightmare-inducing horror film.) But it's quite possible there was no other way to convince the client to use the idea at all.

More importantly, Don was right to call Ted and Peggy out for their increasingly obvious flirtation. Whenever the episode showed the two of them laughing and glowing at each other, I was embarrassed for both of them, and worried for Peggy. It's bad enough that many veteran SC&P-ers assume she's gotten to her current position by sleeping with Don. It could be disastrous for her professional reputation if Ted continued to favor her so obviously. We could already see the resentment building in this episode, when Ginsberg made the crack about how he wanted to see if Ted would respond any ideas besides Peggy's. Those sorts of jokes would only get more frequent if somebody hadn't poured water on the fire.

I also think Don was right to tell Peggy that Ted's "not that virtuous ... he's just in love with you." Despite Peggy and Ted's recent closeness, Don has known and observed him much longer. And as I've mentioned before, the Ted we've seen in past seasons is hardly virtuous: He's petty, weasely, eager to steal Don's clients and employees. Ted's hardly been a moral exemplar this season, either. We've witnessed his insecurities and competitiveness at closer range, and we've also gotten a glimpse at his home life. Remember that sweet scene last episode where Ted returned home to put his kids to bed? His behavior toward Peggy indicates that his renewed domestic devotion was short-lived. Don sees Ted more clearly than Peggy does—and we the audience arguably see him more clearly still. Peggy's judgment is impaired by the thrill of being admired by her boss. Again, the delivery was imperfect, but ultimately it's good for Don to point that out to her.

As for the episode as a whole, I agree with Amy that this was one of the better episodes of the season: funny, surprising, well-paced. I was also struck by how much it rewarded longtime viewers of the series. There were so many callbacks to earlier episodes and seasons. As we've already discussed, there was Pete's deja vu moment with Bob Benson, echoing his discovery of Don's true identity back in Season One. I also couldn't help but take Kenny's accident as sad karmic retribution for that time he drove the John Deere tractor out into the Sterling Cooper offices, which resulted in a PPL executive losing his foot. Peggy's Rosemary's Baby-inspired aspirin ad reminded me of the time SCDP tried, and failed, to model a diet soda spot on Bye Bye Birdie in Season Three. (The Rosemary's Baby pitch also reminds us that Peggy has a child of her own—something that arguably haunts her more than we've realized.)

There was the return (and vindication!) of Glen Bishop, who's evolved from creepy neighbor to protective brother figure. (Amy, you expressed concern that Don's awfulness might make Sally suspicious of men in general—hopefully Glen's kindness toward her will help prevent that from happening.) And of course there was Roger's conversation-stopping reference to Lucky Strike's Lee Garner, Jr., whom we haven't seen since Season Four: "Lee Garner Jr. made me hold his balls."

There were also some more somber callbacks to earlier this season, which show just how far Don has fallen. That breakfast scene at the beginning of the episode—eggs on the stove, orange juice in the glass—immediately made me think of Don's pitch for Fleischmann's margarine. In his "rap session" with Ted, he envisioned a hearty, homemade breakfast on the farm. For a moment this week, it looked like a similarly wholesome scene was developing at the Draper apartment—that is, until Megan burned the eggs and Don spiked his OJ. It was also rather startling to see Don's about-face on Sunkist, and by extension on loyalty. It was only a few episodes ago that he was lecturing Pete on why not to go after Heinz ketchup: "sometimes you gotta dance with the one that brung ya." It was a pretty cynical statement coming from a serial cheater (and not one he was especially devoted to, of course; he ended up going after the ketchup account). Now his professional ethics are more in line with his personal ones: He'll happily ditch Ocean Spray to pursue Sunkist.

And now there's just one episode to go in this uneven, unloved season. Where will the finale leave us? Will the messy merger of SCDP and CGC survive? What about the Drapers' marriage—or the Rosens'? Or the Pete-Bob alliance? Will Peggy and Ted finally cool off? And, of course, the eternal question: Will anyone die?

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