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.
Barkhorn: Right up until the last 20 minutes or so, I thought this week's episode of Mad Men was going to be mainly about work. There was the jovial Ocean Spray debrief with Ted, Peggy, and Pete; the subsequent miscommunication with the rest of the SC&P staff and Cutler's (hilarious) scolding of Ted for writing too many memos; Ted's wife's confession that she wished he enjoyed his homelife as much as he cherishes time at the office. Even Mitchell's draft scare looked like it was going to be merely a plot device to get Don and Ted to call a truce in their professional war.
But the last few scenes turned the episode into a Freudian field day—a seeming confirmation of his theory that sexual longing is just below the surface of everything we do. First we discover that the reason Bob Benson has been so hard-working, so eager to please around the office all season, is not because he wants to keep his job or get promoted, but because he's in love with Pete Campbell. Bob's pass at Pete was shocking not because it revealed he's attracted to men—the show has long been hinting that he has some sort of secret—but that the object of his affection is Pete. PETE. Pete, whose own mother called him unlovable. I would love to sit Bob down and ask him what he sees in Pete, though I wonder how much longer he'll be working at SC&P. If Pete got his mom's nurse fired for what he felt were inappropriate romantic overtures, should we expect he'll do the same to Bob? I also admit to a bit of disappointment that after all the theories about the mysterious Bob Benson—He's in the CIA! He's a journalist! He's a murderer! He's Don Draper!—this was the big reveal. Making an awkward pass at your co-worker is basically a rite of passage at SC&P (remember the time Peggy put her hand on Don's?), so this development makes Bob seem more, not less, ordinary. (Except, again, for the Pete thing. Why Pete?)
Then, of course, there was the horrifying primal scene where Sally, trying to intercept a love note to her cute neighbor, sees her father having sex with her cute neighbor's mother. The scene is particularly striking because it's the most explicit depiction of sex we've seen on the series so far (at least that I can recall). Yes, the scene was quite short, but it shows Don partly naked, on top of Sylvia, in the middle of intercourse. Sally's never seen her father in this state, and though we've watched Don sleep with plenty of women, it's never been so clearly right in the middle of the act.
All three of them are, of course, distraught. Sylvia cries, punches the bed, and yanks at her shirt like a character in a Greek tragedy. Sally flees and hops into a cab; Don tries to go after her but cannot find his way. He stands in the lobby, pacing back and forth, unsure whether to go outside or back upstairs. Eventually, inevitably he ends up at a bar, then back home, where Sally first cannot look him in the eye but then yells, "You make me sick." I'm not sure I've ever been more angry with Don as a character than when he tried to feed Sally the line about "comforting Mrs. Rosen." Don's whole life is built on deception, of course, and he's lied many, many times before...but the audacity to lie to his daughter about something she very plainly saw? That seems like the lowest of a long, long, long line of Don's lows. And it seems to demonstrate that Don's goal is keeping the peace—making sure Megan and Arnold and everyone else remain dumb about his affair—rather than seeking his daughter's forgiveness. Poor Sally responds with a half-hearted "okay," because what else can she do? Her father was her hero, the only person who, in her own words, "supports my dreams."
This episode's dramatic last third was exciting, of course, and hopefully satisfying for people who've complained that this season is too slow. But I wish the episode really had been primarily about work—that we'd gotten more insight about Ted's workaholism, about the tensions and dysfunctions and jealousies within SC&P, about Cutler's philosophy on memos. The scandalous stuff at the end felt to me more like a soap opera, and not an especially original or enjoyable one.
What did you guys think? Did you like the drama of this episode, or was it too much? What do you think the repercussions will be for Pete and Bob, and for the Drapers and the Rosens? And what were your favorite scenes from the first part of the episode?
Fetters: Oh, boy. True that, on the histrionics of the last third of the episode. In truth, it was a little much for me; I can only deal with Sally Draper's life getting ruined so many times. But I did think the earlier portion of this week's show had a few standout moments.
One of my favorite scenes was, of course, the wee-hours phone call from Peggy to Stan. I'm a big sucker for those, as I think we've established already, and this one, with Peggy's coy "I could make it worth your while" to coax Stan over to her apartment, was a tantalizing tease for Peggy-and-Stan fans like me: Now that Abe's out of the picture, can they please, please become a thing? In a broader sense, too, that call also further underscored the fact that while Peggy and Stan remain technically platonic friends, sex has never been that far out of the question for them. They're a different sort of friends from any other cross-gender friendship on Mad Men, I think—they let the lines blur sometimes between truly-just-friends and sexy-friends. Is that sustainable? I think we'll probably find out.
I liked the scene where Peggy and Pete shared a laugh in the restaurant about Pete's mother. After Pete's mother made Peggy uncomfortable by unwittingly making the rare direct reference to Pete and Peggy's baby, it was nice to see them giggle together as friends just one scene later. Look how far they've come, et cetera.
And I loved, in the most heartbreaking way, the scene at Ted Chaough's house. His wife clearly knows what's up, and she seems to know Ted better than he knows himself ("I know you like having a young copywriter in your airplane"; "I know you like facing Don Draper every morning more than the clients"). Her earnest words to Ted illustrated what SC&P looks like from an outsider's perspective, and it's not pretty. Peggy and SC&P are getting in the way of what Ted's wife understandably wants for her husband and for his ability to play his role in their family. Ted's wife's requests—that he spend more time at home and actually enjoy it—are perfectly reasonable ones, and seeing Ted come home later on and hang out with his boys, careful to let his wife get her rest, made me feel kind of terrible for how eagerly I've bought into the drama of the Peggy-Ted dalliance.
Bob Benson, you dodged a bullet with this one
Eleanor, I think you're right about that Don-and-Sylvia-getting-caught encounter being the most graphic sex we've seen on Mad Men to date. Ironically, I think that sex scene and its aftermath ranks somewhere on my list of Don Draper's unsexiest moments of all time (somewhere behind the few times he's puked onscreen). We tend to see the sexier parts of sex on this show—the anticipation-heavy foreplay and then the afterglow—but the actual sex act generally gets glossed over. The fact that Sally caught her dad in the throes what's arguably the least glamorous part of sex made this whole scene so, so much more unbearable. Obviously it's rough to find out your dad's cheating on his wife, and it's rough to have to think about either one of your parents having sex at all (as Pete reminded us)—so to have to deal with both at once... yikes. Poor Sally. After inadvertently walking in on Roger Sterling getting oral sex from her step-grandma last season, then walking in on her dad having sex with her maybe-crush's mom, spending the last few years hanging out with creepy kids like Glen, Sandy the violinist, and now this evil Julie, plus, you know, having Betty Francis for a mom, it's hard to say who exactly is the worst influence on Sally.
And speaking of Pete: It may not make sense now, Bob Benson, but you dodged a bullet with this one. We've touted Pete as the socially progressive SC&P staffer because of his views on race, but this episode showed his attitudes toward sexuality—be it homosexuality or just non-traditional sexuality—aren't nearly as accepting. (For the time period, that's not all that surprising. But even back in Season 3, Don showed humanity and discretion after finding out Sal Romano was a closeted gay man, so we've seen Mad Men characters handle it better than Pete does.) I think you're right, Eleanor, to say Bob's on his way out, and I think he probably knows it.
Amy, you're up: Your reactions on Don and Sylvia and Sally's big awkward surprise? What's next for single Peggy? And how about Ted and Don's shaky peace agreement—should we be taking over-under bets on how long that lasts?
Sullivan: Wow. My high school Model U.N. competitions were nothing like that. The only conceivable teeny tiny upside to Sally's traumatic surprise is that it redeemed one of the many Dick Whitman flashbacks we've been treated to this season. The scene immediately recalled Dick peering through the keyhole to see his stepmother on her back as their new landlord claimed her.
If Don were the self-aware type, he would be worried not only about the possibility that Sally will tell someone but also that he's just poisoned his daughter's view of men the way his own view of women was warped and shaped at a young age. In a way, that would be more tragic. Dick Whitman grew up knowing his mother was a prostitute and spent part of his childhood literally living in a whorehouse. But Sally—despite the rough spots you mentioned, Ashley—has largely maintained her innocence. The closest she's come to having a boyfriend was creepy Glen, who was actually pretty sweet to her. She's still at the age where she can develop a massive crush based on two minutes of seeing a boy in the lobby. And I found most endearing and heartwarming the warning Sally gave Julie about boys not liking her if they knew she wasn't prepared for Model U.N. Please don't let go of that, Sally. There are men who like smart women.
But as Roger said at the start of the episode, "Not all surprises are bad." And, God help me, I actually liked Pete in that scene with Peggy and Ted. It worked partly because Elisabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser can be so darn charming together. But on a show that likes to posit that people never really change, it was also refreshing to see these two characters so at ease and comfortable with who they are (Pete's bout of self-pity aside) in a way that wouldn't have been possible several seasons ago. Although I'm another fan of Peggy and Stan's friendship, Pete is the one who has traveled the path with her as they've risen up the ranks of their careers. "You really know me," he tells Peggy. And she answers, "I do" with tears in her eyes.
That said, Peggy, don't you dare end up with Peter Dyckman Campbell. You asked what's in store for our newly single Peggy, Ashley. Based on her history, I'm a little concerned. She wouldn't be the first smart, professional woman to have horrible taste in men, but let's review: Pete, Duck, Abe. I'm hoping the cat takes care of Peggy's rat problem—and of any thoughts that she needs a boyfriend at the moment. Pegs could do with a breather. It's actually a relief that the whole Ted thing has dialed back to the occasional drunken flirtation.
Because Ted can be an insecure child himself, as we saw in this episode. I'm fascinated by the fact that he's so obsessed with Don, usually so much better at reading people, and yet thinks Don is purposely sabotaging him. For once, Don didn't have to bluster or play dumb—he honestly didn't know what Ted was talking about because lately he's just been too checked out to consciously undermine Ted. "Be better at it," Ted lectures Don about his job, and it's kind of shocking to realize how much Don has dropped the ball at work this year. He comes through in a crisis—sometimes—like snagging the Chevy account. But he's pretty awful on the day-to-day stuff.
Don's head was elsewhere for most of this episode, as soon as he learned that Mitchell Rosen was 1-A. He initially blusters to Megan—and it is interesting that he so often plays the role of her father, intentionally pissing her off by criticizing her generation—calling Mitchell a "stupid kid" and oh-so-hypocritically noting that "he can't spend the rest of his life on the run." But Mitchell's plight hits Don harder than he lets on at first, and not just because it involves Sylvia's son.
The conversation between Don and Arnold at their neighborhood pub is worth watching again, because Arnold really is one of the rare people Don seems to both admire and like. (My favorite line of this episode? Ted's spot-on observation before he helps Don: "I bet you don't have a lot of friends, Don, so I'm going to assume it's important.") Don actually defends Mitchell to Arnold—"You have to admire his ideals" and "The war is wrong" and finally, "I'm sure he's a good kid," to which Arnold quietly says "The best," and breaks down.
Don had to have been brought back to his experience in Korea as a terrified young soldier who was just looking to get away from home. "I wanted to go," he tells Arnold, "and then when I got there..." When he got there, he wanted out, by any means necessary. Don spends this episode doing everything he can--even totally ruining a client dinner—to get someone else out of the position of ending up frightened out of his mind in the middle of a war. He may not realize that's why he's doing it, but his commitment to the effort—Don almost seems terrified himself by the idea of going back into war—is very personal.
As for the Talented Mr. Benson? I have no doubt he'll figure into the last two episodes of this season. And I don't buy that his eager beaverness has all been for Pete's sake.