Mad Men May Be About to Get a Whole Lot Darker
Several potential tragedies emerged from this week's episode. Our roundtable discusses.
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.
Speaking of Joan, one thing that I've been wondering for awhile that I was reminded of this week: Where is Joan's money going? I've long thought it was strange that she has such a dingy apartment when the other partners live in style. Yes, she's a woman and she's bound to make less money than her male counterparts. But even Peggy has enough money to buy a whole building (on the not-yet gentrified Upper West Side, yes, but remember she also could have afforded that nice, sunny apartment on the Upper East). The hospital Joan went to is even more puzzling: It was understaffed, with a leaky roof. Mad Men has gone to the hospital in the past—for baby Gene's birth, and when Guy lost his foot in the John Deere accident—and they were never this gross. Can Joan really not afford to go to a decent hospital? Is she stashing away cash to pay for Kevin's college fund? Does she not want her mom to get greedy? Is there something else I'm missing?
Also, Ashley nominated "It's easy to leave when you're ashamed" as the line of the episode. I'll counter with Peggy's line to Don in his office: "Move forward." She said it while chastising Don for being childish in his attempt to control Ted (and her). But the statement applies even better to a context she's not even aware of: the Fleischmann's pitch Don cooked up with Ted. Don is still trying to sell nostalgia: life on the farm, with mom making pancakes. I imagine that's going to get old, especially with clients (like, say, Chevy) that are trying to live in the future. Will Don be able to move forward, not only in his relationships with his colleagues, but also in his work?
Amy, what do you think? Is Don in love with Sylvia? Is he living in the past? What was your line of the week? And what else struck you about this episode?
Sullivan: Like you, Eleanor, I thought this episode was all about power: the use and abuse of power, who has it and who doesn't, and how power balances can shift rapidly in relationships. There was Burt Peterson, who came back to SCDP clearly relishing the opportunity to stick it to Don and Roger for firing him several years ago. But no sooner had he put Don through an awkward conversation than there he was, sitting on Roger's ridiculous white leather settee, being fired again. And this time, Roger didn't even bother pretending that it was for cause. He just didn't want to deal with Burt the ticking time bomb waiting around the office to undermine him.
Then of course there was the juvenile power struggle between Don and Ted. We knew that would happen eventually with these two, but how pathetic that it was set off by Ted rightly calling out Don for blowing off work? Last week Don is fired up and back in the game, and this week he's back to playing hooky? I was struck by how the office culture has changed since Mad Men first premiered. Ted drunkenly stumbling into the creatives' work area wasn't a source of amusement for them, the way Freddy Rumsen pissing himself once was. The mood may be looser, but some lines have changed.
And what of that ultimate power struggle between Don and Sylvia? I read it quite differently, although admittedly my take makes it difficult to understand the episode's ending. I saw the whole thing as Don's convoluted plan to make Sylvia break up with him after he overheard her screaming at Arnold in their apartment. Don is reckless, but he's not a complete moron—he knows that if his lover wants to leave her husband and has fallen in love with him instead, she could easily become an enormous problem for him and his marriage. (Of course, Don is already doing a fine job destroying his marriage on his own, but he's clearly not that self-aware.)
So while the domination that we saw in this episode is something Don has engaged in before with Megan, it was over-the-top, beyond what any sane woman would tolerate. Did Don enjoy it? Certainly. But he had to have known Sylvia could only take it for so long.
(We should acknowledge here that those scenes were particularly hard to watch a week after three women were rescued from a decade of being trapped as sex slaves in Cleveland. Don's line, "You exist in this room for my pleasure," sounded even creepier in this context than it otherwise would have.)
How, then, to explain the desolation on Don's face when Sylvia tells him it's over? There's no question that he cared for her, but I think the finality of their relationship leaves him stuck in his real life, where Don feels he's losing control at work and at home. His control games with Sylvia in this episode gave him extra confidence at the office—notice that he calls her at the hotel after Ted chews him out and before heading into Ted's office for his revenge. Meanwhile, back in his own home, Don can't even place a reassuring hand on Megan's shoulder as she sobs watching the footage of Bobby Kennedy's assassination. Nor can he even hear Megan as she talks to him about plans for them to get away, proving her right to feel that she's just "making conversation" when the two of them are alone. Don has just lost his escape from real life, and that always brings him low.
As depressing as that is, I could not shake the feeling during this episode that things are about to get a whole lot darker. Maybe Matthew Weiner is just toying with us, but I count at least three potential tragedies waiting to happen. There's Burt Peterson, the disgruntled ex-employee who might well decide to aim a gun at Roger (or Don), a la the killers of MLK and RFK. There's Sylvia, who has a well-established strict moral code, even if she doesn't always abide by it. What happens if she learns she's pregnant? "It's easy to give up something when you're ashamed." Would she give up her life? We started the season with a near-death in the apartment building. Might we end with another?
And then there's Bob Benson, the overeager accounts man who is starting to come off as a bit of a stalker/sociopath. I think Joan should go with her gut. She mentions Rip Van Winkle and he offers to tell her the story? Something is not quite right with Bob. But he had better stay away from our Joanie.
Is anyone else confused or worried about Dawn? She's been missing for two episodes now, pointedly so, although Peggy claimed to have spoken with her at one point. Is she trying to avoid more awkward side-hugs from Joan? Is Weiner trying to make some meta-point about the invisibility of minorities on the show? Save Dawn!