A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as Fred Astaire punches Ginger Rogers in the face…
“Couldn’t it be that if someone took care of you – very good care of you – if this person would do anything for you – if your well-being was his only thought – is it impossible that you might begin to feel something for him?” -Bob Benson
Through nearly six full seasons of “Mad Men,” it feels like we’ve seen nearly every trick in the show’s bag, at least when it comes to Don Draper. Other characters may grow, change and/or surprise us with what they’re capable of doing and being as the ’60s move along, but Don is Don. We know his secrets. We know his limitations, just as we know his strengths. And we know – or think we know – exactly what Jon Hamm can do in this great role.
So what strikes me, more than anything else about “Favors” – a superb overall episode of the show that was a reminder of the power of shared history among characters we’ve been watching for six seasons – was that sequence immediately after Sally catches Don and Sylvia having sex in the maid’s quarters. We’ve seen Don Draper scared before. We’ve seen Don Draper angry before. We’ve seen Don Draper be a little kid before. But we’ve never seen… this. We’ve never seen Don Draper with absolutely no idea what to do next. We’ve never seen Don Draper pacing back and forth the way he does in the lobby of his building, exploring a series of equally unappetizing possibilities: Do I go back up to my mistress’s apartment so she can take me along on a massive guilt trip? Do I chase after the daughter I’ve completely betrayed, even though I have no idea where she’s going, or what to say to her? Do I… what the hell do I do here? Jonesy, you got any ideas?
And that moment of Don being at a complete loss stands out – and is among the single best things I’ve ever seen Hamm do on this show – not only because he usually has some answer (even if it’s to run away), but because of the nature of the betrayal that puts him in this unhinged place.
We’ve seen Don Draper do bad things to a lot of people over the years. We’ve seen him cheat on both wives. We’ve seen him roughly grab the reins with Bobbie Barrett. We’ve seen him steal a dead man’s identity, yell at Peggy until she’s a sobbing mess, put his own interests ahead of the agency’s time and again, and even take Sylvia’s reading material while ordering to stay in her hotel room. This is not a prince of a man, ladies and gentlemen. But the one relationship he has that was close to sacred – the one person with whom he genuinely tried to be a decent human being with most of the time(*) – was with Sally. It is not nice to hurt your wife, your mistress, your protege or your commanding officer, but it seems like a whole other order of sin to do it to your daughter.
(*) Keep in mind that in one of the show’s earliest episodes, Don skips out on Sally’s birthday party – and fails to bring the cake like he was supposed to – because, as usual, he feels like an intruder in someone else’s life, and he can’t deal. But even there, he at least gets her a dog to make up for his embarrassing absence.
Sally has had her issues with her father, but by and large he’s always been the hero in any dispute between her parents. Catching Don brazenly having sex with his downstairs neighbor reframes an awful lot of what she thinks she knows about her father, and about her parents’ marriage and who was right and wrong a lot of the time. And though Megan isn’t her mother, seeing Don betray her like that gives Sally one more thing not to believe in, and one more reason to spend a lot of her teenage and adult years in therapy and/or consuming a heavy quantity of drugs. When she listens to his ridiculous explanation for what happens, it comes with a series of physical barriers – the door, her hand on top of her face(**) – going along with the huge emotional one Don inadvertently put up. She doesn’t believe him, doesn’t respect him, doesn’t want to deal with him, and he has brought this on himself by being unable to stop doing all the things he does to hurt himself and others.
(**) I firmly expect a Kiernan Shipka facepalm gif to replace the “Star Trek: TNG” double facepalm as my go-to for this sort of thing.
That a parent would so cavalierly and obliviously damage his child like that is not a new tale. But “Favors” deals over and over with the notion of parents letting down their children (and, sometimes, vice versa), and also of parental figures and/or caretakers falling down on the job – or people winding up without anyone to fill that role for them.
Don and Sylvia’s reconciliation comes as a result of Mitchell Rosen’s problems with the draft board – a development Sylvia and Arnie were completely unaware of until it was far too late. Pete has passed his mother’s care entirely off to Manolo, and has no idea what’s really going on – though, as Bob Benson notes, nothing at all may be going on outside of Mrs. Campbell’s impaired mind. Nan Chaough gives Ted a hard time about loving his life at the office far more than he does her and their sons, though at least Ted and the boys get to share a nice moment when he comes home after Nan has fallen asleep. Peggy, still in the Upper West Side apartment, calls Stan to help with her rat problem, to which Stan reasonably replies that he’s not her boyfriend, and therefore not the person who would be expected to drop everything and come over to deal with it. Don and Ted’s a relationship has, despite their closeness in age and professional accomplishment, taken on an odd father/son vibe, with Ted frequently seeking Don’s approval, and here with him taking Don to task for falling down on the job of looking after the agency’s (and Ted’s) best interests.
And there’s that strange scene between Pete and Bob, where we seem to finally get an answer to the mystery that is Bob Benson – allowing for the possibility that the show could still reveal him to be the immortal, vampiric, time-traveling offspring of either Pete and Peggy or Dick Whitman and Aimee the hooker, and/or a sociopath who is planning to cook and eat the entire creative department of SC&P – as he makes an unwanted pass at Pete. It’s an odd choice – even above and beyond the idea that Bob might be attracted to Pete – in that Bob seems to read people well and Pete has just, upon learning that Manolo is gay, called the man a degenerate capable of all manner of disgusting things. Even if he still felt that attraction – as opposed to, say, Sal’s heartbroken response to hearing Ken describe Kurt with similar language back in “The Jet Set” – that would seem a clear signal to abort in this particular moment, no?
Still, Bob’s theory that you can make someone love you by attending to their every need stands at odds to what we see going on elsewhere in the hour. Don has taken Sally’s love as a given, though he’s rarely done anything to earn it, and is devastated to realize that he’s lost it. (And also, because Don is a selfish ass, he’s just freaked out that she will tell Megan, or Betty, or anyone at all.) Mrs. Campbell and Pete have always been emotionally distant from one another, yet there’s an expectation on each of their parts that the other should be treating them better than they do, simply because they’re related.
In perhaps the episode’s best scene – or, at least, the best scene that doesn’t involve Sally getting her heart stomped into a million tiny pieces by her father – we see Pete and Peggy getting drunk after a successful pitch meeting with Ocean Spray, while designated pilot Ted has to stay sober and pay the check. Theirs has always been a complicated relationship, and one the show hasn’t touched on in recent years as each character has evolved. But Peggy’s conversation with the senile Mrs. Campbell brought back so much of their history – with every one of the old lady’s words applying to both Peggy and Trudy – before we got to watch Pete and Peggy genuinely enjoy each other’s company for a few moments and reflect on all they’ve been through. It was both an echo of some similar Don/Peggy scenes in “The Suitcase” – as in that episode, nouns aren’t particularly necessary, because everything is understood between the two parties and their audience – and also a much kinder version of the kind of after-hours Pete/Peggy scenes we saw in the early years. Back in season 1, Pete told a confident, happy Peggy, “I don’t like you like this.” Here, Pete can tell her, “At least one of us ended up important” and have the sentiment feel at least half complimentary (the other half: self-pity). As Pete observes, Peggy really knows him, and some of the best scenes in this series revolve around characters with shared history taking a moment to reflect on what that means, and who they are now versus who they were way back when.
If “Mad Men” were to run another 10 or 15 years, as opposed to likely ending after next season, I could imagine a scene where Don and an adult Sally wind up at a bar together, and she gives him hell for all that he failed to do for her, and all the ways that he and Betty screwed her up. But at a certain point in that scene, I can also imagine them laughing over that time he brought the dog back after blowing off her party, or when she accidentally put rum on his french toast instead of syrup.
Don has fallen down on the parenting job in almost every way imaginable. But he does know Sally, and unfortunately Sally knows him. He has not done right by her, as we saw in such devastating fashion tonight, but there’s a connection there that will not go away no matter how much Sally might understandably want it to.
Some other thoughts:
* I am open to any and all theories as to why Stan (as opposed to, say, Ginsberg) would have a poster of Moshe Dayan above his bed.
* September of 1968 was one of the rare months that year without a major tragedy or scandal, which is probably to the show’s advantage; though Matt Weiner can only work with what was happening in the world at the time, there comes a point where it becomes desensitizing to see the characters react to one horrific news story after another. Though Vietnam looms as a general issue for the Rosens, the episode as a whole focuses much more on office politics and personal relationships, and is the stronger for it.
* Among John Slattery’s many talents: the man can juggle oranges.
* Not only can Pete sense the attraction between Ted and Peggy, but Ted in turn can sense the bond between his two traveling companions. And Mrs. Chaough understands her husband very well, even if she may not know just how much Ted enjoys being in the company of this particular young copywriter.
* Jonesy’s another caretaker who doesn’t do a very good job of things, repeatedly giving Sally his entire key ring without thought of what might happen. Then again, he’s better at the gig than the guy who starts changing out of his uniform in the lobby and doesn’t even bother greeting Sally on his way out the door.
* Now that we know Megan isn’t dead (yet) and seem to know that Bob is gay (though, again, that could be all part of his master criminal plan), what new crazy theories can we spin out about one or both of them? Could this be like Heinlein’s “All You Zombies,” and we’ll eventually find out that Megan and Bob are the same person from different points in their own timeline?
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org