Review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘Man With a Plan’

A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as we have a little rap session about margarine in general…

“Sometimes, when you’re flying, you think you’re rightside up, but you’re really upside down.” -Ted

Late in “Man With a Plan,” Pete’s  mother wakes him with the news that “They shot that poor Kennedy boy.” Because she is caught in the stony grip of dementia – and because the odds of two Kennedy brothers being assassinated must have seemed astronomical before June of 1968 – Pete assumes her brain has traveled back five years in time to that terrible day in Dallas. But Mrs. Campbell isn’t entirely wrong in earlier scenes when she conflates Pete with his cheating father, and she has her facts perfectly right here. Two Kennedy brothers – one the president, one the candidate – both shot to death long before their time was up.

Bobby’s death comes up in this episode because of the way “Mad Men” uses the calendar (roughly a month tends to pass between episodes), but also because “Man With a Plan” is an episode about history repeating itself, over and over again, with the details slightly altered but the results fundamentally the same. Again and again, characters feel they are in power and that their future will be different than the past; most of the time, they’re wrong. Their eyes tell them they’re rightside up when they’re really upside down.
Burt Peterson loudly announces his intentions to irritate the hell out of his old Sterling Cooper colleagues; within minutes, he finds himself fired again by Roger Sterling, who takes even greater pleasure out of it than he did the first time. Joan again gets to show Peggy to her new office, but though Peggy has drastically risen in stature since 1960 – and though her relationship with Joan is much warmer and more genuine than back in the day – this isn’t an office she particularly wants (she gets stuck with Pete’s stupid column), with a boss she’d rather not have again. Don tries to drink Ted under the table to assert his dominance, in the way he once did to Roger (back in season 1’s “Red in the Face”), but though he achieves temporary victory, he seems unavoidably small and scared flying through stormy weather in Ted’s plane(*), and admits that Ted should take lead in the meeting with Mohawk because he’s the big man who got them to their destination.

(*) Ted’s line about the instrumentation also brings to mind the death of yet another Kennedy; the NTSB report on JFK Jr’s death suggests spatial disorientation may have led to the fatal crash.    

With the merger of the two agencies (new name still TBD), and then with the discord in the Rosen marriage – Don eavesdrops on Arnie and Sylvia arguing about what sounds like his travels to Minnesota (looking for a new job?) – Don is feeling his oats. But ultimately, his attempt to assert dominance in his romantic life ends even more poorly than his efforts at the office. He spends much of the episode ordering Sylvia around the hotel room – how (and when) to dress, what kind of contact she can have with the outside world, etc. – and for a time, she’s incredibly turned on by this, in the same way Bobbie Barrett was back when he used to play power games with her. But it’s an unpleasant side of Don Draper – and, as a result, this was one of the more uncomfortable (by design) episodes of the series in quite some time – and he pushes it way too far(**), for too long, until he discovers that the power in the relationship rested all along with Sylvia. When she tells him that their affair is over, the lost little boy look on his face isn’t dissimilar from the one he sported when Peggy – a woman he loves, but in a very different way – reacted to a long campaign of emotional abuse by announcing the end of their relationship.

(**) In an era before smartphones, or even TV sets in all hotel rooms, you don’t take your lover’s only book away if she’s not allowed to go out to get another. Don snatching Sylvia’s copy of “The Last Picture Show” is the moment when you can see the sex fantasy being replaced by, “Just how big of a creep is this guy I’ve been sleeping with?”  

Sylvia leaves Don in the elevator in their building, not even bothering to turn back and look at him as she goes, and Don has no choice but to return to the wife he feels no connection to. (When Megan tries proposing another trip to Hawaii, he doesn’t even hear the words coming out of her mouth; she’s just a silent, distant blend of hair and teeth that he once felt something for.) His first marriage ended within days of the first Kennedy assassination, and though he and Megan may continue going through the motions longer than he and Betty did, their body language in that final scene – backs to each other, facing in different directions, in different emotional states (Megan devastated, Don just lost) – says everything.

Again and again, scenes were designed to echo ones that came before, to create a feeling of duplication in an episode with another dead Kennedy, with two female copywriters (albeit one wise enough to know that the arrival of the other spells her own doom), more talk of the brothers Campbell marrying women named Trudy and Judy, more Don/Dawn jokes (though no Burt/Bert jokes), discussion of the many margarine brands, and all the rest. The new agency, whatever it’s called, has way too many people fulfilling the same roles. Neither Jim Cutler nor Roger Sterling are going to leave anytime soon, but they are eery doppelgangers. When Ted first enters the SCDP offices, he’s shot from the waist down, striding so confidently that we can be forgiven for briefly mistaking him for Don; soon, he’s installed in Roger’s old office so that his and Don’s are mirror images of each other in the office layout. When several of the partners gather to discuss who will stay or go, the accounts men are so interchangeable that Cutler doesn’t need much of a nudge from Joan to keep Bob Benson(***) and toss someone else aside.

(***) It’s not an accident that the show put an actor like James Wolk – not exactly Jon Hamm minus 15 years, but close enough that you pay attention – into this role, nor that Bob winds up in a hospital waiting room bonding with Joan the way she did with Don back in “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency.” Bob’s eager beaver demeanor already evokes what we’ve seen of Don in flashbacks to his early meetings with Roger; are we meant to view him as an account man equivalent of Dick Whitman, who will do anything to move forward, and who’s done this nice thing for Joan precisely in the event he needs a partner’s support one day? Or is he really the guileless nice guy he claims to be? Joan’s mother suggests it’s the latter; but Ken Cosgrove – among the show’s most sensible and sympathetic characters – called him out as a schemer back in the premiere. Could he be both nice and a relentless professional climber? Either way, the show clearly has bigger plans for Wolk, just as it did for Jessica Paré (who arrived with a similar resume out of proportion to her early screentime) back in season 4. 

Not all doppelgangers are exactly alike, of course. Much of this season has been spent on making Ted Chaough sympathetic, and we continue to get his perspective here, whether talking to Peggy or getting a pep talk from a dying man in Frank Gleason (whose Rope-A-Dope advice to Ted turns out to be exactly right). As the creative team works on a pitch for Fleischmann’s, we see that Ted’s approach is very different from Don’s, and much more collaborative. (Though even he can’t resist snapping at Ginsberg after a certain point.) During the brainstorming, Peggy explains that margarine was invented to help supply Napoleon III’s troops, who needed a butter substitute that could survive an army’s long travels, even if it didn’t taste as good. Ted may admit to Frank Gleason that he’s intimidated by Don’s raw talent level, but Ted also seems better-suited to the long haul than his self-destructive new partner. When he finally gets the plane above the storm and into the sunny skies, he’s happy to put on his aviator shades to enjoy the view; Don has no interest in the clear skies and would rather bury himself in Sylvia’s novel about sad and lonely people in a dusty Texas town.

But even if history is repeating itself, this present is something different. Megan is not Betty, and this marriage is not the same. Nor has Don ever worked alongside a relative equal like Ted. The patterns and the behavior are often the same, but the context changes them. Given how quickly Don’s personal life went upside down after the first Kennedy assassination, he had better hope against that part of his history going the same way twice.

Some other thoughts:

* The power plays in that office, post-merger, extend down to something as tiny as Pete demanding a seat in the partner’s meeting, and then Ted trumping that by giving up his seat to his secretary – proving that he’s so secure he doesn’t even need a chair.

* Though Peggy has an interaction with Dawn off-camera, Dawn is very conspicuously absent every time Don looks for her throughout the episode. Is this just showing us Don operating in the new agency without his usual guide? Or is Dawn perhaps hiding out of similar fear that Margie the copywriter had: that once Peggy’s own African-American secretary arrives, the agency will decide it doesn’t want/need both of them?

* Per Ted’s theory that you can apply “Gilligan’s Island” to any line of products, we must now of course match up “Mad Men” characters with their appropriate castaway counterparts. Don is the Skipper, Pete is Gilligan, Peggy is obviously Mary Ann, just as Joan is obviously Ginger, just as Roger is obviously Thurstown Howell III, and we can go with Betty as Lovie. The Professor was the toughest nut to crack (especially without Paul around anymore), but for now I’ll give Ted himself a try there.

* Since proposing web series for popular cable dramas is a thing I’m now genetically incapable of not doing, let me issue the first of many pleas for a series that’s just Roger Sterling and Jim Cutler hanging out. There doesn’t need to be any plot at all; just the two of them being clever and charming and silver-haired. The floor is open for suggestions of titles: “Sterling’s Gold and Cutler’s Chops,” perhaps?

* I also would not object to AMC replacing “The Pitch” with a documentary about the team that came up with that absolutely wonderful Oreo ad (with this Owl City song) in the middle of the episode. That was some Ginsberg-level insane joy.

* Alas, poor Margie. She finally gets referred to by name in an episode – UPDATE: and as a reader pointed out to me in an email, Margie and Peggy are both variants of Margaret – and is fired by the end of it. If I was one of Peggy’s pet copywriters (the former Frederick Crane is now John Mathis, for instance), I might be similarly worried. Also, I’m sad the show has had Michael Gaston in its employ twice and has seen fit to dispatch him pretty quickly both times – even if the realization that Roger was firing Burt again was one of the episode’s funnier jokes.

* I know Peggy wouldn’t want this, but more Drunk Ted Chaough, please.

* Pete’s brother Bud doesn’t know that Pete and Trudy have split, while their senile mom figures it out fairly quickly (even though she quickly forgets it, like most details) by realizing the amount of laundry in the apartment could only come from someone living there full-time.

* Another week, another reminder to go read Tom and Lorenzo’s weekly Mad Style fashion analyses. If you’d already been reading them, you’d have known that this season, red dresses represent prostitution, and would have thus smiled and said, “Ahhh…” when Sylvia opened the box from Saks.

* The closing credits song was “Reach Out of the Darkness” by Friend and Lover; a nice touch was continuing to play audio of the RFK news reports even as the song continued.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at