Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 11–Favors

“Not all surprises are bad.”

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Oh really, Roger Sterling? Not all surprises are bad? In the real world maybe, but this is Mad Men, where everything that happens to everyone is bad. If you really think some surprises here are good, just ask Don Draper. Or Sally Draper. Or, for that matter, Pete Campbell.

This week’s aptly titled episode, with the talented Semi Chellas again on co-scripting duties with Matthew Weiner, did indeed revolve around favours (or “favors”, for my American friends) being asked by various characters of various other characters. This being Mad Men though, there was nothing altruistic in granting those favours. They came with strings.

The ep centred around Don and Pete and those in their orbits, for whom no surprise is ever likely to be good, and no favour should ever be expected to make things better. It was actually structured almost like a trad episodic TV show, with an A plot and a B plot. The A plot concerned Don, at work and at home, as his pissing contest with Ted Chaough continued to escalate just as he discovered he could do a favour for mistress Sylvia that would leave her forever in his debt. The B plot (slightly comedic as often in such a structure), concerned Pete and his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother. Along the way though, these plots intersected with plenty of the other characters, causing some potentially long-lasting consequences.

To take the ‘B Plot’ first, Pete spent most of the episode fretting over his mother. She actually seemed to be getting along rather well with her new nurse, the charming Manolo – perhaps too well. Pete was initially impressed with Manolo – until a chance conversation with Peggy led to his discovery that Mrs Campbell, at least, thought she was in some kind of carnal relationship with him.

Anyone with any sense would have immediately dismissed it as the harmless fantasy of a lonely old lady whose mind was increasingly disconnected from reality. Pete, though, thrives on paranoia, and spent the whole ep with the thought niggling at him until he finally persuaded himself that it was true.

This was obviously not going to end well; and so it proved as he confronted his mother with his suspicions. She may be befuddled enough not to give up her fantasy, but she retained enough clarity to give possibly the most succinct – and hurtful – analysis of Pete I’ve ever heard. “You were a sour little boy, and now you’re a sour little man… you’ve always been unlovable.”

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As ever, poor old Pete. The irony being that earlier, when he let his hair down (literally; I’ve never seen him look so dishevelled) at a bar with Ted and Peggy, he actually came across as quite a nice bloke. Perceptive, even, as he noted Peggy’s obvious feelings for Ted, and told her that Ted very noticeably reciprocates them. Pete Campbell, Love Guru – whatever next?

Of course, he has experience of this – at least where Peggy’s concerned. The unspoken fact of their child became – very nearly – spoken this week, as Mrs Campbell, her mind not at its sharpest, mentioned that it was good to see them back together “for the sake of the child”.

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Of course, she was getting Peggy confused with Pete’s wife Trudy. But it was marvellously played by Elisabeth Moss, her face betraying hastily masked shock as she tried to figure out what Pete had really told his mother. Nothing, of course; but this issue surely must get addressed at some point by the end of the series.

Don, meanwhile, found work and personal lives entwined (not for the first time), as he discovered he was in a position to make the still-lusted-after Sylvia Rosen owe him – in a pretty big way. Her son Mitchell was back from France, and plainly infected by the revolutionary spirit of May ‘68. Unfortunately for him, that had led to him sending back his draft card for the US army in protest. And now he was bound pretty quickly for Vietnam; unless something could be done.

And Don was the man who could do something. You don’t spend years working on Madison Avenue without making a few influential contacts. After his initial suggestion to Pete Campbell was sneeringly rebuffed, he took the option of sounding out the execs of General Motors at a dinner about the Chevy contract; after all, GM were one of the biggest defence contractors at the time.

Trouble was, the GM execs thought draft-dodging was pretty disgusting. And judging by the rather horrified looks on the faces of Ted Chaough and Roger Sterling, they knew exactly what he was up to. Way to go, Draper – risk the biggest contract your agency’s ever had as part of a byzantine scheme to get another shag.

As it turned out, help came from the unlikeliest of places – Ted Chaough himself. We got a lot of insight into Ted this week, as his testosterone-fuelled alpha male conflict with Don continued. The merger’s not going too well, as Don and Roger have snagged Sunkist Orange Juice while, all unknowing, Ted and Jim Cutler have snagged Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice. Obviously neither company is going to take well to having the same ad agency as the other – another corporate fuckup caused by a lack of communication. Don may be keeping his doings shrouded in secrecy; Ted, on the other hand, is deluging the partners with so many memos they don’t take them in.

Don’s biggest rival he may be, but Ted came across as more than a little pathetic this week. “I don’t want his juice, I want my juice!” he whined to Jim Cutler, making a presumably unintentional innuendo. Thing is, Don barely even seems to know this pissing contest is going on; for Ted, it’s all-consuming. No wonder he spends so much time at the office his wife and kids barely see him.

So Ted it was who came through with help for Mitchell – as yet another favour. And like the favour Don was doing for Sylvia, it came with strings. He could get Mitchell into the domestic Air National Guard – if Don stopped competing with him. “This isn’t a handshake, it’s a binding contract,” was his firm assertion. It’s hard to gauge whether Don is still competing with him, or has given it up as a bad job; either way, I wouldn’t expect him to honour the “binding contract”.

Having accomplished this feat, it wasn’t long before Don found himself again in the reluctantly accommodating arms of Sylvia Rosen. Where, unfortunately for both of them, he intersected with his daughter.

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In a plot seemingly nicked from a Lindsey Lohan movie, Sally had turned up in Manhattan with her friend Julie, and both had found themselves rather taken with the dishy Mitchell when they encountered him in the lobby of Don’s apartment building. I couldn’t help but agree – actor Hudson Thames (a very bizarre name) is definitely somebody I’d like to see more of.

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So they had a sleepover while compiling a written list of “Things I Like About Mitchell” (Sally’s contribution – “his ass”). And again in classic teen movie style, Julie tried to act as matchmaker by slipping the list under the Rosens’ door, leading the frantically embarrassed Sally to borrow the doorman’s master keys under false pretences and try to retrieve it.

Which is where the fluffy teen movie comparisons end, as she found herself confronted by the insalubrious sight of her half-clad father deep in ‘congress’ with Sylvia Rosen. It was a well-directed moment; rarely has sex, even with Don Draper, looked so unsexy, and Kiernan Shipka perfectly conveyed Sally’s shock at the sight. Somewhat sexually precocious herself, she’s already been confronted by the less than pleasant sight of her step-grandmother going down on an eager Roger Sterling. Now she has to cope with her father – who she was previously defending to Betty as a hero – being just as much of a lascivious heel as anyone else.

Way to knock yourself off your pedestal, Draper. Don’s looked discomfited and dismayed before, but rarely, I think, this badly. Sally now has the whip hand on him, and he knows it; she’s not dumb enough to buy into that “I was comforting her” bullshit. The question is, will she keep schtum, or will her disillusionment – and her father’s chronic inability to keep his pants on – lead to the end of another Draper marriage?

Where’s Bob Benson?

This week, the perma-smiling Bob was mostly to be found in the vicinity of Pete Campbell, and answering a question I’ve posed a couple of times and Ginsberg actually asked last week – “tell me the truth, are you a homo?” Yes, as it turns out to no-one’s particular surprise, he is. What is surprising is the object of his affections – and for that object, it is, inevitably, not a good surprise. Bob, it seems, is in love with Pete Campbell.

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Yes, I couldn’t help but guffaw at the revelation. Called in to discuss the ‘improper conduct’ of the nurse he’d recommended, Bob segued from pointing out that Manolo’s interests didn’t really extend to women to a heartfelt speech about how you can love someone so much that you’ll do anything for them, in the hope that the might love you back. Despite Pete’s description of Manolo’s tastes as “degenerate”, Bob pressed on with a subtle knee-to-knee touch that might have been innocent on a TV chat show, but in light of what he’d just said, was anything but.

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It was a well-played scene from both James Wolk and Vincent Kartheiser, made slightly believable by my knowledge that, in reality, Kartheiser is actually quite an attractive man. Something about him as Pete Campbell is profoundly off-putting though. Pete wasn’t swayed from his decision to fire Manolo, and while, as ever in this show, plenty remained unsaid, he evidently understood exactly what Bob was getting at.

Poor old Pete; his mother may think he’s “unlovable” and he may even think that himself, but somebody loves him. It’s just unfortunate he thinks such love is “disgusting”. Bob, for his part, didn’t seem too put off. Maybe he’ll be back; or maybe we’ll discover that the other likely suspect, Ginsberg, also bats for his team. Somehow I can’t see them getting together though. Bob worships men like Pete (or at least his interpretation of Pete), who are successful businessmen. Still, it’s nice to have another gay man dealing with the period’s prejudices after the long-ago and peremptory departure of Sal Romano.

Historical Events

Nothing specific this week, but Vietnam continues to cast a long shadow over everything that’s happening in the US at this point. Mitchell Rosen’s little plotline showed another element of it – the draft, and how you might possibly avoid it, if you had any sense. Mitchell’s little protest got him classified as 1-A – “available immediately for military service”. Given his politics, he could have tried for 1-AO – “conscientious objector” and taken up a noncombatant role such as nurse or medic, but that wouldn’t keep him out of harm’s way. And as Ginsberg pointed out last week, US troops were coming home in bodybags by the hundred every week.

The holy grail for someone like Mitchell would be to get classified as 4-F – “unfit for military service for medical reasons”. Trouble is, as far as I could see, Mitchell was very fit. Leaving the option he was thinking of exploring – decamping to Canada, where the Department of Defence couldn’t get its hands on him. Trouble is, that was a federal crime, and those guilty of it had the choice of either remaining in Canada or going to jail on returning to the US – even after the war was over. No wonder Mitchell was so grateful to Don.

Dedicated Followers of Fashion

With most of the ep taking place in work hours, there weren’t many regrettable fashions on display this week. Pete’s double-breasted waistcoat (or “vest” for my American friends) was pretty swish:

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But the only garishly 60s fashion on display was probably Mitchell’s trousers (or “pants”, for my American friends). Vile they may have been, but I found myself drawn to them, probably for the same reason as Sally Draper – their contents.

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This was another incisive set of character examinations from Semi Chellas, who is rapidly becoming my favourite writer on the show. It may not have been steeped in semi-mystical portents of dread, but what we got instead was a complex examination of the failings of several of the main characters. To have significantly more failings than anyone else in this show is quite an achievement, but Don, Pete – and arguably Ted – managed it with alacrity. With only two more eps to go this season, this week had the feel of building towards a climax – like Don was until his daughter walked in. And that sudden switch is good drama.