Mad Men: Season 6, Episode 12–The Quality of Mercy

“You’re a monster.”

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Not long ago, my friend Chris Hart posited that, insofar as it has one, Don Draper has become the ‘villain’ of Mad Men. Rarely has that seemed so true as this week. Lost in his constant existential turmoil, Don has always been self-centred, so intent on his own bitter self-discovery that those around him always take second place. This week, though, Don’s actions towards those around him seemed like they could have been motivated by nothing more than pure malice.

That could still be selfishness, of course. Don’s having a rotten time (even more so than usual), and it looks like he’s taking it on those around him. As so often in such a situation, foremost in the firing line is the one who has to live with him. Waking from last week’s guilt-driven drinking bout, knowing that his daughter has the goods on him and Sylvia, Don seemed to be preparing the ground for the end of his marriage. Fussing sympathetically around him (undeservedly, given that the hangover was of his own making), Megan commented that, “you look terrible”. To which Don’s callous rejoinder was, “so do you.” Ouch.

Is Don actively trying to push Megan away? Their marriage has been in the doldrums for some while now; as Megan recently commented frustratedly, “something’s got to change.” It looks like Don could be changing things – for the worse. But then he’s never more satisfied than when he’s screwing up his own life.

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This week, though, he seemed to be determined to do the same to those closest to him. Topping Megan’s disappointment in Don was his daughter Sally, whose last hero-worshipping illusions about her father were cruelly shattered last week. Kiernan Shipka got a lot to do this week, as Sally’s anger towards her parents led her to decide she wanted to go to boarding school – well away from them both.

This seemed to please Betty, unsurprisingly, while Don took the news with caution. Where Sally’s concerned, he’s just waiting for the bomb to drop – note the look on his face when Betty, on the phone, started the conversation simply, “it’s about Sally”. And his relief when Betty told him his daughter didn’t want to visit with him for the foreseeable future; which still didn’t stop him ‘casually’ pointing out that he’d be working next weekend if she did want to come.

Sally’s introductory sleepover at the prestigious school also attended by Henry’s daughter had yet more echoes of classic teen movies, albeit really caustic, cruel ones like Heathers or Mean Girls. Having impressed the headmistress with a display of perfect behaviour (“it’s only me she’s rude to,” Betty noted sourly), Sally found herself billeted with two other girls for an overnight stay. Their opinions of her were crucial to her acceptance at the school.

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It looked, initially, like Sally might be leaping from the frying pan into the fire. Both girls seemed to be bullies, intent on putting her through humiliating hazing rituals. But Sally Draper has grown up with Don, Betty and their friends, and she’s dealt with far worse than a pair of teenage bullies. She soon won them over by inviting Glen and his friend Rolo to join the sleepover, bringing with them cigarettes and booze.

Interestingly, it seemed like Sally didn’t share the other girls’ excitement at the prospect of smoking and drinking, more than likely because they’re her now-despised father’s trademarks. But Glen’s still her best friend, it seems, and a completely platonic one at that. Having disappeared with one of the girls for a quick fumble, Glen was outraged to find his ‘friend’ Rolo trying it on with the very unwilling Sally. “She’s like my sister, man!” he spat, before the two of them engaged in fisticuffs to bring the party to an end.

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Marten “Son of Matt” Weiner seems to have grown far quicker than Kiernan Shipka since he was introduced as her friend a few years ago; he now looks far older than her. But for all that he’s the son of the showrunner, he still turned in a fine and capable performance here, always has in fact. His classmate Rolo was played by a very attractive young chap called Liam Aiken, who I was surprised to find was the prepubescent hero of 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Growing up suits him.

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“You like trouble, don’t you?” was the girls’ admiring opinion of Sally. Picked up by Betty the next day, Sally was surprised to find that, despite the night’s excesses (or more likely because of them) she’d received a glowing report and was more than welcome to attend the prestigious school. And, with Betty’s permission, she’s now taken up smoking officially. She may have come to hate her father, but she’s one step further down the road to becoming him.

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It wasn’t just Don’s family he was lashing out at, though. In many ways, for Don, his colleagues are his family, and it’s a family whose balance has been shifted since the merger with CGC (even though it was his idea). So those at work found themselves in the firing line too.

Literally, in Ken Cosgrove’s case – though that wasn’t by any fault of Don particularly. In a blackly comic continuation of the plot concerning his repeated humiliation at the hands of the Detroit-based Chevy execs, this week saw him getting shot in the face in a Dick Cheney-esque ‘hunting accident’. As with the car crash a few weeks ago, the ep milked the suspense of whether he was alive or dead for quite some while, before he turned up back at the office with a piratical eyepatch and his resignation from the account.

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That set up quite a few ructions concerning the agency’s most high profile client; but Don found himself more concerned with Ted. More specifically, with Ted and Peggy. After Pete’s observation last week that they had mutually compatible feelings for each other, they’ve obviously acted upon them, as Don and Megan discovered, bumping into them at an afternoon showing of hot new movie Rosemary’s Baby.

Given Ted’s rather frosty relationship with his wife, that’s hardly a surprise. But if he thought he was keeping it secret, he should think again – he and Peggy were swanning around the office with moonstruck smiles, finishing each other’s sentences. The very archetype of a couple newly in love, in fact. Even Ginsberg was nauseated enough to pretend he needed to relieve himself just to get them to shut up about each other.

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Though that might have been the cranberry juice. After last week’s detente with Don, Ted was ploughing ahead with the Ocean Spray campaign, which apparently necessitated the creative team swigging down arcane beverages with names like ‘Cranprune’.

Unfortunately for Ted, Don Draper in a foul mood is not a man of his word. Having been informed that Harry, still in LA, had secured a massive deal with Sunkist for TV advertising, Don told Harry that they were dropping Sunkist. So far, so honourable; but after his realisation about Ted and Peggy, he was back on the phone to Harry to give him the go-ahead. The rest of the partners, not surprisingly given the money involved, took Don’s side. Only Ted’s wounded look showed that, unlike Don, he was a man of principle, and had naively expected his colleague to keep his word.

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Why would Don do that? He’s acting like a jealous ex-lover, and yet nothing like that has ever happened between him and Peggy. Could it be that, deep down, he wants it to? Is it a more professional jealousy, that a man he thinks of as inferior has taken over mentoring his protege, and fallen in love with her to boot? Or is it as simple as wanting to destroy a seemingly happy relationship the like of which he seems incapable of maintaining?

Whichever it is, torpedoing Ted’s treasured Ocean Spray account was just the beginning. Ted had snagged the traditionally staid St Joseph’s Baby Aspirin brand, and Peggy had come up with what even Don acknowledged was a great idea for an ad – a pastiche of Rosemary’s Baby. The lovestruck Ted was passionate about it, seeing Peggy’s first chance at the Clio advertising awards, which Don himself has a couple of.

He probably shouldn’t have told Don that. Seeing how much it mattered to Ted made Don resolute in screwing it over for both him and Peggy. But not for the agency itself – a sign, perhaps, that he sees the company as an extension of himself rather than a collaborative effort.

Having summoned the sceptical exec from St Joseph’s in to justify the project’s larger than anticipated budget, Ted found himself floundering, until Don swooped to the rescue. Or did he? Don’s justification was that the project was close to Ted’s heart “for personal reasons”, then left an agonisingly long pause while the horrified-looking Ted plainly leaped to the obvious conclusion that he was talking about Peggy.

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Don continued to bait Ted with obvious relish, inviting him to chime in with his reasons, before coming up with the flabbergasting and utterly unethical falsehood that the campaign had been the late Frank Gleason’s last idea. The St Joseph exec, as fond of Gleason as his partners, cautiously acquiesced – after Ted, eyes downcast, backed up Don’s story. The look of betrayal on Peggy’s face spoke volumes; as did the look of smug satisfaction on Don’s.

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So Don rescued the account, and saved the idea for the campaign, while simultaneously baiting his rival into betraying Peggy and losing her the credit for an admittedly great idea. Confronting him in his office, Peggy gave him both barrels – “you killed him. You killed the ad. You killed everything. You can stop now.” – before venturing her own bitter opinion, “you’re a monster.” This week, more than ever, he definitely was. But a monster in the same way as an overgrown toddler throwing a tantrum when he can’t get his way. No wonder he ended the ep as he began it – curled up in the fetal position and looking desperately sorry for himself.

Where’s Bob Benson?

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Actually, this week, we were back to “who’s Bob Benson?” Having seemingly unpeeled a few layers with last week’s heartfelt profession of love for Pete Campbell, this week’s script turned all that back on its head with new revelations about Bob that left us with more questions than answers.

This week’s ‘B Plot’ centred on Bob and Pete, in the aftermath of Ken’s resignation of the Chevy account. Like a true friend who’s scented an opportunity for advancement, Pete was happy to jump into the gap left by Ken. But there was a problem. The partners wanted Bob to work with him. And after last week’s apparent revelation about Bob, Pete was less than keen.

The internet has been awash with bizarre theories about Bob Benson – he’s a government spy, or a plant from a rival agency, or even, bizarrely, Joan and Roger’s grown-up son who’s travelled back in time. Last week, we thought we had some answers with his attempted seduction of Pete, that at least explained why he was so busy sucking up to this exec in particular.

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But, it turned out, that may have been just a more advanced form of sucking up, perhaps prompted by Bob’s perception that Pete was inclined that way himself. Having been turfed off the Chevy account, he was to be seen cursing Pete’s name on the phone in perfect Spanish (though the less than perfect subtitles couldn’t seem to spell Pete’s surname). Hardly the actions of a man in love. Nor was his rather disturbing advice to Pete – “you should watch what you say to people.”

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The mystery deepened further as Pete called in corporate headhunter Duck Phillips to try and get Bob placed somewhere else. Anywhere else. Duck did the logical thing, which apparently the SCDP HR department hadn’t – he looked into Bob’s references. And found that, to a one, they were false. He didn’t come from where he’d said, hadn’t been educated where he’d said, and indeed had never worked anywhere he’d said. He was, in actuality, a chancer pretending to be somebody else who’d taken advantage of the first firm trusting and unwitting enough to be taken in. Sound like anyone we know?

Pete certainly got the parallel. When Duck confessed, “I’ve never seen anything like this”, Pete sourly replied, “I have.” And remembering how Bert Cooper hadn’t even cared about the seeming trump card that was Don’s true identity, he threw in the towel to Bob, conceding that he’d work with him. Providing work was all it was.

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That was a great scene, Bob’s perpetual smile finally wiped off his face at the thought of being discovered, only to return when he realised Pete planned to do nothing about it. But is Pete being cleverer than before here? Bob doesn’t know about the last time this happened, and now thinks Pete has damaging evidence about him. That should keep him in line – unless he knows all about what happened with Don Draper…

Historical Events.

Not many this week. Various parties went to see Roman Polanski’s recently released adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby, the novel of which we saw Sally reading a few weeks ago. A disturbing and atmospheric horror movie, Polanski’s film went on to become an acknowledged classic of the genre, pre-empting many other ‘demonic child’ efforts like The Exorcist and The Omen.

And Don, convalescing in front of the TV, happened upon a campaign ad for Republican Presidential candidate Richard Nixon. By modern standards, it came across as a remarkably crude and simplistic piece of political propaganda; possibly the point of showing it in a show which centres on advertising. It worked though; on November 5, Nixon was elected President. The irony of his pro-peace, anti-corporate stance here was all the more stark compared to today’s hawkish, paranoid and free market-obsessed Republican campaigns.

Dedicated Followers of Fashion

Again, not many this week, though you can always rely on Harry Crane to be garbed in the worst excesses of the era. Thankfully, he was only wearing this horrific shorts/ open shirt combo in his hotel room while chatting to Don on the phone; but on recent form, he’d be shameless enough to wear it in public too.

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Only one more ep to go this season, and only one more season to go after that. This penultimate episode didn’t have the shock factor of last year’s, with the dramatic suicide of Lane Pryce. Instead, it took the more subtle avenue of showing Don’s increasing disintegration, and how it’s shattering not just his world but those of his friends and family. Next week, will he implode? And will we ever find out just who Bob Benson is, and whether his uncanny similarity to Don has any more significance than dramatic effect? Let’s see if we find out next week.