Monday, June 10, 2013

Mad Men 6-11: Favors

Well, sheee-it. Just how many primal scenes does poor Sally Draper need to witness, anyway? First it's Roger Sterling and Megan's mom; now it's her own father and the lady from downstairs. And this time she's old enough to understand exactly what's going on.

That jaw-dropping moment was enough to put the title of the episode, "Favors," in a different and thoroughly dirty light. In the world of "Mad Men," there are no true favors, at least in the sense of having no strings attached. Whether it's Don extending himself to save the Rosens' son from the draft, Ted helping him, Bob Benson finding Pete the perfect caretaker for his increasingly addled mother, or Peggy seeking male assistance to dispose of a dying rat, every favor has its price. And with the exception of Ted, the price nearly always involves sex, though the real price is a heaping dose of shame. Ok, in Peggy's case it's no more than mild momentary embarrassment - but then she didn't actually give or receive any favors.

And speaking of sex and shame: all right, Internet, you were right about Bob Benson, the man responsible for the other jaw-dropping moment of the night. For a moment there, when the camera panned to his expression (extremely well played by James Wolk) as Pete was dismissing the charming Manolo as a "degenerate," I thought "aha, Bob is clearly gay" and assumed the writers would leave it at that. But no, we then got to witness Bob quite unmistakably coming on to Pete despite the equally unmistakable negative signal from Pete on his feelings about all things gay. There is no rational explanation for this move. It appears that Bob doesn't want to be Pete after all - he just wants Pete, period. Or does he? I'd still entertain the possibility he's trying to pull a Talented Mr. Ripley, only let's face it, Pete is no Dickie Greenleaf/Jude Law. Which just brings back the question: why Pete Campbell? Does Bob see how lonely and insecure he is, and does he see in that a vulnerability he can exploit? Or is the vulnerability simply what's appealing to him? We still don't know, and thus Bob Benson continues to be a man of mystery.

But back to Sally: while the plot mechanics that led her to walk in on Don and Sylvia were pretty labored (the doorman's jangling keys serving as the stand-in for Chekhov's shotgun), it was intriguing to see that storyline in the context of her friendship with Second Base Girl. Second Base Girl may talk a bigger game than she plays, but she seemed pretty normal in her overt interest in the cute older boy. By comparison, Sally's reaction wasn't abnormal - for every girl of that age like Second Base Girl, there are at least five who are a lot shyer, or at least less brazen - but I couldn't help wondering if her relative lack of interest in thinking sexually about the Rosens' son wasn't at least partly rooted in her first traumatic encounter with adult sex. (For those of you who forgot or missed the episode, last season Sally walked in on Megan's mother giving head to a blissed-out Roger.) One can only imagine how she feels about sex now - a dirty, tarnished act between dirty, tarnished adults. The most disgusting aspect of the incident, for me, was that Don's greatest fear was clearly that Sally would tell, and the effect her discovery would have on him - not the scarring effect it would have on her. That non-explanation he tried to give her through the door was so lame it made me cringe. That's Don Draper, father of the year, "comforting" everyone other than his own family, doing more for his mistress' kid than his own. And while I'd like to think his assistance to Rosen, Jr. was as much out of regard for Arnold as for Sylvia, you just know that his true ulterior motive, whether or not he was conscious of it, was to get back into Sylvia's pants.

Amid the high drama raised by Sally and Bob Benson, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that this was a very Pete-centric episode. Personally, I'm always happy to see Pete get more screen time. Yes, he's a selfish, slimy weasel, but he's also a fascinatingly sad, complicated, contradictory little man, and the fact that he so desperately fears being pitied only makes me, well, pity him. Especially since the flip side is that the only thing he fears more than being pitied is being unloved and unappreciated, a point his mother quite cruelly uses against him in her dementia. If this episode had an alternate title, it should have been "Bad Parents," with Mama Campbell just edging out Don Draper for worst parent of the year. We've seen before how little love there ever was between her and her younger son, but if we had any doubt, she erased it tonight. Pete, no less than Don, owes a good part of his messed-up attitude towards women to his mother. That said, I did love his moments with Peggy at the post-Ocean Spray celebratory dinner, even if there was something a bit heartbreaking about his half-envious, half-affectionate recognition of her success and the fact that she, better than anyone else, really knows him. (Although does she really, anymore?) I also liked that he was able to pick up on the connection between her and Ted - without being jealous or possessive in response - and that Peggy didn't deny it.

As for Ted Chaough, his narrative arc, while interesting in itself, felt a little out of sync with the others'. Perhaps that was deliberate, as he's clearly the outsider who lacks the long history of relationships that the other characters have with each other. (Another moment I loved from the post-Ocean Spray dinner was Ted's inquiring look at Pete and Peggy when he returned to the table: like Pete, he senses something between the other man and woman, but he doesn't have the knowledge and back story that they do.) He's so obsessed with Don and the idea that Don's trying to beat him - something his wife picks up on without even being in the office - he doesn't realize that Don simply isn't paying attention to him, or for that matter to the business, most of the time. Forget about reading memos, Don doesn't even seem to know when any of his meetings are! Consequently, it's doubtful whether the bargain he strikes with Ted will yield the latter the desired results. Too bad, as I have to say I'm getting to like Ted quite a bit; so far this season he seems like the most normal and decent man on the show, though admittedly that's not saying much. It's telling that the last shot we see of him is his coming home to his family; the look on his face as he picks up his younger son couldn't be a sharper contrast to the last shot of Don, turning away from his daughter's door with a look of shame and defeat. Don knows he's failed immeasurably and irrevocably as a father; Ted still has a chance to redeem himself.

Finally, for an episode that had some very dark threads, it was also a remarkably funny episode, particularly in all interactions involving Peggy. Elisabeth Moss is a bit understated as an actress, but this worked to great comic effect in all her scenes, from her receiving and relaying Pete's mom's raptures on the "physical satisfactions" of love and the "fire in her loins," to her adventures with the rat and her attempt to coax Stan into a booty-for-rat-disposal call. I hope the final shot of her new cat doesn't portend her turning into a crazy cat lady - hearkening back to her mother's advice on companionship (talk about bad parenting, again) a couple of seasons ago - but I have faith that she'll continue to be the coolest cat lady in Manhattan.

Line of the week: This was actually a great episode for two-liners. Some of my favorites -

Peggy: I had a really strange conversation with your mother.
Pete: There's no other kind.

Ted (petulantly): I don't want his juice. I want my juice.
Cutler: It's all your juice.
Ted: Tell him that! (ok, technically that's a three-liner)

Peggy (realizing Stan's not alone): You can bring her.
Stan: I'd be dead by morning.

Least subtle line of the week: Mrs. Campbell, in mistaking Peggy for Trudy, telling her they should stay together "for the sake of the child you have together." Dum da-dum! Runner-up: Megan to Don, ostensibly about the Rosens' son - "He can't spend the rest of his life on the run." Gee, really? Who's learned (or hasn't learned) that lesson already on this show?


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