Monday, June 17, 2013

Mad Men 6-12: The Quality of Mercy

Called it! I called Bob Benson as a con man.

Ok, that's stretching the truth a bit. The closest I came to guessing Bob's secret was to note that the actor playing him, James Wolk, had previously starred as the ultimate con man - a man leading a double life - in the cancelled 2010 TV drama "Lone Star," and to wonder if BB was a character in the same vein. Sure enough, there's a reason Wolk keeps getting cast in these roles: he's good at playing the charming, plausible faker.

But in retrospect, we all should have called it (to be fair, about half the internets did). There were plenty of little hints along the way. His inconsistent stories about his family. His ambiguous relationship with the equally shady-if-charming Manolo. The self-help tapes he listens to to on the sly, again inconsistent with someone of his claimed posh background. And of course his over-eagerness to please. All this time I've been wondering if he was supposed to be Pete 2.0, and it turns out that he's actually Don 2.0 - or rather, Dick Whitman in the process of becoming Don.

And Pete once again finds himself first to discover the impostor's secret. Only this time he's choosing to handle the situation differently, having learned his lesson from his failed attempt to unseat Don years ago. "I have learned not to tangle with your kind of animal," he tells a perplexed Bob. (I, thinking he was talking about homosexuals, was equally flummoxed at first.) Pete abandons his efforts to eject Bob, apparently believing that he can better use his leverage by keeping the man where he can see him and, presumably, control him. That complacent look in Pete's eye, in his very last scene, says it all: he's got Chevy, and he thinks he's got Bob where he wants him. I'm not so sure, though, that this strategy will work out any better for him, especially after seeing Bob show his teeth in this episode. That line about his "waning admiration" for Pete, and the warning to "watch what you say," was chilling - almost as chilling as his immediate transition to artificial hearty congratulations. True, this was before Pete found out he was a fraud, but the fact is that Bob's already a much smoother operator than Pete - something Pete grudgingly recognizes - and may not stay subordinate for long.

No question Bob's certainly got a good model for ruthlessness in Don 1.0. Don starts and finishes this episode in a sorry-looking state, curled up in fetal position, still looking emotionally drained and estranged from everyone who should be closest to him. Yet none of that prevented him from working with cruel and masterful efficiency to gain the upper hand over Ted Choaugh. I commented last week that Ted's paranoia about Don being intent on undermining him seemed unfounded, but it appears that he may have been right and I wrong. (though I did predict that Don wouldn't stand by their bargain!) Don may have been acting to save the firm, yet - as with his good samaritan act on behalf of the Rosens' son last week - I can't help suspecting him of ulterior, baser motives: in this case, to establish dominance over Ted, and subconsciously to disrupt the connection he perceives between Ted and Peggy. While Don's never been romantically interested in Peggy, it's clear that he's never totally gotten over her leaving him for Ted, and something of those feelings had to have been revived by the sight of the two of them bonding (at the movies, no less - Don's turf!) and flirting in the office. Don doesn't like being supplanted, and reacts accordingly. And Peggy rightly calls him on it.

Not that Don isn't right, too. That he, of all people, should admonish Ted for not thinking with his brain, is pretty rich; yet the fact is that unlike Ted, Don's amours never had a direct negative impact on his work. (Unless you count promoting Megan, but she at least turned out to have a natural talent for the ad business.) I have to admit some dissatisfaction with this particular storyline, and not just because I like Ted. Ted and Peggy's openly giddy flirting and giggling, and Ted's complete lack of self-awareness, felt overdone to the point of being unconvincing. And perhaps it's just Don's MO or natural genius to be able to tune out most of what's going on at the firm and then tune in at just the right moments to land the killer blow. But these sudden turnarounds aren't entirely convincing, either, at least to me.

Finally, I don't have a whole lot to say about the other big narrative arc of the episode - Sally's interview and trial night at boarding school - except that it confirmed that (1) she's finally had enough of Don's BS, (2) she can hold her own in a hazing, as I expected she would, and (3) what she craves right now isn't sexual attention but someone to protect her sexual innocence (pretty much exactly what her father failed to provide her). And so Glen to the rescue as her unlikely white knight. Lord knows those are in short supply in the world of "Mad Men" - so enjoy yours while you can, Sally.

Random observations:

-Once again, Don shows himself to be a truly terrible father. When Betty calls him about Sally, you can see him stiffen, worried she's spilled the beans; his relief when he realizes she hasn't, and is just avoiding him, is palpable. He doesn't care if she visits or not, and he's only too eager to pack her off to boarding school, to pay anything to get her out of his guilty consciousness. And people think *Betty* is a bad parent? Sally's right: Don hasn't given her anything.

-Betty, for her part, is engaging in one of her occasional efforts to reach out to Sally. Sure, she's probably primarily excited at the thought of Sally attending a prestigious school with the children of other important people: notice how she herself behaved as if *she* were being interviewed (which she undoubtedly was), and nailed it. But she also seemed genuinely curious as to why Sally's decided to go this route, and perturbed rather than triumphant when Sally makes it clear she's renounced her father. This is the Betty I like, and am glad we're seeing more of this season.

-Glen's friend to Sally: "Are you frigid?" No, just Nordic. Also, traumatized by watching my dad having sex with the neighbor and my dad's business partner getting blown by my stepmother's mother.

-Is there some kind of "South Park" in-joke going on among the Mad Men writers? Only instead of killing Kenny at or near the end of an episode, they pretend to kill him off at or near the beginning. That's twice now they've done that. Poor Ken survives, but not before getting the full Cheney hunting experience. At least he's rocking the eye patch.

-That was a great eyeroll from Megan as she passed the phone call from Harry over to Don. She hasn’t forgotten Harry’s grossness over "Zou bisou bisou."

-Rosemary's Baby, really? That ad sounded more creepy than funny. Not to mention horribly un-PC, but well, I guess we're still in the '60s. Don does a pretty passable crybaby, maybe because that's exactly how he's feeling right now.

-Line/exchange of the week:
“You’ve finally found a hooker that takes traveler’s checks?”
(Harry, in an undertone) “Why did I tell you about that.”

-Runner-up: Roger to Kenny - "Shiver me timbers!" followed by "I'd listen to the Cyclops."

-Honorable mention “Crocodile tears!” Bert, as always, has Pete's number.


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