Mad Men Season 6 Recap: Man With a Plan
Welcome to another recap of Mad Men. This week, it's all about newness, and weirdness, and drunkenness, and margarine. Peggy returns to the hallowed halls of the former Sterling Cooper Draper Campbell, Ted Chaough reveals himself to be both an amusingly bacon-focused drunk and an ace small-plane pilot, and Bob Benson finally makes himself useful. In other news, that poor Kennedy boy gets shot. Join us, won't you?
From offices to accounts, everything was all like "NEW, NEW, NEW" over at SCDPCGC last night. "Man With a Plan" pulsed with burgeoning opportunities for our Mad heroes (well, except for Harry, who appears to have drawn the short straw for offices once again). While we saw Pete's mother's confusion regarding the past be cleverly utilized to break the news of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, the idea of moving forward generally coated Sunday's episode like a pat of margarine on a stack of pancakes.
For our favorite Mad Women, progression is a desire brought down by reminders of their past. As seen in previous weeks, Joan's own ladder climbing is constantly undercut by reminders of where she's been and who she's been with. When catching up with Peggy on the happenings since she walked out of the office, Joan remarks, "Everything keeps changing out here but everything's the same in there." A new firm brings new secretaries to bump heads with and new dudes to ogle Mrs. Harris. However, it doesn't appear to bring new opportunities for growth for poor Joanie. She can't move forward from a past where she was a secretary and once slept with a client, a point underlined by Bob Benson coming by her apartment to check in on her in a visually history-repeating-itself moment not unlike Don's attempt to keep Joan from sleeping with Horrible Herb. It's no surprise then how happy Joan is to see Peggy. Not only is there a great understanding and friendship between these two, but Peggy is one of the few people at the agency who once worked below Joan and thus is unlikely to look down on her. It's unclear what Joan wants career-wise, other than more respect, but she increasingly appears to be in a rut.
As predicted, Peggy's return to sorta-SCDP throws her in a state of flux. While Peggy's surroundings are different and her role within them yet to be defined, we see that returning to SCDP causes Peggy to subconsciously revert to old power dynamics. When she and Ted first arrive to the office, Ted asks, "Do you know where you're going?" Despite this being her old stomping grounds, Peggy responds that she's just following Ted. Even though Don and Ted are two different breeds of bosses, Peggy finds herself inevitably following closely behind them as if they are interchangeable. Old habits die hard, and when Don is secretary-less with a phone ringing, Peggy offers to answer it. It appears that she still needs the male mentor whose admiration has to be fought for (by way of producing good work, as well as nurturing hangovers). While Peggy is definitely an upwardly mobile career woman, her past dynamics with Don continue to subconsciously reverberate through her relationships within the office. Even though it would appear that she's picking Ted's side for now, I would be surprised if we didn't see Peggy continuously torn between her two work husbands as she attempts to establish herself in the new mega-firm.
Whereas Peggy and Joan are thirsting for opportunity, Don is cowering from it. With the dust is still settling from the merge, Don is attempting to control everyone around him by reverting back to his Season 1 Draper form. He embarrasses Ted by drinking him under the table and devalues Peggy during a serious conversation, just like the good old days! Even more creepily, we see Don's fear of change and the ensuing loss of power materialize in his assertion of dominance over Sylvia. It would seem that since Don's whole life has been built on progression (Dick Whitman who?) he should be comfortable with adapting. As Peggy told him, it is time to move forward. While his fear of the turning cultural tides isn't new, we've yet to see this much rapid change within the agency since the formation of SCDP and, in turn, this much of a reversion to who Don has been in the past. With Don softening in recent seasons into someone you begrudgingly feel for, it's particularly harsh to be reminded of what an awful, calculating person he is. As much as he's jonesing for the past, it's been 8 years in the Mad Men universe since Season 1, meaning that Don is that much more irrelevant and out of touch with both the present and the past that he is so desperately grasping for. With his inevitable struggle to maintain a lifestyle in the face of change, what further atrocious behavior does Don have up his sleeve?
In their closing scene, Don tells Sylvia, "It's easy to give up something when you're satisfied." All full of Catholic guilt, Mrs. Rosen counters, "It's easy to give up something when you're ashamed." In "Man With a Plan," neither of these statements rang true. Joan continues to be judged for sleeping with Herb and Don continues to protect what he's established for himself, with neither of them easily walking away from the objects of their satisfaction and shame. The new age of SCDPCGC inevitably brings growing pains to our Mad heroes, but it's currently unclear who is going to give up out of fear, frustration, or likely both.
Man, Ted Chaough is totally the cool dad of the office, right? While his use of the word "groovy" will continue to set him apart from the more genuinely countercultural members of the office, his rap sessions and chair offerings are a clear departure from the Draper way of life (not to mention visiting his former partner, Gleason, in the hospital). And those aviators! And that bomber jacket! No wonder Peggy is having fantasy makeout sessions with this dude.
Sure, I can rap about margarine, if "rap about margarine" means "dream about making out with my boss."
Watch Your Instruments
The merger has begun, and it's chaos. The hallways of SCDP—still no new name in place, apparently—seem narrower than ever. People are being made redundant left and right (and, as former Sterling Cooper head of accounts Burt Peterson learns for the second time, no one fires people with quite as much relish as Roger Sterling). And, as Pete and Don quickly find out, this new agency has no time for their contrived, the-meeting-starts-when-I-get-there displays of power. This is especially galling for Pete, who arrives to the new agency's first meeting to find that all the chairs are taken, an event that's grounds for a level-1 hissy fit. And this is where we see, not for the last time this episode, what Ted Chaough is made of: Not only does he give up his own chair to make sure the secretaries at the meeting can comfortably do their jobs, but he does it with a grace that makes Pete's flouncing especially ridiculous.
Some of our pals are able to navigate the upheaval with aplomb. Peggy, though clearly not thrilled to be back in her old environs, shrugs off the unintentionally hilarious "Coffee Chief" designation placed on her office door by the movers and buckles down to work, wowing Ted with her knowledge of margarine history. With so many new people around to suck up to, Bob Benson is in brownnose heaven. Ken Cosgrove appears to be dealing with the merger by writing a sci-fi plotline that renders him invisible. Even Harry manages to keep his bitching to a minimum. (Which, frankly, required a significant suspension of disbelief—after his outburst a few episodes back, do we really think he'd take the indignity of another office downgrade so lightly? Not a chance.)
Others find themselves thrown off course by the chaos. Joan seems back in her element doling out office assignments to the new recruits like a boss—if everyone's going to treat her like a secretary anyway, she might as well be the queen bee of all of them—but, as we discover later, she's actually suffering in silence. (Hopefully that ovarian cyst will depart the plot as quickly as it appeared.) Pete's ever-present anxiety only ramps up after the chair incident, with the office chaos mirroring the out-of-control nosedive his personal life has taken. Pete deals with everything the only way he knows how—like a sniveling jerk who'll pass the buck any way he can. So props to his brother for not having it, his mother for seeing clear through him even in the midst of dementia, and Don and Ted for flying to that meeting without giving Pete a second thought.
Don, meanwhile, deals with the chaos in the office by pretending it has nothing to do with him, with grimmer results than we've come to expect from the seasoned slickster. Everything that made Don look like a hero in last week's episode—the confidence, the single-minded pursuit of a goal, the ability to think on his feet—sours this week into an arrogance that seems, frankly, pathological. I'm sure there are people out there who found his 50 Shades of Gray (Flannel) act with Sylvia hot, just as there are those who thrilled to the sight of him tying Bobbie Barrett to that hotel bed in season two. But for me, this was everything terrible about Don distilled into an hour. I don't really care if erotic mind games are his coping strategy for stress; his treatment of Sylvia—demanding that she crawl on her hands and knees, telling her she exists only for him, asking her "Who told you you were allowed to think?"—is just a slightly more extreme version of how he treats all the women in his life, which makes it difficult to argue that this is just a little dominant/submissive play. And stranding her in a hotel room without her book—well, that would be the last straw for me too.
Don's increasing awfulness in this episode made it that much more satisfying when Sylvia broke things off. And the fact that Don looked genuinely confused and hurt by her decision (wait, it's just a game, right?) was weirdly moving, but because of his behavior leading up to it—not just the stuff with Sylvia, but the dismissiveness with which he treated Peggy, not to mention his attempt to control his new colleague Ted by getting him too drunk to function—it was almost impossible to feel much beyond, Welp, someone finally got what he deserved.
It's notable that in the midst of all this chaos, another historic event is slipped into the episode in relatively mundane fashion. True, building an episode around the assassination of Bobby Kennedy would seem a little too familiar after the MLK episode of two weeks back. So Mad Men's insertion of the event was restrained and smart—having Megan cry while watching the news of it, while Don is next to her so buried in his own sadness about Sylvia dumping him that he barely notices, much less comforts her, was a nice counterpoint to the frenetic pace of the rest of the episode.
The book that Sylvia was reading—well, until Don took it away—was Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show. Seems appropriate, as it's about several people feeling deeply, tragically stuck in place.
Who else is expecting to hear Sylvia's line to Don—"I need you, and nothing else will do"—show up in a margarine pitch sometime soon? And speaking of business, what's happening with Chevy? After all we learned last week about the fate of the new product, it'll seem like a wasted opportunity if the show doesn't spend any time on the actual campaign. (In the meantime, enjoy this fake ad for the Vega.)
In the Don-eat-Don world of Mad Men, saying that it's every person for him or herself is an understatement. With all the secret meetings, mergers, and affairs going on, no one wants to need help and the strings that are sure to come with it. But several characters extended helping hands to one another this week—with mixed results.
When Pete received an urgent phone call at work telling him a woman was wreaking havoc at his apartment, I wondered if one of his ladyfriends had finally had enough of his cheesy lines. No, it's his mother, who has found the address to his "pied-a-terre" and is looking for his father (who, you'll remember, died in a plane crash that Pete leveraged for business, and is resurrected in an episode where Pete misses a flight to do business with an airline. Oh, Mad Men.) Pete lets his mother stay out of obligation, but only after his brother Bud throws in the towel. So what's in store for the least dynamic duo ever? Pete's mom can't live in his Bachelor Pit of Despair, especially not since she's lit the kitchen on fire and discovered that Trudy kicked him out. Pete is hardly the charitable type, and he didn't get along with his mother during the best of times. Now that he's been forced to help her, will his frayed nerves finally snap? (That wouldn't be so bad, entertainmentwise. From my notes last night: "Nothing beats a frustrated Pete Campbell.")
Another unlikely pair of helpmates thrown together by fate—in the form of calculated cheerfulness and an ovarian cyst, respectively—is Bob Benson and Joan Holloway-Harris. When Joan, who hates to ask for help like Guy MacKendrick hates lawn mowers, doubles over in pain at work, BB drops those doublefisted coffees and takes her to the hospital (sidenote: Mad Men hospitals are the most depressing hospitals this side of American Horror Story: Asylum), working his charms to get her in to see a doctor. In turn, Joan saves his job and keeps him around, For a future romance, perhaps? Mama Holloway is all for it and reminds Joan that "every good deed is not part of a plan," (she clearly doesn't watch this show) but I still don't trust that Bob Benson. Assuming he's supposed to remind us of a young Don—handsome, ambitious, mysterious, a bit of a kiss ass—we must then assume he's got major ulterior motives. When a guy like that gives an age-inappropriate football to the son of a sexy single partner at his firm, it's not just because he wants to play catch. Look out, Joan!
If caretaking was a theme this week, Don Draper took it to the extreme. Feeling powerless both at the office (who can blame him when Ted Chaough's doing this?) and in his marriage, he goes mega-dom on Sylvia, putting her up in a posh hotel room and demanding she pick up his shoes on her hands and knees and stay in bed—without her book!—for hours on end. Considering she left her husband Arnold in part because he made things "all about him," this might not have been Don's best move. Sure, Sylvia was turned on by the authority and the sexy outfits, but a girl can only stay in bed without a book for so long. When she told Don it was over he seemed genuinely sad, but I think Ted Chaough spoke for all of us when he said of Don, to Gleason, "I can't tell if he's putting it on." Did Don want to stay with Sylvia because he cares about her, or because she distracted him from his misery? I'm betting on the latter.
Last night's episode was full of callbacks to earlier seasons. My favorite was Joan walking Peggy to her office.
I've been reluctant to embrace Ted Chaough, but between those aviators and that Gilligan's Island formula, dude has won me over big time. I can't wait to try that method in my next meeting! Anyone else?
Cultural References: Robert Kennedy, The Last Picture Show, 1968's student/worker general strike in France, Gilligan's Island
Inappropriate Office Behavior: Who leaves the office on the first day of a massive merger? WHO? Oh, right. Don Draper.
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