Home Culture ‘Mad Men’ recap: Smokes and Mirrors

‘Mad Men’ recap: Smokes and Mirrors

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“You look terrible.” Almost everyone does in this, the penultimate episode of Season 6. Perhaps better than it has all season, “Mad Men” picks apart appearances to reveal the demons underneath.

“Rosemary’s Baby,” which Megan was reading earlier in the season 1, features prominently in Peggy and Ted’s idea for a St. Joseph’s baby aspirin 2 television spot. Megan takes Don to see the film version where they run into Peggy and Ted. This moment is beautifully reminiscent of Don and Peggy’s time at the movies in the finale of Season 5, and Don’s bored look contrasts with the other time he played hooky to take Bobby to see “Planet of the Apes.” At the office, Peggy and Ted want to act out their “Rosemary’s Baby”-inspired pitch. Ted has Don play the baby (huge shout out to Don’s “wha-whas”), who in the film, despite outward appearances, turns out to be a demon 3. Before the actual meeting, there is a wide-angle shot of the opposite end of the conference table, the chair front-and-center, but out of focus at the bottom of the frame, and Don sitting at the head of the table, surrounded by empty chairs. This is certainly a nod to the ad idea itself, further cementing Don’s place as the baby as well as the idea that he feels the world closing in on him. Later, Peggy calls Don a “monster,” leaves, and immediately, the camera pans up to reveal an overhead shot of Don, curled up in the fetal position.

Don’s maturity and morality are both at play in this episode. On the one hand (we’ll call it the left hand), part of him believes he is doing the right thing and making the right choices. He gives Sally the space away from him she needs. He doesn’t sleep in Megan’s bed because he doesn’t want to wake her. He conjures up a lie for the St. Josephs folks, embarrassing Ted, but saving the budget. On the other hand (we’ll call it the right hand), Don comes off as cold and distant to his daughter, Megan thinks he’s avoiding her (in bed, to make it doubly worse), and both Ted and Peggy are mortified at his insinuations, accounts be damned. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” Ted says, referring to SC&P 4, but that same sentiment could apply to every couple on the show. It’s also, possibly, a Biblical reference from Matthew 6:3, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” And yet, each act of mercy, of charity, in this episode is accompanied by sanctimony.

The episode’s title “A Quality of Mercy,” refers to Portia’s famous speech in ”A Merchant of Venice.” “The quality of mercy is not strained,” she says, and later, “It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Pete Campbell must have gone to the bathroom during that scene. Pete, disgusted  by Bob Benson’s pass last episode, wants to get rid of him. He calls Duck 5 to try to dump him onto another agency. Duck does some digging 6 and discovers that everything about Bob Benson is fake. His schooling, his work experience, probably his age, maybe his name. Bob Benson is a fraud a la Don Draper. In fact, both their first and last names have the same of letters. Benson is Draper if he failed, if he was found out early on and forced to run. PFC Dinkins was Dick Whitman if Dick hadn’t come home from war and Bob Benson is Don Draper if Don never made out of that clothing store he worked in. The entire season, surreally, shows Don a window into a worse life. In fact, Virgil’s purpose in taking Dante through the nine circles of Hell was to show him what sin truly looks like and what fate befalls those that do not repent. Don, too, floats through his own hell, passing each and every sin and watching what might become of him. Benson is a ghost of future’s past.

For just a moment, as Pete relishes in granting Bob mercy, I felt like I was watching “Game of Thrones.” Instead of outing (in more ways than one) Bob to the entire office, Pete grants him amnesty. He now has a pawn. Pete’s lack of power has plagued him all  season, a combination of Trudy’s punishment, his mother’s dementia, and an always-the-bridesmaid scenario at work. So when the opportunity comes along to have complete power over Bob’s fate, he jumps at the chance. If “Mad Men” has a villain, I suppose it would be Pete Campbell, but I see him more as an indignant bully – one that was bullied himself in life. After the Chevy guys Dick Cheney Ken in the face, Pete makes another power move, granting the eyepatched employee a reprieve from his time in Detroit. It’s a chance for Pete to escape (in fact, there’s an element of Don’s Hawaii pitch in Pete’s desire to shed his skin and jump off into the unknown). In between the homophobic bullying, I almost felt bad for Pete. Blustery and pompous on the outside, but hurting and deeply alone within.

Sally smoking in the car and fumbling with the lighter in that perfect non-smoker way epitomizes her entire arc this season. Outwardly, she exudes a deep maturity, with zero fucks given, but, in truth, Sally is still young and sheltered. The alcohol she nips is bitter and, unlike the boarding school girl who is happy to get down with Glen, Sally dismisses Rolo’s feeble advances. I worry that each unwanted advance, each let down from her father, each cigarette from her mother hardens Sally, forging her into the sad, bitter women she likely mocks. After the meeting, Don tosses a stinger towards Ted, “I know your little girl has beautiful eyes, but that doesn’t mean you give her everything.” He’s referring to Peggy there, but when looked at through the prism of Sally and Don’s relationship, it takes on new meaning. “My father’s never given me anything,” Sally says in the car on the way home from her boarding school visit. Left hand, meet the right hand.

The specter of death hanging over the early part of the season has been replaced with a feeling of increased chaos and crime. Will Don pass through and arrive on the other side? There’s only one episode left this season.

“But mercy is above the sceptred sway/It is enthroned in the hearts of kings/It is an attribute to God himself.”

Notes:

  1. Evidently people read the book to get ready for the movie even in 1968.
  2. I’m just going to tell you to go listen to “You or Your Memory” by The Mountain Goats and remind you that it’s about the narrator’s father.
  3. Spoiler alert.
  4. Can we all just take a second to swoon over the killer new ’70s logo?
  5. Twitter is always so happy to see Duck, but I think he keeps popping up for a reason: Duck represents real reform in a show that rarely allows that.
  6. Duck Phillips P.I. Coming to AMC in 2015.
  • Victoria Ramirez

    Minor thing, but I believe Sally was reading it earlier this season, not Megan

  • Tom Hardy

    Shout-out to The Sunset Tree, among the top daddy-issues albums of all time. Great write-up.