Friday, June 21, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episode 12, “The Quality of Mercy”

My prediction that Don would use knowledge of Peggy and Ted’s feelings for each other to inflict pain on the pair came to fruition in this week’s episode, in a cruel scene where he let them think that he was on the verge of embarrassing them in front of a client. Ted and Peggy spend most of the episode in a positive reinforcement feedback loop, where their feelings for each other fuel their ideas for St. Joseph, which in turn fuel their feelings, and so on, ad infinitum. It’s as though the ad is taking place of their consummating their attraction to one another, and their giddiness is obvious to everyone around them, including Ted’s secretary, Ginsberg, Joan, and of course Don.

The product of Ted and Peggy’s efforts yields an ad whose budget soars far above that which has been allotted by St. Joseph, so Ted and Peggy must sell their expensive idea to the company, and Don is brought into the meeting to lend his support, which he ultimately gives, but not before letting Peggy and Ted twist in the wind. Don’s idea to sell the St. Joseph executive on the more expensive campaign is to tell him that the ad was former CGC partner Frank Gleason’s last idea, which is enough for the executive to approve it with a reduced budget. It’s an ingenious little lie, and one that Don could have sprung as soon as he saw Ted failing to win over the client with the merits of the idea, or one Don could have told Peggy and Ted about beforehand. However, instead he chooses to make the moment before the lie excruciating for them by stating that Ted’s enthusiasm is “personal,” flicking his eyes from Ted to Peggy, and indicating to them that he’s on the verge of telling the client Ted’s eagerness is a product of his feelings toward Peggy rather than the merits of the idea. The air is pregnant with Don’s potential to humiliate both of them, and he plays with their emotions like a cat plays with a mouse.

It’s a masterstroke of cruelty. Part of the reason Ted is so enthusiastic for Peggy’s idea – aside from (or because of) his feelings for her – is that he thinks it is award-worthy. However, Don’s method of saving the ad not only takes Peggy’s name off of it (something which has galled Peggy in the past), but also demonstrates to the two of them that he knows exactly what’s going on between them, even if they aren’t quite willing consummate their feelings for one another. Moreover, Don also drives a wedge between Peggy and Ted: he makes Ted go along with the lie in order to protect the account, and after the meeting, he forces Ted to confront his feelings for Peggy, which causes Ted to redouble his efforts to resist those feelings. And then to top it all off, Don belittles Ted’s feelings by implying “we’ve all been there,” and then chastises Ted, telling him, “Your judgment is impaired. You’re not thinking with your head.” Don’s hypocrisy here is overwhelming, but Ted is devastated. Apparently, the lesson Don learned from Sally’s angry outburst in the previous episode was not to avoid hypocrisy, but to use his acute awareness of his own shortcomings to completely dismantle others (if, that is, Don is even this self-aware).

Peggy, at least, stands up to Don once again, angrily confronting him at the episode’s conclusion and calling him a monster; as with Sally telling Don he makes her sick in last week’s episode, a character once again tells Don something many viewers themselves have wanted to tell him for a long time. While Don was likely right to reign in Ted and Peggy’s creative impulses and be more mindful of their budget, his emotional cruelty here is needless and atrocious, and Peggy’s grounds for anger are legitimate: it doesn’t matter if Ted’s judgment is “impaired”, as Don’s has so often been, if one or the other of them is there compensate for the eccentricities of the other. A functional partnership (what Ted seeks) would take this in stride. Don, however, exploits Ted’s weaknesses to momentarily boost his own ego, even if it ultimately results in being (accurately) called a monster by his former protégé.

The larger takeaway here though is the large, seemingly permanent rift between Don and Peggy. As with Sally last week, Don has now firmly pushed away one more character with whom he previously had strong connections and feelings (even if lately those feelings have only been jealousy, betrayal, and resentment). Don’s damaged connections with both Sally and Peggy are amplified visually: the first and last shots of Don in the episode are of an overhead camera
looking directly down on him as he lies curled up, first on Sally’s bed, then on his office couch, seemingly ashamed of his behavior. Given Don’s denunciation by Sally and Peggy in consecutive episodes, I can very easily see the season finale culminating with Megan leaving him as well, as this episode has Don completely ignore her when she begs him to at least be indifferent toward her while sharing the same room. Megan leaving Don would complete the pattern of Don’s alienation of all of the women who care or once cared about him.

Some of my complaints about this season – and some of the complaints I’ve heard from others – have centered on disappointment with the direction Don has taken. In many places it has seemed like the writers haven’t known what to do with him, such as in his having yet another affair, and one that seemed like a rehash and combination of Rachel Mencken and Bobbie Barrett from seasons 1 and 2. However, after this week’s episode, I’m not entirely certain that this season has done nothing new with the character. Don has always been a scoundrel and an abusive hypocrite, but I don’t think he’s ever been this malicious and unsympathetic before. It seems like this season has been deliberately designed to bring out the worst in Don, even more so than the lost weekend of season 4:

- No matter how poor a family man Don had been in the past, when present he always managed to be good to his kids (and certainly better than Betty). That changed this season, both when he admitted to never loving Bobby before, and when he inadvertently shattered Sally’s trust in him last week.

- Despite his frequent and cruel abuse of Peggy over the course of the series, he did act as her mentor, provided her with positive feedback on many occasions, and never tried to block her when she seized upon a good idea (although he would certainly have told her to work within the constraints of a client’s budget). Moreover, his abuse of her – while cruel and unfair – was often predicated by his (only sometimes incorrect) suspicion that she was too concerned with self-advancement or too self-satisfied. That changed this week, as his sabotage of her was both personal and professional, and clearly motivated more by his own feelings of betrayal than by his feeling that Peggy’s head was getting too big or by his “looking out for the agency,” as he claims to Peggy at the end of the episode. The dead, snake-like look in his eyes as Peggy calls him on his bullshit speaks volumes.

- Finally, his coldness toward Betty, his infidelity, and his frequent mistreatment of her – while cruel and unfair – was always partly predicated on his keeping secrets about his past from her, and on her infantilism, self-pitying, and chronic unhappiness. While these dispositions were themselves probably encouraged by Don’s conditioning of her, they are also are simply a part of who she is, as has been made amply evident in the 3 seasons in which she has been married to Henry Francis. Megan, however, knows nearly all of the Don’s secrets (or did before the start of this season), and has none of the dispositional idiosyncrasies that would make her hard to love (perhaps she has other qualities that some might object to, but on the whole she’s a much more agreeable person than Betty).

- Moreover, Don himself seems to have lost a lot of the sympathetic qualities that made him appealing: the past three seasons have shown him losing some of his creative drive and whatever marginal self-control he once had, and this season in particular has shown him lacking in self-awareness and relishing hypocrisy, feeling guilty about his behavior only when confronted directly with its negative consequences (quite unlike how he wore his theft of the real Don Draper’s identity like an albatross around his neck in seasons 1 through 4). He seems to have lost a lot of the passion, cleverness, and insight he had for the ad business, and has instead turned his mental faculties toward destructive, defensive, or selfish impulses.

In short, Don’s maliciousness in the past was often partly motivated by somewhat understandable (if not always sympathetic) circumstances, and his positive traits often balanced some of his more negative ones (at least in my estimation). This past season, however, his behavior has become much harder to excuse, rationalize, apologize for, or justify. He’s become something like a villain in the Mad Men’s universe, someone more akin to Pete Campbell than Roger Sterling.* Gradually, we’ve been given less and less to like about the character, and it’s seemed less and less likely that he’ll find his way toward a moment of realization, responsibility, or redemption, which is especially disappointing since he sincerely (if perhaps naively) tried to change himself and become a better person after his divorce from Betty and his marriage to Megan. It’s an uncomfortable position for viewers to be in, both because he’s the character with which we are most closely aligned, and because it’s upsetting to see a character who was once more sympathetic become so much less so (even if he was never without major faults). Season 6 has taken Don from the flawed protagonist of the earlier seasons and transformed him into a transparently cruel, selfish, and hypocritical manipulator. Depending on what happens in next week’s episode and in the (likely) final seventh season, perhaps Mad Men will ultimately be best understood as the tragedy of Don Draper’s inability to escape from his own worst tendencies.

* This is especially the case now that the show has softened Betty and made her more sympathetic once again in the wake of the events of “The Better Half.” Note that this week all of her antagonism toward Don is gone, and she expresses concern – or possibly just confusion – over Sally’s strange attitude change toward him. 

In other developments, more and more layers are peeled back from the enigma that is Bob Benson. It seems there is more to Bob than his simply being gay and in love with Pete; he’s also a fake! Sepinwall and Tom and Lorenzo were right to point out the parallels between young Don Draper and Bob Benson: in addition to having alliterative names of the same length and a servile attitude, both are also operating under an assumed identity in order to hide their past. With the help of Duck, Pete finds out about Bob’s past as a manservant, and seems to have Bob by the balls in their confrontation. However, Pete backs down because of his experience in trying to oust Don in the early seasons of the show.

Pete thinks that it’s no use trying to get rid of an imposter like Bob because previously he failed so spectacularly to get rid of Don when he discovered Don is actually Dick Whitman. In the long view, it’s the completely wrong lesson to have learned, since Don’s value to the old Sterling Cooper was based on his actual creative achievements, whereas Bob’s value is based mostly on smoke and mirrors (and on always having coffee). However, in the short view, all Pete can see are similarities between Don and Bob: both aren’t who they say they are, and both have wormed their way into positions where their history doesn’t matter as much as their current value to the company (in this case, Bob’s relationship with Chevy), thus it’s no use trying to oust him; instead, it’s better to simply work with him. And considering that Pete has turned himself into the boy who cried wolf this season, making peace with Bob might even be his best recourse, even though Bob is clearly terrified of what Pete could do with his new information.

Other thoughts:

- Advertising kills: Chevy is literally killing Ken, one injury at a time, and Don is killing Ted’s lust for life.

- Don channel surfs while recovering from a bender, and comes across Megan’s show, To Have and to Hold, where her blonde twin says, “I suppose I am supposed to believe that you didn’t know that she wasn’t me, when you took her to the boathouse and had your way?” It’s hard not to read the first clause as commentary on how Don’s indifference toward Megan is nearly identical to his disinterest with Betty when they were married. This reading is assisted enormously by the blonde wig Megan wears when she performs as this character.

- This episode also dispenses with Glenn’s annual episode. Perhaps the episode title, “The Quality of Mercy,” refers to the brevity of his appearance this time around.

- I’m satisfied by Sally’s solution to her terrible parents: escape to boarding school. While our glimpse of the school leaves many doubts as to whether or not it will actually be a healthier atmosphere for her (if anything, it seems only likely to teach her even more bad life lessons), I like that when faced with a cruel parent and a parent she no longer trusts, her decision is to place responsibility for her upbringing in another institution entirely. Also interesting to note: despite her disillusionment with her parents, she hasn’t become nihilistic: she resists the come-ons of Glenn’s friend “Rolo,” and then gets a bit of a thrill out of manipulating into Glenn defend her honor.

- Early in the episode, Ted and Jim chastise Don and Roger for wanting to abandon Ocean Spray for Sunkist when Sunkist offers to more than double their billings. Ted and Jim both insist that they work more closely together in the future, and that there be no more surprises, which Don readily agrees to. Then Don does exactly the opposite in the meeting with St. Joseph’s, surprising Ted. Don is incapable of sticking to his word.

- I like when Jim and Roger compare war wounds when trying to talk Ken out of taking a step back from handling Chevy: breast-cupping and ball-holding are par for the course.

- I have never understood and continue to be dumfounded by the affection that Clara, Pete’s secretary, has for him.

- Ted and Peggy’s feelings for each other are extra obvious to Don throughout this episode, but the kicker has to be that they perform their ad for him, much like how Don, in the throes of love, once performed an ad with Megan. Also, Ted motions Peggy forward by grabbing her waist. Sex!

- I’m sad to say that Joan does not make a very good “Jewish neighbor-lady.”

- Finally, I loved this shot of Don ignoring Megan when she asks him to watch TV in bed with her. This marriage ended for Don in last season's finale, and it very likely will end for Megan in next week's episode.


  1. There should be a supercut of every time a door is opened, closed, or referenced in speech in this season. THERE HAVE BEEN SO MANY. Metaphors!

    I cannot even count how many times in the course of this season, when Don lectures someone else about their unethical behavior, I shout at my TV, "Like you have a leg to stand on, Don Draper!" This season has had me doing that several times.

    I have a theory that it wasn't so much the comments of other SC&P staffers that caused Don to call Ted and Peggy out on their flirting, but Megan's discovery. It was Megan's gasp at the movie theatre when they ran into them, and her persistent attempts at gossipping with Don when they arrived home that night. Don doesn't want Megan thinking about infidelity. It's too close to home, and after Sally's disastrous discovery of him, he's having more and more trouble pretending that shit didn't happen, or that he can keep his two lives separate. I think that was a big motivator when he publicly humiliated Ted and Peggy at the St. Joseph's meeting, and then hypocritically upbraided Ted afterwards.

    Other thoughts - The St. Joseph's ad is a nice allegory to Ted and Peggy's relationship. It's new, exciting, and brings the two of them closer, but it is ultimately undeliverable because the cost is too high. Ted chooses not to disclose the soaring budget costs to Peggy because he wants to see her happy and rewarded. So he kind of inadvertently strings her along, ignoring the price tag and the unlikeliness that St. Joseph's will sign off on it. Similarly, he's inadvertently stringing her along in romance - they're obviously falling for each other, but the cost of consummating their feelings is way beyond their emotional budget. Ted is married, and her boss. In both situations, they're pretending, and denying the fact that they're pretending.

    1. I think the first half of season 4 ended most of its episodes with a door closing, and when Don finally turned a corner in "The Summer Man," the episode ended with a door being left open.

      Certainly Don would not be happy were Megan to cheat on him, but I really don't think that's a big concern for him. Right now, he doesn't give a shit what Megan does, so long as she doesn't bother him with it. So far as he's concerned, she's a needy roommate he sometimes fucks. You're on to something though when you suggest that his own disgust with getting discovered by Sally motivates his chastisement of Ted. However, I'd be more inclined to think this was his motivation were he not so clearly motivated by his desire to hurt Peggy (and possibly Ted). Don's a guy who makes himself feel big by making others think they are small.

      I disagree that Ted was stringing Peggy along with the ad. Ted sincerely believed in it, and in his ability to convince St. Joseph's to agree to it - he values Peggy too much (and is too nice a guy) to simply humor her (which would be disrespectful). As we learned early this season, Ted was always the optimist at CGC, and relied on Gleason to inject some reality into Ted's grand designs. Without Gleason around, others will have to fulfill that function. I agree more the idea that he's never going to be willing to follow through with Peggy emotionally, even though he might want to. This is a problem they likely would have run into even without he merger - maybe Don is actually helping them out by trying to dynamite their closeness, even if he's doing it for all of the wrong reasons.