Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen the Season 6, Episode 6 of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "Man With a Plan."
After last week's episode -- an intense, eventful hour that threw Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler Gleason Chaough into turmoil and proved to be God's gift to .gif creators everywhere -- I expected tonight's episode to be a transitional, picking-up-the-pieces hour. And indeed, that's what we got -- much of "Man With a Plan" was concerned various characters' attempts to figure out how they fit into the newly merged firm and where they stood in the radically destablized pecking order.
What I didn't quite expect was the sense of dread that hung over the hour. Before the episode even hit the half-hour point, I thought, "Something really terrible is going to happen in this episode, probably right at the end." The whole episode did a good job of making the viewer feel almost as afraid and queasy as Joan looked in that dingy emergency room.
Everything from the sound mix to the shots chosen by director John Slattery reinforced a sense of dislocation and literal dis-ease. We saw any number of pale characters, disheveled men, off-balance women, strange angles and hallways crowded with too much stuff and too many people. The first half of the hour was intentionally noisy as well -- the din of that many people trying to fit into that small a space contributed to the sense of urgency and the lack of equilibrium. Pete's apartment felt too small and cramped, and even the luxury hotel room felt stuffy and claustrophobic by the end of the hour. Add in the actual sickness and death that pervaded the episode -- from Joan's thankfully temporarily illness to the serious mental impairment of Pete's mother and the awful death of Robert Kennedy -- and it made for an hour that recalled several of the creepiest, most disturbing hours of Season 5.
That's not a dig at this episode; I think "Man With a Plan" was meant to make us feel the characters' literal dislocation, and on that level, all the office stuff worked. What bored me was the whole bit with Don and Sylvia in the hotel. Obviously, Don's mind games with his mistress served several purposes for him: In a time of great flux for him, he distracted himself by asserting control over a personal situation he could easily dominate, and part of the reason he could play those games with Sylvia was because he knew how unsettled her personal life was. The Rosen marriage seems no more stable and solid than the Draper union, that much is clear.
So Don avoided feelings of weakness -- brought on by the merger he so impulsively set in motion last week -- by ordering around his mistress, who was quite willing to play along with Don's distractions due to the serious problems in her marriage. You also have to wonder if Don was trying to see if he could get her to break things off by pushing her into a place where she felt uncomfortable. At the start of the episode, the look on his face when he heard Sylvia arguing with her husband was not a look of love -- to me, his face read like a map of panic and desperation. We know how Don feels when a woman starts to actually need him for emotional support -- he usually pulls a Draper and disappears on her.
He can't leave town for long this time, given the chaos at work, but he could spend his off-hours giving in to his desire for domination, thus bolstering his ego at a difficult time. And if she tired of the game, perhaps that would actually be a good thing: He would avoid the messiness of having to break things off himself. Forcing a fairly traditional woman to hang around a hotel room, obey his orders and wear a red dress sends her a pretty clear signal about how he views her. An off-kilter Sylvia surely enjoyed the games on one level, but she's no dummy. I mean, we've seen Don give her money at least twice, and now he's made her wear a red dress (something he clearly associates with the whores of his childhood). Message received: He thinks of her as a prostitute. An ashamed Sylvia dumped Don, thus relieving him of the burden of having to break things off himself.
The problem is, we're halfway through the season, and at no point did I ever care much about Don and Sylvia, partly because we all knew that this wouldn't end well. Despite the obvious skills of Jon Hamm and Linda Cardellini, it's not as if the show has given us much of a reason to invest in this relationship. Sylvia isn't someone who's been given much of an emotional life or a personality of her own (the same could be said of Megan, frankly), so it was hard to care either way about how this ended for her.
As for Don, his dominatrix scenario was so theatrical and melodramatic that it both bored and amused me. Call me a cold fish, but I just couldn't invest in any of those scenes. I could think of half a dozen logical reasons why this scenario was happening, but that didn't mean it was actually interesting. Don can be a jerk who enjoys seeing how far he can push others, but we've known that for a long time, and these scenes didn't especially add anything new to our understanding of that side of the guy. Ultimately, I just didn't need scene after scene of Don auditioning for "50 Shades of Grey."
The most interesting part of the episode concerned an entirely different relationship: the complicated, burgeoning bond between Don and Ted. (Someone could do a Ph.D. thesis on the fact that Don's most compelling bonds have been platonic. Peggy, Roger, Ted, Anna, Joan -- I'd much rather watch scenes between Don and any of those characters, in part because they're all more fully realized, complicated and interesting than most of Don's wives and mistresses.)
Naturally there was going to be a lot of jockeying for position between Ted and Don, and Don scored a nice coup by having Ted's employees come work in the SCDP offices (whoever controls the terrain often controls the outcome of the battle). Don also began to introduce Ted to the SCDP lifestyle, which involves killing off your liver well before you hit retirement. It was quite a treat to see Ted realize that he could not beat Don at the older man's game (among mortals, ice and toast aren't going to count as meals). Don was never going to take meetings with the creative staff seriously, and he was always going to be able to out-drink Ted. So Ted shifted the scene of the battle, and once the plane trip was over, he'd left things more or less even between the men (for now).
Easily my favorite scene in the episode had a pasty Don trying and failing to act cool and calm in Ted's rattletrap little plane. Don was not only green from the bone-jarring journey itself, he realized he'd been outplayed by Ted, who was (eventually) smoothly in control -- this time. There are surely many more battles to come between the hip Ted, who likes to rap with the staff, and the "mysterious" Don, who ultimately pisses everyone off with his imperious ways, despite his occasionally brilliant work.
This is a power struggle between two people who are both complex and evenly matched; both men obviously have a lot at stake as well. And for all his hepcat turtlenecks, Ted comes off like a guy who works hard in conventional ways (and note that he came to his first day at SCDP in a conservative, dark-blue suit). For years, Don has been content to drink, scare underlings and nap on his couch until inspiration strikes. He gets away with a lot that Ted probably won't want to put up with.
At least Ted and Don are in better situations, relatively speaking, than Pete, who's mother is clearly suffering from some kind of dementia. Her sense of confusion and dislocation added to the episode's off-kilter feel, and it was impossible not to feel at least some of Pete's stress. Like Don, Pete's not used to taking care of anyone else, and a woman in distress brings out his least savory side (unless the woman in crisis is someone weak, pretty and easily bedded, like Beth). On top of the difficulties with Mom, Pete's also trying to endure a dicey few weeks at work and deal with a marriage that has imploded. It's only a matter of time before Pete's brother figures out that Trudy is no longer in the picture (something Pete's mother had already begun to figure out, despite her agitated mental state).
Given all the turmoil, the last thing any of us wanted was for Joan to fall ill, but fortunately Bob Benson was around to help her through her brief illness. This episode not only gave Bob a real reason to exist, it planted a seed in our minds. How many of us had the same reaction when Bob came through Joan's door: "Oh yes, she and Bob should get together." I never would have thought that even a week ago, but it makes a lot of sense now.
Of course we need to know more about Bob before we can be sure he's good enough for our Joanie, but his arrival with a gift for Kevin raised my opinion of him quite a bit. He did not need to check on Joan at home: If all he wanted to do was to brown-nose enough to keep his job, he'd already done all he needed to do by taking her to the hospital and sweet-talking a nurse into getting Joan seen right away. The visit to Joan's apartment seemed like the action of a kind, decent person, and Lord knows, she needs a man in her life who cares about her as a human being. Bob is stable, nice and possibly thoughtful -- so what if he's bland? Maybe Joan could use a bit of kind blandness after all the immature, selfish men she's known.
I can't help but suspect that Bob will prove to have a much larger role to play as the season heads into its home stretch, but that's just a feeling. Then again, when "Mad Men" wants to communicate that something big is coming, it's quite effective in doing so in a hundred spoken and unspoken ways. The casual reference to Bobby Kennedy midway through the episode led us to understand that he was still alive, but then, just after Don tuned out his wife and we thought everything was returning to what passes for normal in this world, a confused but partly accurate Mrs. Campbell woke up her son to tell her of the assassination.
In the final shot of the episode, Megan was staring at the TV as we saw the footage of Kennedy after he'd been shot. Don was facing away from her, and everything about that image conveyed things that were out of balance, out of alignment and disconnected. The soundtrack reinforced the sense of chaos: News reports competed with a song that tried to be relaxing but had the opposite effect. It was another ultra-'60s track about people coming together, which made for yet another disjunction as we took in the news of yet another violent death.
Don and Megan ended up facing away from each other during a moment of national crisis, and it's hard not to imagine that there are many more dislocations and divorces to come this season.
I'll close with a few bullet points (my Mother's Day gift to myself is an attempt to get to bed before 2 a.m.):
Note: I want to mention that next week's review will be delayed. I'm traveling next weekend and I'm taking Monday and Tuesday off, so next week's "Mad Men" recap will not be published until Wednesday. It should be posted no later than 1 p.m. ET that day (if not before). Thank you in advance for your patience!
"Mad Men" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan