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Mad Men's Transitional "Plan," Ironic or Not

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"Whoa, whoa, whoa, I have to eat something."

"Doesn't ice count?"

Longtime rivals-turned-sudden partners Ted Chaough and Don Draper, during a whiskey-soaked yet surprisingly effective brain-storming session on how to sell margarine.

Another entertaining Mad Men episode brought the immediate aftermath of the precipitous merger between Don Draper's and Ted Chaough's rival agencies. This was a transitional episode, which nonetheless ended in tears, with the sudden assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

History is now a serious problem for Mad Men. Back when the show was in its comfort zone, its brilliant rendition of the aspirational advertising scene in early '60s America, the show could afford to be as hermetically sealed as it frequently was. Though it deftly handled big-time history, with haunting episodes around the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Now it's in the part of the decade in which history is not only unavoidable, even for the most relentlessly self-absorbed, but jarringly, even seismically, intrusive.

1968 is an especially perilous year, with massive political developments, two deeply historic assassinations, and the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War. It's also an exciting and colorful year, of tremendous highs and lows, dynamics which challenge the nature of this show.

Did this episode, deftly directed by our Roger Sterling, John Slattery, bring another rise in viewership for Mad Men in its controversial Season 6? It did not. Actually, viewership dipped to a season low. But hopes for awards revival remain, because the show has stabilized and the field of competitors is mixed.

Man With A Plan is or is not an ironic title. It all depends on who the title describes. And we won't know who that is until the story plays out down the line. Among others, it could refer to Don Draper or Bobby Kennedy or another Robert, that ever-turning-up-at-telling moments Bob Benson fellow from accounts.

Let's get the most heartening development, for me at least, out of the way first. The Don and Sylvia affair has thankfully reached its apparent end.

I say thankfully because to me, Sylvia isn't a character, she's a contrivance. Her husband the heart specialist is a character.

Trying his Bobbie Barrett routines with Sylvia, Don summons her to a hotel and forces her to stay there -- "forces" by way of verbal command, that is -- as a virtual sex slave. After a bit of early bridling, she goes along with the game. But, though turned on, she's not entirely pleased. It even seems, from a look or two that Jon Hamm gives in his enigmatic performance, that he is trying to force her to say no as a means of breaking things off with her, trying to get rid of her after unhappily overhearing a nasty potential break-up fight with her husband. But no, he's sad when she ends it.

Bobbie and Sylvia are among Don's older playmates. Is it a coincidence that he plays sadomasochistic sex power games with women who are more likely to conjure up the image of his late prostitute mother? Or his despised step-mother? (There's an S&M aspect to his relationship with young wife Megan, too, but it's more fleeting.)

As part of his rather tedious game with Sylvia, he takes the novel she's reading away from her. It's The Last Picture Show, a '60s classic from Larry McMurtry which, just a few years from now in Mad Men time, will become a much-honored film from tyro director Peter Bogdanovich.

The novel actually turns up repeatedly throughout the episode. We see Sylvia reading it several times. Don's theft of it from her proves to be a turning point in their relationship. Don chooses to take it along on his fateful flight in Ted Chaough's plane, reading it instead of enjoying the lovely view above the clouds.

Hmm, could this book have significance? In a signposts show like Mad Men?

The Last Picture Show is an emotionally desolate coming of age tale set in a dying small town in 1950s Texas. A small town not unlike the small towns in Illinois and Pennsylvania that young Dick Whitman finally escaped from.

To cut to the chase here, the anti-heroic arguable protagonist of the novel and subsequent 1971 film ends up stuck in life but finding solace in an affair with a semi-maternal figure (played in the film by Cloris Leachman, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role).

Is this a symbolic prefiguring of the end of Mad Men?

In any event, Don's latest airless affair seems over. Hurray! Let's move on.

Over at the office -- Don has arranged for Ted's agency to move in to the snazzy SCDP digs -- after Don drinks Ted into a stupor as part of the office version of his assert-control-in-a-time-of-change game, Peggy does a very nice job of telling her old mentor off. Don't waste time with these games, she says, no one can keep up with your drinking and no one should want to. Move forward.

Exactly.

There's an amusing firing, a "rap session" about margarine, Pete Campbell's angst, and the very notable discoveries that Ted is at once an effective team leader, a Bobby Kennedy liberal (we could have guessed from his mock RFK congratulatory call to Don over the famed "I Quit Tobacco" ad a couple seasons back) and an accomplished pilot (no doubt impressing their airline client). But the most significant development seems Joan Holloway's health scare.

Joan realizes how isolated she's become in her life because it's the always passing in the hallway Bob Benson, brown-noser extraordinaire, who comes to her aid. Very effectively and diplomatically to her aid, as it happens, surprisingly so, in a sudden ovarian cyst crisis. Which ends up in the short run having the effect of saving Bob's job from elimination in the merger (as Pete and, to ultimate effect, Joan speak up for him) and seems destined to have longer run meaning as well.

As once again we are left to wonder, who is this guy Bob? He turns up a little too often to be just a flavorful red herring. Is he ultimate opportunist, genuine nice guy/go-getter, some kind of spy? Is he the real man with the plan?

The show, after some precipitous developments, seems on an even keel again.

Of course last week's very entertaining but widely over-praised episode was so entertaining only because the show made such precipitous jumps in the story.

My theory is that Mad Men may have lost the plot in Season 4. I liked it at the time, but re-watching it made it clear how bizarre Don's marriage to Megan was.

It only made sense in the context that she would be his kids' mother. There's a classic Don Draper moment at Disneyland in which we see Don watching Megan with the kids in a restaurant booth, looking at them with his cinematic eye, framing a future. But he didn't have to marry Megan to have sex with her and she was always close at hand at work for cultural counsel. And we've since seen that Betty is the real mother after all and Don, according to last week's big reveal, doesn't even especially like the kids.

Which I don't actually buy, either, but what the frak? As Peggy told Don, let's move forward.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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