Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 6, Episode 11 of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "Favors."
I tip my cap to "Mad Men" for fooling me again, and I mean that in the best possible way. One thing the show has been consistently good at is lulling me into thinking that an episode is heading in one direction or is going to focus on one collection of ideas or themes, but then veering off in an entirely new direction. When "Mad Men" is working at the top of its game, it pulls this off with ease. When everything aligns just so, it's capable of pulling off a sucker punch that still feels earned and tonally united with what came before the shift or shocking moment.
The more I think about it, what happened in the last quarter of "Favors" may be one of the most important moments in the history of the series. Minutes after he was born, Dick Whitman/Don Draper lost the most important woman in his life -- his mother -- and that loss has informed his entire life. Everything has been about finding something that would make that ache go away. Women, work, booze -- these things can occasionally dull the pain, but all his life, he's wanted to feel known and understood by a woman whom he could trust unequivocally.
He's found ways to sabotage every romantic relationship that has partly filled that gap (and quite a few professional relationships as well), but he never questioned his relationship with his daughter, Sally. Even though he's nobody's idea of a devoted dad and mainly defers all childcare to the women in his orbit, they always had a special bond. But now he's messed that up in the worst possible way. Sally's discovery was devastating to witness. Don knows better than anyone that once a child loses respect for an adult, that adult can never win it back again.
The horrible irony is that Don didn't wrangle the Mitchell situation in order to sleep with Sylvia; for once, he had done something a little bit noble. Of course, his actions were driven in part by guilt over his betrayal of Arnold Rosen (whom he does truly like) and by the self-hatred that still flows from his decision, years ago, to assume the identity of Donald Draper. But I don't think Don's motivations revolved entirely around shame and regret. Don's not great at reading what other people want or need -- hence his problems with Ted Chaough and just about everyone else -- but Don would have to be a complete sociopath not to sense Arnold's despair or to imagine Sylvia's despondence. Don's not that insensitive, of course, and he's more than able to imagine the foolhardy mindset of a naive young man who doesn't think things through.
Don's much older now, and he knows a lot about the unexpected ramifications of rash decisions, so he goes out on a limb for the Rosens, even to the point of putting clients ill at ease at a dinner that is meant to cement the firm's professional relationship with Chevy. For once, Don is willing to do the right thing, at least in part for the right reasons. He puts himself out there for someone else, and it works. But because he's weak and can't resist the thank-you sex that Sylvia offered, it's all for naught, because he's lost the respect of the person who is arguably closest to him.
Jon Hamm is good at a lot of things -- this we know well -- but he especially excels at wordlessly depicting a hollowed-out, devastated Don. Think about the Season 3 scene in which Betty discovered Don's secret and confronted him in their kitchen in Ossining: I can clearly recall how Don's shoulders slumped in a way that connoted terror, defeat and relief all at once. Think of Don's body and face in "The Suitcase" when he found out that Anna had died; his heavily lidded eyes and his slumped posture quietly radiated profound despair.
Don told Peggy that Anna was the only person who ever really knew him, but Peggy gave him some comfort by reminding him that she also knew him very well. But that relationship with Peggy is always going to be complicated by the protegee-mentor issues between them. There's never going to be the kind of purity between Don and Peggy that a father can have with his daughter, if the man has been a good dad. Now Don has betrayed the trust he and Sally shared, and things will never be the same between them.
In the lobby after that awful moment in Sylvia's apartment, Don literally didn't know which way to go; the man for whom savior faire is a way of life looked every bit the mess he felt. In the elevator going down, Hamm once again conveyed Don's devastation with small but significant gestures. Don covered his face, probably wishing to unsee the look on Sally's face when she caught him with Sylvia, and he braced himself against the wall as he swayed ever so slightly. You could practically feel the waves of nausea, fear and humiliation coming off the man.
A few moments later, Sally mirrored her father's posture -- she shielded her eyes, and leaned on her locked bedroom door as she half-accepted Don's line of bullshit. Kudos to Kiernan Shipka for knocking her scenes out of the park. She's got the sassy teen thing down, but after Sally's awful discovery, she instantly became a mortified, horrified young girl who still wanted to think well of her father but never could again.
What's awful about Sally's disillusionment is that it came out of left field. Don has come to realize that he's terrible at relationships, and this episode actually saw him make some progress on that front. He stopped his equipment-measuring contest with Ted long enough to make an honest, vulnerable admission to the man about his worries regarding Mitchell's future. And it worked! Ted was much more willing to put up with Don's behavior at the dinner once he knew that intense feelings drove him to mention the war and Mitchell's 1A status.
On the phone with Sylvia, we didn't necessarily see Don press her to meet; he actually called to speak with Arnold and when speaking to his former mistress, Don didn't behave like a heartbroken, moony teenager. Of course Don is still a self-serving liar and narcissist a lot of the time, and of course we've seen the show frequently undo, forget or disregard a lot of the alleged "progress" he's made over the years, but we can't deny that he'd taken a few baby steps forward in this hour. He certainly took a few steps back when he agreed to meet Sylvia in the spare bedroom, but then he wouldn't be Don Draper if he could resist make-up sex or if women could resist the urge to have it with him.
It's hard to watch this show and not want Don to get his comeuppance at times; it's hard not to want to see a character who skates out of many of the consequences of his actions taken down a peg or two. Even so, the scene at the Draper's dinner table was exquisite torture; he had to endure Mitchell thanking him, Arnold saying he owed Don, and Megan glowing with gratitude toward her husband, who'd seemed callous in their previous discussion of Mitchell's status. Even for a man who knows he's a fraud, having so much praise heaped upon him when he knows he's been especially idiotic had to be exceptionally awful. What should have been his crowning moment turned to ashes when he saw Sally's face; she could barely look at him. Even if he smoothed things over with her on the surface, there's no chance of truly undoing or justifying what he'd done.
There was no snappy musical cue to take us out of that moment, just a moment of silence at the end of the episode, perhaps to mark the death of Sally's respect for her father; that was followed by a mournful piece of music that underlined how heartbreakingly effective the final sequence had been. In an episode I thought would be a routine set-up for the season's endgame, "Mad Men" unleashed a kick right to the gut, just when I thought there weren't any more people Don could let down. (Next season: Don somehow destroys baby Gene's will to live).
The rest of the episode was a bit of a potpourri, and that mixture included a big revelation about Bob Benson -- maybe. The upside of making Bob so mysterious is that we've all been able to speculate on who and what he is. (My favorite new theory, which I came up with during a recent dinner with friends: Bob is Sal's secret, hot-stuff boyfriend!) Having a character be so mysterious, however, can lead to unsatisfying moments, like the one in Pete's office, which didn't really track with the little we know about Bob.
The main thing we know about Bob is that he wants everyone to like him, and he works hard to study others and figure out what they want. Given that those are among the few scraps of information we have about him, why would he hit on Pete, especially after Pete had just made a comment about gay men being "degenerates"? Whether or not Bob is actually good at reading people, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to pick up on the fact that Pete is a starchy, preppy New England blue blood -- the kind that looks down on anyone not cut from that particular cloth.
I can't imagine Bob didn't see that before, and after Pete's disgusted crack about Manolo's orientation, he had to know what Pete's feelings on the topic were. Why hit on him with the knee gesture? How does that help either Manolo or Bob? Perhaps Bob made an error in judgment, perhaps his desire to please blinded him to Pete's obvious prejudice. Perhaps he thought Pete protested too much. Ultimately, however, I can't figure out what Bob hoped to gain from that move. Again, this is the downside of knowing next to nothing about the man. Perhaps if we knew that he was a hopeless romantic, a naive optimist or socially mistake-prone, I'd accept the error in judgment, but I don't really know who he is, what he really wants and what motivates him, so that aspect of the scene didn't quite work for me.
I suppose there's a reading of the scene in which Bob, via his knee, tells Pete that everything is on the menu, if Pete is inclined to sample something new (and I'd bet Bob has noticed how lonely the newly separated Pete is). What was interesting about the scene is Bob's speech about true love and what that said about Bob's past. Was he taken care of in a similar way? Did he think that kind of offer of both love and sex would get through to Pete, because it had worked on him? The speech is certainly open to multiple interpretations. Is Bob actually gay, or is he simply an opportunist who has seen how much success Manolo has had by offering his wares to both genders? Was Bob taken care of by Manolo at some point, and did they have an affair? Is Bob bisexual or simply into sour, preppy men with impressive sideburns?
In a way, the encounter inspired as many questions as it answered, and even if I am not quite sure the Bob-Pete scene completely worked, some of these mysteries are enjoyable to ponder. It was certainly intriguing to watch Bob switch into alpha-dog mode and tell Pete where to sit and what to drink; he's clearly capable of being more than self-effacing or genially inoffensive. James Wolk has done a fine job of playing all of Bob's possibilities: Maybe he is as nice as he appears to be, and simply wants to please others. Maybe he's a lying sociopath whose bland suits mask a complex darkness within.
Right now, I'm of two minds about Bob Benson: Either we need to learn a lot more about him soon, or maybe we should learn nothing at all. I think it might be a tremendous practical joke if, having introduced the mysterious stranger who launched a thousand conspiracy theories, the show just let him wander away at the end of the season. Who was that man in the plain suit -- the smiling, non-descript man holding two beverages? Maybe we'll never know.
Hail of bullets:
- Peggy solved her rat problem by getting a cat, but I'd much that prefer Stan Rizzo come over and solve all her problems by becoming her awesome, bear-like, pot-smoking boyfriend. These smart, perceptive advertising people cannot figure out that they are PERFECT FOR EACH OTHER. I love their phone calls more than almost anything in life, I tell you.
- As much as I love the Hamm's acting, how great was Elisabeth Moss in Peggy's scenes? In her awkward encounter with Pete's mom, she switched instantly from forced politeness to shocked pain when Mrs. Campbell brought up "their" child. The look of horror washed over her face quickly, but her voice dropped an octave and in a few seconds, Moss made it very clear that the child Peggy gave up for adoption still haunts the deepest parts of her.
- I also loved the hangout scene in which we got to see Pete, Ted and Peggy just kicking back and having drinks. It was interesting to see Ted's interest in Peggy re-ignite once he realized Pete and Peggy have a vibe and a history between them. As his wife pointed out, Ted lives for difficult challenges. And it was also nice to see Pete and Peggy just acknowledge their history as friends and lovers. Of the three men in her orbit -- Ted, Pete and Stan -- I really want her to end up with Stan, so of course that means she won't. Pegs doesn't have the greatest track record when picking guys, and I expect her to continue that sigh-inducing streak.
- Speaking of Ted, is it just me or is he kind of a child? It's kind of amusing, actually, to see Ted petulantly react to Don's selfishness as if it's an act of aggression toward Ted personally. Someone needs to take Ted aside and tell him that Don treats everyone the same way: He pays attention to them only insofar as he can use them; otherwise, he pretty much ignores other humans. It's nothing personal, it's just how he operates. But Ted has to be such a diva about it all -- he really does think everything is all about him. And what's with Ted asking for essentially whatever he wants? How is that a sane way to run an agency with several opinionated partners? Ted needs to grow up a little too -- and Don may force him to. We know how much Don respects "binding contracts." Ha.
- Sally's "friend" Julie is quite the little Queen Bee operator. With friends like that, who needs friends?
- Both Pete and Sally were forced to confront their parents' sex lives in this episode, and who among us cannot relate to Pete's cry: "I don't even want to think about her brushing her teeth!"
- So are Bob and Manolo a two-man team of grifters taking Upper East Side matrons and Midtown ad agencies for all they're worth? I plan to have a dozen more Bob theories by Tuesday.
- Nice touch on the silhouette above Sally's bed. I think those hung in every kid's bedroom in America during the '60s and '70s.
- Critic Alan Sepinwall discussed "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," "Orphan Black" and "Arrested Development" with me in the latest edition of the Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and embedded below.
"Mad Men" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.