06/03/2013 04:42 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

'Mad Men' Recap: What About Bob?


Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 6, Episode 9 of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "A Tale of Two Cities."

"My name is Peter Campbell, and I would like some marijuana." -- Pete Campbell

All right, that's not actually a quote from "Mad Men," but it might as well be. When even Pete Campbell has decided that drugs are the answer, you know something has changed in the culture.

Come on, Pete! Hugs, not drugs!

Ironically enough, this episode closed with some near-hugs, which is a little surprising, considering it explored a series of deep divisions in the culture, in the agency and in various relationships among the characters. East Coast and West Coast cultures could not have been more opposed to each other in this hour: To both the Carnation executives and the groovy haute couture hippies in the Hills, the New York ad men might as well have been Martians. They just didn't fit in anywhere they went, not among the Reagan acolytes or the hash aficionados.

A lot more is at stake than whether Carnation Instant Breakfast can coexist with Life cereal. Don and Megan make a good show of continuing their marriage, but Don's up to his old tricks in Los Angeles; from where I'm sitting, he appears to be going through the motions with his wife. At the party, Don spots a Megan doppelganger arising out of the pool like a vision of Venus, and later, he appears to make time with a blonde who looks just like Betty (if his kiss with the blonde wasn't just part of his drug dream/nightmare, that is). He's growing apart from the rakish Roger, too, whose immaturity is always amusing but also probably annoying if you have to work with the guy.

The agency itself is in turmoil; the alphabet-soup name is just a symptom of much deeper distrust and divisions. The SCDP and CGC factions can't get along, which is no surprise, given that the men at the top are either indifferent to the discord around them, or prefer to engage in chest-thumping and macho posturing rather than methodically working through the clash of cultures among their employees.

And even though Joan and Peggy are allegedly on the same side, as two women who came up through the ranks at SCDP together, each of them is in a precarious position. Being a female executive is a daily tightrope walk, and even though there is by now a degree of trust between them, Joan's gambit is risky, and she's asking a lot by enlisting Peggy's grudging support. Like the agency's relationship with Manischewitz, like Don's marriage, like the merger or Michael Ginsberg's mental state, things between Peggy and Joan could fall apart any minute.

Mirroring the discord everywhere else were the protesters in Chicago, whose ideals met reality at the business end of truncheons. (I'll have more to say on that in the bullet list below.)

What's interesting, however, is that despite all those differences, common ground was found in quite a few cases. The fixes may be temporary, and things may fall apart again soon, but the agency, the friendships and Don's marriage haven't collapsed -- not yet, anyway.

Bob Benson led the way, and somehow that's not surprising. That Benson, he's everywhere! And only rarely upstairs, where he should be! But for once, his Johnny-on-the-spot tendencies worked in his favor, or at least in Ginsberg's favor. I think we have to be open to the idea that Ginsberg might suffer from a serious mental illness; I would not be surprised if he is someday diagnosed as with schizophrenia or something equally serious. Whatever he's predisposed to, the roiling social and political atmosphere of 1968 isn't helping him, that's for sure.

For some people (hello, Harry Crane), all the social ferment is merely an opportunity to expand their wardrobe choices and sexual options. For people like Ginsberg (and other young people like Stan and Megan), the state of the world is emotionally distressing -- and Ginsberg in particular doesn't appear to have the kind of resilience that would help him survive this disjointed, difficult era. The flip side of his creative brilliance may well be mental instability, and it's hard not to picture him wandering the streets of Manhattan in a tin hat a couple of years from now, talking about the thugs from the Trilateral Commission who are trying to read his thoughts.

Simply by being kind and affirmative, Bob Benson is able to lure Ginsberg out of his paranoid state. The senior partners at the firm could learn a lot from Bob, whose self-help record actually gave him useful advice about "seeing the people." Ginsberg needed to know that he was putting something good into the world, not adding more negativity to it, and Benson saw that.

In return, the perceptive Ginsberg may have seen something important about Benson: He may be gay. I hadn't much thought about that theory until I read what Tom and Lorenzo have written about Bob, and I think that theory makes some sense. Bob is clearly someone who works very hard to create a certain kind of persona. Is he working that hard at maintaining a perky office personality because he has something to hide? Certainly in that era, you could not be an out gay man at an ad agency and be accepted by your fellow employees. We all know how quickly the terrific and talented Sal Romano was thrown under the bus by the very people for whom Bob works (memories-of-Sal sadface).

So that's one theory. Just to stay with Bob for a moment longer, it's also worth noting how much of a Don Draper clone he is. "Mad Men" loves to double up on themes and allusions: In recent years especially, the show has been fascinated by duality and people who are on parallel tracks. As many have noticed, even their names are very alike: Bob Benson, Don Draper. In our brief glimpse of Bob's office, it was personality-free, and his suits are always just right, if unremarkable and bland. He's a suck-up and quite possibly a liar (as many pointed out, he told Ken his father was dead and told a different story to Pete) -- but then Don Draper is the king of telling expedient falsehoods.

Could Bob be yet another farm boy who has reinvented himself as a slick Manhattan executive? Are his square earnestness, his kind gestures and his unrelenting drive all relics of his Midwestern past, or does he have an agenda? Does his rather plain facade hide something deeper and darker? I'm betting we find out very soon.

Whatever his motivations, Bob has brought a new flavor to the agency -- a spirit of cooperation. Though Jim Cutler is as skilled as Roger at avoiding actual work, at least Cutler provided something of an olive branch within SC&P by putting another one of "their" people on the Chevy account. Peace in the valley? Not quite, but it may have to do for now.

Others have evolved, as well. Roger hasn't: He has no idea that nobody in Los Angeles looks up to them anymore. The Carnation executives think the ad guys are a bunch of East Coast snobs, and at the party in the Hills, Roger looks like Thurston Howell III, the rich buffoon of "Gilligan's Island." Roger probably would have been a jackass to Danny no matter what, but Roger's especially peeved that someone has had the temerity to reinvent himself. He can't stand that somebody his agency fired didn't stay down, so he has to keep putting Danny down -- literally, with a series of puerile short jokes. Roger can't change, so nobody else should. That stance earns him a punch in the gut, but I doubt that'll serve as a wakeup call.

Don, at least, knows that he can't simply coast these days. To coast, he's learned, is to invite a crash. So he reads the research on the plane, and he turns in early after they arrive on the West Coast. He's at least trying to do his job, even though he and Roger have blithely left things in disarray back in New York.

That's because he can't fully give up his old Don Draper bag of tricks. For him, trips to the West Coast have been about escape and reinvention, exploring different sides of himself without responsibilities to drag him down. His late friend Anna lived on the coast, and when he was with her, he found the kind of refuge that allowed him to reconnect with his Dick Whitman side, or at least some kind of truth about himself.

But contrast the Don who baptized himself in the surf in Season 2's "The Mountain King" with the soggy middle-aged guy who was pulled from the pool at the party in the Hills. It wasn't quite a glorious rebirth. In fact, the death imagery couldn't have been more clear had that dead soldier's missing arm been fashioned into a mallet and used to beat us all on the head. There was the dead soldier, reminding Don of who he used to be and whose life he stole, and there was Megan, in full Sharon Tate drag, turning into Don's dream woman (again) by telling him it was okay to share sexual favors with ... well, whomever.

There's been a lot of death imagery surrounding Megan for quite some time now, but here's my prediction: If and when she leaves Don, it won't be due to something horrific like murder. "Mad Men" loves nothing better than a good old bait-and-switch, and after embedding so many images of mortality around Megan, I bet she simply leaves Don for a hot soap actor who gets cast on "To Have and To Hold." Given that Don is searching for his mother again and again, every time a woman leaves him, the dream of finding that perfect maternal presence dies, and that's painful enough for him.

All in all, I don't necessarily think Bob will be revealed as a lying rat-fink, nor do I think Megan's necessarily going to die this season. Here's one prediction I've been chewing on, however: What if Joan and Peggy leave to start their own agency? How amazing would that be?

Think about it: Peggy is a creative star, but she's laboring under two men who want to use her however they see fit and who are often working at cross purposes. As we saw last week, her situation is untenable. Joan knows how to run an agency; she's been doing it pretty much on her own for the better part of a decade. She knows what everyone does, how much they make, how to keep the lights on, how to keep the books balanced, and what's more, we know she'd be fantastic as an accounts executive.

I know I wasn't the only one who, during Joan's first meeting with the Avon executive, flashed back to Joan's short tenure as a media buyer. She was terrific at it, but of course, Harry Crane was promoted to that position for no real reason except that he is a man.

Joan's been used by the agency a million times and in a hundred different ways; her dalliance with the loathsome Herb, of Jaguar fame, was just the most egregious example. In "A Tale of Two Cities," she decided to take control and get that Avon account any way she could. She would do the using this time, and she'd be using her brains, not her body. Joan has seen for years how the guys play the game, and how they play dirty when they're cornered (and even when they're not, sometimes). Well, the only way to be taken seriously at the agency is to land a huge account, and if Pete Campbell thinks he's going to stand in the way of Joanie doing just that, he's got another thing coming.

I loved not only that Joan quickly realized what the Avon executive wanted -- her mind, not her body -- successfully pitched him (twice), and then didn't feel the need to justify her actions to the executives of an agency that didn't hesitate to pimp her out to land an account. But what was even more gratifying was watching Peggy back her play. Nothing about their relationship is easy: They are the only two senior women in an environment that is often hostile to female ambition. As I've said, they both have to navigate minefields every day, but the place at which they've arrived in their relationship feels earned, because that relationship is complex and fraught -- and they have realized how much they have in common and how much more they can accomplish together.

It was underhanded for Joan to ice Pete out of the meeting, and no doubt she put Peggy in a really tough spot. But they've both seen the men around them pull similar tricks and get away with it. To see them band together to play the game on their own terms was heartening, to say the least.

Don's turning in early before big meetings and realizing how mortal he is. Peggy and Joan are working together. Bob, a rising young executive, is leading by example, not ruling from afar through a combination of fear, neglect and evasiveness.

If Pete can't see that the game is changing, maybe it's time to find a new game.

A few more bullet points:

  • As was the case with Season 5's "Mystery Date," there's some family history that makes this episode a little complicated for me to evaluate. My father was at the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots, and he was not wearing flowers in his hair. My father was a Chicago cop in the 1960s, and it took me years to get the story of what he went through at the DNC riots (and I'm not sure I ever did get the full story from him). My dad is an ex-Marine, and thus he's not a man who easily admits fear; but when I talked to him about the night of the worst violence, it was clear to me that he was afraid that evening. He'd also been on the scene during the unrest in Chicago after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he'd seen what happened to the middle- and working-class neighborhoods he'd patrolled for years, and he was one of many cops who didn't want to see that kind of destruction occur in the Michigan Avenue shopping district (my dad is convinced that's what would have happened had that line of cops not been there). During the DNC protests, he said he saw people with not just rocks and sticks but Molotov cocktails. He never attempted to justify what happened, and I think he thinks the majority of protesters were focused on nonviolence, but he saw some who weren't. On the other side, without going into too much detail, he's talked about things the police could have done differently -- a lot differently. In any event, by the evening of Aug. 28, 1968, the situation in front of the Chicago Hilton was obviously highly combustible on both sides, and what happened rattled him. I've been in situations where people who don't know my father's past put forth the narrative that the cops were just awful, violent meatheads and the protestors were not at fault, but I think the situation was more complex than that. "Mad Men" didn't necessarily put forth that simplistic narrative, but it's clearly part of a larger theme this season -- that cities can be dangerous places and those who live in them are affected by the violence around them. For what it's worth, within a year or two, my father was out of the police force, which I think would have happened even if the DNC protests had never occurred. But what he witnessed on the streets of Chicago in the 1960s changed him and not long after he left the PD, we moved to the suburbs.
  • I love how most of the senior executives don't really know who Bob Benson is, yet feel the instinctual need to yell at him.
  • So was Don's experience in the Hills his personal Altamont?
  • Wildest thought of all: What if Pete actually came along, if and when Joan and Peggy open their own shop? Sure, he's mad at them now, but he's always been pragmatic and forward-thinking and he's not happy at SC&P. If Peggy, Pete and Joan opened an agency focusing on brands targeting women and underserved minority markets, that'd be a brilliant and probably lucrative move on their part.