Mad Men season 6 episode 11 review: Favors

Just when this season of Mad Men had begun to motor forward, it goes right back to the beginning. Here's Frances' review of Favors...

This review contains spoilers.

6.11 Favors

Did Andy from Avon ever call? Mad Men left that, and a number of other questions hanging this week in favour of forty minutes of characters wringing their hands about Vietnam, butting heads, and scratching each other’s backs. Favors picked up more or less where Man With a Plan left off, with a reprisal of the Don and Ted power struggle and the Don and Sylvia affair. Pete too, was back dealing with his mother’s senility, while Peggy was living in a UB40 song.

A moment’s silence before we begin though, to mark the passing of Sally Draper’s sexual innocence. First came her public indiscretion in front of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., then she walked in on Megan’s mother getting a mouthful of Uncle Roger at that charity ball, and now she catches her father “comforting” his downstairs neighbour (not a euphemism. Hang on, yes, a euphemism, but for the other thing). Poor Salamander, where’s Dr Edna when you need her?

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It was only a matter of time before Don and Sylvia’s doorstep dalliance was uncovered, and using Sally to do it has the narrative benefit of upping the tension whilst leaving the Damoclean swords dangling. The result? Yet more painful dramatic irony as Don’s mistress’ husband and son shake him admiringly by the hand and Megan calls him the sweetest man in the world. Oy, if only they knew.

Mitchell Rosen’s 1-A status may have been the driver for the episode, but our focus wasn’t on the kid’s predicament, but Draper’s reaction to it. (For viewers like me, unfamiliar with the term, 1-A had a hushed, euphemistic medical quality to it, as if – as Sylvia said – the boy had been diagnosed with a terminal illness instead of lined up for the draft. The two must have felt horribly interchangeable at the time.)

Barely characterised beyond his haircut, the Rosen boy was a cypher for a generation called up against its will, and trying not to look scared out of its wits. Mad Men’s audience wasn’t pushed to feel any specific grief for Sylvia and Arnold’s son, but instead to consider the hefty themes of war and service, and to watch Don’s fluctuating response to the situation.

What prompted Draper’s slide from “It’s not our problem” to jeopardising the firm’s biggest account and bending his knee to Ted in order to solve it? We all know Don’s favourite thing to tell women after “I’m going to take your dress off” and “this never happened”, is “everything’s going to be okay”, but this was more than a simple white knight rescue. The question is, did Don pull in those favours to help Mitchell, Arnold, Sylvia, or himself?

The change in Don’s attitude arrived after his and Dr Rosen’s tête à tête in that man-cave drinking booth. Dark, masculine, backed by imposing wooden seats, and surrounded by illustrations of fist-raised pugilists, the two men talked war. “What would you do?” Arnold asked Don. We know what Don did do when presented with an opportunity to run from service. He took it, demonstrating Dick Whitman’s instinct for self-preservation. The price – to borrow his words – was spending the rest of his life on the run. By saving Mitchell from having to abscond to Canada, perhaps Don is rewriting his past by calling in favours to which Dick Whitman would never have had access.

Don’s readiness to jump back into Sylvia’s bed though, tells us his act of generosity wasn’t intended to assuage any residual guilt about sleeping with Arnold’s wife. Call me a cynic (really do, you’d be spot-on), but if anything, Don’s help was just a route between her sheets. Think back to The Flood, and Don obsessively watching news of the post-MLK assassination riots in Washington. Politics only seems to interest him insofar as it affects his girlfriend.

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Like Don and the desertion talk, Peggy too was faced with a ‘gulp’ moment from the past when Pete’s mother inadvertently referenced her and Pete’s baby. Aside from that jolt, the conversation provided a moment of beautiful complicity between Pete and Peggy as the sozzled pair creased up over Dotty Campbell’s sexual awakening. Initially, it almost seemed as if the writers were drawing the two back together romantically, but alas no, despite that pair of matching wordless domestic scenes – Pete and his cereal dust and Peggy with her rat-catching boyfriend-replacement cat – showing that neither is happy living alone.

Someone who did look happy was Pete’s aforementioned mother, who says she’s receiving some favours of her own from nurse Manolo. I’m sure there’s something serious and profound to say about memory and unreliable narrators in relation to Dotty’s story this week, and I’ll think of it as soon as I’ve cleared my head of images of her and that moustachioed conquistador enjoying the physical satisfactions of love. Dotty Campbell ladies and gentlemen: she likes her Spanish from Spain, her tea in a teacup, and her loins fiery.

On the subject of love, Bob Benson’s cards were shown this week as season six’s riddle inside a mystery wrapped in polyester suit came on to Pete Campbell. Those self-help LPs must have been giving Bob a bum steer, because sweetly declaring his love for a man who’s just curled his lip in disgust at a “degenerate” doesn’t seem like the most intuitive of moves. Perhaps he thought he spotted in Pete the self-hatred of a man in the closet? Whatever prompted it, the encounter did little to reduce Pete’s anxiety, and seeing as Campbell’s blood pressure is the only thing higher than his hairline this season, the return of that hunting rifle in this episode’s ‘Next time, on Mad Men’ clip (always devilishly edited, those misleading montages) may well be cause for concern.

In a season that keeps winding back the clock even as the sixties march forwards, Favors was another trip back in time. We’re back on the Sylvia storyline, Don’s back looking like death warmed up, Sally’s back walking into nasty surprises, Peggy’s back chasing vermin… If doorways have been a theme of this season (and this week’s closing shots once again suggest so) then the whole thing’s been one big revolving one. Perhaps that’s the profound thing to say about Dotty Campbell. Her confusion between past and present makes her a walking, talking, twinset-wearing version of this carousel-ish, revolving season.

All that, and we still don’t know what the national product of Manila is. I want to say hats…

Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, A Tale of Two Cities, here.

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