This review contains spoilers.
6.12 The Quality of Mercy
It’s taken almost six seasons, but by inheriting the Chevy account, Pete Campbell finally has something he wants. The victory – such as it is – must have put Pete in a good mood, because the Shakespeare-referencing mercy in this week’s episode title was his. The recipient? Don Draper tribute act, Bob Benson.
James Wolk did a grand job of conveying Benson’s duplicity this week, demonstrating that underneath beaming Bob’s surface sits a resourceful schemer unafraid to protect himself if threatened. Beatifically declaring his admiration for Campbell one instant, then using plant Manolo to get to Pete’s mother the next, Benson has revealed himself as a player with more in common with Draper than an alliterative name. He’s another invented man, and one dangerous when cornered. Having learnt his lesson with Don in season one, Pete surrendered to the kind of animal Bob is and granted him leave to remain on the condition that he keep his distance.
Surrender was a verb carefully chosen in a season of battles and power struggles set against the vague backdrop of an overseas war. It’s what Ted Chaough was forced to do with Ocean Spray, even after Don agreed that the firm would bow out of Sunkist. (A punch line-ish aside in the war of the juices is that Draper evidently drinks neither. He’s a Tropicana man.) Don’s own surrender to Ted last week was short-lived, and ultimately, the lure of an $8 million account won out over honouring your word.
Since the battle lines were drawn over Heinz, business ethics, for want of a better term, have been a recurring theme in season six. Conflicts over loyalty and etiquette have been enacted and debated time and again, and with what conclusion? Is honour, pragmatism, or double-crossing the way to get ahead in advertising? Does the best man win, or the best idea?
Neither. Judging from what Mad Men tells us about winning, there’s no such thing. Even a victory like Chevy will kill you, as proved by poor Ken Cosgrove ‘dying’ for a second time this season at the hands of those fat yahoos in cheap suits, then staggering back to the office with another piece missing. Lucky Strike was SCDP’s horseman of death for years, then Lane tried to turn Jaguar into his coffin last season, and now General Motors keeps killing Kenny (we all see the joke, let’s leave it there). Business is war, says Mad Men, everyone suffers losses, and you’re lucky if you get out alive.
Ted Chaough this week was a lover, not a fighter. Three episodes ago, Peggy told Don that unlike him, her new boss was interested in the idea, not his idea. Well now he’s interested in your idea Peggy, and plenty more besides. The lovesick pair spent most of the episode giggling like schoolgirls.
The Quality of Mercy’s actual schoolgirls were a less innocent bunch, as Sally Draper discovered on an overnight interview to Miss Porter’s Connecticut boarding school. The upshot of Sally having caught her father with his pants down was her doing exactly what any child of his would, and running away to avoid the problem.
The boarding school interlude opened a door for this season’s cameo from creepy Glen, now a peace-sign giving, joint-smoking teen, who came to Sally’s rescue, twice. Sally’s easy lie about her pushy ‘date’ once again showed that she’d learnt to dissemble from the best of them. Your father never gave you anything, Sally? How wrong you are.
What of Don this week? He came to Ted and Peggy’s rescue, or so he believed, by stepping in to fix things in that client meeting and taking away Peggy’s chance at a Clio award in the process. The irony of Don giving lectures on acting for good of the firm wasn’t lost on the copywriter, who used this week’s furious visit to his office to call him a monster.
For the first time in a long time though, Don wasn’t behaving like a monster. Instead, he’d regressed back to infancy. The Quality of Mercy opened and closed on an overhead shot of him tucked in a foetal position, first on Sally’s bed, then on his office couch. Knocked for six by Sally discovering him with Sylvia, Don was at his most passive and least present this week since those opening silent minutes of The Doorway.
Told to stay home by a maternal Megan, Don settled down for some daytime TV, only to be confronted by a spot of Nixon scare-mongering and an apt scene of his wife upbraiding her lover for cheating on her. Part of me wonders if Megan’s whole acting/soap storyline was introduced as a lead-up to the moment when Don would flick casually through the channels only to stumble upon the delicious irony of his wife rehearsing a scene they’ve yet to enact for real.
Between the electioneering ad and paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby (you don’t put Tricky Dicky and reference to conspiracy in a Mad Men script unless you want the dots joined by fans), Matthew Weiner and co. have done a tremendous job this season at making us jump at shadows. There have been so many scattered instances of death, injury, war, and crime throughout, that though a consistent through-line for the season may escape us, this run of Mad Men has certainly shaken us up. The show’s creators have been so successful at summoning the ghost of Nixon-era paranoia in fact, there are whole forums dedicated to the theory that Don’s already dead, and this season was set in some kind of purgatory.
Like one of those enormous paintings in famous galleries, season six won’t make coherent sense until we’ve stepped back from it and gained the perspective of distance. Is Don already dead? Nah. Does Matthew Weiner want us to think about death? Absolutely. Just look at Peggy’s final words to Don this week, “You killed him. You killed the ad. You killed everything. You can stop now.”
Not with one episode of the season still to go he can’t.
Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, Favors, here.
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