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Mad Men Recap: The Ballad of Don and Bob

Let’s talk about Bob Benson, and about Don Draper.

Both men are great salesmen. Both have alliterative names with the same number of letters: three in the first, six in the second. Don and Bob were at the center of the two most striking scenes in Sunday’s Mad Men, both of which revolved around the violation of taboos: Bob in Pete’s office, slyly touching his knee against Pete’s while delivering a monologue on love, and Don screwing Sylvia in her apartment as Sally, who’d sneaked in with a key purloined from the building’s doorman, watched from afar, absorbing a sight that she’ll doubtless discuss in therapy, and dream about for the rest of her life. (The poor girl is a magnet for this sort of thing: She watched Megan’s mother Marie go fishing on Roger near the end of “At the Codfish Ball.”)

I’ll try to deal with as many individual scenes as I can in this recap, but all the descriptions are going to cling to those two scenes, and to Don and Bob as characters, because after watching the episode a second time, the men started to seem, more so than ever before, like mirror images or doppelgangers or twisted spiritual twins of each other. Don is the dark Bob. Bob is the light Don. Or maybe Don seems like the dark Bob but is really light, and Bob carries himself like the light Don but will ultimately be revealed as being darker than any of us imagined. This season started with references to Dante’s Inferno, after all; maybe this smiling glad-hander who looks so good in shorts is a smiling white-bread Satan? Or maybe we’re just inclined to think that because it’s a cable drama, and cable dramas almost never let anyone be completely nice? “Bob is a wonderful salesman,” Manolo says, understating like a mofo.

Anyway: before we zoom in, let’s zoom out and survey the big picture. Written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner, and directed by Jennifer Getzinger, this episode was titled “Favors,” which pretty much covers everything that happened — but only at a superficial, plot-only level. Bob, who’d done Pete a favor by hooking him up with the courtly Spanish nursemaid-companion Manolo, seemed to want to do Pete a different kind of favor — if in fact he wasn’t just messing with Pete, which of course he could be doing. Don did a favor for his ex-mistress Sylvia and her husband Arnold Rosen by pulling strings to get Sylvia’s son Mitchell, a kid with radical pretensions who’d been classified as 1A by the draft board, a shot at sitting out ’Nam in an Air National Guard cockpit (like a certain future president who was at Yale in 1968, the year in which this episode is set).

There were other favors scattered throughout the episode as well. The doorman gives Sally his master key ring twice, against his better judgment. Don awkwardly broaches the subject of Mitchell’s draft status during a client dinner with General Motors, fishing for a favor and nearly bringing the evening to a screeching halt. Ted barges into his office the next day to dress him down but ends up calling in a favor to a Brigadier General who taught him how to fly, which set Don up to be a savior to Sylvia’s boy. And there was one conspicuously rebuffed request: Peggy, horrified by the screeching of a bloodied, trapped rat dying beneath a sofa in her apartment, called Stan for help (reflexively trying to will a boyfriend into existence to replace the one she accidentally bayoneted, sweet Jesus, that actually happened!). The groggy Stan passed, mainly because he was slumbering beside a lady friend when Peggy called, and she offered — with a forwardness that struck me as rather un-Peggy-like, but hey, it’s 1968 — to “make it worth your while.” Again Stan declined, and near the end of the episode we saw Peggy sitting on a couch next to an orange tabby. (I’d say “problem solved” if I hadn’t lived in New York for almost twenty years: Big Apple rats see cats that cute, lock the door, put Donovan’s “Atlantis” on the jukebox, and start stomping.)

There’s a lot of primal distress in this episode, which goes on my best-of-season short list alongside “A Tale of Two Cities” — and I love how the script sets up particular scenes as near mirrors of each other, subtly enough that you sense their kinship, but not right away: Arnold’s near-tearful moment in the bar as he confessed his distress to Don mirrored Don’s sudden melting in the presence of Ted; both showed tough men letting their facades drop when met with what seemed like genuine tenderness and empathy. Peggy’s inappropriate propositioning of Stan, who up until then had merely been her work friend with flirtation benefits, mirrored the psychologically much deeper knee moment between Bob and Pete.

And about that knee moment: Already I’ve seen complaints that, even if Bob is really gay — which would jibe with the utterly non-sexual energy he displayed alongside Joan as they got ready for their beach trip, as well as his non-answer to Michael asking if he is a “homo” — it doesn’t make sense that he’d come on to Pete, of all people, a snotty little weasel-bully whose own mother told him to his face that he was “unlovable.” (More mirroring: both men are grievously damaged by motherly abandonment issues, literal in Don’s case, figurative in Pete’s.)

I wouldn’t presume to guess what Weiner & Co. have in store for us next week and through the end of the season, so I won’t guess how the issue of Bob’s sexuality will get resolved, nor will I speculate on whether he’s purely mercenary or if there’s real decency in all of his offers to fix people’s problems and set wrongs right. But I would like to offer one thought that hopefully we can debate in the comments: What if Bob is what you might call a “good sociopath,” meaning a person who is in some very basic sense inauthentic, and acts out of a sense of brokenness and need rather than because he truly feels a connection with other people, and whose actions are at once self-serving and selfless, and that have their intended effect — to do good — just often enough that the recipients of his “help” don’t know or don’t care that he can’t really feel anything, that it’s all a big act? (I thought of Bob in that early scene between Betty and Sally, when Betty said, “Like everything else in this country, Diplomacy Club is just another excuse to make out.” What’s happening in Pete’s office? Diplomacy Club as an excuse to make out.)

As it happens, there’s a fascinating blog called Sociopath World that deals with this question. The blog’s publisher M.E. Thomas, author of Confessions of a Sociopath, wrote a passage recently that reminded me of Bob Benson:

I'm not saying that sociopaths can never be "mean" (can sociopaths ever be unreasonable? maybe they just all seem reasonable to me because we share the same worldview?). They can do bad things and they should be held responsible for their actions in the exact same way that everyone else is held responsible for their actions (me included, of course). But to make generalizations about sociopaths always acting in anti-social ways and never benefiting society is willful ignorance of the facts. The unique traits of a sociopath are going to make them both "nicer" and "meaner" than normal people. To ignore the former in favor of focusing on the latter is disingenuous — it distorts the truth in a manipulative way that seems clearly calculated to perpetuate negative and largely unfounded stereotypes.

So this is one possibility: perhaps Bob isn’t an FBI plant trying to ensnare Don Draper, or even a heartlessly manipulative office striver of a sort detailed in Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run, but a man you would describe as a good person until you got to know him really, really well and figured out that there was no “there” there, and that he was sizing people up and figuring out their needs rather than their weaknesses (the two are often the same, of course) and doing or saying whatever’s necessary to make the target feel better or be happier, thus giving the sociopath a rush over having affected or even changed somebody’s life, like a puppeteer or pipsqueak god.

We see this kind of behavior in both Bob Benson and Don Draper, a guy who’s skilled at figuring out just what to say in order to make himself feel wizardly and powerful and wonderful, but who seems, like Bob, fundamentally detached from life. What causes it? Sociopaths are often severely damaged by childhood trauma or neglect, but sometimes the causes seem to be more purely genetic. According to Seth Meyers, a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health [italics mine]:

I'm hard-pressed to say that I have vast reservoirs of empathy for the sociopath. At the same time, to see the life trajectory of a sociopath, it's hard to not feel sad that the sociopath has an existence that separates him from the vast majority of 'normal' people. They often end up in prison and never truly know what it feels like to love and trust. Just imagine what that existence is like, not just for a week or month or summer, but for life. Do they even know what they're missing? No, but they live in a constant state of hypervigilance, viewing the world in a sterile, game-like manner. They have no real attachment to anyone

Without implying that Bob is a totally insincere manipulator and/or basically numb at heart — we don’t have enough information yet to judge one way or another — I wonder if it’s possible that he really does feel a connection with damaged or needy people, often at the moment of their greatest distress, when he can ride to their rescue the way Don rides to the rescue of creative teams that can’t get their act together, or to the rescue of women who can smother Don in the maternal warmth he didn’t get as a boy, even though he’d be horrified to hear anyone describe his sexual behavior that way? (This is what he did for Sylvia, through Ted’s largesse.) Maybe Bob is as profoundly wounded inside as most of the other Mad Men characters, and perhaps is closeted and gay to boot. Maybe in that moment with Pete, he’s not faking empathy or sexual attraction, he’s really feeling it — but only at that moment, as a really committed actor might “feel it” when he’s buzzed by a scene in which his character is the star. Maybe he’s “really” feeling it in order to summon the rush of power that sociopaths get from feeling as though they’ve altered the face of reality and confirmed their own delusions of importance.

Plus, maybe when he comes on to Pete he’s playing a hunch. Bob is very, very good at playing hunches; he’s not always the most artful guy when it comes to expressing them and turning them into proposals or pitches, but his batting average so far has been quite good: Sure, there was that early flub at Roger’s mother’s funeral, but think about how he bucked up Michael, and what a comfort he was to Joan. What if he knows something about Pete that Pete doesn’t know about himself? What if Pete is gay and is so deep in the closet that he doesn’t even know he’s in the closet? What if he’s one of those guys who comes out in his fifties or sixties after having had one, maybe two wives and a whole bunch of children, and without ever having acted on his truer impulses, while expressing fear and hatred of homosexuality for decades, and only mellowing in his autumn years? (You might know at least one man who fits this description.)

This is admittedly the wildest of my speculations about Bob, and Pete, too, but hear me out. Pete hates women, and when you see how his mother talks to him, you can understand why. Lack of mother love has made him hate himself and the entire female gender, I suspect. Sure, Pete may love individual women — Trudy, for instance, and Peggy, with whom he seems to have achieved some measure of peace, if only when he’s drunk and not in the office being reminded of the fact that she has power now and doesn’t have to put up with every bit of his guff — but he still seems very much a misogynist, even more so than Don. He ran away from heterosexual domesticity, flat-out sprinted, even more energetically than Don, who seems uncomfortable around his own children about 90 percent of the time. He’s got a bachelor pad in the city, as far away from the signifiers of heterosexual suburban nesting bliss as he can get. None of this is to say that Pete's mommy issues made him gay, if in fact he is — just that he acts like a fellow who'd like to be far away from the wife-and-two-kids life as he can get, and seems to have far less patience for that life than Don, who feels guilty, sometimes, for not wanting it. And I just don't think he enjoys women in the way Don does, Don's sexist attitudes aside. Pete has two modes with women: peevish acquiescence and a conqueror's hostility. He hates everybody, but women make him uncomfortable in a way that men don't.

Pete’s reaction in that knee scene is intriguing, to say the least. Everything we know about the guy suggests he’d explode in gay panic at such an advance, maybe storm into Roger's or Don's or Bert’s office and demand that Bob be fired on the spot, push-broomed out the door like poor old Sal. But he doesn’t react with anger or shame or even discomfort. He just moves his knee away. Like he’s not ready yet.

Bob’s demeanor when he closes the door is fascinating: He’s suddenly a take-charge guy, with posture and gestures that reminded me of Don. His face as he leaves is notable as well. His expression doesn’t say, “Oh, hell, I screwed that up,” or “I better pack my things,” but something more like, “Well done, Bob, you totally nailed that,” or “That went even better than I’d anticipated.” It’s not a smug expression, though. He seems peaceful, centered, as Bob so often does. That whole self-help thing must be working for him, whatever “working” means.

And something in Pete’s face during the knee exchange suggests that he’s not rejecting Bob’s monologue out of hand. Maybe there’s something to what the younger man is saying, and on some level Pete knows it and can’t handle it right now, but has absorbed it and knows that at some point he’ll have to consider it. Variations of “perversion” and “degeneracy” keep popping up in Pete’s dialogue this week; he’s talking about Manolo and his mother, the possibility that the old woman isn’t fantasizing, but maybe the words mean something else, too — maybe they’re his way of rejecting his true nature, which is bubbling up. Maybe that’s why, when he goes home to his swingin’ bachelor pad, he chucks the empty cereal box at the wall in rage and sadness. Maybe he’s not just reacting to the fear that his mom was right about him being unlovable, and that his mother is partly to blame for his unlovability. Maybe he’s reacting to what Bob said. Maybe it struck him in the heart. “Please tell me you don’t pity me,” Pete says affectionately to Peggy. “Because you really know me.” What if Peggy doesn’t know him as well as Bob, who barely knows him at all?

Peggy does know Pete pretty darn well, though: Remember at dinner when she says to Pete, regarding Ted, “You’re the one who’s in love with him.” And something Pete’s mom said retroactively felt like a prediction of the knee moment: When she tells Peggy, whom she’s mistaken for Trudy in her senility, “Dear, don’t deny him. Don’t reject his caresses.” (You know who else went through this? Vito on The Sopranos, in season six, which Matthew Weiner worked on.)

Again, please know that I’m not saying I know where Pete’s story is going. I don’t. Matt Weiner is a tricky storyteller. I’m just throwing out some notions.

But I’ll close out this part of the recap by saying that it would be pretty amazing — mind-boggling, and not totally unbelievable — if Pete turned out to be gay. What if his true sexual orientation was locked in the psychic equivalent of a missile silo 800 feet beneath the Earth, and that once he figured it out, he suddenly became willing to accept love, and give love, and thus be lovable? What if Mad Men turned out to be mainly a tale of redemption built around two rat-bastard characters, Pete and Don, with Pete remaking himself into a decent person and Don dying alone and despised?

Which brings us back to our other unlovable, manipulative lead character, Don Draper. I think that moment in Sylvia’s apartment when Sally surprises him in flagrante is his own personal ninth circle of hell. He’s lost the respect of an unsullied mind. Sally adored him even though she was entertaining increasingly few illusions about him being a great dad, because she was starting to see herself in her father’s pugnacity, his pretensions to being creative, and a lordly outsider, somebody who has vision in a world full of people with bifocals (to quote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, due out in theaters next year, in Mad Men time). This episode set up Sally’s primal scene in several Pete moments, as he recoiled in horror at the very thought of his mother as a sexual being. “Don’t you think I’m entitled to the pleasures of love?” she asks. “Do not be more specific,” he snaps. And of course Don’s own primal scene in that whorehouse as a child — watching his own stepmother getting shtupped — is something he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy, probably, and here he was revisiting it upon his own daughter in a different era, in a different guise.

I love how the episode frames Don’s good deed as being neither selfish nor selfless; as Sylvia rightly points out, he didn’t just help Mitchell to be nice, he wanted to find a way back in, so to speak. And he got it. And now everything has turned to shit. (This is Don’s theme, I fear.) The two key lines in that horrible end scene — a drunk, emotionally devastated Don sweating like a poison victim waiting on the antidote — came from Megan and Sally, one right after the other. Megan: “You are the sweetest man.” Sally: “You make me sick.”

Odds and Ends

  • “I’ve seen people juggle, but somehow it just seems to be beyond me,” Roger tells Don, moments before he juggles like a guy who graduated magna cum laude from Ringling Bros’ Clown College.
  • “He can’t spend the rest of his life on the run.” — Don Draper, talking about Mitchell, but really talking about himself, as is so often the case.
  • “The ants, they look like people.” — Manolo, summing up Matt Weiner’s brand of dramaturgy.
  • “‘It’s complicated’ is what adults tell kids who’ve caught them doing something unconscionable.” — My dad, a.k.a. the quote machine.
Photo: AMC