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Mad Men Recap: The Importance of Being Bob

So, Bob Benson is Don Draper.

I called it, kind of, but so did almost everybody else, sort of. The parallels were there from early in the season. In last week’s recap of “Favors,” I wrote that as I rewatched the episode, “the men started to seem, more so than ever before, like mirror images or doppelgängers 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.” I don’t know how dark Bob will turn out to be — maybe he’ll just turn out to be a striver, and essentially good, albeit damaged and desperate — but for now we can safely assume that the show’s implicit comparison of the two characters has been quite deliberate and is leading somewhere.

Also, in a throwaway scene early on, Ken Cosgrove got shot in the face by a GM guy during a hunting trip. I don’t know what to say about that except, “Wow” and “Instant GIF.”

Back to Pete: He discovered Bob’s ruse with the help of Duck Phillips, his unofficial off-site fixer. After figuring out that Bob was (1) a serious professional threat to Pete and (2) in love with him, Pete was looking for a way to get Bob expelled from Sterling, Cooper, and partners, and set up somewhere else. As my colleague Josh Wolk laid out in “The Other Bob Benson Shoe Drops,” Bob’s résumé and family history are “written in steam,” as Duck so memorably put it: “He didn’t go to Beloit, probably didn’t go to Wharton, and might not even be 28 years old. He had only one verifiable job, and people at that agency remember him as ‘manservant to a senior VP’ who took him to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth; Bob vanished abruptly from that office one day — presumably when someone discovered his secret.”

Duck’s explanation of how Bob managed to get through the agency’s due diligence process was hilarious: There really isn’t one. “His only job opportunity was somewhere dumb enough not to ask any questions, and so far, it’s just you guys,” Duck told Pete. And as Bob pointed out during his confrontation with Pete about his past, Pete himself was ultimately responsible for the hire: Ken interviewed Bob, and Pete signed off.

I’m fascinated by Vincent Kartheiser’s performance in the scenes about the discovery of Bob’s ruse. The anger seemed multilayered. Of course Pete was angry because he’d been through this before with Don many years earlier — remember that he found out Don was a fraud, took the information to Bert, and was told, basically, “Put a sock in it, kid — Don’s a good earner.” “I don’t know how people like you do it,” Pete told Bob, “people like you” referring to Don as well as Bob. “You’re certainly better at it than I am, at whatever I do. But I would like to think that I’ve learned not to tangle with your kind of animal.”

But there was another aspect to Pete’s anger that seemed not quite defined. It made me wonder (grasping at straws, perhaps?) whether my theory about Pete being a super-duper-deep closet case still had merit. He went into the confrontation with Bob radiating snitty rage that I half-expected to turn physical. But then he seemed to talk himself out of it without much help from the protesting yet still cagey Bob. “I surrender,” he said, even though Bob hadn’t done anything to indicate that he expected surrender. By the end of the scene, they’d seemed to reach a kind of truce that would keep Bob in the office. “I want you to graciously accept my apologies — work alongside me, but not too closely,” Pete said.

Of course a more ultimately persuasive explanation for this turnaround might be that Pete doesn’t have much power in the newly merged agency, and perhaps he realized, based on past experience, that there might not be much he could do about Bob. Given that the other senior partners seem to like Bob quite a bit — Bob saw to that himself, by being as ingratiating as possible, and playing Galahad in crises — if Pete made a case for firing Bob, he’d probably just get told to put a sock in it, a repeat of what happened when he discovered Don’s backstory. And if he contrived to force Bob out — with or without another job waiting for Bob on the outside — it could cause as many political problems as he hoped to solve by getting rid of Bob.

For now, I’m going to consign “Pete is a closet case” to the ash-heap of discredited MZS recap theories, but not before pointing out that Bob’s parting shot through the doorway, Bob’s “Manolo doesn’t like women,” seemed less a description of Manolo than a barb aimed at Pete.

Perhaps my other theory from last week's speculation-fest, that Bob is basically a “good sociopath,” might still be proven right. Every ethically shaky thing Bob’s done came out of the need to survive within the agency rather than assert dominance or cause pain. As Pete himself pointed out, Bob has a lot of experience being servile; his past as a manservant explains why he knows Manolo. The “butler mode” seems to come naturally to him. He seems to take as much pleasure in making people feel good, or better, as a sadist does in making them feel horrible. I have yet to see a trace of the kind of cruelty in Bob that his doppelgänger Don exhibited this week.

About Don: He is, as Peggy said, “a monster,” and the reaction shot right after she says this (as well as several other reaction shots during this episode) indicates that on some level, Don realizes how far he’s fallen and genuinely hates himself for becoming so relentlessly horrid.

Don was right to worry about the bottom line when questioning the budget of Ted and Peggy’s Rosemary’s Baby–themed baby aspirin commercial. But his “I’m just looking out for the agency” defense was suspect, to say the least. Don has improvised a lot of pitches that put the agency in a tricky political or financial position, but now when somebody else does it, suddenly he’s Pete Campbell, fretting about the bottom line?

Don was threatened by Ted and Peggy having a great idea that had nothing to do with Don. Maybe he was also threatened (in ways Don himself can’t articulate) by Peggy enjoying the kind of easygoing romantic connection with her new mentor, Ted, that she never had with Don, praise Jeebus. I detected tangled feelings of jealousy in Don’s attempt to sabotage the aspirin commercial. His supposed detachment from his actions isn’t believable. Don’s messing with a former protégée and her prospective suitor, a married man who happens to be Don’s chief creative rival in the workplace. To claim there’s no personal component to his actions is ludicrous, and Peggy’s right to call him on it.

Maybe the explanation for Don’s act of sabotage this week is as simple as him realizing that he can’t have a woman he never particularly seemed to want, until he belatedly realized she was available that way to him, if only in Don’s imagination. Don’s been living under the assumption that he can have pretty much any woman he wants if he puts his mind to it; even in his current debased state, and even after losing Sylvia and briefly getting her back and then losing her again, and his daughter’s respect along with her, he probably still believes it. Few things are as indestructible as a handsome man’s belief in his own irresistibility.

Don’s fib in the client meeting arguing for a larger budget (that this was the late Gleason’s final pitch) was sickening. He timed the presentation of the lie in a way that left Ted and Peggy no choice but to endorse it. That it just happened to be a lie that would rob Peggy of the Clio award Ted thought she might win (of course the agency would submit it under Gleason’s name, hoping for a sentimental vote) was icing on the a-hole cake. This was Don in scorched earth mode. That he seemed oblivious that he was even in that mode — feeling regret only after being dressed down by Peggy — made it even more grotesque. “You hate that he’s a good man,” Peggy said. “He’s not that virtuous,” Don shot back. “He’s just in love with you.” The two things aren’t mutually exclusive — love makes good men do foolish things sometimes — but good luck explaining that to a boozing sourpuss who’s wrecked almost every good thing in his life and is doing his best to ruin the only bright spot left, his marriage to Megan.

Don’s drinking has been out of control for some time — since season one, I’d argue, though he was younger and more glamorous then, so it didn’t seem quite as pathetic. Now it’s just disgusting. He looks fat and sweaty and pale, and seems to spend a lot of his time slumped in chairs, brooding. Getting caught en flagrante with his girlfriend by Sally feels like a Ninth Circle of Hell–type disaster, but who knows? Something even worse might be lurking around the next bend, and maybe it’ll take a real tragedy — the loss of Sally or Betty or Megan or Sylvia? — to spark the moment of clarity that’ll get Don into recovery.

The third major plot thread was Sally’s audition at Miss Porter’s School, which felt very much like another example of history repeating itself: Just as Bob’s ascension seemed a replay of Don’s, Sally’s introduction to serious adolescent misbehavior, and the revelation of just how much power she has over men as an attractive young woman, felt like a setup for a Sally-turning-into-Betty story line. The close-up of Sally as Glenn beat the crap out of the masher Rolo was very Betty-like. It seemed to come from someplace very deep within the character. You could say that this is not normally Sally’s style — she already seems to have a lot more intellectual vanity than her mother ever did — but she’s got half her mom’s DNA. And really, what young woman, or young man for that matter, doesn’t get a kick out of seeing suitors fight over them?

Her exchange in the car ride home with Betty was devastating, though. She didn’t want to be anywhere near her father (for the second week in a row, judging from dialogue earlier in the episode), and she flat-out said that her father never gave her anything. That’s not exactly true, but you can understand why she would say such a thing. She’s seen things she can never un-see. Her father’s monstrousness was revealed to her. That sort of image is a stain on the mind.

Odds and ends

* I liked Glenn a lot in this episode. The kid’s a trainwreck, and probably headed to jail or Vietnam, but he’s got style. He’s cooler than he used to be, and he played his exit moment just right.

* Ken Cosgrove just needs to get the hell away from that agency and become a best-selling novelist. The eye patch isn’t permanent, right? “I hate cars,” he told Pete, grousing about the macho morons of GM. “I hate guns. I don’t even want to look at a steak anymore.” Then he cried out his one good eye. The poor bastard.

* Now that Pete’s taking Ken’s place on the GM account, he’ll get shot dead during a hunting trip, or accidentally blow his own head off while cleaning his rifle. That’s not a prediction, mind you, just a fantasy.

* I love the scene where Don, Peggy, Ted, and Joan act out the baby aspirin ad. It lets you see the actor-y-ness of all four actors; they really get into their roles, and play them with more skill than real-life ad agency people might. (Joan’s “Jewish lady” made me laugh the hardest, with Don’s mewling baby a close second.)

* Hearing that a client once cupped Jim Cutler’s wife’s breast and that Lee Garner Jr. made Roger hold his balls made me hope for an apropos-of-nothing drunken commiseration-fest somewhere in Mad Men’s future, with all the major characters swapping stories about clients from hell.

* Nice, simple transition: Right after Duck tells Pete, regarding Bob’s deception, “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” and Pete replies, “I have,” the episode cuts to Don.

* There’ll be a natural tendency to view Betty’s giving Sally a cigarette through a 2013 prism and think of it as further evidence of what a terrible mother she is. But I thought this was a nicely judged, period-correct moment. The Surgeon General’s report on smoking and cancer had just come out a few years earlier; in the late sixties, people had heard that cigarettes were bad for you, but there was still a sense that they were just another vice, different from but no worse than alcohol. Smoking was something grown-ups did. It didn’t start to acquire a major social stigma until the late eighties and early nineties, in the wake of reports about the dangers of secondhand smoke. In the late seventies and early eighties, my mom used to send me into 7-Elevens to buy her Tareyton 100s. She’d park near the front so she could signal to the clerks that it was all right to sell them to me, if the clerks needed reassurance. They rarely did.

* The scene in which Don, Megan, Ted, and Peggy attend the same screening of Rosemary’s Baby may pour more fuel on the fire of Megan-as–Sharon Tate theories. There have certainly been a lot of maybe-indicators this season that somebody’s going to die violently. The only thing that makes me think this won’t happen is the fact that they killed off a major character in a gruesomely spectacular way last year, and it seems unlikely that Mad Men would go to that well twice in two seasons.

* But then again, who knows? There was even more emphasis on the violence of the times this week: Ken Cosgrove getting Dick Cheney’d during the hunting trip with the GM guys, Don watching the Richard Nixon “Law and Order” infomercial. And the reference to Sally being "held hostage" by the maid a few episodes back. 

* That was some pretty impassioned Spanish that Bob was speaking on the phone with Manolo. I wonder if we’re due for one more revelation about his past, something along the lines of Bob Benson being to his birth name as Martin Sheen is to Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez?

* You expect a bit of on-the-nose dialogue in every Mad Men episode, but I was particularly disappointed in Betty and Don’s phone conversation about sending Sally to prep school. Betty tells Don that Miss Porter’s school is where Jackie Kennedy went; “Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,” Don corrects her, a nifty oblique acknowledgement that Betty has moved on and married somebody else, gaining a new identity in the process. But then they drive it home just in case you didn’t get it.

* Great Vanity Fair article about girl-on-girl bullying at Miss Porter’s school here, if anybody’s interested.

* A belated shout-out to regular commenter Pennywise, whose comment below listed some clever thematic details having to do with twins. Don is seen watching both The Patty Duke Show (about identical cousins) and Megan's soap opera (on which she plays good and evil twins), while Ken's eyepatch makes him look like Moshe Dayan in the poster that hangs over Stan's bed.

Photo: AMC