“Man With a Plan” is an ironic title for an episode about characters running around like headless chickens. It also feels like an oblique acknowledgement of what the killing of Robert F. Kennedy meant for the United States in June of 1968, but we’ll get to that.
As is the case with many of the show’s best episodes, this one treats the agency as the dramatic hub of all action. The spokes are the scenes in which characters leave to take care of personal business, then return. But much of the action feels desperate because they’re all reacting to dire circumstances beyond their control. The wheel is weak, and the spokes keep separating. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
Pete’s flummoxed by his increasingly senile mom, who shows up at his swinging (now sad and pathetic) bachelor pad; we learn that Pete’s been sloughing off his responsibility to his mum to his blood kin, and that as a result, the rest of the clan thinks of him as a shirker and has no sympathy for his own domestic troubles. Bob’s brother had the kiss-off line of this subplot, telling Pete that he should “buy Trudy a catcher’s mask and be grateful you get to work every day.” “Don’t feel bad that you were taking care of your mother,” Pete’s secretary Clara tells him later. “My mother can go to hell,” he snaps, “and Ted Chaough can fly her there!”
Burt Peterson, the long-ago Sterling Cooper accounts manager that Pete once dismissed as “a mongoloid,” comes into the merger swaggering and blustering — “He’s still a cold fish,” he says of Don — then gets thrown overboard during the post-merger slim-down; Roger delivers the bad news with a wicked grin and wantonly cruel shiv-lines, reveling in the Mel Cooley clone’s sputtering impotence.
Joan suffers a sharp stabbing pain in her pelvis that she hopes is food poisoning and fears is something far worse; it turns out to be an ovarian cyst, and the trip to the emergency room with the chivalrous Bob Benson sets up what could be a romantic subplot between them, or at least an office alliance. (Bob’s furniture polish improv was Roger-worthy.) Bob stays with Joan the whole day and even stops by her apartment later to inquire about her comfort and deliver a gift for her son Kevin, a football with a red ribbon tied around it. Joan jokes that he’s so young he’ll just play with the ribbon, but the gesture’s still a winner.
Joan’s mom thinks Bob’s a catch. Is he, though? Even though we’re reminded that not everybody does nice things because they want something, we can’t help wondering if Bob isn’t playing some kind of long con by being Joan’s white knight. Our suspicions increase near the end of the episode, when the partners consider giving Bob a Burt Peterson–style heave-ho and Joan saves his job. Sad but true: If you watch Mad Men regularly, or any dark cable drama, you’re conditioned to expect the worst of seemingly pleasant, uncomplicated people; the nicer they act, the more keenly you anticipate the thud of that other shoe dropping.
Peggy’s freaked out by the dynamics of the agency merger and annoyed that she’s been given Harry’s crappy old office. (Harry’s new office is just as bad. “Every time there’s a change around here, I get knocked down to a worse office,” he kvetches.) Peggy’s already exasperated by the thought of navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of Don, her platonic mentor/brother/father figure/whatever, and Ted, the new boss that she likes-likes. When Peggy complains to Don near the end of the episode, and intimates (perhaps unconsciously?) that he engineered the merger to get her back, he sarcastically shoots her down — not just because he finds the insinuation naïve, but because he’s subsumed in typically Draper-esque romantic/sexual intrigue with Sylvia.
Peggy blasts Don for getting Ted wasted during office hours, reaffirming her loyalty and affection for Ted and reminding us — as if we need reminding — that Don’s a highly functioning alkie: “He can’t drink like you, and you must know that’s because nobody can.” At least the second half of the episode made it seem as though the Don-Ted power balance had been restored. Sure, Don can out-drink Ted, but Ted can pilot a tiny plane through storm clouds without losing his cool.
The moment when the sun bathed the cockpit and Ted donned sunglasses was the character’s most badass to date; his masculine grace was Kennedy-esque. Surely I’m not the only viewer that feared an RFK-style, or maybe JFK Jr.–style, sudden-violent death for Ted this week? I’m glad they didn’t go that route, because the Ted-Don relationship is so fascinating; Ted’s like a lighthearted, fundamentally decent version of the brooding rainmaker Don, charisma plus intellect, and they balance each other beautifully.
Speaking of Don, the guy’s a horrible, horrible, horrible asshole, just horrible. Horrible! Did I mention he’s horrible? A hollowed-out shell of a handsome man. A tyrannosaurus rex among bastards. Sick. Hateful. A selfish prima donna and reflexive user of other people. Toxic beefcake. He should have a warning label on his forehead.
Oh sure, of course, we already knew this — but still! This episode served up a concentrated dose of Don Draper assholish-ness, to the point where it seemed a deliberate counterweight to last week’s “For Immediate Release,” an installment that showed the tactical value of both Don and Roger’s alpha-male swagger and opportunistic impulses, and made them both seem quite alluring, all things considered. It’s been a long time since I despised Don as much as I despised him here — maybe since his rape-by-hand of Bobbie Barrett in season two. Between his sneaking off for a tryst with Sylvia on day one — day one!!! — of the big agency merger and his prolonged, purposeful mistreatment of Sylvia, Don’s self-hatred was a black hole sucking in sympathy and crushing it. The guy hates himself so much that he uses his own charisma as a self-punishment mechanism. It’s as if he’s trying to see how much abuse he can inflict on people who depend on him/care about him before they throw up their hands and say, “You win, I hate you, now go away.”
That’s the place where Sylvia finally arrived, but only after Don stranded her naked at the Sherry Netherland, had a sexy red dress sent to her and then demanded she doff it the second he returned, and continually stressed her worthlessness as anything but a convenient receptacle. Sylvia’s “I need you and nothing else will do” was answered with one coldly dehumanizing assertion of male power after another.
Sylvia seemed to get off on it, up to a point. “You’re going to wait there, and you’re not going to know when I’m coming back,” Don told her, reenacting his own childhood abandonment, maybe, but who cares? What a sub-arctically icy sonofabitch he is. When Sylvia declined to pick up Don’s phone call (while masturbating), we were reminded that this sadomasochistic relationship is a two-way street — that both parties were getting something out of it, however fundamentally unhealthy that “something” was. But no masochist can keep up with Draper’s sadism. In the end, Sylvia was simply overmatched, just as Ted was overmatched as a drinker. Don makes Mickey Rourke’s characters in 9 ½ Weeks and Wild Orchid seem warm and cuddly in comparison. In retrospect, Don’s mistreatment of both Ted and Sylvia seem like mirrored subplots. Don’s response to the drunk Ted’s expressed wish to “eat something” (“Doesn’t ice count?”) feels like a metaphoric summing-up of the action at the Sherry Netherland. “Who told you you were allowed to think?” Don demands of his married mistress. And: “Why would you think you’re going anywhere? You are for me. You exist in this room for my pleasure.” As pillow talk, that could be a turn-on, provided it’s the kind of thing one’s partner is into; but as an overriding attitude, it’s grotesque.
Sylvia’s screaming at her husband in the episode’s opening scene foreshadows her eventual decision to dump Don. She already feels abandoned by her husband, and now here was Don, her emotional refuge, deliberately abandoning her again and again, basically compressing her own unhappy marriage into a single day, as if it were a theater piece in which the actors doubled as the play’s audience-of-two. “It means you missed me,” Don tells her during that final scene in the hotel room. “No, it means it’s time to really go home,” she replies.
What good is “home” if you don’t enjoy being there? It doesn’t matter; whatever she’s got, it’s better than what her boyfriend is inflicting on her. Sylvia’s done with Don. He methodically drove her to break things off — as if he hated himself so much that he needed her to abandon him, too, to validate his feelings of worthlessness. He was abandoned as a child in all sorts of ways, and now he makes the people who love him reenact those old traumas.
It would take a team of mental-health professionals to sort through this man’s issues, and I’d imagine that after a point they’d get tired of his bullshit, too.
Therapist: “Our time is up.”
Don: “Okay, I’ll see you next week.”
Therapist: “No, I mean our time is up.”
Odds and ends
* Interesting that Don is reading Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, a novel which, more than anything else, is about people who are stuck in, or enslaved by, the past.
* Don’s clearly not used to the idea of having to treat Peggy with respect, even though his mentoring helped get her to the place where she was qualified enough to demand it. True, he makes that grand (somewhat comic) gesture of answering his own phone, but he also barks at her, “Peggy, get the meeting,” as if she’s still a secretary. Interesting how Joan and Peggy’s stories mirror each other; the crap Peggy deals with in this episode is the same crap Joan has to deal with in “For Immediate Release” — it’s just a slightly different shade.
* The scene between Ted and his dying partner was touching and offered a somewhat detached and thus very useful perspective on Don as a man and a force of nature. “He’s mysterious, but I can’t tell if he’s putting it on,” Ted says. The reply: “Give him the early rounds. He’ll tire himself out. Go home, shower. Walk back in there like you own half the place.”
* Good script by Semi Chellas and series creator Matthew Weiner, but the real star here was John Slattery’s direction. I’d imagine that his experience in theater partly accounts for the thoughtful way he blocks actors within the frame and uses the entire space, foreground to background. This episode included lots of densely populated wide shots, with clever use of reflections to create “doubling” images. My favorite shot in the episode was a wide shot: the creative team babbling on while Bob escorts the agonized Joan past an opened doorway in the background.
* Don and Ted’s creative powwow/drinking session was a highlight of the episode. I liked the extended Gilligan’s Island–characters-as-margarine-brands bit (“I don’t know who’s Ginger, probably Parkay”). And when Don waxed poetic, envisioning an ad, we got a taste of that old Carousel magic: “A loaf of homemade bread. And a pitcher of homemade cream … ” Love the comic button at the end of this bit: Ted demands that the ad/fantasy include bacon, because he’s drunk and hungry.
* The final scene — Megan tearfully watching footage of RFK’s death while Don sits next to her on the bed, lost in thought over Sylvia dumping him — was thoughtfully shot, cut, and acted, and I love how audio of the assassination report continues over the closing credits song Friend & Lover’s “Reach Out of the Darkness.” This is two minutes of screen time that sums up the sixties’ political mood shift from hopeful to despairing, and a reminder that pop culture is always reacting to current events and is always at least a step behind, sometimes awkwardly out-of-sync. The song was released in 1967; MLK and RFK were murdered the following year. The juxtaposition of the song and the killing reminded me of my favorite line from The Limey, Peter Fonda’s ex-hippie record producer/gangster telling his trophy girlfriend that the “dream” of the sixties was really “only ’66 and early ’67.”