Apologies for being a little late in the afternoon with my recap of last night’s Mad Men, which I didn’t watch until this morning, because I am a great son, that’s why. (Also it’s only half the length of my essay on movie ratings, which I wouldn’t be offended if you skimmed.) Following the merger of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler Gleason & Chaough, the office is predictably cluttered and crowded, and if you’ll excuse the cheapness of my analogy, if “Man with a Plan” looked stark and perfectly composed—the final shot of the RFK assassination in the background, Megan in the middle, and Don in the foreground was beautifully evocative of loneliness and sadness, as is typical of many standalone shots in Mad Men; I also loved the scene towards the end in which Don watched Megan talk to him, but as the sound indicated, heard nothing—the story of Don’s tryst (and symbiotically the story of Don’s lust; think “You are here for my pleasure”) with Sylvia in particular wedged its way into some of the episode’s more effective moments, especially those featuring Ted.
I’ll begin with Ted, who, if you’re one of those reviewers prone to publishing weekly power rankings, definitely merits the pole position this week. It’s easily forgotten now that we’ve spent seventy-two hours with the often inflexible, always serious men* of SCDP, all of whom predisposed at this stage in their lives to coast on their reputations (in fairness, whether in the creation or product sold, advertising in general is predicated on reputation and subjectivity) rather than strenuously work or develop new techniques that could foster creativity, how ridiculously weird it must be to actually work with them. Someone calls Don “mysterious” an average of 1.8 times per episode, and we know that Don is mysterious as the audience who follows his private life closely, but it also bears remembering that we know of Don’s intimate affairs better than any other person, real or fictitious. Before delving into what an admirable character it seems Ted’s become, story-wise and series-wise his character just sharing the same space with Don serves a useful function; Ted is an outsider silently reminding us that things operate a little differently once you leave the increasingly artificial construct that is SCDP office culture.
*I used “men” there to exempt Peggy and Joan from the resting-on-their-laurels inclination.
And then, of course, Ted is immediately impressionable and winsome compared to his new colleagues. Unlike Pete, always consumed by his status in relation to the other partners, Ted could care less about whether he has a seat at the conference table; both SCDP and CGC are reputation-driven, but SCDP at its most crass, as embodied by Pete, has a selfish and possessive view of the symbols of power. It’s not so much what to do with the sexy account as just having the account in the first place; think how long it took them to actually land a car company, and to me it was almost as though they were too infatuated with knowing Jaguar wanted them to really try and sell the car. (It didn’t help that Jaguar was run by know-nothing ingrates.) It remains to be seen if CGC is as status-oriented as SCDP, but if Ted’s first tour of the office was any indication, business runs a little differently under his leadership. You know, as if showing up to meetings sometime before forty minutes after they were scheduled, leaving at midday to bang your mistress, or not swilling whiskey from nine to five (or Don’s ten to twelve thirty) were novel concepts. More substantially, perhaps—their job titles contain the word “creative” after all—Ted appeared more concerned with actually soliciting ideas instead of telling his copy writers “That’s good,” “That sucks,” or “This is the way it’s going to be.”
Two caveats, though. The first that the CGC employees continuing on with the new company, Ted especially, want to make a good first impression and so will play up the image that they have an innovative approach to advertising and want to eschew the formalities (see Ted’s all but literally rolling up his sleeves). I think the response, though, is that it’s not uncommon for a person in Ted’s situation to feel like a guest in his own house, and that it’s highly plausible that Ted really does act and work like this. Yes, Ted, like Don, is the soul of his company, and now he’s got every right to his office as Don to his, but with new and different employees carrying their boxes, binders, rolodexes, and picture frames into SCDP’s two floors, it’s understandable that Ted might worry he’s encroaching a bit on Don—this perhaps explains the pressure Ted felt to throw back some drinks. Moreover, Ted’s and Peggy’s copy writers that they’re bringing with them eagerly attacked Ted’s little margarine brainstorming session with plenty of nervous energy we’ve seen from them before (as Peggy struggled to deploy her managerial skills); they want to make a good impression, too (not just for SCDP, but Ted’s their boss), but they wouldn’t have played word association so fervently if that wasn’t how Ted normally behaved.
The second caveat is that we can only say for sure that Ted comes across as more admirable compared to the guys at SCDP, and that’s not saying much given our level of familiarity with them. It’s not like Ted’s own reputation isn’t vulnerable—he’s married but has eyes for Peggy; this doesn’t trouble us so much, though, because we know and like Peggy. Personal lives aside for a second, at least these first glimpses of Ted at work this season suggest a focus more on the process than on the finished product; before you can sell the product you have to think about more than the pitch. If there’s a battle of wits brewing between Ted and Don, it might be due to their antithetical methods.
Guiltily enjoyable as Don’s conquests are for us viewers, his scenes with Sylvia retreaded some of the same pavement we’ve already covered earlier this season. The fourth episode of the season, “To Have and To Hold,” which aired a couple of weeks ago, featured a scene towards its close where Sylvia betrayed some pity for Don at a time when Don thought he was in control of his relationship with her (and his power over her). Sylvia’s remarks in that episode undercut an earlier scene from a previous episode, “The Collaborators,” in which Don explicitly recounted—that is to say demanded—in monologue form what sexual favors that Sylvia would be bestowing upon him a few minutes later. I though that last night’s scenes between Don and Sylvia felt like a revisiting of those two scenes but not like much of an expansion on them. Again, last night, Don was at his commanding best, telling Sylvia to stay in bed in the hotel room, not pick up the phone, and don a tidy red dress for his impending arrival later that night. And again, Sylvia put up with it, to a point; crawling on all fours for Don was too ridiculous, and while she needed Don in the sack she’s not game for all of the sacrifices that Don requires FOR HIS PLEASURE. When she finally left the room and expressed her wish to return home, Don’s countenance reflected the same stunned reaction as when she told him that she prayed for him. Maybe Jon Hamm played the scene a little more doe-eyed this time around, but we spent a lot of time in their company for a pair whose relationship is in the same place it was three weeks ago, really. Their affair may have reached its conclusion, which certainly the show should highlight, but then I question if Sylvia’s voiced her true feelings for Don (a measure of pity) too soon when they might have been better saved for this week’s episode or a separate, later episode altogether.
All said, not my favorite episode this season; for one titled “Man with a Plan” it’s still unclear who that man and what his plan are. Ted has garnered our praise, but there’s still no guarantee that he won’t again succumb to Don’s peer pressure; it’s sunny above the clouds, but on the ground Ted’s not always in the pilot’s seat with his aviators on. Don thinks he has a plan, of course, but he’ll have to change his plan on realizing that barking commands at everybody isn’t always smart. And Pete, well, he can throw his plans out of the window to deal with his crazy mother.*
*Happy Mother’s Day! Our mothers are not crazy, but are in fact awesome.
Post-script: Just a couple random notes I had from last night. First, I’m a little disappointed we haven’t seen much more of Dawn after the earlier episode this year that gave her a few extended scenes (that I enjoyed). There was a small line last night when someone remarked that she was a good secretary; I guess she’s taking Joan’s advice, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more of her (and that would help with the “race problem” some think Mad Men has and that some thought the show would be addressing when Dawn was featured earlier). Second, we’ve been waiting for the Bob Benson payoff, and I must admit I can’t remember if he had rankled Joan the way he’d rankled Don, Pete, and Ken; whatever the case it was welcomely counterintuitive for his moment to come with Joan instead of Don or Pete. Third, I loved the little joke surrounding the pole in Peggy’s, formerly Harry’s, office; these moments are frequent on Mad Men and definitely reward your attention.