MAD MEN, SEASON SIX/EPISODE 11: DISTRACTIONS

by E.C. Fish on June 14, 2013

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madmen_fullbodyIdle minds are the devil’s playground.

Indulging in Internet speculation about their favorite shows has always been a popular pastime for fans of serial TV dramas, and Mad Men has never been an exception to that rule. This season, however, has produced a veritable explosion of predictions as to what might happen next, with bored Mad Men fans launching DIY attempts at doing some of the work that Weiner and company have let slip this year. In a season that has been marked by low premiums placed on consistency and plausibility, this has resulted in a number of theories of varying degrees of ridiculousness. Fans are trying to assemble the seemingly random puzzle pieces the writers have been throwing out into a picture that looks like a season of Mad Men: Don is going to die (THUD!); Pete is going to die (check out the latest sighting of his Chekhovian gun here); Megan is going to be disemboweled (“Look out! Helter skelter!”); Ginsberg is going nuts; Bob Benson is an industrial spy; Bob Benson, with nine letters arranged three in the first name and six in the last, is the illegitimate son of Don Draper, ditto (sure, if we’re watching The Young and The Restless now — and hell, maybe we are). That some of these theories are a lot more fun than what has actually happened this season just drives the point home.

Still, with only two more episodes to go, the show has begun to wrap up loose ends in anticipation of a season finale that will no doubt fuel another several months’ worth of wild guesses before the Season Seven premiere. While the writers still have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do, the last few episodes seem to have settled down considerably, and have even produced a sort of New Coke version of the Mad Men experience. This episode continues that process, though not in a way that’s likely to preclude a lot more drivel from the prognosticators.

WHO ARE YOU, AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH PETE CAMPBELL?: Part of the problem with the show’s partial return to form is that it depends on our empathizing with characters who have spent most of the season profoundly alienating us. Best case in point this week: Pete Campbell, who we can only assume (because the producers haven’t actually bothered to freaking tell us) has been transformed by the awesome power of the Wonder Joint he stole from Stan last episode into a sympathetic and sensitive guy underneath it all, after a solid season of being a wall-to-wall smarmy prick. Laughing and drinking with Ted and Peggy after a meeting and before flying back to New York in Ted’s plane, Pete is an oddly compelling mixture of boyish exuberance (laughing even through Peggy’s revelation that his mother’s new nurse, Manolo, was releasing “a fire in her loins”) and self-effacing sensitivity (in a nice exchange with Peggy, before whom he should have spent the last four seasons down on his knees, begging forgiveness). Vince Kartheiser — a much better actor than he’s been allowed to be in this season — earns every penny of his salary in the fleeting moments before Pete’s gag response kicks in in earnest over his mother and Manolo, and he reverts to prickly form.

Why Pete believes his mother’s lurid tales of her torrid affair with Manolo — everything we’ve seen of her this season has established her as a caricature of drunken dementia, and every character he shares the story with responds with some variation of, “Your mother? Isn’t she a senile alcoholic?” — and why he gives a shit about it when he seems never to have given much of a shit about her, isn’t really explained beyond the broad implications of easily offended WASP sensibilities with a chewy Oedipal center. Narratively speaking, the point of the exercise seems to be the scene in which Pete and his mother square off, the climax of which is Pete’s mother telling him, “You were a sour little boy. And you’re a sour little man. How could I expect you to be understanding? You’ve always been unlovable.”

Uh huh. And Don Draper grew up in a whorehouse and has intimacy issues. We know.

YOUR FREE BOB BENSON DECODER RING: The Mysterious Mr. Benson (who referred Manolo to Pete in the first place) is called into Pete’s office and told to fix it. He responds with the implication that Manolo is gay and a glowing speech about love, care, and happiness that ends with, “When there’s true love, it doesn’t matter who it is,” and a seemingly deliberate press of his knee against Pete’s.

“AHA!” exploded the netizens, “Bob Benson is gay!”

And, if we indeed are meant to take his speech seriously, madly in love with Pete Campbell — something they’ve hardly mentioned at all, probably because it’s extremely problematic and implausible as hell. As moving as Bob’s speech was, it is easily interpreted as referring to Manolo and Pete’s mother — the topic of conversation, after all — and sometimes a knee-bump is just a knee-bump. It is also coming out of the mouth of a character that the season has established as an ambitious and manipulative bullshit artist; the fact that he might literally be willing to kiss ass does nothing to change that.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE DON . . . : There is one plot line this week that manages to make good use of the 1968 historical setting, and which dovetails nicely with the previous events of the season and the previous behavior of its lead character. Unfortunately, that lead character is Don. Don comes home early in the episode to find Megan talking to Arnold’s and Sylvia’s son, Mitchell, who has dropped out of school, parlayed an anti-draft protest into a 1A draft rating, and is consulting with the show’s resident Canadian on cross-border draft dodging. Don then makes it his mission to find a way to help him, trying to call in markers with anyone who might have some influence with the defense department, and even turning a dinner meeting with SC and Partners client and major defense contractor GM into an uncomfortable conversation on the issue. He is dedicated, single-minded, willing to take risks to save this kid — and none of it means a damn thing. The first thought of anyone who’s been paying attention for the last ten episodes can’t help but be, “Yeah, he’s doing this to get back into Sylvia’s pants.”

When he actually does get back into Sylvia’s pants late in the episode, everything that’s gone before — his stated opinions against the war, his supposed friendship with Arnold, his supposed concern for Mitchell — falls away completely, leaving us with a character we care about less than before, if that’s possible, and another repetition of the Drunk Don Draper Sad Face that’s been Jon Hamm’s master gesture of the season. Even the discovery of Don and Sylvia in flagrante by Sally — meant to be this week’s Big Dramatic Moment — falls flat. This season has leaned heavily on the emotional investments we’ve made in these characters over the last five years, without offering any particular payoff; after ten weeks of presenting Sally as a shallow stereotype of a bratty teen, upgrading her now to a handy plot device for the purposes of the episode leaves us with just another cold scene of Don Draper lying his way out of something. Because that’s what Don Draper does . . .

TED — COMPARE AND CONTRAST: It is Ted, of course, who is the real hero of the Mitchell Rosen story line — if a story line concerning efforts to help a rich, privileged white kid dodge the draft can really be said to have a hero. Ted’s piloting instructor is a commander in the Air National Guard, and for the price of a hair cut and a letter describing his ersatz childhood dream of becoming a pilot, Mitchell can avoid service George W. Bush-style. Ted’s own price for doing this is a cease-fire in the cutthroat competition between himself and Don; this would both put an end to one of the more interesting features of the season and fly in the face of that patented and tiresome Don Draper style, and is thus unlikely to happen.

Having the hip, likable Ted cast as Don’s counterpart this year has been enjoyable, not for the light that it has shed on Don (who already had a bank of klieg lights pointed at him when the season began) but for the pleasure of getting to know Ted himself. His scenes at home this week were particularly enjoyable, contrasting Don’s domestic chaos with the sort of earnest, fumbling effort to keep many people happy at once that will feel instantly familiar to any working parent. Ted seems genuinely well-intentioned, which provides a refreshing contrast to most of the characters in the show. Even his mutual attraction with Peggy — which is so obvious that even Pete Campbell notices — is sweet, chaste, and kind of fun to watch, which provides a nice contrast to just about every other male/female interaction we’ve seen on this show for much of its run.

I can only hope it lasts. Part of the attraction of Ted is that the character has yet to feel the full attentions of the producers; he has not, as of yet, been Weinerized, and Mr. Weiner seems to have decided that we can’t have nice things. Should he decide to send the relationship between Ted and Peggy in the direction that such relationships tend to go on Mad Men, then he’s just set us up for hating them both quite thoroughly for quite a long time.

PEGGY SCREAMS “EEK!”, STANDS ON A CHAIR: Okay, so no chair — but her reaction to finding a rat in her apartment put me right back in the same mental Lucyland that her armed recon of her apartment did a couple of weeks ago. The “eek!” is completely legit, and in the very first scene of the show — a seeming outtake from the DVD collection “Lucy’s Troubles With Vermin” (“Dial 1-888-REDHEAD, operators are standing by . . .”). While her abovementioned scene with Pete is one of the standout moments of the season so far, it ends quite decisively with Peggy serving as a mere conduit to convey news of the Manolo ‘n’ Mom situation to Pete. She spends the rest of the episode dealing with the damn rat. When her attempts to kill it with a trap result in a bleeding rat dragging a trap around her apartment, she phones Stan (popular Internet theory: Stan and Peggy will get together by season’s end) and offers to take it out in trade if he’ll come over and take care of her yucky problem. Stan, quite sated and probably looking forward to another round with the unidentified lump in the bed next to him, turns her down: “I’m not your boyfriend.” By her last scene, she has been reduced to a punch line, a newly purchased cat sitting beside her.

Elizabeth Moss is an amazing actress, something she proved earlier this year in the Jane Campion-produced drama Top Of The Lake, and has proven consistently through the whole run of Mad Men, when the bosses have let her. This shit’s just degrading: Peggy has served as a sort of pre-feminist icon in seasons past, and subjecting her to this sort of “just a girl” story line is beyond a waste.

Only two more to go, folks — let’s see who gets out of here alive.

ODDS AND SODS:

  • 60s TV flashback: if this episode had actually been shot in 1968, the part of Manolo would have been played by Vito Scotti.
  • Thought I recognized the actress playing Nan Chaough (Timi Prulhiere) from somewhere, but her IMDB page is ringing few bells. One of those faces, I guess.
  • The presence of Sally’s friend Julie, who has “been to second base once” and pushes Sally towards Mitchell, suggests — creepily– a sort of teen auxiliary to the Mad Men Bit Of Tail Brigade. The entire story line proceeds from the premise that girls can’t concentrate on things like the dumb old Model UN if there are boys around, and spirals from there. It is deeply, deeply sexist.
  • For the record, Mitchell doesn’t look a thing like Mark Lindsay. His outfit, though, wouldn’t have looked out of place in the audience on Shindig!

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E. C. Fish is the editor and publisher of The Spleen.

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