by E.C. Fish on May 17, 2013

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madmen_fullbodyWith its sixth season at the halfway mark, Mad Men this week at last produced a fairly solid episode, based firmly — like many of the series’ most satisfying outings — in the office politics and creative processes of the agency. The merger of SCDP and CGC has the personnel of both agencies trying to cram themselves into the existing SCDP office, and the jockeying for both office space and power in the new agency drives an eventful hour of Mad Men, crisply directed by John “Roger” Slattery.

But while “Man With A Plan” brought more of that old Mad Men feeling than any other episode this season, it largely did so by evoking previous episodes, either explicitly or through The Sincerest Form of Flattery. The episode is chock-full of Easter eggs for those of us who have been paying attention since Season One (for those of you who can be bothered with such fanboy crap, these can be found — in tedious attention to detail and various degrees of quality– many places elsewhere), but is hindered both by the lousy lead-up of this season’s episodes as well as some features that have turned into glitches over time, and is thus nowhere near as good as the episodes it evokes.

The creative challenge that the agency’s staff takes on over the course of the episode — “Don and Ted’s first love child” — serves as an almost perfect metaphor for the episode itself. With a presentation for Fleischmann’s coming up, the agency is charged with finding a creative way of selling margarine, an oily simulacrum of a much richer experience that (as the critical reception of this season indicates) “no one prefers.” Thus far, this season of Mad Men has been something we smear on the last hour of our Sunday nights because there’s nothing else in the fridge. Whether this is clever self-referentiality on the part of Matthew Weiner and his writing staff or a sort of cry for help is still an open question.

DON DRAPER SUCKS AT HIS JOB: One of the problems inherent in agency-heavy Mad Men episodes is that they are also somewhat necessarily Don-heavy, and since the “Draper” in Sterling Cooper Draper Price has spent this season in a downward spiral past the point of diminishing returns, this is not a happy thing. Having missed the margarine meeting entirely, Don comes to Ted’s office with a bottle of whiskey — a “peace offering” that he ends up using both as a ruler in a metaphorical game of “Whip It Out” and as an introduction to the Don Draper working method. After several shots and a rather hilarious comparison by Ted of margarine brands to characters on Gilligan’s Island, Don sits down, stares off into space, and launches into one of his patented Don Draper presentations.

“It’s morning. We know because we see the rooster crow. A farmer’s wife sets pancakes on the kitchen table, she puts a pat of margarine on top, and sets the dish down next to the yellowest fried eggs, a loaf of homemade bread, and a beading pitcher of heavy cream. Syrup pours. A smile comes over their Dorothea Lang faces.”

While Don has beaten the sugar-sweetened cereals industry to the concept of “part of this complete breakfast” by a good five years, this is, frankly, shit — a hackneyed fantasy of the kind of old-fashioned breakfast that Dick Whitman never got to have after his stepmother started turning tricks — and as out of touch with the 1968 zeitgeist as gaiters and spats. No matter; Don holds his liquor better than Ted, and thus chalks the meeting up as a win.

“He seems more interested in me than he is in the work,” says Ted to his dying partner Frank, and besting the younger, hipper, own-plane-flying Ted does seem to be Don’s priority; the work, which he sucks at lately, rarely is. “Why did you do it at all if there are sides?” asks Peggy, not realizing that Don no longer knows why he does it at all.

“Give him the early rounds — he’ll tire himself out,” advises Frank, and the truth is that he’s well on his way.

LAST TANGO AT THE SHERRY-NETHERLAND: Don, of course, was absent from the margarine meeting due to extracurricular activities — in this case, Sylvia, who calls him after an argument with husband Arnold to tell him that she wants him and “nothing else will do.” Don installs her at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel for what devolves into a series of dominance games: Don forbidding her from talking about Arnold, ordering her to crawl on her hands and knees to look for his shoes, sending her a dress for the express purpose of making her take it off, and strongly rejecting any thought, word, or deed that is not strictly Don-centered. “You are for me. You exist in this room for my pleasure,” he tells her.

Get the margarine. Though Sylvia halfheartedly plays along, and even seems titillated for awhile, Don returns expecting to find her “ready for him” as ordered, only to find her dressed and ready to go home to Arnold — their tryst, and their affair, is over.

While this is understandable given Don’s behavior (was there anyone in the audience who found his grim-faced, self-centered mumbling anything like hot?), Sylvia’s reason for ending the affair that has supposedly been central to this season’s story line falls completely flat: she had a dream while Don was gone about his funeral (THUD!). Resolving a narrative conflict with a dream sequence is classic lazy writing. Resolving it through the exposition of a dream through dialogue is lazy writing on a very low budget. Sylvia’s much-vaunted Catholic faith, which might have made for a genuine motivation in a better-conceived character, is boiled down to a single statement about how ashamed she’s been.

Linda Cardellini (who gamely makes as much of this drivel as any actress could) deserved better — but Sylvia has been for Don, and has existed for his pleasure, all season long. She has been not so much a fully realized character as a narrative device, someone other than Don’s wife for Don to have sex with because that’s what Don does. She could have been anyone — and at the end, Don tries very hard to make her anyone — and Mad Men has wasted her talent and our time with this.

GOOFUS AND GALLANT: Given this season’s prostitution sub-theme and and the disturbing, if historically accurate, thread of nonchalant blatant sexism that runs through the entire series, it comes as something of a surprise when gallantry makes a couple of brief appearances, and is even name-checked by Roger. Pete (who is still a smarmy prick) arrives late at the first SCDP/CGC partners’ meeting to find that all the chairs are occupied. (“First you don’t have a chair, then you don’t have any clients,” he later tells his brother.) He remedies this oversight by boorishly kicking Ted’s secretary, Moira, out of hers. Ted gives her his — a small gesture, but a rare one for this lot.

Bob Benson, who has thus far spent the season as the very model of a modern office toady, later stumbles into Joan’s office (“I thought you said ‘come in'”) to find her doubled over in abdominal pain. He takes her to the hospital, sits with her while she’s waiting, eventually cons a nurse into seeing her sooner, and that evening drops off a football for her son. While this is — and correct me if I’m wrong — the nicest treatment Joan has gotten from anyone in the last six years, she is getting it from someone whose main character traits thus far have been obsequiousness and self-aggrandizement. He may turn out to be a vile, presumptuous ass-kisser with a heart of gold, but I don’t trust him enough to let him go out with our Joanie — hell, Pete Campbell likes him, and there must be something wrong with that.

DEATH MARCH OF THE SUPPORTING PLAYERS: The overcrowding at the agency’s office is addressed by the latest iteration of the continuing Mad Men tradition of marching supporting characters (some of whom have been more intriguing than the leads) lemming-like off the edge of the story. While some might turn up later (like Burt Peterson, who was ejected from Sterling Cooper seasons ago, was at CGC, and comes over with them), they can still end up as narrative cannon fodder — as when Roger takes great delight in firing Burt all over again. Totie Fields look-alike and SCDP copywriter Marge even shows that the species is developing self-awareness with her cheery, “Nice knowing you,” after Ted and Peggy come in the first time. And Bob Benson is spared from last-hired-first-fired status through a clever intervention by Joan (Lawrence Harris, we hardly knew ye . . . to the point where I’m not even sure we met ye). See? I told you he was after something. This made Pete smile — never a good thing.

SIRHAN SIRHAN MAKES A CAMEO: Having struggled through the Very Special Martin Luther King Episode last time, I have spent the last couple of weeks in mortal dread of possibly spending this week covering the Very Special RFK Episode. Lo and behold, RFK was in fact assassinated in show time this week, an event that was given a Very Special Two Minutes just before the end credits. Given the show’s tendency this season to jump around from thing to thing like an ADHD eight-year-old on a candy jag, we may see more about this next week . . . but that’s Claire’s problem.

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

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