TV MAY 13, 2013
Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear TV, In last night’s episode, “Man With a Plan,” the wisdom of coupling in disaster—celebrated in the earlier episode “The Flood”—takes on a different tone: The happy union behind them, now the two companies’ employees file warily in, two by two by two. There are too many boxes, not enough chairs, and a low background roar.
It was loud, in other words. It seems to me that Jane’s prediction that the show will be increasingly focused on transparency and reciprocity is borne out. Pete yelled at Don last week, Joan said “just once” she’d like to hear Don use the word “we,” and in this episode the confrontations continue: Don is taken to task privately by Peggy and then by Ted. Don may have gotten Ted drunk, but by the end of the hour Don’s life is in Ted’s hands, and he has to yell over the deafening noise of the engine—knuckles white, slick with sweat—that he’s relaxed.
Don’s power to cow others is waning. Small wonder, then, that Don suddenly feels like playing dominant to Sylvia’s sub in the bedroom.
The Don/Sylvia storyline remains uncompelling, and in this episode it’s an instance of plot function so loud it drowns out its own scenes. Through Sylvia we see the sudden onset of Don’s renewed interest in kink, and it manifests in a way that neatly bookends the season four premiere, in which he has an ongoing arrangement with a prostitute, Candace, who repeatedly slaps him. Candace asked Don in that episode whether he minds her talking about her family. He doesn’t. In “Man With a Plan,” Don and Sylvia have a similar conversation, only things have changed. Don does mind Sylvia talking about her family. Kid yes, husband no, he says.
Small wonder that Don suddenly feels like playing dominant to Sylvia’s sub in the bedroom.
In this episode, Don wants his former role in the dominant-sub dynamic reversed. For Don to be secretly submissive made a lot of sense when he was (ahem) on top, and it’s clear from this episode that he isn’t particularly good at reversing that tendency—once Sylvia calls it off, it takes him one minute to go from stern to pleading. Sylvia is basically just “Mad Men”’s unconscious: She dreams of a plane crash, she feels shame, and she’s a source of helpful texts. In the premiere she makes Don read Dante, now he makes her stop reading The Last Picture Show. (The Last Picture Show is the story of Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson, co-captains of a football team. One is dashing and handsome, the other is sensitive and sweet. The dashing one has an affair with an older woman.) Having channeled the episode’s subtext (sorry), Sylvia gets the second most heavy-handed line in the episode: “I mean it’s time to really go home.”
But the award for loudest line goes to Ted, who gleefully tells a panicked Don that “sometimes when you’re flying you think you’re right side up but you’re actually upside-down.” If TVs had highlighters, that line would be bright yellow and circled with stars.
Don establishes dominance via the authoritative snatching of toast and other tactics while Ted quietly collaborates him into submission. (I do think Ted’s gifts lie in weaponizing collaboration and turning it into a transitive verb.) While they’re busy doing that, the overstuffed conference room gradually empties. By the end of the episode there are just four people—none of whom are Ted or Don—making all the decisions. Even Roger ends up doing more administrative work than Don, who gets Ted drunk on his “olive branch” and spins a new American dream. This one is rural, it involves a dairy farmer’s wife, a pitcher of cream, and margarine.
Watching Ted drunkenly assign margarine brands to “Gilligan’s Island” characters is a pleasure (and shows Ted’s commitment to ensemble work even when drunk), but Don’s prank has an ugly edge. Taken with Joan’s pain, Mrs. Campbell’s dementia, and Bobby Kennedy’s murder, it’s difficult to stitch this episode together with the altogether goofier and slightly ironic triumphalism we got last week in “For Immediate Release.” It’s darker, it’s louder, and it’s plagued by phones.
Jane pointed out that “The Flood”—with which this episode shares a great deal—featured a lot of fraught telephone calls that resolved in a failure to connect: Megan’s conversation with her father, Betty’s with Don, Pete’s with Trudy. If “One Man’s Plan” offers an entirely different treatment of a political assassination—no reactions, no city on fire, barely an acknowledgement that it wasn’t a figment of a confused old lady’s imagination—the telephone takes on a different significance too. It becomes less a means to communication than a loud, insistent presence in its own right. It shows up in almost every scene as an interruption, a distraction, a hook that can take you out of the present moment and into a hotel room where you wait naked, or—when there are too many telephones and people who use them—a maddening source of constant, intermittent, overlapping sound. They’re repetitive eruptions, phone calls, each one a small-scale emergency that demands an instant response.
The apocalyptic sirens that whooped in the background of “The Flood” have been downgraded to this, and the dingy impression “One Man’s Plan” leaves is as much a function of soundscapes as set. In the (hilarious) margarine free-association session, the characters have to talk over ringing phones and the clacking roar of typewriters. Thunder and rain layer white noise over Ted’s conversation with Frank. Sylvia and Don’s room 503 lets in the sounds of traffic and other vaguely gothic mechanical whirrs and buzzes. That whole interlude starts, by the way, with a breakdown in Don’s hierarchy: He has to answer his own phone in the presence of his former secretary because his current secretary is away. Don then orders Sylvia not to pick up the phone, redefining obedience as letting a phone ring in a room, unanswered. (This order—don’t answer when I call—neatly rewrites Peggy’s implied refusal to answer his phone as compliance.) Don and Ted have to yell at each other over the rickety decibels of a tiny airplane. But the most significant sonic struggle begins with the music that filters in over the Sylvia/Don breakup and follows Don into his apartment, where it gets louder and louder until it completely drowns Megan out, and all we see are her moving lips.
I’m hearing a lot about bread,