MAD MEN 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, Last night’s episode of “Mad Men” featured lots of close encounters in tight, uncomfortable spaces. The primary example, as Lili noted earlier today, were the suddenly over-inhabited offices of SCDP itself (or is it SCDPCGC now, after merging with Cutler Gleason & Chaough?), but there were also hospital rooms, hotel rooms, waiting rooms, and even a cockpit (a word that has never been more psychosexually charged—more on that in a moment).
An inherently icky motif of this week’s episode, made infinitely more disturbing by the ongoing investigation into the Ariel Castro case, was the confinement of confused, disoriented women to rooms. Don orders Sylvia to remain in a hotel room for hours on end (“You’re going to wait there, and you’re not going to know when I’m coming back”); Pete, meanwhile, keeps his demented mother in his pied-à-terre, telling her it’s Saint Patrick’s Day when in fact, as she (correctly) tells him, it’s May. “Who knows what’s out there?” he warns her, and she, confused as to the year and the identity of her closest family members, literally doesn’t know. I’ve never hated Pete Campbell more than I did at that moment.
Sylvia’s captivity is more of an artifice: Don knows perfectly well that she can leave at any time, and so does she—it’s all part of the fantasy. Adding another layer of kinky complication is that Don, unbeknownst to Sylvia, overheard her side of a decisive-sounding argument with Arnold at the beginning of the episode: For all he knows, their marriage may even be over. The asymmetry of information thus cuts both ways: Sylvia doesn’t know that Don knows that she doesn’t, in fact, have to get home (or that she gains power by delaying, and making Arnold wait); but Don doesn’t know what Sylvia knows (whether she desires or intends to return to Arnold at all). It’s a BDSM twist on the classic prisoner’s dilemma: effective collaboration and trust between the two parties is impossible, precisely because neither is fully aware of the stakes of the situation.
A different kind of asymmetry is played out between Don and Ted Chaough. Ted, as Peggy emphasizes, can’t hope to compete with Don’s drinking (“Nobody can”) or his unpredictable bursts of creativity (“He doesn’t talk for long stretches and then he’s incredibly eloquent,” Ted says of Don, sounding like he’s describing his psychoanalyst). So he retaliates with his punctiliousness (refusing to accommodate Don’s lateness by delaying the meeting), his affability, his command of hippie lingo, and his pilot’s license. For me, the contest between Ted and Don, with Peggy in the middle, is fast becoming the most interesting aspect of this season. I can’t, at the moment, think of a male rival that Don’s taken as seriously as he does Ted: He usually dismisses men out of hand as fools or suck-ups, reserving his most intense feelings for women. The scenes between Jon Hamm and Kevin Rahm (whose last names, I realize, are nicely symmetrical as well: It’s like a Beckett play!) have yielded the best acting moments on the show this season; the two men have—there’s no other word for it—chemistry. All I hope for now is an expanded role for Peggy, who’s already getting more assertive, but who needs to take her rightful place in this bizarre love triangle. (Is she Daisy to Ted’s Gatsby and Don’s Tom Buchanan? Emma Bovary to Ted’s Charles and Don’s Rodolphe? Paging René Girard.)
“You exist in this room for my pleasure,” Don tells Sylvia.
The last relationship worth attending to in “Man with a Plan” is Joan’s budding romance, if that’s what it is, with the ubiquitous but thus far narratively extraneous Bob Benson. Bob, who fans and critics are unanimous in finding kind of creepy, proves himself a mensch in this episode by accompanying Joan to the emergency room when a cyst on her ovary ruptures. (The obstetric metaphor, and callback to all the other bad pregnancies on the show to date, is obvious.) After he visits her apartment to check on her, Joan’s mother urges her to consider him as a potential suitor; she responds that he’s just looking to advance his career. “Honestly, Joanie, every good deed is not part of a plan,” her mom responds, smiling.
Is that true, though, in the moral universe of “Mad Men”? This episode was titled “Man with a Plan”1 and there were, as usual, plenty of men with plans (Don and Ted and Roger and Burt Peterson), and plenty of women who were, or felt like they were, the objects of them. It makes sense that Joan would be thinking that way; after nearly a decade at Sterling Cooper, how could she not? And then, of course, within or behind or beyond or above it all, there’s the ultimate Man with a Plan, Matthew Weiner, indifferent, paring his fingernails. “Mad Men,” perhaps more than any other contemporary TV show, is designed like a modernist novel, in which we are meant to not entirely understand the logic that drives the narrative forward or dictates particular stylistic choices, but to trust that the genius creator has a master plan. In this way, we’re all like Sylvia Rosen, waiting for further instructions, or even Dorothy Campbell, wondering why “they’re shooting everybody.” “You exist in this room for my pleasure,” Don tells Sylvia. That, in theory, is the relation in which TV characters stand to us, especially in the DVR era: They exist in our living rooms and bedrooms as creatures of pure pleasure, ready and waiting for us whenever we happen to want them. But “Mad Men”’s innovation lies in routinely suggesting that the reverse might be the case instead, that the audience exists for the creator’s pleasure.
If this allegory holds, the most significant developments in “Man with a Plan” may be Sylvia’s refusal to keep playing the game—“It’s time to really go home,” she tells Don, something which, as we all know, he can never really do—and Dorothy’s fascinating reaction to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, which Pete assumes she’s mixing up with the shooting of his brother John. Maybe she is: Clearly Dorothy is confused, at other times, about what year it is (information which Weiner and his writing staff, of course, never allow us to forget). But she is nevertheless responding, genuinely, in the moment, to tragedy—something which, as Jane and Lili pointed out in their discussion of “The Flood,” the more mentally able characters on “Mad Men” seem to have trouble with. Is confusion the only way out of control, for those of us who can no longer hope to go home?