Mad Men: Favors

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All season long the Internet has been aflame with theories about the shocking surprise that would climax the end of the season. The hints and feints pointed to a violent conclusion that would most certainly result in someone dead via a drug-fueled rampage. Most of these theories centered around Megan’s vulnerability, although a great deal of suspicion was also cast on the mysterious Bob Benson.  And of course I had my own suspicions about the unstable Michael Ginsburg.

But in the end, the shattering scene from last night wasn’t one of physical violence or any wild bizarre plot-twist.  It was both shocking and mundane, and it was telegraphed from the beginning of the episode, if not from the beginning of the season: a daughter sees her father having sex with a women who’s not his wife.  Through a series of Matt Weiner head fakes, this very unsurprising occurrence came completely out of the blue, although the foreshadowing was all there: the doorman giving Sally the keys to the apartment; her friend Julie teasing her about her alleged crush on Mitchell; Sylvia revealing that Arnold and Mitchell had gone upstate for the day.  In retrospect, what happened was inevitable but hidden in plain sight.

There have been shocking and unexpected developments on Mad Men (the lawnmower episode comes to mind) but except for Joan prostituting herself last year, I can’t remember anything more heart-breaking than what happened on Sunday.  It wasn’t just that Sally witnessed Don having sex with Sylvia, it was the blatant lie he told her afterward (“I know you thought you saw something. I was comforting Mrs. Rosen. She was very upset.”)  At the beginning of the episode, Betty sarcastically suggested that Sally thought Don was a hero, and even if some of Sally’s attitude is that of a child playing one parent off versus another, there’s no question that she does have a special bond with Don.  All that’s gone now. He’s exposed himself as a cheat and a liar who can’t be honest even when caught red-handed.  Any childhood illusions she had have been shattered.  What a sad episode – so sad that Matt Weiner didn’t even bother to end with the show with a summing up song.  Just the silence of closed doors and then eventually some very generic funereal music.

With the title “Favors,” last night’s episode had two major themes: the favors we do for each other and our frequent confusions or misinterpretations of romantic love.

Much of life is a series of favors, or quid-pro-quos. To grease the skids in civil society we sometimes bend the rules a little for a friend.  There’s even the concept of the “favor bank,” where one deposits and cashes in favors; and if the accounts get too much out of balance you probably shut it down.  All season long, Bob Benson has been trying to build up his favor bank, sometimes by simply bringing an extra cup of coffee to the office for a colleague, or at other times more elaborately, as when he tried to pay for Pete’s prostitute.  Of course this favor bank paid off spectacularly when Joan saved his job after he took care of her at the hospital.

The episode includes a number of favors. Bob Benson has given Pete the name of a male nurse who can care for his mother. Don helps Mitchell avoid the draft. Ted helps Don find Mitchell a spot in the Air National Guard. Julie claims to be doing Sally a favor by leaving a love letter in Mitchell’s apartment.  Sylvia, of course, offers her sexual “favors.”  Meanwhile Peggy tries to get Stan to come over and take care of the rat in her apartment, promising to “make it worth (his) while.” Some of these favors have an explicit price tag. Ted helps Don only if he will agree to drop Sunkist and let them proceed with Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice. Bob Benson helps Pete with the hopes of getting closer to him.  And some of the favors backfire, as when Don tries to help out Arnold and ends up entangled with Sylvia again, or when Pete holds it against Bob Benson that his mother is in love with Manolo, the male nurse.

In addition to the many cases of favor-giving, we see multiple instances of misinterpreting relationships.  Pete’s mother might have the excuse of senility for misunderstanding her relationship with Manolo, and Sally and Julie have the excuse of being silly 14-year-olds in thinking the 19-year-old Mitchell might be interested in them.  But Matt Weiner seems to be suggesting we are all blind to what’s really going on in our lives.

Sylvia, for example, seems to think that Don helped Mitchell get a deferment because he cared so much for her, when it seems obvious (to me at least), that Don’s real motivation was in helping her husband, for whom he has a significant man-crush (as a heart surgeon who actually saves lives, Arnold is the only man that Don has every looked up to.)  Sylvia doesn’t know that Don’s initial reaction to Mitchell’s plight was indifference and that it was only when Arnold opened up to him about his love of and fear for his son that he sprang into action.

Ted is also at sea about his relationship with Don. He thinks Don is “at war” with him and is actively seeking to undermine him in the office. His wife observes that “I know you like facing Don Draper in the morning more than the clients.” What Ted doesn’t know is that Don could not care less about him. What Sally says about her and Mitchell (“He doesn’t know I’m alive”) more or less applies to Ted and Don.  Don cannot believe that Ted will help him with Mitchell’s deferment for something as unimportant as credit for bringing in a client. (Ted’s petulant line, “I don’t want his juice, I want my juice” is not only hilarious but it reveals his juvenile understanding of their relationship.)

There are other obvious examples of people who don’t understand what’s happening in their relationships. Megan, of course, is at sea about her and Don and thinks he’s a hero for rescuing Mitchell. Arnold recognizes that something is wrong between him and Sylvia but doesn’t suspect that it’s Don.   And Peggy seems not to know what’s going on with any of her work relationships: Pete, Ted and Stan have all sniffed around her door at one time or another and suddenly she’s the Belle of the SD&P Ball. With two episodes left, it’s still not clear where the rest of the season is headed. Maybe we’ll start to see some clarity in these relationships; maybe the agency will explode; maybe Megan will finally figure out that her life is a sham.  Whatever it is, you can bet that Matt Weiner has dispensed dozens of clues and that it will all seem inevitable two Mondays from now.

On a slightly different topic, the Sixties that I remember (as someone who was born the same year as Sally Draper) have finally started to reveal themselves over the past 3-4 episodes. The drugs and violence of “The Crash” and the political turmoil of “A Tale of Two Cities” have now given way to the stark fear that teens and parents felt about the draft during the Vietnam War.  There has been a lot of complaining (some it by me) about the lack of representation of racial issues on the show, but what’s been unconscionably absent from the show has been the impact of the Baby Boom. Except for Glen and Sally (and, for a very brief appearance, Frank Gleason’s daughter) there have never been any Boomer characters.  Yet if there was one thing fundamentally different about the sixties from any other decade it was the tidal wave of teenagers that nearly drowned society.  Their consumer, cultural and behavioral habits changed society for good, yet where have they been on Mad Men?

Finally we meet Mitchell Rosen, college dropout and war-protester, who smirks and sneers when Corporate Man Don Draper offers to shake his hand.  Entitled and spoiled, he has made a “statement” by sending back his draft card and then is shocked to find out that his statement has real-word consequences, which might end up with him being drafted.  And his dad is right; he is “soft” and lacking the street smarts , guile or courage he’d need to survive the war.

The conversation between Arnold and Don, as well as the dinner with the GM guys, showed how nuanced and difficult these decisions were.  One of the GM guys thinks it’s disgusting that some sons are evading the draft through special privileges, while the other is worried about his own grandson (who’s at Antioch, for God’s sake. He probably has hair down to his waist.) And even Arnold is conflicted, arguing on the one hand that everyone should sacrifice and do their part, yet also willing to do anything to keep his son safe.

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Until 1972, when Nixon ended the draft, every family with a teenage boy went through the Mitchell conversation at some point.  Do you enlist for four years and hope for a safer assignment or wait to get drafted (for two years) and hope for the best.  If you stay in college you can get a college deferment. If you get married or are the sole source of support for your widowed mother, you can escape that way too.  Maybe you have a medical problem, real or imagined. You could always say you were homosexual but most 18-year-olds would rather die in a rice paddy than claim that.

Then there was the National Guard.  It wasn’t really as hard to get into the National Guard as it seemed last night. My uncle knew someone who got my cousin into the Guard. Famously George W. Bush, like Mitchell, served in the Air National Guard.  Equally famously, Bill Clinton pulled strings to get into the National Guard and then dropped out when he got a low draft number. Hundreds of baseball players were in the Guard and only had to miss a couple weeks a year of the season.

If you went into the National Guard you trained for six months and then served five and a half years more on stand-by.  Several times a year you needed to go off on two-week refresher courses.  Then as now, you could be called up at any moment to serve in a national emergency (a hurricane or student riot) but the important thing is that you would not be sent to Vietnam. That is how Mitchell Rosen escapes the war.  And it’s hard not to feel a little bit of contempt for him. He has tried on revolutionary ideals, making a big deal about sending back his draft card. But at the prospect of getting sent to war, he immediately agrees to cut his hair and renounce his views.  In the end, he’s the one who offers to shake Don’s hand, the very hand he sneered at two days earlier.  No wonder the Baby Boom continues to have a bad reputation.

Other observations:

  • I was probably one of the last hold-outs in the “Don Draper isn’t so bad” camp, but even I’ve had it.  Lying to Sally was the final straw; contrary to what I hoped, he doesn’t seem to have the will or strength to turn himself around morally. Don is staggered by what’s happened; probably afraid that Sally will turn him in and probably aware that he’s severely damaged his relationship with her.  The scene where they are talking on opposing sides of her bedroom door is very tender and it’s possible even then that he could have redeemed himself by being honest, but as we’ve seen all along, he’s much rather live in the world of denial, pretence and illusion. (John Hamm’s acting in these final ten minutes was tremendous. How is it possible in any universe that he’s never won an Emmy?)
  • The apparent resolution of the Bob Benson secret was the second big surprise of the episode, although not a surprise to readers of this blog (your welcome!) who were informed last week of this probably outcome.  To recap the evidence: Joan and Bob were seen together in her apartment, and then the next week Joan is going on a blind date, signaling there’s no physical relationship. But if Bob’s sexuality is not surprising, what IS jaw-dropping is the object of his desire: Pete! Like everyone else on this show, he has terrible taste in men. His speech declaring his intensions is eloquent (“Is it really impossible to imagine? Couldn’t it be that if someone took care of you – very good care of you – if this person would do anything for you? If his well-being was his only thought. Is it possible that you might begin to feel something for him? When there’s true love it doesn’t matter where it is?) But as eloquent as this is, can he really have these feelings for Pete?  In any event, James Wolk’s acting in this scene is wonderful.
  • So Pete, the office liberal, turns out to be a standard-issue homophobe.  Ha.  He thinks that Manolo is “a degenerate” for being gay and tells Bob in so many words that his proposal is “disgusting.” This on top of saying that his father-in-law was with the “biggest blackest prostitute you’ve ever seen.” Like a lot of Limousine Liberals at the time, he’s not exactly overflowing with compassion in his personal life, preferring to lecture others on their shortcomings.
  • The “Manaolo is gay” revelation actually was a surprise because of the classic curve ball from Matt Weiner.  The Latin Gigalo is a classic stereotype of  popular culture and it seemed entirely believable that this attentive male nurse would be after Ma Campbell’s fortune (which actually does not exist, as we learned several years ago.)  Not so.
  • Where was that airport where Peggy and Pete were supposedly celebrating their client win?  Ocean Spray is located in Wareham Mass, right at the base of Cape Cod. The nearest airport is in New Bedford.   I guess it makes sense that they would drive to White Plains, fly to New Bedford and then drive to Wareham, especially if Ted has his own plane but it would only save a couple of hours at best. I only mention this because I have been to the New Bedford airport and it is nowhere near as nice as depicted in this episode. I’m also pretty sure you can’t get whiskey sours there.
  • In any event, this scene between Peggy and Pete in the airport lounge was remarkably sweet.  Pete let down his douchie exterior for once and turned out to be not a terrible person.  From the very first episode of the series, they’ve had a connection; she spent the night with him just before he married Trudy, the union of which produced Peggy’s long since given-up-for-adoption baby.  Pete is right; Peggy does know him better than anyone else. Certainly better than his wife, who has never seen him in action at work. And Ted’s wife is right too.  From the good time everyone is having after a successful client presentation, you can see why the work is so much more interesting than home life.
  • Most unbelievable line: Sylvia to Don: “You were good to me.  Better than I was to you.” I guess so, if you like being trapped in a hotel room for 24 hours with nothing to read or eat.
  • This show could be a case study on the law of unintended consequences. Two examples.  1) Don helps Mitchell avoid Vietnam, which ends up with him in the sack again with Sylvia and the traumatic event of Sally’s life. 2) Peggy tells Pete about his Mrs. Campbell’s musings on Manolo and Pete ends up firing the one ray of hope in his mother’s life.Maybe Don’s right after all. Perhaps it really is better not to interfere.
  • For some reason I thought it was funny when Henry told Betty that “I thought she should join the Student Congress. The Model U.N. is a joke.” It takes a certain kind of person to make these fine distinctions between The Student Congress and the Model U.N.
  • I liked that the photo of Moshe Dayan is hanging in Stan’s bedroom.  Dayan was Israel’s hero during the Seven Days War. A more conventional choice would have been a poster of Che, especially since Stan is not even Jewish.  Interesting aspect of Stan.

Did she go to China for that tea?

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10 comments
  1. Interesting, Gary. You helped me get a lot more out of last night’s episode. My wife said a couple of seasons ago “Sally’s going to be the one to take him down, but I don’t know how.” Beginning to look like she will.

    All of that aside, the writers from “Mad Men” could stand to watch a few episodes of “Deadwood,” “The Tudors” or even “The Walking Dead” and learn how to move a plot along. And how NOT to waste a moment of film. Weiner wastes time with things that go nowhere – really – what was the point of making Don upchuck at Roger’s mother’s funeral, if his drinking wasn’t going to be a plot point? Or of Don’s having a bad hash trip (?! A guy I know, who knows hash, says that’s not how hash works.) For that matter, what was the point of Roger’s mother’s funeral?

    • Thanks Dann, I wondered where Sally was all year and now I’m hoping she doesn’t end up like her friend Sandy from episode one. What a terrible burden she has to carry around now. She can’t tell anyone because she knows it would break up Don and Megan’s marriage (which is probably on it’s last leg’s anyway.)

    • Dann, perhaps those “irrelevant” scenes relate to the theme of mortality for Roger and Don. For Roger, a man who has lived up his hedonism for his entire life, realizes he has no family left, and that having lived like he was immortal (drinking, smoking and being unfaithful after two heart attacks and a ruined marriage) has left him with nothing.

      For Don, these scenes show an interest, if not an obsession, with death, a glimpse into his own past or a connection to his transformation from Dick Whitman to Don Draper. Perhaps some foreshadowing from Weiner that everything will blow up in Don’s face by the end of the season (which has already started to happen!).

      Gary, excellent analysis of the episode. Really looking forward to what comes next, from Mad Men and your posts, as it seems like everything can head in many directions over the next two episodes!

      • Dann Anthony said:

        I realize all that, Cylinderz13. But the character development in this show is haphazard. That young guy who joined the creative pool – the writers gave us a whole bunch of backstory about his relative poverty and his Yiddish father and … ? Nothing. Maybe they’ll do something with that backstory next season; if they didn’t, then, they wasted screen time. And Roger? What if anything have they done to make us care about his downfall?

        Once again I point to “Deadwood.” Swearengen was a miserable SOB. His downfall was a heartbreak, which was quite a trick, seeing how irredeemable he’d been made for two and a half seasons. That was art. By contrast, “Mad Men” fails to redeem Roger, or Don (IMHO).

        Still interesting to watch, though, and I do.

  2. John Burke said:

    They might have flown into Hyannis, maybe 20 minutes to Wareham. One thing on the Guard — and Reserves. At least up to 1969 and Nixon’s “Vietnamization” strategy by which US troop commitments were gradually reduced, there was always an unknown degree of risk that Guard or Reserve units would be called up, since the policy of not activating reserves was just thatm a Johnson policy, consistent with his “guns and butter” approach.

    • Thanks John, you might be right about Hyannis. That is the second largest airport in Massachusetts and the restaurant did look like it had a Cape Cod theme. I do note that several seasons ago Peggy had said she’d never been to Cape Cod. And it was only at the end of last season that she actually flew on a plane. I guess it’s more routine for her now. I hope Ted doesn’t crash that damn plane at the end of the season like poor JFK, Jr. did.

  3. Hey Gary, I love your recap and observations. The only thing I see differently is what you refer to as the “man-crush” Don has on Arnie. I’ve looked at it as Don being envious of Arnie – the doctor who saves lives, therefore leaving a real mark on the world and a legacy he and his family can be proud of. By bedding Sylvia, Don was trying to tarnish Arnie’s image, making him more Don-like in a vicarious way. – collateral damage, if you will.

  4. Thanks for the interesting comment. Agree that Don is envious of Arnie’s real-world accomplishments but he seems to compartmentalize more than most of us can. I think he might actually love Sylvia while simultaneously respecting Arnie.

  5. Frank Palumbo said:

    Amazing write up Gary. I have to chuckle at the actor selection of the doorman. He played Little Carmine in The Sopranos and Tony referred to him as “Brainless the 2nd”. So, I was not surprised when he handed Sally they keys to the apartment.

    • Thanks Frank. Did also notice that the doorman gave the same ridiculous comment (“Here come two high-fashion models!”) to Sally and her friend and then two old ladies getting off the elevator? Obviously not a mental giant.

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