Mad Men: The Quality of Mercy


Spoiler alert: I am going to make at least two pretentious literary references about last night’s “Mad Men” and neither of them is about “Rosemary’s Baby.”  It’s not that I enjoy sounding like an English Major, but I think Matt Weiner is crying out for someone to make the connections.

After all, the very title of the episode is “The Quality of Mercy,” a phrase from “The Merchant of Venice” in which Portia urges Shylock to show mercy and not demand his “pound of flesh.” In an eloquent speech she says that mercy should not be restrained, that it is “mightiest in the mighty,” and that even more than thrones and scepters, kings deploy mercy to demonstrate power.

Pete Campbell is no king, but he has learned something about manipulating power, having been on the losing end of many a power struggle, and he decides to show mercy to Bob Benson despite being repulsed by the pass that Bob made at him last week.  After having discovered that Bob is not only gay, but a West Virginia resume-padder, Pete initially seems inclined to expose him; instead he welcomes him back onto the team (as long as he doesn’t make any more passes.)

When I saw Robert Morse’s name in the opening credits, I wasn’t sure what he’d be doing this week but it’s clear now that his main job was to remind us of that great scene at the end of Season One when Pete learned that Don Draper was actually the AWOL Korean vet Dick Whitman and rushed into Bert Cooper’s office to rat him out when Don wouldn’t succumb to blackmail.  Surprisingly, the well-heeled Bert Cooper could not have cared less about the low-born past of Don Draper, since business is business.  He even told Draper he could fire the weaselly Pete but advised him that showing mercy to a vulnerable subordinate can turn an opponent into a dependent.

As the beneficiary of Don’s mercy eight years ago, Pete decides to take the same route.  “You’re going to get the benefit of the fact that I’ve been here before,” Pete tells Bob.  Just as Don did in Season One, Pete holds all the cards except that this time it’s Bob who is totally indebted to Pete.

Today’s other literary reference is to “The Great Gatsby.”  I’ve previously noted that as a quintessential American hero, Don Draper is like Jay Gatsby and “The Quality of Mercy” makes it clear that Bob Benson is cut from the same cloth.  Bob, Don and Gatsby are all mysterious con men from humble origins who change their names and invent fictitious pasts.  Through guile, charm and manipulation they rise in society but are also in constant danger of being exposed.  It turns out that Bob Benson had been a “man servant” to a senior vice president at Brown Brothers Harriman (one of the whitest of the white shoe investment banks).  He had even traveled on the Queen Elizabeth, just as the young Gatsby had been a cabin boy on a rich man’s yacht.

Bob is clearly a younger version of Don Draper. Even the way they were hired is similar.  They both just showed up at the office and started working without formal job offers (Don of course got Roger so drunk during an introductory lunch that he was in no position to deny Don’s claim that he hired him. Bob was even more brazen, affecting to take Pete’s compliment about his tie as a sign that he should start coming into the office.) Bob and Don also share a natural inclination to flee upon discovery; Bob asks Pete for a day’s head start before being exposed and Don of course had been willing to run off in previous seasons when it looked like the government might come after him.

For all their similarities, Bob is a pale imitation of Don.  True, he shows steel in his voice when Pete calls him “sick,” warning, “You should watch what you say to people.”  But he still lacks Don’s killer instinct. His attempts to get back at Pete through his mother are amateurish compared to how Don annihilates Ted.

Jealousy and protectiveness play an important part in this episode.   Don doesn’t like it ONE BIT that Ted and Peggy seem to be infatuated with each other. Actually no one (especially Ted’s secretary) appreciates their giggling in meetings, inside jokes and bad Boston accents (btw, when will people learn that NO ONE sounds like the Kennedys in Massachusetts? I grew up there.  I know.) But only Don has the ability and will to eviscerate Ted in plain sight without anyone else noticing that it’s happening.

And you know what?  Don was right, which is what makes it so painful for Ted.  It’s possible Don was  jealous. It’s possible that he wants to protect Peggy from a bad mistake. Either way, Ted can’t really argue that the firm should have foregone the big Sunkist account so that he and Peggy could continue to have fun in the Ocean Spray playpen.  Nor can you deny that Ted’s crush on Peggy has “impaired” his judgment.  He put the firm at risk by signing off on expenses that the client wouldn’t pay and never even told Peggy that her dream idea is way over budget.

Two people in this episode tell their colleagues to “back me up” during the upcoming meetings.  Ken Cosgrove fulfills his part of the bargain by supporting Pete during the Chevy meeting, but Don seems to think the expression means to back someone up against a wall and stick a stiletto into their heart.  In a moment of high tension, when it looks like Don is going to expose Ted and Peggy’s budding romance at a client meeting, Don claims that the concept of using a scene from “Rosemary’s Baby” to sell children’s aspirin was the deceased Frank Gleason’s “last idea,” and that the firm was sentimentally attached to it.  The client buys the explanation and even authorizes another $10,000 to shoot the commercial.

By rights, Ted should have been grateful that Don saved him from embarrassment with that ingenious explanation.  The client is happy, senior management is happy, the ad will get made.  But he knows the object of his affections, Miss Olsen, is PISSED. By crediting Frank Gleason with the idea, she can’t win her coveted Clio; this lack of professional recognition has been a burr under her saddle for seasons and was the main reason she quit the old SCDP in the first place.  Ted further is humiliated when Don tells him that the whole agency is laughing at him for the way he’s been carrying on with Peggy.

If Peggy were thinking straight, she’d be grateful to Don for killing her romance with Ted.  He’s married, Peggy!  She might lose her job if an affair with the boss goes badly.   Even under the “best case” scenario, she might succeed in breaking up Ted’s marriage and marrying him herself, living then with guilt and bitter step-children.  But she can’t see any of this and calls Don a monster.

Jealousy and protection come into play in the Sally story too. She doesn’t want to stay at Don and Megan’s any more, which is understandable, given that she saw Don humping Sylvia the last time she was there.  Sleeping overnight at the posh Miss Porter’s School (this is where Jackie Kennedy went, Betty gushes) Sally tries to buy off a couple of mean girls by enticing long-absent Glen Bishop and his friend Rolo to visit with booze and pot.  She’s jealous when one of the girls (Mandy) lures Glen into her make-out lair and then frightened when Rolo puts the moves on her.  She yells for Glen’s help, which serves the double purpose of protecting her from Rolo and breaking up Mandy and Glen.  Unlike Peggy, Sally is grateful for the intervention.

Of course Sally is much more clearly a damsel in distress.  The scene in the girls’ dorm is downright scary.   Betty, clueless as ever, thinks that raising a daughter at home is too difficult and that it would be more effective to subcontract the job to a boarding school.  If she’d gone to one herself, which was her heart’s desire, she’d have known that a Lord of the Flies atmosphere only hardens the students and makes them grow up faster than they would under direct parental supervision.  Sally’s only 14 but in one night she’s been exposed to alcohol and drugs and nearly assaulted by a sophisticated and mature 18-year-old. She smiles when Mandy suggests she “likes trouble,” which is what she is likely to get into when she enrolls.

Regardless, as a reward for surviving the night, Betty lets Sally smoke in the car on the drive home!  She wants “details,” setting herself up to be one of those mothers who lives vicariously through her daughter, swapping  high school gossip over cocktails.   Poor Sally, being pushed to grow up faster than she wants, unprotected by the adults in her life, with only Glen Bishop to watch out for her.  What a good guy he has turned out to be.  When last we saw him Sally had ditched him at the Museum of Natural History, but he’s obviously displayed a “quality of mercy” toward her, having forgiven her failings.  He’s the most adult person in the entire episode.

Some other thoughts:

  • The episode opens and closes with scenes of Don curled up in the fetal position on his couch.  Then during a run through of the St. Joseph’s pitch, he’s induced to cry “wah wah wah” like a baby.   I’ll leave it to other recappers to interpret that, but it’s obviously an important sign.
  • In an episode full of surprises and unforeseen plot twists, perhaps nothing was as shocking as Ken Cosgrove getting shot in the face by the boorish Chevvy yahoos.  This prompted a chorus of “They’ve killed Kenny!” tweets, channeling the South Park catchphrase.  Personally, I would have found this scene utterly unbelievable if our own former Vice President hadn’t done the same thing.
  • Just as Sally was bullied at school, so too has Ken been bullied by the Chevvy guys.  They probably won’t have as much satisfaction bullying Pete, not because he’s stronger but because bullying only works if the victim cares.  Ken is a decent guy and they probably perceive that he really does hate cars, guns and steaks.  They know they can get under Ken’s skin by exposing him to their outlandish hijinks.  Pete, on the other hand, has no scruples and will gladly be their butt boy.  He’s completely soulless. Ken has been injured in a drunken car accident and shot in the face, all while he has a growing family and Pete’s advice is “The only way to get through this is to remind yourself it’s a wonderful account.” Remind me not to seek out advice on work/life balance from Pete Campbell.
  • I’m glad Matt Weiner announced last week that he wasn’t killing off any characters this year because I’d really be alarmed now about Megan’s physical safety. As noted for three weeks in a row now, attentive viewers have come up with dozens of clues that connected Megan to the actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered by the Manson family. Now in this episode, we see Don watching a scary Nixon For President ad that condemns lawlessness and violence, after which he immediately switches to Megan’s soap opera. Later, Don and Megan attend the movie version of “Rosemary’s Baby,” which was directed by Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate’s husband.  Finally, it’s worth noting that “Rosemary’s Baby” is set in The Dakota apartment building, where John Lennon was murdered.
  • Don and Megan have reached that sad stage of marriage where they say mean things to each other in a “just kidding” way. Thus when Megan tells the hung over Don that he looks terrible, he wittily replies, “So do you.” Last week Megan kiddingly told Don that marrying him was the worst mistake of her life and Don said that he hates actresses.    Can this marriage be saved?  It would seem not.
  • Funniest line: Don’s response when Harry calls to say he has big news:  “Did you finally have a hooker who would take traveler’s checks?” “Why did I tell you that?” Harry wonders. (By the way, notice  Megan’s continued antipathy to Harry, who, last season, accused her of sleeping her way to her job at SCDP, not knowing she was listening.
  • The concluding music is The Monkees The Porpoise Song  from their hallucinatory movie “Head.”
  • Right after the show aired, AMC sent out a press release from Sterling Cooper & Partners dated October 27, 1968 announcing the new name of the firm an unveiling their new logo.  Clever idea. The release quotes Don Draper as saying,  “A name can mean a new beginning, a chance to see yourself as you would dream to be, and to leave the baggage you have accumulated over the years behind. At least that’s been my observation.” And ours too.
  • Next week is the last episode of Season 6. I have no idea what will happen, but wouldn’t be surprised if it is set during or immediately after Richard Nixon’s presidential election.

“I don’t have your passport. I’m sure it’s expired with everything else you own.”

  1. Every Monday after your post I get to say “OK, now I get it.” So – thanks! And even though Matt Weiner said he’s not killing off anyone, I really don’t think Megan is safe. Kidnapped? Coma?

    • Thanks Cindy. I don’t think Megan’s MARRIAGE is safe, but I don’t think he would pull a soap opera move in the last episode of the season. It’s hard to believe we are coming to the end of the season because there’s no obvious storyline.

  2. I’m really going to miss this show when the season is over.

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