Writing about the premiere episode of last season’s Mad Men, I covered the “reveal” of Don and Megan’s sexual relationship as follows:
The nature of their erotic relationship only becomes clear towards the end of the episode, however, and it calls to mind dear Ida Blankenship’s pronouncement to Peggy last season that “It’s a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are.” But “Masters and Johnson” defy that separation, each playing both roles in turn. Don may dominate in public and Megan may appear masochistic when she offers to give up her fledgling career, but at home Megan is the junior partner who controls the senior, even as she gives him the illusion of mastery.
In this week’s Mad Men episode, “Man with a Plan,” we see that in pulling away from Megan both emotionally and sexually, Don has reverted to his old role as a sadist, both at work and at play. While initially triumphant in both venues using this well-worn tactic, he’s quickly expelled from any hope of heaven and plunged back into those circles of hell that this season’s mapped out for him.
Far from being a new low, his hotel interlude with Sylvia during which he dominates and controls her – initially to her puzzlement but also sexual delight – harks back to his treatment of Bobbie Barrett during their affair in Season 2. (Actually, Bobbie got it worse, since Don tied her up before he left and never returned.) But as with Don and Megan, it’s revealed in the end that the power equation between Don and Sylvia isn’t so simply summarized. Don plays these games of control not for sexual titillation, but to cover over a deep vulnerability as well as assuage an aching need. Lured in by Sylvia’s call that “I need you and nothing else will do,” Don insists that she repeat this assertion of his primacy and uniqueness, and his subsequent domination is tellingly triggered by her talking about her own needs (her family troubles) and her spirited refusal to be silenced by him. As he always says, if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation, either by seduction or force, or perhaps a bit of both.
Usually the master of whatever domain he’s in, Don requires that the illusion of his utter control and superiority be maintained by all around him. With Joan’s public dressing down of his ego last episode no doubt feeling like a psychic two-fer after Peggy’s defection (which he clearly hasn’t forgiven), coupled with the ongoing alienation from Megan, Don asserts his dominance over women in, if not the only way he knows how, the way that he knows best. (And which he learned from his dear Uncle Mac at ye olde family brothel.) But after seeming a rather passive creature, the at-first bedazzled Sylvia eludes his capture, citing moral shame for ending not just their 9 ½ Weeks escapade but their entire affair in order to repair her marriage – a surgery of the heart as delicate as any her husband performs.
While she’s too kind to say so, she’s also had her eyes wide shut forced open by Don’s brutish behavior, which clearly repelled her after the initial sexual frisson wore off. While Sylvia had worried about falling in love, in one of the episode’s several reversals of power and fortune, we see that Don is the one who is devastated by her rejection. Beautifully played by Jon Hamm, the break-up scenes in which he utters a simple plea of “Please” in the hotel and then is completely silent in the elevator convey more emotional truth about Don Draper than a hundred pages of dialogue. In the elevator, his expression is that of a devastated child whose parents are abandoning him, a literally home truth that Don carries inside and can’t escape. Returning to his adult home, a supposed place of refuge and support that should alleviate his desperate need, he’s unable to take in even Megan’s words, much less the cheerful love that she’s offering, and instead relegates her to a silent movie that recalls the screen test of hers that he viewed so desirously last season.
Like children, women should be seen and not heard seems to be Don’s motto, one he carries over even into the more egalitarian work environment when he chides Peggy for being back in his office complaining again, as if that’s all she ever does. Meanwhile, he’s the one who behaves likes a child, accusing Peggy of taking Ted’s side, even as he argues that Ted’s a grown up. “So are you,” Peggy satisfyingly retorts, before giving a piece of advice that Don constantly gives others but seems incapable of taking himself these days: “Move forward."
While Don decries Ted’s use of “formula” in brainstorming a campaign, implying that he uses a more freewheeling approach, Don is in fact all about the formula – as is proven by the classic Don Draper pitch he unfurls for Ted right after that derogatory comment. Seductive and transporting in earlier seasons, these speeches now suggest the practiced cadences of an FM disc jockey or a cheesy MC who you’ve heard pull out the same shtick once too often, making it hard not to laugh at them. Don’s formulaic sales pitch to women is similarly worn, consisting of an initial veneer of charm that’s quickly peeled back to expose a manipulative cruelty, after which the women inevitably go running. Yet in this, as in his work, Don seems incapable of even the possibility of change. We have little doubt that he will blame Sylvia for abandoning him, just as he has Megan, rather than consider that he has driven her away by using her as a sex doll to play out his tortured psychodrama.
Don’s manipulation is also on full display at the office, where he works Ted in the guise of working with him. Always quick to sense a person’s weakness, Don takes advantage of Ted’s literal and figurative sobriety to drink him under the creative room’s table, leaving Ted grasping at scraps of bacon to assert some portion of control. Luckily Ted has a wise advisor in his dying partner, Frank Gleason, who puts aside his own mortal concerns to help Ted beat Don. He advises that Ted rope-a-dope Don so he’ll wear himself out, but proving that he’s craftier than he looks, Ted takes a faster route.
Cars and planes are mortal enemies, we’re informed in this episode, and Ted proves this by taking control of the driver’s seat in this corporate marriage that a car has foisted upon him. He subjects Don to a harrowing rainy flight in his small plane, during which Don understandably looks as terrified as we’ve ever seen him. Even more deliciously, Ted silences Don (“Not now!”) just as Don has silenced Sylvia, Megan and so many others – and it’s a testament to Ted’s complete control of the situation that Don obeys this command. Don acknowledges that Ted has the stick by observing that his own connection to the Mohawk client, which has been built solely on words, is bested by Ted’s actions in flying his own plane.
While Peggy hopes that Don will adopt Ted’s more “gallant” approach, as Roger terms it (“egalitarian” seems more accurate), that’s about as likely as a Fleischmann’s margarine stick surviving Dante’s circles of hell. Instead we’re no doubt in for a season-long battle between Ted’s open-spirited group “rap sessions” and Don’s drunken solo inspiration behind closed doors. Their differing characters and approaches are summarized by Gleason’s advice that Ted should “walk in like you own half the place,” when Ted’s up against a man who walks into every place as if he owns all of it.
Busy going mano-a-mano, Ted and Don both seem blithely unaware that the rest of the staff are also fighting to survive in the new joint agency. A merger is like a marriage, after all, in which not only do you have to find a place for everything you both bring to it, but you have to fight for the space you want. Unfortunately, the other power struggles are downplayed or clumsily handled. Bert Peterson resurfaces solely to give Roger the pleasure of firing him again, and only after it’s underlined with exclamation points that he’s utterly despicable. (Given that, wouldn’t it have been more fun to have the agency need to keep him around?)
Joan’s given a mystery illness simply to bring obsequious Bob Benson rushing to her rescue, thus causing her to save his job in the nick of time. However, we knew Bob had to be saved since he’s been featured so often this season, even as he remains a mystery. Unlike Don, who Ted suspects may “put on” his mystery act, Bob is still truly a cipher to viewers, hiding behind the persona of proverbial Eager Young Man. His own powers of manipulation are not only suggested by his quick thinking in getting Joan out of the office, leaving his overcoat on his chair when he sneaks out to visit her, but especially in his handling of an ER nurse, who he controls by using the technique of seeming to defer to her authority and knowledge. In this, he’s the anti-Don (as well as the anti- of most of the other men on the show), positioning himself as lap dog rather than as the alpha.
Joan’s mother thinks this is simply a matter of younger men not being intimidated by powerful women, and it’s true that the generations are splitting on the need to assert authority and dominance. But even in seeming to reject the usual markers of power and success, the younger generation was in fact asserting enormous control at that time, shutting down universities, fomenting a successful anti-war movement and in general putting their bodies against the gears of the machine of their society. Bob keeps reminding me of Eve Harrington, and while I don’t expect Mad Men to become “All About Bob,” I do think that the Margo Channings of the office need to watch their backs, including his benefactor Joan, but especially his fellow Accounts men. Underneath that boyish charm lurks at least a manipulative striver, if not another sadist. Joan’s mom argues that every good deed isn’t part of a plan, but this episode suggests that every bad one is.
In perhaps the most heavy-handed subplot, Pete’s mother reappears with a whopping case of dementia, ostensibly to distract him from work at just the wrong moment, but largely I suspect so she can deliver the news that Robert Kennedy has been shot in a way that leaves Pete believing she’s merely confused. But of course, irony of ironies, she’s caught in a real-life case of déjà vu, a moment during which the entire country seems to be losing its mind, as summed up by her plaintive reaction: “I don’t understand what’s going on. They’re shooting everybody.” More moving are the contrasting reactions of Megan and Don as film of the actual assassination unfolds on TV. She faces the news head-on and weeps in grief, while Don walks past it, temporarily blocks our view of it, and finally sits with his back to it, mute and withdrawn. This is Don’s go-to defensive posture, and one that he increasingly reverts to not just in personal crises, but in response to the figuratively as well as literally violent change occurring all around him.
I may be the only person who saw the title of this episode, “Man with a Plan,” and thought of the old palindrome, “A man, a plan, a canal. Panama.” Palindromes, of course, read the same in either direction. And in this episode, we’re taken forward and backward, as power shifts rapidly between people, or is revealed to be different from what appearances suggest. The country, too, is shifting back and forth, with progress seeming to be made towards peace, equality and justice, only to be snatched away by hatred and violence that drags us several steps back. During that time, many people, especially those middle-aged or older, found themselves lost in the past like Pete’s mother, wondering how we ended up where we were.
Pop songs of the era sang optimistically about coming together, but in the same way that ad men lied to get clients and sell products (or save their jobs) and most people weren’t buying the pitch. In 1968, the future was a terrifying unknown, as scary as being in a small plane in a storm, hoping to break through the clouds and level off to the calm sunny air above. “Sometimes when you’re flying, you think you’re rightside up but you’re really upside down,” Ted explains to an understandably not-reassured Don. “You gotta watch your instruments.”
While some of the characters (such as Sylvia and Peggy) obviously possess an inner moral compass that guides them, we’re left wondering, as always, what Don has inside that will get him safely through the storm. Ted may see every product competition through the lens of Gilligan’s Island, but it’s Don who’s in real danger of being cast away with no hope of rescue.