Out of My Mind

The Musings of a Woman Who Thinks Too Much

Nelle Engoron

Nelle Engoron
Location
California,
Birthday
May 01
Bio
You can email me at "nengoron@gmaildotcom" & follow @NelleEngoron on Twitter. My archived radio shows on last season's Mad Men are available (for free!) at: www.blogtalkradio.com/madmentalk **My "Mad Men" commentary for Season 5 is on Salon rather than here -- go to http://www.salon.com/writer/ nelle_engoron/ to find all my Salon articles. **My book, "Mad Men Unmasked: Decoding Season 4," is available on Amazon in both e-book and print versions.** I'm a writer/editor/consultant who lives in the SF Bay Area. I write about all kinds of things, but am particularly intrigued by movies, relationships, gender issues, belief systems and "Mad Men." (Scroll down left sidebar for links to a selection of my blog posts.) I'm working on a novel and a memoir, neither of which is about Mad Men!

Nelle Engoron's Links

My radio show
My articles on other sites
Movies, movies, movies
Mad Men writing on OS
A sampling of other blog posts
My book
MAY 13, 2013 3:59PM

Man with a Plan: Mad Men Season 6, Episode 7 (Commentary)

Rate: 7 Flag

 

 

don

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Agree? Disagree? Have questions or insights you want to share?

I'd love to hear your thoughts here, or on Twitter (@NelleEngoron), or by phone or chat message during my radio show, "Mad Men Talk," which airs Monday nights at 6:00 PDT/ 9:00 EDT.

If you can't listen live, you can access archived shows the day after they air. For information, please see my show's home page:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/madmentalk 

 

 

Your tags:

TIP:

Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:

Comments

Type your comment below:
Don is quickly becoming a parody of himself.. I thought some of the scenes laughable and John Hamm's faces seemed to convey that he looked lost in them. In prior season's, Don seemed dark and charming he just seemed brutish and self indulgent in this one. I really liked Sylvia's character and the actor is so good (blanking on her name). My favorite character's all looked shallow here, one of my least favorite episodes.
Hi Nelle, a very insightful commentary as usual. I really enjoyed seeing Ted's character fleshed out with more depth that just the cardboard figure of the head of a competing agency. I think his counterpoint to the old school triad of Don-Roger-Bert will make for an interesting season. In a way, the last figure to bring some contrast was Lane Pryce and I hope Ted doesn't get killed off by the writers as Lane was. Until this episode I had been looking for a gloomy end to the season, especially considering the social upheaval that occurred in 1968. Now, with Ted on the scene, I'm thinking the show may be less bleak as the year plays out.
I'm going to head over to the blogtalkradio pages. I wondered as I watched this week, 'What will Nelle have to say about this?'. You're in my head!
Rita, I'm feeling that way too at times. I really did start to laugh when Don did the margarine pitch for Ted. And I wondered...was I supposed to? I fear not. I also ended up liking Sylvia, especially how she dealt with leaving Don this week. Linda Cardellini is the actress, and I think she brought up a wonderful gravity to that part.

Thanks, Dan. I'm also really enjoying getting to know Ted and also that he's not your typical slick, amoral Mad Man. He didn't come across well in his appearances in past seasons of the show, and it's interesting to consider that we were in some ways getting a Don's-eye view of him then. (And perhaps now we're getting a Peggy's eye view.) I can't imagine they'd kill him off, but it's hard to see he and Don being co-pilots for long, so who knows where that will go. In the meantime, I agree that it's shaking up the dynamics and I look forward to more of that as the merger dust settles. As for not being bleak, well....this is Mad Men, ya know? I wouldn't bet a nickel on a happy ending!

Gabby, I hope you listen and maybe call in!
Excellent reporting as usual. Thank you so much for your thoughts.
I think Bob is hot. He and Joan definitely have some chemistry and time will tell. I don't know if I trust him tho. However I don't trust anyone so I'll just enjoy looking at his handsome face.
I have dabbled in s&m and the intensifying of Don's style is interesting to me. There are lines people should not cross. In the end you can push everyone away who you can't control. I don't think Megan can save him with her prattle of a two week vacation in Hawaii to cure everything. Her sexy French ways are pretty cute tho.
I really like Mad Men. I know it can drag a little but it is good tv. It is the story of my generation. History and it strikes a cord deep inside me.
I was glad that the affair with Sylvia ended. It seemed arbitrary to me from the outset and too much a digression.

I too am curious of the What About Bob question. he reminds me of a couple of eager beavers I worked with. One turned out fine. Once he settled in he was a great addition but I always had the feeling that it was a role when he started but one that he just settled into. The other turned out to be lacking in content and eventually tried to play the office politics schmoozer role. That was beyond his grasp. I'm not as convinced as you about the Eve Harrington scenario but it's a storyline that any writer would find hard to resist.

I liked the closing musical number. It captured some of the optimism of the day and provided the dashed expectations contrast that so many of us felt when RFK was assassinated. But keep in mind that era also featured a lot of discordant songs - A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, It's Alright Ma, The End, Revolution and the early Velvet Underground.

Cleverly written review as always Nelle.
Thank you for this, each episode the characters and the messages seems to get more obvious and oblique at the same time, confusing the hell out of me. Jon Hamm is masterful in so many subtle ways, the proverbial layers of an onion. And yes, I too like Linda Cardellini, have done ever since she was the tough/tender single mom nurse on ER.

Pete was chewing the scenery much more than usual this week... I know we're meant to dislike him, but really, his arc continues to get creepier and less interesting.

I have to admit I'm becoming annoyed and restless with the male-female relationships, perhaps Weiner is too? The S and M seemed contrived. I never liked the Don and Sylvia affair, though its first reveal packed a punch. How can Megan possibly be so blind or is it willful ignorance? Maybe she represents that half generation, caught between 50s morals and 60s freedom, caught off guard when the real world turns ugly.

I want more office and client conflict and intrigue.. who knew Ken was such a lightening rod and focal point until he wasn't there? Bob's there for a reason, a new story line I believe will give us our money's worth in time. Same with Ted. Why was Dawn so conspicuously missing? I do agree Bert Peterson would have been a great foil for Roger, in fact almost his raison d'être. Will Don reprise that role or perhaps that's where Bob comes in?

As always, I couldn't have watched Mad Men without you.
Still no television at my house, but you post so rarely I had to come by and say hello...hello!

Have you ever thought about sending around course proposals for examination of this show to area colleges? You've clearly raised the discourse to an intelligent and scholarly level. Especially if you took into consideration how viewing a certain period from the perspective of the present period involves a projection of the prevailing cultural point of view. Such a course would get wait-listed into three figures. Harvard has offered one on The Wire for a few years now. To be a fly on the wall for that one.
Zanelle, thanks. I think it's clear that Don's not using the domination games for sexual satisfaction but for something else. I also think the part of the break up conversation in which he refers to satisfaction and Sylvia talks about shame was interesting. I think those things are quite mixed up in his mind given his upbringing. And I don't trust Bob, either!

Abra, I'm convinced that Bob is playing a role in some way. Last night on my radio show, I talked about how his scenes recall a flashback some seasons ago that showed how Don got his job at the original Sterling Cooper firm, by getting Roger so drunk that he couldn't remember that he didn't actually hire Don the way Don claimed he had -- in other words, Don conned his way in. And in those scenes, Don came across very much like Bob, very eager and ambitious but seemingly in a normal way, until you find out about the con. I think Bob is a young version of Don, and also has some kind of darkness inside him.

Sally, very thoughtful comments as always. I like that phrase "half generation" -- I'll be stealing that from you somewhere along the line writing about this show! I agree that Megan seems willfully blind but I also think Don's a master at covering his tracks, from long experience at deceiving people. The part of him that seems to me sociopathic enables him to be utterly convincing because he appears to feel no guilt, as he explains to Sylvia at one point. And I also agree that more office intrigue will be refreshing, and it does seem like where we're headed given the merger. I'm particularly itching to see how the Chevy storyline plays out given that wonderful new car is in fact the Vega, but the internal power plays could be fascinating. I wonder if the Dawn absence was really scripted or perhaps the actress got sick and they wrote around her, as it didn't seem to go anywhere. Like you, I'd like to see more of Ken, who has grown on me as a character during the course of the show.

Thanks, my dear Greenheron! They've done at least one MM class here, too, at UC Berkeley. I think it was a student-led class. One of my MM articles for Salon actually ended up in a textbook, "How to Write Anything," and it's also been cited in student papers, as I've found out from the internet. That's an odd feeling!
i like coming late to these, as usual. we didn't watch sunday's episode until last night, and by then many people had read and commented on your essay. by waiting until now i get to read it all.

your reviews are so good, i always find something that makes me (at least) reconsider an impression i'd made and sometimes change my mind. that's the best kind. thanks, nelle.