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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: Mad Men, Man With A Plan

Season 6, Episode 7
Grade: C+
Verdict: In the Season's weakest episode thus far, we see the evolution of Don into outright villainy and manipulation while his company grows by leaps and bounds in the background. We also receive the least interesting Pete Campbell subplot in quite some time. In what should have been a story brimming with promise, everything just feels tired, and warmed over.

I apologize in advance if this ends up being my shortest Mad Men review yet. When walking into "Man With A Plan", my excitement was literally brimming over. The merger between SCDP and CGC held so many promising possibilities for storytelling. How are Ted and Don going to work together? What new cast members might come to the forefront from CGC? Who new will Bob find to suck up to? The episode even begins very promisingly, with Don faced with a terribly awkward fight between Sylvia and Arnold, which he quickly avoids. This scene is then followed by the "moving in" segment that I was worried we might not get with Mad Men's flash-forward style of storytelling. There's alot of rich material to mine with the melding of these two companies and I'm glad that Weiner saw fit to at least give the audience some semblance of the awkward union thats been formed. I found myself particularly taken with how well Roger and Jim Cutler were getting on with each other, which is fitting since Peggy was able to see the comparison between the two. Roger gets another great moment when he once again gets to fire Burt Peterson and may have uttered his greatest line all series in "You stole my line, Burt!" Roger is a cold son of a bitch sometimes, but when you're that smooth, it's hard not to admire.

If the episode had maintained this kind of frenetic energy and pace, or at least returned to it at some point, my feelings may have at least been somewhat kinder. "Man With A Plan" gives us the full realization of Don as villain motif that was introduced last week. This time, instead of Joan, his victim is Ted, whom Don has seemingly torn feelings about. We've seen this sort of reaction from Don before, the man who is typically so cool and a "cold fish" as Burt states, has few to no friends. The budding relationship he was building with Arnold was a strange one for him, but it's become all too clear what's going on. Don wants a peer, not a friend in the strictest of senses. Even when we think, perhaps Don may finally be buddy-ing up with someone, like Arnold (and who else would an ad executive with Don's level of ego find himself on equal footing with but a heart surgeon?), he has to prove his superiority by sleeping with the man's wife. While I've had some issues with the affair plot this season, insomuch as Sylvia has yet to be a fully-formed character, I've enjoyed this element of Don's characterization in regard to Arnold. In "Man With A Plan", we get the repeat of this exact same theme between Don and Ted: where Don sees his gallant equal come into the Partners' meeting and offer his chair up to the secretary and be the nice guy that all the staff may come to love, Don needs to find a way to one-up him. Don does this by way of shoving tons of drinks down his throat until he's unable to function. But in the end, as Don remarks, it's Ted that is the one flying them to their own meeting. Don's envy bleeds over. While it's a nice turnabout on this idea, it's still one that has been repeated ad nauseum throughout the series, between Don and Roger, Don and Artie, and now Don and Ted. This is an angle on Don that needs freshening up. 

Speaking of needing to shake things up, we mercifully get the end of the Don-Sylvia romance, and it couldn't come a moment too soon. At no point in this season have ever learned just why Don ever found this woman so appealing vs. his own wife, beyond the fact that its just a pattern of person that Don falls hardest for. But each successive week we're given shorter and less interesting scenes between the two characters. This episode, Don shifted more toward the dominant, which is in line with his behavior throughout the episode, the problem being that it his interactions with Sylvia in this way go on for so long that it becomes a slog to get through. By the time she gets fed up with having to be holed up in a hotel room, I feel like Sylvia was just an audience surrogate, giving this affair a mercy killing. It's the best thing she's done all season, rejoice! Don, for his part, looks more forlorn and distant than he's ever been. The predictable response would be that his marriage with Megan is nearing its close, the more novel approach would be if Don could just get over it.

John Slattery does a nice enough job behind the camera, as he tends to always do on this show (I'm shocked that Mad Men is his only work in the area), but even he can't save the dull introduction of Pete's Alzheimer's stricken mother into the episode's narrative. I can't quite nail it down why this element was such a struggle for me in my initial viewing, but perhaps it feels just a bit forced. Pete is a man with no direction, now firmly separated from Trudy and constantly worried that his position as a partner may be in question. So it seems odd that all of a sudden, his mother would be forced on him by his brother who no longer wants to take care of. Perhaps my trouble with it, is the convenience of it as a plot device. Pete will display some form of growth almost assuredly because of this, and while it's an admirable thing, it seems to be such an obvious plot that I'm somewhat disappointed that the series is going there. I hope I'm wrong, as if there's anything Mad Men does, it subverts your expectations more often than not. But based more around the writing of these scenes, it's off to a bit of a rough start.

One area that does contain some promise though, is the plot that was built around Bob and Joan. The initial introduction of Joan's pelvic pain, again, seemed a little too convenient in terms of introducing another plot device (not that Ovarian cysts are ever convenient), but it had an unnatural way of being conveyed. Of interest though, is how this angle was utilized to finally give some fleshing out to Bob, who hasn't done much other than hilariously brown-nose his way around the SCDP offices. When he notices Joan in pain, his taking her to the hospital discreetly could be read one of two ways, either Bob recognizes an opportunity to save his own skin due to the large-scale lay-offs or Bob is just simply a nice guy doing the right thing. Either way, Bob's head is saved for another day as Joan speaks up for him at the final meeting to cut back staff (which did not occur for Burt Peterson as seen above). There's two possibilities for the direction in which this could go, either it's just a one episode turn with Joan and Bob never interacting again on any grand scale, or its the beginning of a possible romantic entanglement between the two. There have been a few hints in the past couple of episodes that Joan may have a taste for younger men, as seen in her outing with friend from Mary Kay, and having her mother not so unsubtly push it certainly leads her arc towards that direction. A possible Bob-Joan romance would be unforeseen, but as always, that's what I like best about Mad Men. 

I just wish the rest of the episode had that same crispness.
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