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Friday, June 21, 2013

Review: Mad Men, The Quality of Mercy

Season 6, Episode 12
Grade: A
Verdict: Now this is more like it! Mad Men returns to much tighter and forceful storytelling and brings back a level of unpredictability that was sadly missing in the last two week's meandering offerings. The conflict between Don and Ted continues to simmer, while whatever is going on with Bob Benson continues to be the show's most intriguing plot line. This was the episode needed to get everything back on track before the finale.

When "The Quality of Mercy" opens, we're treated to an ad from the 1968 Nixon presidential campaign. The ad, imploring viewers to vote Nixon to avoid falling into further social decay, prompts the idea of an "us vs. them" rhetoric. The idea is ironic as Richard Nixon's political mindset was thrust from this very idea, having been shunned by the wealthy elite, he began to stoke the fire that was his broad-based Southern Strategy/Silent Majority that he felt the Democrats of the late 60's had left behind. The idea that it's Don watching this ad in the midst of his own internal struggle is telling. Don silently sees his own chaos being manifested in these images and outwardly he is pushing away everyone that is seemingly against him, be it Megan with whom he clearly has little care for anymore or Ted and Peggy, who he feels are perhaps getting too close.

For Don, it's a modified version of "us vs. them" in as much as it's "me vs. them". When approached by Ted about the 8 Million Dollar ad buy by Sunkist that Harry secured despite the firm's commitment to Ocean Spray, Don is apologetic because he knows that this is one battle that he's won over Ted. Don is even able to win over Jim Cutler with the sheer amount of dollars involved. Yet, quickly following, Don is invited to view the ad pitch that Peggy and Ted developed for St. Joseph's. As this is post-he and Megan catching the two of them together at the movies for "research purposes", his suspicions about their possible dalliances are already on high alert. When Don gets a chance to view their pitch, and notices Ted put his hand on her waist, Don becomes like a jealous older brother. It's not because he has an attraction to Peggy, but it's because he always viewed Peggy as "his protege".

Instead of going to the movies with him, or instead of working with him on new pitches, she now relies on Ted for these things. Up until now, he had no ammunition with which to strike at this growing relationship, but when Ted puts the firm in some hot water regarding the St. Joseph ad budget, Don is able to pounce. The first strike being the call made to St. Joseph regarding the need for an increased budget, the second being the actual meeting where Don not only plays with the idea of "outing" Ted and Peggy but also assigns her idea to that of a dead man. It's a bit of a low move, but it wouldn't have existed if Ted didn't leave himself open to such an attack. When Don does his impression of a baby, there's more going on there than just play-acting. It's a visual manifestation of just what Don is becoming in the work place and in his personal life. When he doesn't get what he wants, he makes life hell for everyone else. When Peggy confronts him afterwards, stating that he's "ruined everything" (an ironic statement coming from a woman potentially home-wrecking), Don re-affirms his statement that he's "no better than me" and after Peggy leaves, he curls up in a fetal position and goes to sleep in his office. The rich visual metaphors keep on coming!

In another look at the "us vs. them" divide, Pete's on-going struggles with Bob and Manolo continue on as Pete is given an opportunity to take over the Chevy account after poor Ken gets a face-full of buckshot and an eyepatch to boot. Pete sees this an opportunity to step in where Ken, forever the person to put personal life ahead of work to his credit, is stepping aside. When the meeting occurs with the partners to discuss this handover, Pete learns that he'll have to work with Bob, with whom he's been having on-going struggles related to his mother and his belief that Bob is in love with him. When Bob confronts Pete, it might be my favorite moment of the entire episode, as Bob tells him so only he can hear "you need to watch what you say to people". Bob's snapping back and forth between boot-licking and threatening is one of the most fascinating qualities about the character.

Pete's antagonism with Bob takes another turn though after he learns from Duck Phillips that Bob is actually a fraud, having come up with his identity much in the same way that Don came up with his. This alters Pete's conflict slightly, as his feelings about Don come more to the fore and he somewhat takes that out on Bob. Yet, when he confronts Bob about this discovery, Pete relents halfway through the conversation. Perhaps spurred on by how he was burned the last time he made hay of someone's identity ("Mr. Campbell, who cares?") or maybe his perspective truly is shifting; Pete allows Bob to go on about his business and that they can work together, but not too closely. Pete continues to be my favorite character on the show. I'm also very satisfied with the way Bob is being used as a point of growth for Pete, a sort of proxy-Don continuing the reflection point that this season holds over the beginning of the series. This is probably as satisfying a close as I could imagine for the Bob storyline, with Pete being able to cross over and work with someone he despises without it satisfying too much of his own ends. It's no longer "me vs. them" for Pete, as he even apologizes and far more sincerely than Don did for Ted. Then again, watch Bob kill Megan next episode and I'll have been totally wrong.

Then there's Sally, who after having discovered his father's infidelity has decided she wants to go to Boarding School to fully get away from her parents. For Sally, it's "me vs. my parents" as she takes the opportunity to leave home. Her statement to her mother "my father has given me nothing" is a little overdramatic, and I can't help but wonder how she'd react to the idea that her father and mother have rekindled a little bit of their feelings towards one another. Yet Sally finds further conflict when she's dropped off at the school by her mother to stay the night. Her potential roommates are a bit of the bullying sort and play to a microcosm of the idea of the haves and have-nots: "You think we need money?". To Sally's credit, she's able to diffuse the situation pretty quickly by calling Glenn up to bring a friend that can roll joints, as well as provide booze. Eventually, everyone is Sally's friend, until she spurns Glenn's friend Rollo; but the message here is Sally is so desperate to get away from her parents that she's willing to turn herself into something else to accomplish that goal. In this case, Sally is trying to be a clone of the girls that she assumes populate the dorm.

And that brings us back to Don, while Pete and Sally are both able to basically diffuse their conflicts either through contrition or avoidance, Don wallows in it. It wasn't until this episode that I realized that a major underlying theme of this season is the deterioration of the relationship between Peggy and Don, which hit its apex with "The Briefcase" a few years ago and began to wear away from there. While the idea that Don is "a monster" is ridiculous, particularly considering that Peggy is no angel herself, it does highlight the idea that there's no real going back for them unless Don is the person to drop the conflict. Don has a choice, to either become the kind of man who screams "Get of my lawn!" or realize the error of his ways. Despite Ted's better efforts, it's still a matter of "us vs. them" for Don, which is just the kind of temperature in America that created wholesale political change that effected the country irrevocably. 

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