|Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Ted (Kevin Rahm) Jessica Brooks/AMC|
Mad Men seems to be fully embracing its inner soap opera this season and more often than not, it hasn’t worked well for the show. Soaps are infamous for their glacial pacing, coincidental encounters and over-the-top melodrama, and all three of those elements have been present in Mad Men‘s sixth season. Characters like Don and Roger haven’t changed at all, there was an all-too-convenient merger that placed Peggy back with her co-workers after barely a season apart and the overbearing, unsubtle death motif has weighed down on the show. Sometimes, though, soap operas can feature some of the most compelling character moments in narrative storytelling, and that’s how “The Quality of Mercy” felt. The amount of tension in this episode through both dialogue and lack thereof made this one of the most compelling of the season. What I liked is that the characters featured in this episode either went too far, said too much or tried to put a stop to either of those things. Peggy and Ted’s work flirtation finally reaches unbearable status to everyone around them, Don takes advantage of a dead man to help salvage an account and the continued mystery of Bob Benson causes Pete to invest himself too deep.
The Peggy-Ted relationship has been a slowly building to a crescendo over the course of the season, and in “The Quality of Mercy” they finally reached the tipping point. As Peggy develops an elaborate idea for a television ad for St. Joseph’s, Ted continuously strokes her ego and allows her to go well over the designated budget. Most of their co-workers plainly see how obvious their relationship is, but no one addresses it directly. They giggle excessively at each other’s jokes, they sneak off in the middle of the afternoon to see Rosemary’s Baby (using the excuse of “doing research” for the ad) and they touch each other enough to turn more than a few heads. Don, who has a vested relationship with both Peggy and Ted seems the most troubled by the relationship’s development and actively seeks out trying to put an end to it.
Don spends much of this episode in a disheveled state, which makes sense after his daughter literally caught him with his pants down cheating on Megan. He looks horrible, as Megan notes at the beginning of the episode and his haggard appearance definitely translates to his behavior. Though he spends much of the episode away from the office, that doesn’t stop him from causing destruction to those around him. At home, he bullies Harry into getting rid of the Sunkist client on the phone, telling him he should’ve gotten rid of it weeks ago. After discussing the developing Peggy-Ted relationship with Megan, Don calls Harry back and presumably gives him the go-ahead to sign a TV ad deal with them. Knowing full well that Ted’s account is Ocean Spray, Don and Roger delightedly tell the other partners that Sunkist would be willing to pay them $8 million for TV spots, forcing Ted to give up his account due to the companies being in competition.
Of course, that isn’t the worst of Don’s passive-aggressive manipulation in this episode. Don sends St. Joseph’s the expanded budget for the Peggy and Ted’s ad, which makes the company stop them in their tracks during casting. They have an emergency meeting with SC&P and Don subtly works everyone in the room. He hints to the St. Joseph representative that Ted had a personal interest in the ad, clearly referring to his relationship with Peggy. The St. Joseph’s rep doesn’t know about this, but Don allows an uncomfortable amount of time for Ted to explain the situation himself, thoroughly embarrassing both him and Peggy. When Ted tells him he has no idea what he’s talking about, Don gives them a knowing look and asks, “Should I tell them?” The look on Ted’s face is priceless as Don proceeds to tell the rep that the ad was Frank Gleason’s last idea. Gleason apparently had a good standing relationship with the rep, and he agrees to compromise with the budget, allowing them to make the ad. At the end of the episode, Peggy desperately explains, “You killed him. You killed the ad, you killed everything.” Though she is clearly biased in this conflict, it’s hard to not take her side. “You’re a monster,” she concludes. In a way, this feels like a climactic moment, both for the season and for the Peggy-Don relationship. Don is irredeemable at this point. He has isolated all of his friends, his wife, his daughter and his co-workers. The only person he seems to relate to is Betty, who he shares a phone call with early in the episode. Over the years, the show has revealed how similar Don and Betty really are, without either character consciously knowing it. I’m intrigued to see if the writers explore this dynamic in the season finale as well as in the show’s last season.
The Pete-Bob Benson scene at the end of last week’s episode was one of the most interesting developments of the season so far and I was excited to see the mystery of Bob Benson explored even more here. Pete gets Duck Phillips (hey Mark Moses!) to investigate the mysterious BB and learns of his rather questionable past. Duck tells him that Bob used to be a manservant for an exclusive company and had a shady educational experience. “It might as well have been written in steam,” Duck says of Bob’s education and employment background. Pete confronts Bob about the newfound information but explains that he’s essentially going to keep him in his back pocket. Pete has been through having a co-worker committing identity fraud in the past: the similarly alliterative Don Draper. Over the years, Pete has learned to trust men like that since they have the confidence to create entire timelines and trick themselves into being happy. They are also brilliant con artists in a field that tends to reward flattery and bullshit, so Pete looks up to men like Don Draper and Bob Benson in a way. As a side note, the whole “Bob Benson is gay!” revelation that many espoused at the end of the last episode may not even be true, as he complains on the phone that Pete is a “snotty bastard” who’s ruining his future. I can’t wait to see what the writers have in store for the guy in the finale.
The other major storyline in this episode was Sally’s trip to boarding school. She convinced her mother to take her there of her own volition and easily gains acceptance. She gets in with a group of snotty girls who chastise her for not bringing booze or cigarettes. Naturally, Sally calls up GLEN, who has creeped up the show in guest appearances since season 1 and is now a full-grown teen. He brings along a suave kid named Rolo, who comes on to Sally aggressively. Sally immediately shuts down and asks Glen to defend her, and defend her he does. Glen and Rolo get into a fistfight as Sally looks on slyly. She clearly feels good seeing Glen defend her, indicating that she’s more her mother’s daughter than she thinks or wants. In her trip home with Betty, I was waiting for Sally to reveal what she saw at the end of “Favors” but she ultimately keeps quiet. As Betty allows her to smoke a cigarette in the car, it’s apparent that Sally has become a grownup faster than she ever should have, and it’s mostly her parents’ faults. Don and Betty are so caught up in their own worlds, however, that they may never know why their daughter will one day require years of therapy.
I very much enjoyed this episode, even if it wasn’t as “action-packed” as penultimate episodes of the past. There is so much here that’s boiling at the surface, ready to come bursting forward despite our characters’ intentions. Don and Megan may have been more amiable than in previous episodes, but that doesn’t mean their marriage is any less fractured. Betty seems to be harboring some feelings for Don after their night spent together at Bobby’s camp. Peggy and Ted are harboring so much resentment for Don that the pair may do something drastic to get back at him. Finally, Bob Benson’s story feels like it’s about to finally come to surface and reveal how similar he is to Don Draper, our main character we’ve followed since the beginning. This season has had a pretty rocky road compared to seasons past, but I think Matt Weiner and company are really nailing down a solid ending that will lead to some intriguing developments for the show’s seventh and final season.
MVP: James Wolk
Guest Actor in a Drama Series: James Wolk
Writing for a Drama Series: Andre Jacquemetton & Maria Jacquemetton