In the aftermath of last week's plot-twisty episode "For Immediate Release," I had the opportunity to interview Kevin Rahm (a.k.a. Ted Chaough), who promised "a lot of good stuff" in the coming episodes. "It only gets better from here," he said.
That may be so, but instead of the seventh fulfilling course, "Man With a Plan" felt more like a palate cleanser. And there were a few too many familiar plot devices that have me referring to Mad Men as, for the first time, repetitive. Now, I'm not accusing co-writers Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner of rehashing old story lines à la Little House on the Prairie (which featured not one but three Very Special Episodes that dealt with morphine addiction), but, the layoffs that were par for the course following SCDP and CGC's merger (still no name for the new company) seemed awfully reminiscent of the events in the final episodes of Season Four. Although I did like how Joan managed to subtly yet effectively reward the overeager accounts man Bob Benson for his kindness in taking her to the hospital when she had a medical emergency (ovarian cyst). A few positive words from SCDP's only female partner saved the two-coffee-holding Bob from the chopping block. If that wasn't enough, it was déjà vu all over again when Burt Peterson, former Sterling Cooper head of accounts who was unceremoniously fired back in Season Three, and who resurfaced as Peggy's colleague at CGC, was given his walking papers by a gleeful Roger (John Slattery pulling double duty as director this episode).
Don's impulsive behavior last episode, in which he persuaded Ted and his partners to merge with SCDP so they could land a Chevy account, has resulted in a rather chaotic office, as well as Don's feeling of having lost control of his life again. So what does he do? He outdrinks Ted and lures Sylvia to a hotel room at the Sherry Netherland where the two of them star in their own 1968 version of 50 Shades of Grey. But when none of Sylvia's safe words work (I would've gone with "Arnold"), she ends their affair, permanently, leaving Don even more detached from Megan, as well as from the latest national tragedy to hit the media.
The End of the Affair
From the very start of the episode, Don knew Sylvia would be vulnerable, so he checked her in to the Hotel for Wayward Doctor's Wives Who Like to Have Sex With Married Admen Permanently Damaged From Spending Their Teenage Years in a Brothel. He had overheard Sylvia screaming at her husband over his decision to move to Minneapolis for another job (a plot development that allowed Sylvia to disappear into a hotel for days on end). From what Don could tell, his mistress wanted out of her marriage, so what better way to celebrate this development than to command Sylvia to fetch his shoes on her hands and knees, and to lock her in the hotel room, directing her to remain naked and in bed while she masturbates to his incessant phone-ringing (she's been ordered not to answer it). She enjoys the role-playing to a point, but after Don provides her with a Saks-boxed slinky red dress, then informs her that they're not going out on the town, the fantasy begins to crumble – especially when Don starts opening his mouth and she realizes she is merely an object to him. "You exist in this room for my pleasure," he intones. By the time Don returns the next day, Sylvia's been freaked out enough by Don's D/M tendencies and is ready to bolt back to the stable, bland existence of her marriage to Arnie. But her strength shines through when she throws Don's arrogant words about how giving up an affair is easy when you're "satisfied." As the one person who can see right through him, she laments, "It's easy to give up something when you're ashamed."
For all of Don's intimidating and aggressive tactics that he used on Sylvia throughout this exercise in dominance and submission, all it took was one rejection to reduce him to a begging Dick Whitman. The moment Sylvia refused him, all of the color washed away from Don's face, and his imposing expression melted into one of panic. I applaud Sylvia for removing herself from such a toxic situation, and whether Megan will be bumping into her again in the washer/dryer room remains to be seen. But it doesn't look like the Draper marriage is any more secure now that Sylvia is (supposedly) out of the picture. As Megan gushes to her husband about wanting to take another trip to Honolulu, her voice fades away until she's just a pretty face moving her lips, upholding the season-long theme of Don viewing women as little more than objects of sexual pleasure. In the final scene, as Megan watches the news of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, in an ingenious blocking decision, Don sits perpendicular to her on the bed, not looking at her, not looking at the TV, but perpetuating the ongoing detachment between husband and wife. The song that plays in the final seconds of the scene and over the credits, Friend and Lover's "Reach Out of the Darkness," may have seemed appropriate for the time period, but the hippie-dippie themes of the tune struck such a discordant note when played against a news broadcast of Bobby Kennedy's murder. The decision to run some of the news report over the actual song during the end credits harked back to Simon and Garfunkel's "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night," a beautifully rendered juxtaposition of peaceful thoughts and the harsh, turbulent reality of the day.
Don's need to assert himself in the bedroom is the result of a constant game of one-upmanship that has been going on with Ted from the moment both companies merged. First, Don wasn't too pleased when Ted took charge of a brainstorming meeting, even though Don was 40 minutes late due to getting lost in Sylvia's nether regions. So Don does what any mature adman would do, and proceeds to drink Ted under the table, causing Ted to pass out in the middle of the creative lounge following his feeble attempt to keep up. This of course gave Peggy an excuse to start sparring with Don again, which is all anyone wanted anyway since last season. Her immediate defense of Ted pours salt in Don's wounds from a year ago, so her former boss decides to play dirty: "We risked our entire company just so I could have you in this office complaining again." Still, Ted redeems himself in the eyes of his new partner as – he's a licensed pilot – he offered to fly Don upstate for an emergency meeting with Mohawk Airlines when a storm raged, and they both nail the meeting. (Side note: Anyone else think of that scene from So I Married an Axe Murderer when Mike Myers and Stephen Wright were packed into the cockpit like sardines and they had to fly in really bad weather?)
The Pete's-mother-is-going-senile story line has been seen in countless films and television shows, but I applaud Chellas and Weiner for using it to present the Bobby Kennedy assassination in a fresh and clever way: Dorothy Campbell, in a rare moment of lucidity, awakens her son to inform him "they shot that poor Kennedy boy." Pete, assuming she means John F. Kennedy, tells her she's about five years too late and goes back to sleep. I applaud Weiner, Chellas and Slattery for not hitting us over the head with the subject matter, in the way "The Flood" did. One episode a season devoted to a national tragedy is about all the American people can stomach. There will certainly be devastated characters – Peggy mentioned how much she loved RFK in last week's episode – but I have a feeling that story will all be old news by the time Mad Men returns next Sunday.
Previously: Fast & Furious