'Mad Men' Recap: The Vietnam Affair

Don tries to help a draft-dodger while the enigmatic Bob Benson opens up to Pete

Jon Hamm as Don Draper on 'Mad Men'
Frank Ockenfels/AMC
Jon Hamm as Don Draper on 'Mad Men'
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There weren't any prominent pop tracks featured in this episode of Mad Men, but I would say that everyone's theme song for "Favors" was "Nowhere to Run." For Don and Sally, especially, the doorway metaphor came roaring back with a vengeance, but no matter how many doors they opened and closed, they remained trapped in their misery. The episode's title couldn't have been more straightforward: There were favors abound, but the consequences outweighed the kind gestures, culminating in one of the most horrifying moments in the series' six-season history.

Inside 'Mad Men': The Cast in Their Own Words

Don, upon learning that Arnold and Sylvia's 19-year-old son, Mitchell, is 1A for the Vietnam draft, jumps through hoop after hoop to get this kid out of serving in the rice paddies. When he succeeds, thanks to Ted's aviation connections, he calls the Rosen residence to give them the good news. Sylvia answers the phone, and if it wasn't clear beforehand, their tear-stained conversation confirms that Don saved Mitchell not because he's so anti-war (which he is), but because he's still in love with Sylvia. Shortly after we see the phone call take place, Sally, who's in town to participate in Model UN, is sneaking into the Rosens' apartment to steal back a "Why I Like Mitchell" slam-book letter her friend Julie slipped under the shaggy-haired boy's door. The letter becomes a distant memory as the image of Don and Sylvia, half-undressed, their limbs wrapped around each other, mere minutes away from penetration, is permanently seared into Sally's memory. If she thought that brush with a little oral sex at an advertising gala two years ago was merely "dirty," I shudder to think of the words that are going through her head now.

No Way Out
After initially blowing off Mitchell's cry for help (he meets with Megan to see if she can help him escape to Canada), hypocritically stating that "he can't spend the rest of his life on the run," Don begins working his contacts. Eventually he makes his desperation known at a dinner with the Chevy representatives, with Jim, Ted and Roger in attendance. He makes small talk about his friend's son's predicament, only to be met with awkward stares from his colleagues and a comment that draft-dodgers "make me sick" from the Chevy rep. The next morning, Ted rips into Don for daring to make their clients uncomfortable by bringing up such a heady subject. But once again, as with the acquisition of the Chevy account, it turns out that Ted is exactly who Don needs right now. The man who taught Ted how to fly is a brigadier general in the Air National Guard, and he's always on the lookout for "exceptional young men" to become pilots. If Ted makes a call, it could be Mitchell's ticket out of Vietnam. But the phone call comes at a price, and it's not just Ted's astute insult: "I bet you don't have a lot of friends, Don, so I'm going to assume this is important." Ted eloquently and calmly puts his foot down, and demands that Don stop competing with him ("lower your weapons"). They are on the same team now – it's no longer SCDP vs. CGC. Don has to cease his campaign for the Sunkist account, because they're going after Ocean Spray instead, and they need to do so with a unified front. It's no wonder Peggy is in love with Ted – he handles business in a much more logical, efficient and calm way than Don ever did. And the only thing that keeps me from calling him a genuinely decent person is that he's neglectful of his family.

In an emotional phone call, Sylvia sobs with relief that Don has saved her son from harm's way, and admits that she was frustrated with their relationship. "You were good to me, better than I was to you," she tells Don. She knows he did this because he loves her, although she doesn't necessarily reciprocate that love over the phone. But Don's actions were enough to send any fragile mother over the edge, so while it was a shock for Sally to see her father in heat with her crush's mother, it wasn't exactly a surprise to see this affair rekindled. The scene where Sally walks in on the two of them is played perfectly: Sylvia panics in embarrassment, pounding the bed in vexation that she let herself get sucked into this mess again. Don, chasing after a mortified Sally (who hopped into a cab), paces the lobby, walking through the building's doors onto the street, literally nowhere for him to run.

Don spends the rest of the afternoon getting plastered, knowing he's reached the point of no return on his foolish actions. He arrives back home to find Megan, Sally and Julie eating dinner, but he looks like he's going to pass out, and his daughter, with her pained expression, can't even look him in the eye. Before Don can retreat to his bedroom, Arnold and his son stop by to thank him for helping Mitchell avoid the draft, which, only causes a thoroughly oblivious Megan to declare, "You are the sweetest man!" Sally's heard and seen enough, snapping "You make me sick!" in response to Megan's naive comment. Don, speaking to his daughter through her locked door, but knowing he can't talk his way out of this 60-foot deep hole he's dug for himself, weakly attempts his usual lines of "I know you think you saw something. I was comforting Mrs. Rosen. It's very complicated." Sally accepts his explanation, but once she throws herself onto her bed, it's evident that her father's lies aren't going to work on her anymore, because there is no denying what she saw. Don knows that, so he slowly walks into his bedroom and closes the door. The door metaphors were abundant in "Favors," but with more closed doors than open ones, the final two episodes of the season portend much more sadness and potential death.

Cracking the Case
The nurse that Bob Benson recommended to Pete to help take care of his dementia-stricken mother, Dorothy, is working wonders. So much so that now Dorothy has gotten it into her head that she and the nurse, Manolo, are having a sexual relationship. And that's when the consequences of Bob's seemingly innocuous favor begin to rear their ugly head. Peggy spent an awkward few minutes entertaining Pete's visiting mother at the office, only to have Dorothy mistake her for Trudy – Peggy's reaction when Dorothy mentioned "the child they have together" was just the right mix of confusion and fear. But it was Dorothy's revelation that her bond with Manolo included "spa treatments that released a fire in her loins" that motivated Peggy to share her conversation with Pete. Done so over oysters, drinks and a lot of laughs, it was actually delightful to see Peggy and Pete in a healthy place with each other after all the drama they've been through together. "You really know me," Pete tells her.

Once Dorothy has corroborated Peggy's story: "Manny has awakened a part of me that has been long-dormant," Pete is furious at this breach of medical trust. Plus I'm sure he's silently racist enough that he's disgusted at the idea of a "Manolo" sleeping with his mother. But Dorothy knows where to hit her son where it hurts when he threatens to fire Manolo: "You've always been unlovable." In actuality, whether or not Dorothy and Manolo are having a sexual relationship remains ambiguous. What's important is his companionship is making her happy. That's what Bob tries to explain to Pete after the junior partner goes ballistic on him for recommending a "rapist" to take care of his mother. And that's when the big mystery of Bob Benson is finally revealed – he's gay, and he's in love with Pete.

First off, Bob assures Pete that Dorothy and Manolo are not in love ("I don't think that Manolo's interests turn that way" – suggesting Manolo himself is gay). Then Bob, with his irrepressible smile, launches into a speech over the idea of love, and it not mattering who it's between. It becomes evident pretty quickly that he's not talking about Manolo and Dorothy, but himself – and Pete. "If this person would do anything for you, if your well-being was his only thought, is it impossible that you might begin to feel something for him?" All of the subtle, kind gestures that Bob had been making toward Pete throughout the season make sense now, and when he punctuates his monologue with a slight push of his knee against Pete's, it's also clear how far we've come since 1963, when the deeply closeted Sal Romano couldn't even admit to himself how he felt about men.

Pete recoils his knee and announces he's letting Manolo go with a month's pay, effectively rejecting Bob's advances. Bob, who knows how to play the game at this point, smiles in agreement, and walks out of the office, his face crestfallen once his back is turned. Well done to James Wolk here, whose quietly moving performance I've been admiring since he first walked into that elevator carrying two coffees.

Wrap-Up
With two episodes left, I really hope that there's more of a backstory to Bob Benson, because simply making him gay was a disappointment, despite it making tons of sense. He's not the first gay character on the show, so what else is it about him that's making us rack our brains over his intentions? I still think there's something to the corporate spy or government agent theories. And Peggy's personal life seems to have hit an all-time low. Now that she's single and Ted is more interested in repairing his relationships within his own family, she's alone in a rat-infested apartment and can't even get Stan to come over to dispose of the trapped rat's bloody trail (who else thought of Annie Hall during that scene?). By the end of the episode, she was sitting alone on her couch, watching TV – with a cat by her side. Sure, she probably got the cat to take care of the mice, but it was eerily reminiscent of her mother's warning from last season when she advised Peggy against moving in with Abe: "If you're lonely, get a cat."

Previously: Working Girl

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