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JUN
10
10 MOS

'Mad Men' Deconstruction Episode 11: 'Favors'

Despite some feints and dodges that are unbelievable, the latest "Mad Men" returns to what it does best -- upending Don's perfect world and making him accountable, uncomfortable and unhappy.

Kiernan Shipka
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Kiernan Shipka plays Sally Draper on "Mad Men"

In television dramas, there’s the set-up episode, the climactic episode and the aftermath episode, at least in the modern-day telling of most higher-end cable series. Last week’s much-talked-about Game of Thrones was the climactic episode followed by Sunday’s less dramatic aftermath episode.

But often times on Mad Men, a great deal of the episodes feel like they’re setting up something else. In part, that’s because Mad Men is about nuance and small moments and nobody is going to turn a wedding into a bloodbath, though the occasional minor car crash has happened and there’s been a foot-and-lawn-mower incident, of course.

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But Mad Men is mostly interior stories, based on relationships and the actions – emotional, intellectual, sometimes physical – of people in those relationships. It moves slowly. It pays off in different levels of satisfaction. In “Favors,” an otherwise nondescript episode that kept several storylines simmering (and, unfortunately, touched upon two arcs without much believability), we got a Mad Men-style payoff to Don’s infidelity that was long in coming and devastating in its impact.

I certainly hope Matt Weiner and his writers weren’t using the rat in Peggy’s apartment as some kind of metaphor for Don, but otherwise all the signs were there for his fall from the grace given to him by the one person who believes in his worth and the one person it would devastate him to let down – Sally.

“You hate that Daddy supports my dreams,” Sally yells at Betty when Betty doesn’t want her to stay in a co-ed hotel for the Model U.N. club that Henry urged her to join. “Your father is a hero!” Betty yells in a mocking tone after Sally runs off.

Uh-oh.

We were certainly being set up for the fall that would conclude the episode. But before we get there, a couple of the emotional missteps happened (or, in one case, continued to happen). After Don goes out of his way to help Arnold Rosen’s son Mitchell avoid the draft, he calls Arnold to relay news that, if everything works, it just may happen (a stint in the much less dangerous Air National Guard) and Sylvia picks up the phone instead.

Now, I’ve had issues with the Don-and-Sylvia storyline since episode one. First because it was just more of the same for Don when season six should have been the time that Don truly began facing his existential crisis (of which seeking pleasure in mistresses and ultimately being unfulfilled by them is a part). The big reveal at the end of the two-hour season opener was Sylvia (which was disappointing to me), but then we were given Don’s introspective response to Sylvia’s question about what he wants: “I want to stop doing this.” Alas, hope – Don’s story would begin moving forward!

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But the second episode was as if Don had forgotten those words and season six hinged greatly on his affair with Sylvia, which hasn’t been all that compelling, and brought up, without any proof of showing it, that Don might be in love with Sylvia.

What? It made no sense (as I’ve detailed in these previous deconstructions). So to have Sylvia cry on the phone in "Favors" and tell Don that she knows the real reason he did it – for her, not for Mitchell or Arnold – rang hollow.

“You were good to me. Better than I was to you,” Sylvia said. Really? Don was good to her? When? In what scene? He dismissed their relationship as mere sex, something not to be ruminated over. He handed her money after sex like a prostitute. She always seemed nervous when they were out to dinner. And then there was the hotel domination thing that ultimately didn’t work out and ended up annoying Sylvia.

Where’s the love? I noted before that Don pining for Sylvia was a dramatic result without proof and, after a couple of episodes joyously sans Sylvia, she’s back and Don sounds love-struck and hurt that Sylvia felt nothing for him. Since when does Don sheepishly ask a woman if it's true she felt nothing? 

Having watched this episode twice, it seems that there’s a disconnect in the dialog and the intention of the concept. And here’s what I mean by that: When Don hears about Mitchell sending his draft card back in protest and getting reclassified as 1A – meaning he could ship out to Vietnam at any time – Don’s thinks that was stupid on Mitchell’s part. He doesn’t immediately think, Oh poor Sylvia must be a wreck. In fact it’s Arnold who comes to Don and the two drink and talk family. In that scene the writing makes us believe that Don, who has always liked Arnold despite screwing his wife in secret, is relating to Arnold father to father. Arnold says Mitchell is soft and that he’s “the best” kid – his panic and fear that his child could die is palpable and Don relates to it.

I read that scene both literally and as a reiteration of Don’s one outstanding quality that’s been evident through the years – that despite all of his faults, he’s always been a good father. He loves his kids. Because of how he was raised, being a good and loving father has been one of his highest priorities, even if he’s messed up in other areas (the soulless search for happiness). And it’s clear, after seeing how the episode ended, that this fathers and sons and daughters thing was a key emotional touchstone.

Doing it for Sylvia because he loves her? Nope. Not buying that at all.

And there’s the issue of Bob Benson, who has gone from intriguingly weird to annoying to utterly unbelievable. I’ll buy him as a suck-up careerist. I’ll buy him as that plus an opportunist for himself and for Joan. Mostly I buy that he’s smart. He reads people well. Which makes the Pete knee-to-knee come-on ring false. If Bob is gay he’s got the worst gaydar ever. Pete? Only if he’s been tamping it down under layers of his personal disgust and shame (not out of the question), which in turn would undermine his marriage, his affairs (particularly with Beth) and everything else the writers have hinted at since the series started. Which would be lazy -- a worse crime than simply being implausible.

So, we are to believe Bob suddenly can’t read people? Not buying that at all.

(As an aside about Pete: Who among us didn't want to rise up and start clapping when Pete's mother told him, with a good deal of force and scorn, "You were a sour little boy. And you're a sour little man. How could I expect you to be understanding? You've always been unlovable." Ouch. And wow.)

Despite all of these character actions not adding up in a believable way, what made “Favors” work just enough in the end is Sally catching Don and Sylvia. Never mind the visceral shock, the crushing blow it dealt Sally was emotionally gutting – the kind that will take years to undo, if then. And for the first time in ages – perhaps going back to Betty finding out that he’s Dick Whitman – Don’s world caves in. He’s spun. In a season where he’s looked unshaven, less than perfectly coifed and a bit bloated, Don has never looked worse for wear. His panic is familiar. His lost bearings and inability to fix things (even Don knows that Sally is not going to buy the “I was comforting Mrs. Rosen” line) expertly returned us to Don’s inner demons.

Listen, I’ll put up with the Sylvia detour if Don gets back to that dark hole of self-loathing because he’s not the man he wants to be – because he doesn’t know who, how or what to be. Season six has seemed a little bit like it’s stretching out the story so that the seventh and final season can begin to wrap it all up (not very neatly one would hope). Don desperately doesn’t want to lead an examined life – it’s too painful and confusing to him. The ignorant bliss of a new identity, lies that can be spun into a career, drinking and womanizing – those are all so much safer to embrace.

Don not wanting to be Don – as we saw at the end of the two-hour premiere – collides nicely with Don’s fear of death (in several episodes this season) and this implosion of his last mystique, the near-to-perfect father, as Sally finds out about him, was painful to witness. I will take that, even if I have to take Sylvia and Bob Benson with it.

Let’s hope Mad Men continues to let Don unravel. That’s an end result that’s believable, unlike several other storylines currently in play.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine