Tim Goodman on 'Mad Men': Dominant Don Gets Creepy; Series Continues on Right Track
Another excellent episode leaves a lot to talk about, but nothing quite as important as Don essentially holding Sylvia hostage in a hotel so that he can feel in control.
Last week Mad Men had its best episode since the season six premiere and it focused for the latter half on an excellent twist -- the merger between Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Mad Men tends to shake things up with big work announcements or big/crazy personal decisions and the latter, particularly if they involve Don, are generally more true to the core of the series. But sometimes the hyper-nuanced character study stuff is trumped by some good old action, some forward movement.
That’s why jumping into the intrigue of two rival ad agencies merging and all the politics and drama inherent in that seemed an obvious and interesting move. (Trying to imagine what it all means for each character after last week’s episode was giving me a headache, but also supplying anticipation and happiness, which the few previous episodes did not.)
And yet, even if the machinations of the merger in Sunday’s “Man With A Plan” episode were excellent, let’s just forget all of that this week. You saw it – plenty to chew on and enjoy and discuss later, particularly the Don and Ted dynamic.
But there’s just absolutely no way to dance around the Don Draper Issue in this episode. He was mean and creepy and unlikable – he’s been all of those things in the past, in various incarnations with women he’s been with. And yet, this might have been a new low, though it did at least solve, temporarily perhaps, my biggest disappointment about season six so far.
Sylvia and the affair.
That is, Mad Men is about Don Draper’s existential crises, his struggle with identity and the complicated, unsure pursuit of his happiness, which naturally circles back to his existential crises yet again. Don's the ultimate example of male Ouroboros. All of that interior action may bore you but it’s the crux of the series, with advertising, history, fashion, drinking and smoking following well behind. So the beauty of the first two hours of season six was Don being surrounded by images of death, happiness, identity – an episode that focused so extensively and unrelentingly on those issues that it marked itself as the most intensive ever in the series run as it pertained to those main topics.
The reveal at the end of the two hours -- that Don was having yet another affair -- was annoying, of course, but altered in a positive way by his confession that he wanted “to stop doing this.”
Unfortunately Don was up to his old tricks after that and Mad Men suffered from it. As Peggy bluntly told Don in this episode, “Move forward.” That was the exact feeling I was having as the Don and Sylvia affair played out. A great series in particular needs to keep proving itself and it can only do that by not settling. The past few episodes seemed like reruns from earlier seasons, an idea repeated once too often. By the end of “Man With A Plan” – again, an episode with a lot of excellent work situations I won’t get into – hope was restored.
Why? Because the episode started with Don overhearing Sylvia and Arnold arguing and perhaps splitting, as Arnold seemed to be heading for Minnesota. Don listened, then frantically pressed the “close doors” button on the elevator to get the hell away from it. And when Sylvia called him, looking a bit frumpier than we expect, Don said he was busy. At that precise moment, I hoped for Don to sever ties. Hell, the last thing the Don we know wants is someone clingy. And given Sylvia’s previous comment to him as they were about to have sex – “ We have to be careful; we can’t fall in love” – it seemed like The End. (I mean, when she said the thing about falling in love, I remember laughing and thinking, “Don’s not in this for love, honey.”)
Don agreed to meet Sylvia at a hotel, not her apartment – another good sign. But the moment he got there, tossed her on the bed and asked her to repeat what she said on the phone -- “I need you; nothing else will do” -- I began to worry all over again. What we’ve learned about Don and women in Mad Men is that he’s not interested in love. He did seem to love Megan, initially, and that was an excellent shifting of directions for the series because it was a much needed change; it was moving forward for Don. But that slowly eroded, clearly – Megan was at once too young, bringing into question Don’s age (cue up the Beatles, Don’s confusion and hey, take a look at this book on existential angst), plus she ended up being too famous and too desired by others.
So much for the love. Don has shown no inkling that love is a thing he desires. He didn’t love Rachel in season one – he just wanted to run away with her to escape his own past.
He didn’t love Faye – she was just the latest in a long line of women, from Midge to Rachel and various trysts between where Don was attracted to independent women who are smart and impulsive. But he never falls in love with them. He gives up on them after the thrill is gone. He only likes beginnings, as Faye so accurately said.
So Don was never going to fall in love with Sylvia. Even after he made her repeat those words -- "I need you; nothing else will do" -- he started into what can best be described as Creepy Don. He wanted to control Sylvia. He wanted to dominate her (although, curiously, we never see this pan out much sexually; though we have seen Don being slapped and punched by a prostitute, much to his liking).
No, what Don morphed into at his point is the Don who likes ultimate control (which is why he got Ted drunk in the episode, gaining the upper hand, only to lose it when he loses control in Ted’s airplane, displaying fear and even some Dick Whitman-esque cowardice).
Anyway, back to Sylvia. When she complains about Arnold, Don said she can’t talk about her husband when they’re together. To her credit, Sylvia retorted that she could talk about whatever the hell she wanted. It was fiery. But this is when Creepy Down tells her to go find his shoes. “I want you to crawl on your hands and knees until you find them …Do it.”
Jon Hamm did something interesting in that scene. He changed his facial expression so that he was distant, unreadable. He even squinted a bit. He changed his voice – deeper, slower. “What’s gotten into you?” Sylvia asked, but by then she was mildly intrigued by the game. Don was asserting himself. He was going to tell her what to do, what to wear. He was going to deny her things (like the ability to leave the hotel room; like taking the only book she had to fend off boredom – when she wasn’t masturbating over the game they were playing). He told it to her straight and cold. “You are for me. You exist in this room for my pleasure.”
(Credit the episode for playing off this strange but not unfamiliar turn from Don by cutting to a scene with Ted talking to Frank Gleason, his dying partner at the firm, about what Don is like: “He’s mysterious. And I can’t tell if he’s putting it on. He doesn’t talk for long stretches and then he’s incredibly eloquent.”)
Clearly, this Creepy Don personality made some viewers uncomfortable. But it’s been there before. It was there with Bobbie Barrett (not only in their sex play, but his infamous, not-playful crotch grab on her when he was upset); and it’s been there with Megan as well, when she’s cleaned the house and tried to deny him pleasure, only to have him aggressively turn the tables, etc. So, it’s not like we haven’t seen this side of Don, though it’s rare.
And it sure is ugly. And before Sylvia called a halt to it, you had to wonder why series creator Matt Weiner was going back to it. It doesn’t make Don any more likable. True, main characters don’t have to be likable but they have to have other intangibles that make people like them anyway, in spite of the bad stuff. In the past, for Don, it’s been because he’s suave, good-looking, doesn’t take bullshit from people (like Pete), holds his liquor, wears the hell out of a suit and dreams up great advertising campaigns.
But lately, all of those qualities have lost their luster. So Don having yet another fling – when he’s already married to the hot, young, apparently consistently willing Megan – is really testing fan loyalty.
Making Don darker and more creepy and cruel doesn’t help. At one point, however, I was sure he was doing all of this abusive hotel room stuff so that he would alienate Sylvia (having secretly heard her argument with Arnold), and make her want to turn away from Don, not fall back on this let’s-be-careful-not-to-fall-in-love nonsense.
But, no. Don’s behavior was intentional. What are we to make of it? Well, control, for starters. He absolutely has to be in control. The merger was no doubt putting that in flux, even if he was hiding it well.
Don also has mother issues, too – not the normal kind, but the my-mother-was-a-prostitute-who-died-giving-birth-to-me kind, coupled with his intense hatred of his step-mother, who not only didn’t love him, but brought him into a whorehouse to be raised. So, yeah, he’s not exactly enlightened with women.
Don has tired of Megan and he pulled that pot-kettle-black thing with her when she had the sex scene in her soap opera job. He’s cheating on her. And now he’s transitioning to this domination thing (again, it’s not sexual, which is in many ways odd – it’s mostly for power, not for role playing).
But when Sylvia calls an end to it, we get that broken-down Don look. He was already scared to death on Ted’s plane. He hasn’t exactly been looking as fit and trim this season, with just the slightest bit of drinking bloat coming through. He even tries to turn Sylvia’s dream that he died into a positive – “It means you missed me.” No, what the dream meant came from what took place after Don died in the dream – Sylvia had to come to grips that she was cheating on Megan, who considered her a friend and cried on her shoulder. Plus she was cheating on Arnold. “It’s easy to give up on something when you’re satisfied,” Don says, clinging to the I’ve-been-doing-you-a-favor front. But Sylvia is not giving in. Don even says “Please,” as the desperation begins to grow in him. “It’s easy to give up on something when you’re ashamed,” Sylvia corrects him. And that’s it – she wants out of the hotel room, out of the affair, out of this game they were playing (she references the role-playing element, though we’re still not sure that Don’s actually playing so much as he’s living out a dream, not a fantasy).
So the question that pops up in this excellent episode, is firmly back in the Don-centric realm. What did he want? He wanted to be in control. He fled a lifetime of not being in control, up to and including his service in the Army. He’s still not in control of his secret – though his brother, who knew, hung himself; Bert Cooper never really cared; and Betty just considered it another one of his many hurtful, unforgivable lies.
I’m not sure there’s a more definitive answer. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to it, though. It’s complicated. Don is forever unhappy with the women he’s with. They are not enough. Sometimes he just needs a smart woman to desire him, whether he’s married or not. Sometimes – and I think this has a lot to do with being raised in a whorehouse and seeing his uncle force his step-mother to have sex – Don needs to dominate his women. That’s a different kind of control. It’s wrapped up in narcissism as well.
But when we see him in the elevator, rain-soaked, speechless, spun, not assured, he’s lost all control. Not only doesn’t he get to play his cruel game of domination, but Sylvia’s done with the affair as well. So that means Don is un-centered, certainly, because in his search for some kind of happiness, he’s lost his latest thing. He, himself, is back to being lost.
I thoroughly loved this episode because it succeeded on so many levels – in the workplace, in Don’s personal life, in history (the Robert Kennedy assassination was probably the most deft way Mad Men has handled history yet, in a dramatic context). With all that worked, however, what stood out was the screwed-up sense of Don Draper’s life pursuit. And the creepy detour he took – and took viewers on.
I prefer the more complicated character study with Don to just having him do the same-old, same-old. And with Sylvia hopefully out of the picture, maybe in some way Don can do what Peggy suggested -- and move forward.