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The penultimate Mad Men episode, “The Quality of Mercy,” perfectly placed a spotlight on all that’s been right and wrong about this season, but thankfully did all of that in an ultimately superb episode that sets up the season finale (which, in turn, might end up defining the season).
Mad Men is not a series about Bob Benson, a fact that one would hope chagrined Matt Weiner as the interwebs began speculating about Bob rather than focusing on the core of Weiner’s series (and no, whether Megan was going to be killed a la Sharon Tate is also not the core of the series). Bob Benson and Megan’s wardrobe are asides that have, unfortunately, taken over much of the discussion about the series this season. Much of the blame, of course, resides in the decision to let Don be Don yet again – some might suggest ad nauseam – as season six became a kind of spinning-wheels resuscitation on Don’s lack of growth. Unfortunately, the main culprit is likely the decision between AMC, Lionsgate and Weiner to extend the season to a sixth and then a seventh season, which likely led to this drawn-out feeling that has pervaded many of the 12 episodes so far.
And yet, two elements worked out rather nicely in “The Quality of Mercy.” People fixating on Bob Benson learned a whole lot more about him, and in many ways he’s just a junior version of Don, which in itself isn’t revealing or essential to the story, but the way that Pete Campbell (spelled “Cambell” in the subtitles, by the way, when Bob was speaking Spanish) handled this discovery was. “I’ve learned not to tangle with your kind of animal,” he tells Bob, much to Bob’s stunned surprise since he can’t possibly know that all of this relates back to Pete trying to out Don as Dick Whitman in season one.
In fact, the entire framework of Pete using Duck Phillips (now desperate for money) to get Bob a job somewhere else and Duck sussing out the backstory of lies and deception and ineptitude in Bob’s résumé was a terrific save of a story that has been a distraction for too long. Is Bob Benson now a viable storyline going forward? Not really. He’s a bit more interesting, but I would certainly hate for that story arc to keep hanging Mad Men up in this infinite loop of pointlessness. But Pete’s entire reaction to the discovery was a joy to witness. He’s learned not to mess with someone who does what he does better than whatever Pete does (paraphrasing the hilarious near-internal monologue Pete made up on the spot). I loved that line (and that reveal) because the line shed light on Pete’s own wonderment about advertising and how to survive in the world, and the reveal allowed Pete to be the only one who seems to learn from the past. He hasn’t changed for the better as a person, but at least Pete has changed how he lives in the working world.
But what made “The Quality of Mercy” — a phrase from Shakespeare — succeed not only as an episode but a worthwhile penultimate episode for a distracted (but not wasted) season, is that Don is reaching near bottom. You might remember that, ahem, Mad Men is a series about Don Draper, so once the Bob Benson element was finally dealt with, the focus could return to the core of the show. I’ve complained a lot this season that Mad Men gave us the impression Don’s existential crisis, the crux of the series, would be dealt with in a manner that would expand or redefine the series in some important way. That hasn’t really happened, of course – see the explanation about adding seasons – but this episode took all of the fragments from the previous 11 episodes and brought them to a head. It brought Mad Man to a very interesting place heading into next week’s season finale: Don has ruined pretty much everything. What are the necessary consequences of that? I would venture a guess that season seven, the final one, will be a 13-episode interpretation of what emotional fallout looks like. It will, one would hope, focus on how a man who can’t find meaning or happiness or personal identity in his life and in this world, ultimately finds an answer to it all – be it self-discovery that prompts change or self-discovery that overwhelms and destroys and becomes something that no man can overcome.
Mad Men is an examination of Don Draper’s purposefully unexamined life. But now the consequences are before him (and us, as viewers). Where season six lingered on more of Don being Don, as I said above, this finale next week and the final season must absolutely address, with no distractions, Don’s fate.
When Peggy burst into Don’s office in the final minutes of this episode and, recalling the humiliation Don forced upon Ted (which, on some level, Don doesn’t even realize he’s doing anymore because he’s become a man with an inability to feel anything, which has been the saddest and most revealing part of this season), she gives this mini-speech, and it defines all that’s come before it: “You killed him. You killed the ad. You killed everything. You’re a monster.”
And Don, facing the brutal truth from one of the few people in his world that he likes and listens to, curls into the same fetal position that opened this episode. You don’t need much of an explanation for those visual parenthesis – in the opening shot Don was sleeping off the drunkenness he used to put a salve on hurting Sally by getting caught sleeping with Sylvia – and in the closing shot he curled up the same way in his office because even Don can be hurt or have his eyes opened by being called “a monster.”
Don has lost pretty much everything now. He put a lot of distance between him and Megan in this episode, particularly watching television out in the living room when he could have been doing that in the bedroom with her, an invitation he doesn’t seem to hear or care about (just as he doesn’t seem to be hearing or caring about what’s on the TV). Don is just a man in a daze. He’s a man completely at sea in his brain. He lost Sally last week – a devastating blow he’s unlikely to recover from, highlighted by Sally telling Betty on the way home from the boarding school visit in this episode that “My father hasn’t given me anything.” He lost Sylvia, of course – though, once again, I don’t think that connection was ever believable. He lost Ted, certainly, in this episode. And in the final moments, he lost Peggy. Hell, this season he slept with Betty again and found some strange, nuanced reconnection (which has been handled extremely well by the writers) and that’s just a reminder of something else lost.
When a man takes stock of his life – something Don has never wanted to do but something Mad Men has been pushing for through its entire six seasons – the truth can be devastating and/or depressing. What’s left for Don to lose? He lost his identity, he lost his brother Adam, plus Anna Draper who protected his secret and truly loved him as a person (was that the last time Don was truly happy?); he lost first wife Betty and probably second wife Megan by next week, daughter Sally, colleague Ted and the one person he took pride in mentoring, Peggy. Hell, if Mad Men had ever developed Don’s sons as viable characters then he could have suffered their loss as well. And no doubt I’m forgetting someone (while purposefully leaving out all of his sexual conquests, even the ones that mattered more than just as sexual conquests – Midge, Rachel, Faye).
So now what? Well, that’s the greatest part of finally coming to the end of this season and having the last fragments of everything Don loves get lost to him: He needs to do something else than just be Don. He can no longer exist as we’ve come to know him.
Don Draper curled up in the fetal position – whether drunk or depressed – is not how we want to remember him. It would be fine with me if Don never comes out of this ultra-blue period and all of his decisions continue to crush and grind him into dust. But I like bleakness and that would be one hell of a bleak final season (and with Breaking Bad essentially doing the same thing, perhaps a different course is needed). I’m also fine with witnessing Don wake up, be accountable in some small way, and change. And by change, he can’t be Don Draper, debonair ad man, irresistible ladies man, drinker, smoker, brilliant-minded seller and liver of the American dream. He has to be something that he’s not now.
I still believe in the genius of Mad Men. And I’m looking forward to the next chapter in Don’s life, provided it’s not more of the same. We’ve done that for much of this season – and only a side character named Bob Benson could distract people from the spinning wheels in front of them. Let’s move forward, starting next week.
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