That Don Draper’s troubled childhood has influenced his relationships with women has been well-established by now, almost a complete six seasons into “Mad Men.” But whether fans will cut him any slack for his behavior, knowing how damaged he is, really depends on the viewer. Much of his issues revolve around control, and his recent behavior with neighbor Sylvia calls to mind the Don of the first several seasons — the one who did this:
Remember Bobbie? (And apologies; the uploaded clips of this scene all come with what appears to be admiration for Don’s actions.) It can be hard to keep all the women of Don’s life straight without a flowchart handy, and his time post-divorce and now with Megan almost had us believing he had changed. But here we are again, back with Don not only philandering about but treating women as a means to an end. The difference between then and now, however, is that Don’s control is slipping. He can still land the Bobbies and Sylvias of New York, but can he keep them? The series’ opening credits of a man falling feels even more pertinent this season as Don’s world fully becomes a place he can no longer manhandle into submission. In “Man with a Plan,” the seventh of a shortened nine-episode season and directed by John Slattery, Don pushes his luck just a bit too far.
Battles for control raged in all forms as SCDP and CGC physically merged — Ted’s secretary, Moira, wasn’t thrilled taking orders from Joan; Meredith (Stephanie Drake) didn’t like Pete and Roger not following the specific order of business for the partners meeting; and Pete wasn’t happy arriving for said meeting to find himself without a chair. The power structure has shifted dramatically now that there are more chefs in the kitchen, and Ted especially isn’t amused with SCDP employees’ tendency to disappear from work for hours at a time. Pete at least had a family emergency; his mother, Dot (Channing Chase), is increasingly confused and venturing toward being unable to care for herself. His brother, Bud (Rich Hutchman), is ready to pass her care along to Pete, with whom he is annoyed concerning his company not being approached to handle SCDP’s potential public offering. Pete tries to juggle these demands with his desire to represent the agency in talks with Mohawk, but Ted and Don aren’t interested in waiting around.
Ted certainly isn’t going to postpone a creative meeting until Don decides to show up, and he leads an uninspiring brainstorming session on margarine with the newly merged team. Don’s arrival — 40 minutes late — brings the meeting to a close, and Ted chastises him for the blatant disregard for his responsibilities. Don’s response is to offer an “olive branch”: drinks, and a talk about margarine just between the two of them. With Ted quickly succumbing to the alcohol — “I have to eat something,” Ted says; “Doesn’t ice count?,” Don replies — Don wins the round. Peggy isn’t impressed. She had hoped the merger would allow Ted to rub off on Don, not the other way around. “Move forward,” she tells him. Your games will no longer work. The increasingly likable Ted proved himself later as he flew with Don to a Mohawk meeting. The look of terror on Don’s face as Ted steered them through a thunderstorm into sunny skies was priceless, but not as great as Ted’s satisfaction topped off with slick Aviators. Don admitted his inadequacy as they prepped for the meeting: “No matter what I say, you’re the guy that flew us up here in his own plane.” Pete was left behind entirely, and his mother, whom he earlier purposely tried to confuse, took the blame. “My mother can go to hell,” he tells his secretary. “Ted Chaough can fly her there.”
The eager Bob Benson’s motivations are difficult to pin down. Cutbacks are necessary thanks to the merger, so everyone is looking to keep his or her job (sorry, Burt Peterson). That being a hero to one of the partners wouldn’t hurt his chances of sticking around had to be on his mind as he escorted an ill Joan to the hospital. Bringing her son, Kevin, a football could also have been a ploy to win her favor with work, not legitimate romance. But one hopes Joan’s mother is right, not only about younger men not being intimidated by powerful women, but in saying “every good deed is not part of a plan.” Whatever the truth, his actions work: Joan steps in and smoothly and discretely saves Bob from the chopping block.
Sylvia, however, isn’t able to save Don. He doesn’t have the peace she has been praying for him to find, and their interactions in Room 503 at the Sherry-Netherland finally led her to end the affair. But first, she went along with and appeared to enjoy Don’s domination tactics. He overheard Sylvia and Arnold arguing at their apartment, and as she began to gripe about their problems, Don stopped her. He doesn’t want to hear about her marriage — he doesn’t want or need an additional relationship. He wants an arrangement, an exchange of services. Things escalate from Don demanding Sylvia crawl on her hands and knees to find his shoes to telling her to stay put — and she is in the hotel room for at least 24 hours — to be at his beck and call. She exists for his use only. “You’re going to wait there, and you’re not going to know when I’m coming back,” he tells her once he’s back at the office. “Don’t answer the phone again.” And she doesn’t. Don even takes away her reading material (Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show”) and sends over a dress for her to wear, or more precisely to put on and promptly remove. But after a day of this, Sylvia wises up. She had a dream Don crashed in Ted’s plane, and it didn’t symbolize that she missed Don or would miss him if he left, as he surmised. “It means it’s time to really go home,” she tells him. “This is over, and not just this.” “It’s easy to give up something when you’re satisfied,” Don counters, almost dumbstruck that he isn’t the one issuing the orders. “It’s easy to give up something when you’re ashamed,” she replies.
Later, back at his apartment, Don is still trying to process what happened. His confusion plays out as Megan cries watching news coverage of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. It happened again, another senseless crime against a man who saw the possibilities for a better society and worked to achieve it; another agent for change cut down and prevented from succeeding. The temperament of Americans (and others throughout the world) must have been one of helplessness in 1968, as so many things spiraled seemingly out of control. “Sometimes when you’re flying, you think your right-side up but you’re really upside down,” Ted tells Don during their flight. You may think you have control of the situation, but you’re fooling yourself. Don may be the biggest fool of all.
Cue Friend & Lover’s “Reach Out of the Darkness”:
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.