The definitions are simplistic, but they have stuck with me since I learned them in a middle school Bible class: “grace” is getting what you don’t deserve; “mercy” is not getting what you do deserve. The difference between the two stood out in “The Quality of Mercy,” the 12th episode of “Mad Men’s” excellent Season Six. The title is a reference to William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” a play that also originated a key phrase that comes to mind when considering the actions in this episode: demanding one’s pound of flesh. Don Draper in particular is on a tear here, demanding more than he is owed — if he’s truly owed anything at all — and making his designator debtor suffer inordinately. Don is in a downward spiral of self-hate, and unfortunately, Ted and Peggy were found to be in his way.
Perhaps Don is jealous seeing Ted and Peggy happy and in love, even though they aren’t explicitly acting upon their feelings (which Don probably doesn’t know). His own affair with Sylvia has brought him nothing but shame in the aftermath of Sally discovering them in the act. He is filled with regret and loathing, and when one is as far down as he is, it is easy to only want everyone else to be down, too. Even Megan isn’t safe from his quips: recommending he stay home and rest, she tells him sincerely and with love that he looks awful. So do you, he retorts, as he sips his vodka-spiked orange juice. He is quick to send Sally away to boarding school if that’s what she really wants — “I’ll pay for all of it,” he tells Betty immediately on hearing the proposal. He wants her to have her way more than he wants her out of the way. After all, he spent the night on her bed at the apartment. He’s afraid of the secret getting out, and his own life of lies is spurring him to act out against those he thinks aren’t being very honest, either.
One of the key annoyances about Don is that when it comes to work, he is usually right. Even when he’s being difficult, he usually has a point buried in there somewhere. And he is right about Ted — he isn’t thinking clearly. His judgment is clouded by his feelings for Peggy, and any smart ad man would not have pushed an ad so hard against a client — tripling his agreed-upon budget — all because said ad for St. Joseph’s aspirin was created by the person he loves. Don shocks and embarrasses him into seeing his mistake, but he didn’t have to stoop so low to get the point across. Don and Ted have been in a power play for months now after the merger, notably with the Sunkist-Ocean Spray dilemma. Thanks to Sunkist executives finally buying into the idea of TV advertising, that account just jumped to $8 million. Goodbye, Ocean Spray. “Forget about giving someone your word, which obviously doesn’t meaning anything to you,” Ted says to Don. “How does it look? The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.” Don issues a mea culpa, admitting the partners need to be better at communicating. Although he avoided doing a touchdown dance when his account won, he saved his ultimate exertion of authority for the St. John’s pitch. Ted is squashed.
Peggy is the real loser here. Thanks to Don, the St. Joseph’s rep thinks the expensive pitch was the late Fred Gleason’s last idea, so if the ad wins anything, she won’t get the credit. As for how she is viewed at the office, all the knowing looks exchanged among her co-workers make it clear they are aware of her and Ted’s affections and have likely leapt to various conclusions. Society is progressing, but not that quickly. Because Ted is the married one, Peggy likely will be viewed as the real home-wrecker. Is Don punishing Peggy for “leaving” him for Ted, a man she still sees as good as opposed to Don, whom she calls a monster? “You hate that he is a good man,” she tells Don after the pitch gone awry. “He’s not that virtuous,” Don replies, “he’s just in love with you” — and what’s so great or virtuous about that? “Well you killed him,” Peggy said. “You killed the ad, you killed everything. You can stop now.” Did their love really deserve such punishment?
Both Don and Betty are reflected in Sally’s actions during her overnight stay at a boarding school. She exerts control over her old friend Glen Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner) by inviting him and his friend, Rolo, over to the dorm and easily pitting them against each other by claiming Rolo tried to take advantage of her. That’s stretching things a bit, although it is true Sally didn’t seem interested in any of the goings on at the school or with what the mean girls she was crashing with, Mandy (Kathryn Love Newton) and Millicent (Sammi Hanratty), wanted to do. She is, however, pleased with her ability to incite a fight, as well as with Glen for defending her. Sally isn’t typical, and her “rebelling” is more going through the motions of what she think she is supposed to do at her age. She was forced to grow up too quickly; she is years ahead of her peers just by virtue of being the daughter of the infinitely screwed up Don and Betty. Her instinct now is to flee, and who can blame her? Kiernan Shipka has been phenomenal growing into this role. The shot of her as Sally smoking a cigarette on the drive back home (nice parenting, Betty) and saying “My father’s never given me anything” has to be a standout scene for the series — a scene you can point to and say, this is what “Mad Men” is about. This is what has been done to the younger generations.
The most interesting character development belongs to Pete. As opposed to Don, when Pete had the opportunity to do so, he didn’t go in for the kill. When Duck fills Pete in on Bob’s mysterious background — from nowhere, West Virginia, he spent three years as a “manservant” to a senior executive at Brown Brothers Harriman, only to disappear one day “with an electric pencil sharpener and the Christmas card list” — Pete sees him as Don Part 2. Here is yet another man who has climbed his way out of obscurity by hiding his past and being eager to please. But Pete decides it is best not to try to compete with Bob — he’s clever enough to make it this far, what makes Pete think he can beat him at his own game? And does Bob really deserve that? “I don’t know how people like you do it,” Pete tells him. “You’re certainly better at it than I am at whatever I do. But I would like to think that I have learned not to tangle with your kind of animal.” Pete extends him mercy by not only agreeing to keep his past in the past but letting him stay on the Chevy account now that Ken — who was shot in the face by careless Detroit-dwellers in a scene that reached farce levels — has stepped down. “I want you to graciously accept my apologies,” Pete says. “Work alongside me, but not too closely. … I’m off limits.”
One has to wonder how much of Bob’s flattery has burrowed itself deep inside Pete. Bob says Pete has a hard time accepting gratitude, but perhaps it is Bob’s professed feelings for Pete that actually saved him. Pete is always after praise and recognition, feeling under-appreciated at the firm (which is partly warranted), so of course Bob thinking him grand isn’t going to remain offensive, no matter if Bob is gay or not. (I still think he is.) Bob calling Pete a snotty bastard to a friend, likely Manolo, on the phone doesn’t prove that his feelings for Pete are a ruse. Maybe they are, but Bob’s reaction to Pete trying to sabotage his career mainly reflects his feelings towards those actions. It doesn’t refute how Bob could potentially feel about Pete over all. Sometimes, we can’t stand the people we’re attracted to. If the thinly veiled love confession was part of a master plan, it is one that has not made itself clear. It also would mean that Bob, the character, is an amazing actor. His confrontation with Pete at the end of the episode was not as a man claiming checkmate. Bob hides his past and his true self in several ways, and his expressions throughout last week’s “Favors” and “The Quality of Mercy” reflect both fear of losing what little gains he’d made as well as hurt by being so coldly regarded by a person he’d like to consider a mentor. Not everything has to be a conspiracy. For certain, Bob remains the most mysterious character in this universe. But as someone who was shown mercy when he needed it most, I wouldn’t count on him turning against the man to which he is indebted. Pete played his cards well. Don, who essentially lives in a house of cards, should expect them to fall down any day now.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.