Since this season of "Mad Men" is set during 1968, you knew they were going to have to an episode on the death of Bobby Kennedy. But I was happy to see them divert from the tactic they used in the episodes about the John Kennedy and Martin Luther King episodes, in which characters spent most of their screen time watching TV, looking sad and finding metaphors for their lives in the violent deaths of great men.
In "Man With a Plan," the death of Bobby is something of a grace note; a sad occurrence that happens in the episodes final scenes to emphasize the major riffs Don and Pete have with the women in their lives. When Pete's mom announces the death of "that poor Kennedy boy," he assumes that she's reliving JFK's death and is completely oblivious to what's going on. Don, meanwhile, stands distracted and stoic as Megan sobs about Bobby's death. He's less affected by the assassination than he is by the dissolution of his affairs with Sylvia and his increasingly weak hold over the situation at work.
Because, at its core, this was an episode about playing games. There's that creepy S&M-ish role play between Don and Sylvia. Don and Teddy are engaged in a game of professional one-upmanship for creative control of their as-yet-unnamed merged agency. Joan wonders if Bob Benson is genuinely trying to help her with her medical problem, or if he's just making a strategic move to protect his job. Pete doubts his place at the new agency when he realizes there's no chair for him at the staff meeting, resulting in a perverse version of musical chairs, in which Pete forces Teddy's secretary out of her seat, and Teddy gives up his chair to allow the woman to sit.
There are other, smaller references to games throughout the episode -- Roger toying with the eternally doomed Burt Peterson; Bob bringing Joan's son a football he's too young for; the margarine free-associating rap session. So many characters are trying to gain control or security. In the end, only Teddy and Bob Benson seem to end up on top (though even Teddy's victory is hard-won).
The biggest loser in this episode is arguably Don (a case could be made for Pete, but Don's defeats are clearly the center of both the episode and the series). Yet again, Don behaves like a totally gross douchebag, both at work and in his relationship with Sylvia. The latter is particularly disturbing. I'm really hoping Don's nasty, humiliating games with Sylvia weren't supposed to be sexy, because they weren't. Every time he gave her an instruction or said something like "You exist, in this room, for my pleasure," I wanted a foot to come out of the sky and squish him. Don's kinkiness is not hot. It's just proof that he's a weak, insecure man who has to degrade others to feel strong and important. Sylvia, for some reason, doesn't call him on any of this, which is a little unbelievable. In all our exposures to her, she doesn't seem the type to tolerate this level of cruelty. In fact, in first scene this episode, we hear her, off camera, berating her husband for taking her for granted. But she goes along with Don's games -- at least until he takes her copy of "The Last Picture Show." Sigh. Don, don't you know that you can't go taking books away from Lindsay Weir? That woman loves knowledge! She will not have it stolen from her, no matter how many slutty red dresses you buy her. Thankfully, Sylvia does come to her scenes, and splits with a stunned Don.
Don's particularly stung, since the rejection comes shortly after Teddy has calmly bested him by flying his plane to the Mohawk meeting. Teddy's another person Don wants to dominate. He skips his margarine rap session and gets him drunk -- knowing, as Peggy points out, that he can't handle boozing as well as Don can. It's not until Teddy gets pep talk from the dying Gleason that he's able to beat Don at his own game. Now, remember a few seasons back, when Teddy was the young punk trash talking Don or prank calling him pretending to be JFK? Did you ever think that you could root for Teddy in a showdown between him and Don? Yet darned if I didn't feel the urge to cheer when Teddy confidently pulled out of the clouds and into the bright sunshine as a panicked Don quivered alongside him in the plane.
That's how unlikable Don has become this season. And given how completely unmoved he is by Bobby Kennedy's death or his wife's devastated response to it, I'm not sure he'll be moving out of douchebag land any time soon.
Before I head to the bullet points, I want to say a few words about Pete Campbell and Bob Benson. Pete, like Don, continues to be a total jerk. He's nasty to his ailing mom (though, given what we've seen of her past treatment of Pete, his frustration at her isn't totally unearned). He displaces the secretary. And he yells at his own fairly competent secretary. Oh Pete. You are totally the worst (or, given that this is "Mad Men," at least in the top three worst on most weeks).
Meanwhile, James Wolk finally got a bit of a chance to shine as puppydoggish Bob Benson this week. Show of hands -- who thinks Bob's kindness to Joan was totally motivated by the fact he wanted her to help protect his job? Because I'm not totally sure. Yes, Joan does end up saving his job. And yes, in true Joan fashion, I'm sure she'll be convinced that that was Bob's plan all along, and will be hostile and resentful toward him. But I think Bob did really want to help. After all, he doesn't know what's wrong with Joan. If she was really sick -- sick enough to not return to work -- no one would know of his chivalry, and his gesture wouldn't have given him any leverage. Also, his gift of the football for Kevin isn't something he'd give if he were just sucking up to Joan. He would have learned her son's age and gotten him an appropriate gift. A football is something you grab last-minute for a visit to a sick colleague when you don't want to show up empty-handed. It's a gift motivated by politeness, not a desire to curry favor.
Anyway, here are some more thoughts on "Man wit a Plan":
- Oh, Peggy. Not only do you have to go back to work with an even more messed up version of Don than the one you left, but you have Pete's old stupid office with the nonsensical column. And someone (probably Stan) wrote "Coffee Chief" on your door. Still, plucky gal that you are, you persevere by showing your superior margarine knowledge. You go, Peggy!
- Joan: "I'm glad you're here." Peggy: "I'm glad you're here too." Sigh. The girls are back together!
- No sooner do we learn the name of the woman working with Stan and Ginsberg than she gets laid off. Au revoir, Marge.
- Seriously, he might have been mean to Don in the past, and he did make a pass at Peggy. But I'm kinda starting to crush on Teddy. He visits sick colleagues in the hospital. He's nice to his staff. He has awesome aviator shades. Face it -- he's sorta rad.
- But not as rad as Roger, whose cruel delight in firing Burt Peterson is pretty friggin' hilarious.