Seth, you asked who, ultimately, was our “Man With a Plan?” My vote goes to Bob Benson. The complex motivations that you and our commenters attribute to Don’s scheme with Sylvia I would say operate, if at all, on the level of the subconscious. But with Benson, you can almost see him plotting out his minute-to-minute office maneuvers on his daily planner. Seth suggests that Bob seems like a refugee from a gentler show, but I would take that a step further. Benson shimmers with grace and EQ in his dealings with Joan. He devises a discreet, graceful exit; stays with her at the hospital and offers maternal comfort; spins just the right kind of humble, flattering story to win over the indifferent nurse; and reaps the rewards for his Samaritan behavior in a way no one else could detect. Who else could pull off such an elegant plan—could patiently plant the seeds to watch them bloom, later, into beautiful flowers? Until now, only Joan. Benson succeeds because he is a refugee not just from a different show but from a different gender.
I have had several readers ask me if this is the “end of men” season of Mad Men. Until now, I’ve resisted answering because it’s an intellectual disease to have a theory and then see it confirmed in every book, TV show, and trend piece. But I’ll test it out: The theory is not that men disappear or all lose their jobs but that a traditionally feminine way of operating comes to dominate the American workplace. Male traits that were valued in the pre-war era—decisiveness, top down authority, mystical sources of power (think Roger’s firing of Burt Peterson)—slowly fall out of favor and get replaced by the kinds of things women (stereotypically) do naturally: teamwork, fastidious organization, leadership by motivation. This is the transition that the bestsellers of the mid-1950s—William Whyte’s The Organization Man and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd—lamented, men forced to suppress concrete skills in favor of qualities such as perpetual alertness to signals from others and sensitivity to colleagues. (Now we call them “people skills,” and they are highly valued in the workplace.)
We can start to divide the winners and losers on Mad Men this season by who is tuned into this frequency and who isn’t. (Paul, you said it best: “Talent is a sensitivity to others, to the moment, the ability to take what’s happening and channel it.”) Ted Chaough is almost fully operational in the new mode, holding his brainstorming sessions, seeking advice, running a relatively democratic office. Bob Benson not only hears the music but echoes it back perfectly. Pete hears it too, and it makes him furious. Don, meanwhile, is stuck, his fine antennae picking up a signal he can’t quite decode.
By this theory, the theater of Don and Sylvia operates like an interlude with Shakespearean fools, who spin out a much cruder version of the main drama to hammer in the point. Don is in that hotel room barking orders, counting on his mystical allure to cement his authority, behaving like a sexual Captain of Industry. And for a while, the woman plays along. But then she tires of it, and gives him a patient, loving look—maybe even a paternalistic look—to let him know that the game is over and it’s time to move on.
A man can have a plan but then something—a sudden firing, a sick mother, a bored mistress, a grand movement of history—can get in the way. After all, Bobby Kennedy had a plan too.
If I wait patiently by the river, the body of my enemy will float by,