Mad Men, Season 6

The Mystery of Bob Benson
Talking television.
May 14 2013 8:03 AM

Mad Men, Season 6

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The mystery of Bob Benson.

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Michael Yarish/AMC

Hanna, Paul,

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

It’s been noted before that Pete Campbell badly wants to be Don Draper, but every time Pete pulls a move from the Draper playbook it goes horribly awry. When Pete casually beds a secretary, she gets pregnant and spurns him. When he frequents a whorehouse, he bumps into his father-in-law. When he leases a sex pad, it turns into a hospice for his doddering mother.

Pete and Don’s storylines paralleled again this week. Both men abandoned the SCDP office to deal with women locked away in rooms. While Don acted out his domination fantasies with Sylvia, Pete subdued his mom with a steady stream of insults and gin. In the end, even though Pete was dealing with a parent, it was Don who seemed more childlike. There was something almost motherly in the tender way Sylvia patted Don’s cheek as she told him his little boy’s game—put on this sexy red dress, now take it off, and whatever you do you must think only of me—was finally over.

Joan mentioned the tale of Rip van Winkle as she suffered in that hospital waiting room—“You like that story? I know it. I could tell it to you,” said the solicitous Bob Benson—and again my thoughts drifted to Don, a man falling swiftly out of step with the times. As you note, Hanna, Don still gets drunk at the office, still shaves off the sideburns every other man grows out, and still hearkens back to the earnest simplicity of the Depression when Ted speaks the language of dippy, high-concept sitcoms. I think Peggy spoke for Don’s colleagues, for most of Mad Men’s audience, and for many of our commenters when she urged Don, “Move forward.” Don is asleep in a prior era, due to wake up and realize the world has moved on without him.

Or perhaps he’s awoken already, and his fear and disorientation spurred these power grabs? It’s when Don’s lost control that he becomes controlling. Megan isn’t reliant on him anymore, she’s a TV star, so his ears perk up when Sylvia purrs, “I need you and nothing else will do.” What happens next seems slightly out of nowhere: an elaborate game of Simon Says that soon has Sylvia naked and subservient. My first interpretation was that this behavior stemmed from Don’s neediness—a pathetic bid to reclaim lost authority. But some of our commenters suggest an intriguing alternative take.

The episode’s title is “Man With a Plan.” What was Don’s plan? Did he begin plotting when he overheard that fight between Sylvia and Arnold? Did he anticipate trouble with Sylvia lounging alone downstairs in his building, nothing better to do than toy with Don’s marriage? Maybe, just maybe, Don tortured Sylvia because he knew it would send her back into Arnold’s arms and safely out of town. Maybe Don was acting. I mean, consider: When he ordered Sylvia to crawl on all fours, he didn’t even manage to own the line as convincingly as Mickey Rourke did in 9½ Weeks. (And Kim Basinger complied. Linda Cardellini didn’t.)

Speaking of '80s flicks, I chuckled at the Maverick vs. Ice Man duel going down between Don and Ted Chaough. Like Sylvia, Ted at first goes woozy for Don’s dominatrix routine, but then ignores it. I’ve come to love laid-back but together Ted, who is eager to “rap” about “groovy” stuff yet still starts meetings on time. We’d always thought Don was the one with the high EQ—able to suss out the subconscious desires of consumers, clients, and gorgeous women everywhere. But it’s Ted who’s got Don sized up. “He seems more interested in me than in the work,” Ted astutely comments to the bedridden Frank Gleason. It’s not even clear that Don can spot the insecurities driving his own behavior. He has no perspective. Ted suggests as much: “Sometimes when you’re flying, you think you’re right side up, but you’re upside down.”

Matthew Weiner has often confessed that he plans this show one season at a time, with no idea what lies beyond. The first season of Mad Men was tightly focused: It was about a man whose life is a lie, a man who understands the lies we all tell ourselves, a man whose gift for spinning lies makes him a genius in the ad game. That theme was fairly well resolved, or at least explored to its outer reaches. Yet the show continues. And I remain fascinated by the evolution of Don in Season 6.

He is often pitiful in ways we’ve never seen before—eavesdropping on the wrong side of closed doors, sweating at the very moment he claims he is calm, tuning out his wife like they’re a zipless old couple. He has now lost much of the respect of Peggy and Joan, the rare co-workers who could always glimpse the decent man beneath the roguish exterior. He’s oblivious in meetings, dumbly eating toast. He is two bare feet away from becoming a slightly more with-it Bert Cooper.

Developments I am looking forward to in the second half of this season:

1) Any sort of shenanigans involving John Slattery and Harry Hamlin. Bring on the oily banter! I wanna party with these dudes.

2) Anything at all involving Sally Draper. Where’d you go, Sally? We are all antsy to reacquaint ourselves with your charming mélange of vulnerability and sass. Shouldn’t you be smoking weed with Glenn by now?

3) The unraveling of the Bob Benson mystery. Did you notice Ted accepted Bob’s extra coffee—the one Don always refuses? Might be an omen! What is the deal with this dude? Is Bob an FBI mole sent to spy on Madison Avenue’s seditious anti-war activity? Has Mad Men warped my view of human behavior so severely that I cannot imagine a man with no guile? Is Bob a refugee from another, gentler show—like maybe I Dream of Jeannie? Just a nice guy whose “every good deed is not part of a plan,” as Joan’s mom insists?

Which reminds me: Who, ultimately, was our “Man With a Plan”? Was it Bob, with his job-saving, Good Samaritan maneuver? Don, laying out his complicated regimen for Sylvia? Roger, who’d been anticipating a chance to re-boot Burt Peterson? Or was it Bobby Kennedy, or Richard Nixon, whose fates were dramatically altered by the end of the episode?

It’s over when I say it’s over,

Seth

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