“Favors” opens on a bedroom with a rat in it, and its seminal moment involves a bedroom with a rat in it. The former is literal (and almost, ALMOST leads to an epic Peggy-Stan-Stan’s Beard-Random Woman Stan Is Sleeping With four-way that would have broken the Internet and me), the latter is Don Draper.
He can’t help himself. He just can’t help himself. Sylvia even warned him a few weeks back, reminding him over the phone how lucky he was to get out the affair with his life still intact. He held all the cards.
But like a gambling addict, when the opportunity presented itself, Don couldn’t resist returning to the table one last time. And he was finally busted.
I defy you to find me one single television moment that was more of a gut punch, more transgressive, more hold-your-breath-while-whispering-Oh-My-God that didn’t involve a character death. Because I sure can’t. Sally walking in on Don and Sylvia left the audience (me, at least) as pale in the face as Don himself, making a futile attempt to chase Sally down.
Thinking back, it’s kind of amazing that Don hasn’t been caught like this before. When Betty accused him of cheating in season two, she had no direct evidence. Don ultimately admitted to the charge, but before that Betty wasn’t even 100% sure she was right.
That’s how good Don was. Now he’s getting caught mid-coitus with his friend’s wife BY HIS OWN DAUGHTER.
The genius of ‘Mad Men’ – or rather, one facet of the genius of ‘Mad Men’ – is the series’ uncanny ability to build up to moments like this both in the context of the season and the episode. That sounds simple, but it’s something that I’d go as far as to argue is ENTIRELY unique to ‘Mad Men’, at least at this level.
Most ‘great’ television shows can tell season-long stories. ‘Boardwalk Empire’ does this with great effectiveness, so does ‘Dexter’ (sometimes), and certainly so did ‘The Wire’. The ability to tell a story that unfolds over 10+ hours has become ubiquitous with the modern cable drama, so much so that even ones without the writing chops to pull it off (‘Walking Dead’, anyone?) feel the need to try.
But the cost of telling a season-long story often crops up at the episode level. Great stories tend not to lend themselves easily to being chopped up into hour-long chunks, and the result is often some hours serving as little more than a stepping stone from one major plot point to the next. The most notable example of this is’Game of Thrones’, a show that tells beautiful season-long arcs but often has episodes in which very little happens.
‘Mad Men’, on the other hand, has mastered the ability to create satisfying conclusions to season-long stories through the use of episode-specific plot, and “Favors” is a standout example.
Season six has largely focused on Don Draper melting down, both personally and professionally. He’s been feeling guilty about this affair with Sylvia since he gave Arnold a camera in the season premiere, and now with Don having gotten out of the affair scot-free, he’s even more guilty. Lo and behold, the perfect opportunity for atonement presents itself: Arnold and Sylvia’s son is on the verge of being drafted to Vietnam, a thought that terrifies all of them. Don, in his desperation to be the hero and atone for his sins, nearly spikes a meeting with Chevy in a misguided attempt to get them to wield some of their influence to get young Mitchell off the hook.
But it’s Don’s rival, Teddy Chaough, who provides the solution. Ted offers to call an old friend to get Mitchell hooked up with the National Guard in exchange for Don dropping the Sunkist account he’s been pursuing, allowing Teddy to close with OceanSpray. An eager Don can’t agree to that deal fast enough, and he relishes his opportunity to play hero as he makes the triumphant call to Sylvia. They finally have the conversation Don’s been wanting to have since she ended their relationship, with Sylvia even announcing that Don was better to her than she was to him. Music to Don Draper’s ears. It’s a huge, huge win for him.
Until it isn’t.
In a bitterly ironic twist, after all the business with Sally and Don, Don finally gets his vindication from Arnold at the precise moment that it no longer matters. As Arnold urges a thankful but not super psyched Mitchell to thank broken, shit-faced Don with Megan and Sally watching, I frankly wanted to do what Sally ultimately did: leave the table.
This is a perfectly logical destination for the season-long story arc to hit, but the way it came about in this episode was simply genius. Far from using Sally as a plot device, the episode set up an excellent story with her and her friend. What starts as a cute little sleepover story involving the girls having a crush on Mitchell folds brilliantly into the season’s main arc the moment that Sally sees Don and Sylvia on that bed. I can’t think of any series on television, present or past, that could pull off a moment like this and make it feel so damn EARNED.
There was so, so much more to this episode: Pete and Peggy’s delightful dinner, Pete’s mom and Manolo, THE GREAT Bob Benson finally tipping his hand (or his leg) about who he really is. But I finished watching the episode about 90 minutes ago, and all I can think about is Don’s horrified, whitewashed face in the lobby.
Thank goodness for ‘Mad Men’, a show that can sear that kind of horror into the brains of its audience without relying on splattered brains to do so.