Welcome back Don Draper! And farewell again, Don Draper!
Those who watch ‘Mad Men’ rooting for Don Draper to recapture whatever it was he had in seasons 1 and 2 – even though the show has made clear time and time again that Don is not a character worth rooting for – were surely pleased with the first 40 or so minutes of “Man With a Plan.” Don was in full “Master of the Universe” mode, ordering Sylvia around like a servant and getting into passive-aggressive pissing contests with Teddy Chaough. Everything was good – right up until it wasn’t.
But let’s start elsewhere in the office, because while the eponymous “Man With a Plan” surely refers to Don, it could just as easily describe one Mr. Bob Benson. Until this point, Bob hasn’t had much to do other than get doors slammed in his face and take Pete to whorehouses, but he was involved in my two favorite parts of this hour.
First, let’s just take a moment to bask in the comedic glory of Roger re-firing the hilariously smug Burt Peterson. Everything about that scene just killed me (Burt: “You’re a prick!”, Roger: “Dammit, Burt, you stole my goodbye!”), but nothing moreso than Burt running into perenially-smiling Bob on his way out and leaving him with some not-so-inspiring parting words.
The more substantial Bob Benson development, however, came in the form of a delightful story with Joan. Bob walks into Joan’s office while she’s suffering from acute pain in her side, and insists on helping her out of the building. He takes her to a small clinic, then cleverly smooth-talks the nurse to get Joan to the doctor immediately. Later on, after she’s feeling better (it turns out it was a harmless ovarian cyst), Bob checks on her at home and brings a present for her baby. Joan knows full well that Bob has been sucking up to everyone at the office, but as her mom (who is 100% smitten with him) correctly points out, it’s okay to accept kindness.
And later, Joan repays that kindness in a way that Bob may very well never know. Turns out Burt’s stairway warning to Bob was right-on, because as part of the merger one more account man needs to go, and it’s Bob’s head on the chopping block. At the last minute, Joan, in classic Joan fashion, says just the right thing to get the partners to look elsewhere to make their cut.
Very little on ‘Mad Men’ can be described as “self-contained” and even less can be described as “nice”; but for now at least, this is the rare pleasant, small ‘Mad Men’ story where everyone behaves decently. A treat to watch.
Things aren’t exactly going pleasantly for Pete, who has gone from being a big fish with big accounts at SCDP to not even having a chair at partners’ meetings with the combined agency. With Vicks and Clearasil gone, Pete’s usefulness is drastically reduced – a fact that he’s acutely aware of – and on top of that, he and Trudy appear to be permanently separated, and his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother is now staying with him. Not a great week for Pete Campbell.
It WAS a great week for Don Draper, for most of this episode. After engineering the merge and saving the company, Don is really feeling his oats, both personally and professionally. He overhears Sylvia yelling at her husband Arnold for impetuously moving to Houston, and sensing an opportunity, decides to go into full “you will do what I am say because I am Don Draper” mode, circa Bobbi Barrett. He orders Sylvia stay in bed and wait for him, sends her an expensive dress just so she can strip it off for him, and generally treats her like a concubine.
Don’s playtime with Sylvia makes him late for his first meeting with the creative team, a fact that his new partner Teddy Chaough is not happy with. So Don, empowered by the control he has over Sylvia, decides to leverage his one big advantage over Teddy: his tolerance of alcohol. Don schedules his own one-on-one meeting Teddy and brings plenty of liquor, and the two get sloshed until Don comes up with the winning pitch. A drunken Teddy then wanders into Creative and embarasses himself, falling asleep, head on desk, in the middle of a sentence.
But the difference between Teddy and Don is that Teddy has people in his corner, while Don has no one but himself. Ted receives a pep talk in the hospital from his dying partner, and Don receives a tongue-lashing from Peggy, who urges Don to grow up. The tables turn when it’s time to head up to New York to meet with an unhappy client, with Ted flying Don to the meeting in his own tiny plane. Don starts the flight in sheer terror, which morphs into open pouting as the skies clear and Don realizes that no matter what he says at the meeting, Teddy’s the one who flew them there in his own plane.
When they return, Don finds Sylvia on her way out of their love cave, ready to return to her husband. As she puts an official end to the affair, you can see in real time the layers of false machismo crumble from Don, leaving him exposed as Dick Whitman, only able to mutter a pathetic “Please.” to keep her. The two leave silently in the same elevator.
The episode ends grimly in Don’s apartment, with he and his weeping wife watching the television coverage of the RFK assassination.
This season is not going to end well for Don Draper. He’s lost his fastball at work, and no longer has the same magnetic hold over women that he once did. If you’re still watching ‘Mad Men’ to root for Don, buckle up, because if this wonderful episode is any indication, it’s going to be a rocky ride from here on out.