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'Mad Men' recap: Slave to love

AdulteryJohn F. Kennedy Assassination (1963)Mayo ClinicAMC (tv network)Martin Luther King Jr.Linda Cardellini

Being a "Mad Men" fan these days feels a little like being a woman who, after dating a string of jerks, finally gives a nice guy a chance and discovers that, hey, there's something to this after all.

One of the ongoing debates about this season is whether Don has reached a point of no return — whether his affair with Sylvia and all-around jerkiness have rendered him not only thoroughly unlikable but also fatally uninteresting.

Now, it would be hard to describe Don's behavior in Sunday's episode, "Man With a Plan,"as boring, but it certainly did little to counteract his ongoing image problem. By now, "Mad Men" fans know to get a little nervous anytime we see Don in an elevator. It's always been a place for confrontation on this series. Last season it became a portentous symbol of doom, and now, thanks to Sylvia and her sexy housecoats, it stands for everything that's so vile about our protagonist.

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So when we begin this week with Don in an elevator, we know nothing good is in store. Sure enough, it isn't. Don's curiosity — and apparently his libido — is piqued when he overhears a vicious fight between Sylvia and Arnie. (We catch only fragments of it, but there's talk of money and Minnesota; perhaps Arnie wants to decamp for the Mayo Clinic?) Later, Don and Sylvia rendezvous at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel.

At first, it's all very standard Don-in-a-hotel-room-with-his-mistress stuff, a scene we've witnessed dozens of times over the course of six seasons. Then, suddenly, it gets weird: Don tells Sylvia to get on her hands and knees and fetch his shoes. She resists at first, but then gives in, and thus ensues 36 hours or so of willful captivity at the hands of Don Draper.

While Don doesn’t take the whole dominance to the same, extremely icky end as Adam did this past season on "Girls" — this is basic cable, after all — it's hard to argue that our protagonist has ever been less appealing than he is this week, as his Madonna-whore complex reached new levels of dysfunction.

"You work for me," he commands his devoutly Catholic mistress, who is clad in the scarlet va-va-voom dress he bought her at Saks (not coincidentally the same color as the skimpy get-ups worn by the prostitute in his brothel flashbacks). Making matters worse, he even left her alone in that room without her book (a paperback of "The Last Picture Show"), which, if you ask me, qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. Don used to make viewers swoon; now he’s making us cringe.

So what made Don go all Christian Grey on Sylvia? Mostly, it seems, the realization that her Arnie still matters to her and, maybe even worse, that Don does too — that in a moment of marital crisis, she turns to him for comfort. "You can talk about your kid; I don't want to hear about your husband," he barks. Then, to prove his point, he turns her into a sex object in about as literal a way as possible.

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Thankfully, after two days cooped up in her suite, Sylvia snaps out of it and tells Don it's over. "It's easy to give up on something when you're satisfied," Don says defensively. Her Catholic guilt in overdrive, she fires back: "It's easy to give up on something when you're ashamed."

The affair may be kaput, at least for now, but the outlook for the Draper marriage is gloomier than ever. Don returns home and promptly tunes out his wife, and the next morning, as she weeps at the news that Sen. Robert F. Kennedy has been assassinated, he offers no comfort. It's worth noting that of Don's many mistresses, only two have ever done the dumping: Rachel Menken and now Sylvia. It seems unlikely that Don will take that lightly.

Making the Don Draper likability issue more acute is Ted Chaough, who arrives like a breath of fresh, seemingly very decent air into an atmosphere rank with male entitlement and misbehavior (thanks to Don, but also Roger, Pete and Harry). It seems clear from the very first partners' meeting, when he gallantly offers Moira his seat, that Ted is not a man in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce mold. He's collaborative, methodical, courteous and, most dramatic of all, he can't hold his liquor. A few seasons ago, this might have made him seem pathetic, but now it comes off as a virtue. To paraphrase Peggy, it wouldn't be so bad if Ted rubbed off on some of his new colleagues.

Speaking of which: Last week I fretted about Peggy's return to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and it appears my worries were not totally unfounded. As a sign of her awkward, in-between status, she’s been given Harry and Pete's old office — you know, the one with the column in it — and the handwritten sign outside reads, "Peggy Olson, Coffee Chief." Don stops short of asking her to fetch him some brew, but just barely, and when she scolds him for hazing Ted, he hits back by implying she's not that talented and telling her to quit whining, his favorite method of insulting his protégée. I think she speaks for all of us when she says, "Move forward," and walks out the door.  

Even Bob Benson, who was introduced earlier this season as a smarmy, brown-nosing, Eddie Haskell-type, now comes across as a gentleman. Maybe he is extra nice to Joan in her moment of need because she’s a partner and his position at the new firm is tenuous, but I like to think not. "Every good deed is not a part of a plan," says Joan’s mom.

For the sake of Joan — and for "Mad Men," which could use a few decent but flawed people to balance out all the creeps — I hope she’s right.  

Stray thoughts:

--I liked the way this episode handled the Kennedy assassination — as a powerful footnote rather than a focal point. After the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took center stage a few weeks ago, this was probably the only way to go without feeling like "1968 for Dummies," and it worked quite well, even with the heavy-handed irony of “Reach Out of the Darkness.”

--Did anyone else squeal with glee at seeing Joan and Peggy back together? We know they'll never be best friends, but it's nice to see their weird bond has only gotten stronger.

--Joan's cyst better be benign or else I'm quitting this show forever.

--One thing I've been trying to figure out this season is the exact source of Don’s attraction to Sylvia. Yes, Linda Cardellini is adorable (in real life, anyway), but as Sylvia she seems dowdy, stuck in 1960. Then it occurred to me: That’s probably exactly why Don likes her, or at least part of the reason. Megan is completely of her moment; Sylvia is anything but.

--Does the new agency have a name yet? If it does, I didn't catch it.

 --I did, however, catch the competing SCDP/CGC mugs on the table in the creative department, and the orange CGC design is definitely the winner in my book. AMC, when are you going to make those available for purchase online? You’ve got a million-dollar opportunity on your hands!

--Poor Burt Peterson. Did he ever do anything to merit the way Roger treats him?

ALSO:

'Mad Men' recap: Been there, done that

'Mad Men' recap: It's a shameful, shameful day

As 'Mad Men' moves into 1968, Matt Weiner talks history

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