“You’re a monster,” Peggy Olson tells Don Draper in the final moments of “The Quality of Mercy,” the penultimate episode of “Mad Men’s” sixth season.
Since the series pilot when Peggy first arrived on the job at Sterling Cooper, she has served as a proxy for the viewer. But her role as audience ambassador has never seemed more fitting than it does now, as her feelings for her former mentor curdle into disgust. Just like us, she once admired and was fascinated by Don; just like us -- or at least most of us -- she now views him as a kind of abomination. While not quite the unholy spawn of Satan and Mia Farrow, Don now seems something less than entirely human.
The breaking point, of course, is Don’s decision to publicly shame Ted for having fallen in love with Peggy. Our protagonist begins this episode at his lowest point to date, curled in the fetal position in his Sally’s bed after another night of self-medication. It’s been a few weeks since he was caught in the act with Sylvia, and Sally is, quite understandably, refusing to visit.
The sense of loss is exacerbated when Don and Megan run in to Peggy and Ted at an evening showing of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Don pretends not to be fazed by the encounter, but it’s obvious Ted has usurped -- and even surpassed -- his role in Peggy’s life, and that he’s rattled by this change. It’s no accident the run-in happens in a movie theater, both Don and Peggy’s favorite place to “dust off the cobwebs” on a weekday afternoon. Even Don’s shirt, a very Chaough-ian turtleneck, hints at their role reversal.
Unable to make amends with Sally, Don chooses instead to meddle with Peggy. I suppose you could argue that his motives are not all bad, that he’s trying to protect his former protégée from heartbreak, but Don’s actions come across as spiteful and sadistic. How else to describe the excruciating 50 seconds he waits before explaining that the “personal” reason the St. Joseph’s ad has gone overbudget is because of a sentimental attachment to Frank Gleason’s idea? It’s a lie, of course, and had Don offered it up immediately, it would qualify as a stroke of genius. Instead, it’s a humiliating spectacle. Not only has he shamed the lovebirds in front of their peers, but he’s also effectively negated Peggy’s creative accomplishment, attributing her inspired, Clio-worthy idea to a dead guy.
Naturally, Don pretends he was only acting out of interest for the agency. “I know your little girl has beautiful eyes, but that doesn’t mean you give her everything,” he scolds Ted. “Your judgment is impaired. You’re not thinking with your head.” How many times has he allowed his sordid personal life to jeopardize the agency’s fortunes? Don might as well be looking in the mirror, because the entire lecture is a nothing but an act of projection.
From his affairs with Rachel Menken and Bobbie Barrett to the weekend he was supposed to use generating ideas for Chevy but, instead, spent pining for Sylvia, Don is the undisputed master of impaired judgment. And if he really were acting out of concern, rather than rejection after having lost two of the people closest to him, Don wouldn’t bother with the bullying put-downs. Instead, he implies that Ted’s feelings for Peggy are not just dangerous but inexplicable. (“We’ve all been there -- I mean not with Peggy.”) Don is quite a skilled liar, but his greatest tell is unnecessary vindictiveness.
Peggy, of course, sees right through Don. Marching into his office, she unleashes hell. “You hate that he is a good man,” Peggy says. Her outrage is justified, yet there’s something terribly sad about the entire scene, given how it echoes some of their most touching interactions.
In an antihero series like “Mad Men,” it’s all but inevitable that viewers will turn on the protagonist. While I don’t wish some horrible fate upon him the way I do with, say, Walter White, his character seems to have turned a corner this season, from wounded man of mystery to borderline sociopath. It’s unclear how he’ll be able to recover, or even if he can, particularly now that he’s lost his most steadfast ally.
Make that two of his most steadfast allies: Once Daddy’s little girl, Sally is now applying to boarding school to get as far away from Don as possible. While her overnight visit to Miss Porter’s plays a bit too much like a very groovy episode of “Gossip Girl,” what it does well is illustrate just how desperate Sally is to distance herself from her family dysfunction. Sound familiar?
“My father’s never given me anything,” Sally tells Betty between puffs of a cigarette, in what may be the most GIF-worthy moment in the history of “Mad Men.” As much as I agree with the sentiment (i.e. Don is a rotten dad), Sally is dead wrong, because her father has given her more than she could ever know. From him, she has learned the art of running away from childhood trauma, not to mention how to make a mean Tom Collins.
Just a season or two ago, Betty might have reacted to Sally’s seemingly out-of-nowhere animosity for her father by gloating. Instead, she looks truly taken aback, her brow furrowing with shock and concern. Hopefully this suggests a confrontation is on the horizon.
Last but not least, this week also finally brings an answer to the question plaguing millions of “Mad Men” viewers this season (and also Pete Campbell): What’s the deal with Bob Benson? It turns out not only is Bob gay, he is, like Don before him, an impostor running from his humble roots. Thanks to some sleuthing by Duck Phillips, Pete discovers that Bob is actually Thomas from “Downton Abbey” -- excuse me, that he’s a nobody from West Virginia who once worked as a “man servant” to a senior executive at Brown Bros. Harriman.
Confronted with this information, Bob pleads for a day’s lead before Pete divulges the truth, presumably so he can start over somewhere else. But Pete, who learned the hard way that his peers don’t seem to mind working alongside an impostor, decides it’s better to keep the secret. While it’s possible to view Pete’s move as merciful, what it really is is shrewd. As he tells Bob, “I have learned better than to tangle with your kind of animal.” In other words, he knows that the information he has is worth more as collateral, as a kind of “nuclear option” to use should Bob ever get too close professionally or personally. Apparently, even Pete Campbell is capable of growth.
In a tidy parallel, Pete’s showdown with Bob plays out against the backdrop of the looming presidential election, much like his initial confrontation with Don did way back in 1960. A fear-mongering Nixon campaign ad serves as a callback to that moment, reminding us that as much as things have changed over the intervening years, one fundamental thing hasn’t: Other than the demise of his marriage to Betty, Don has yet to really be punished for his fraud. Of course, there’s also one crucial difference between 1960 and 1968. This time around, it’s Nixon who wins.
--Poor Ken, who gets Cheney-ed by some Chevy execs. He’s really become this season’s punching bag, hasn’t he?
--A sign Don isn’t all bad: His baby impression is hysterical, as is Joan’s “old Jewish lady.”
--The agency has a new logo, and it’s pretty funky, especially that ampersand.
--Clara and Pete, sittin’ in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g???
--In the year or so since we last saw him, Glen has somehow morphed into Abe.
--Harry: “I’ve got good news. “
Don: “ You finally found a hooker who takes traveler’s checks?”
Harry, under his breath: “Why did I tell you that?’
--If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading Tom and Lorenzo’s take on Bob Benson.