12
May
2013
Mad Men: Season Six, Episode 6
Man with a Plan
Jordan
Generally around the midpoint of every Mad Men season, there is an episode that does something slightly bolder and more experimental than the show's general format (insofar as it even has a "general format"). Season three gave us "Seven Twenty Three," with its nonlinear interweaving of stories, season four gave us "The Summer Man," with Don's narration, and season five gave us "Far Away Places," which was basically three vignettes taking place over the course of a single day. "Man with a Plan" doesn't really fit into this motif (and I expect we might see an episode that is more cleanly a companion to those earlier hours in a week or so), but the scenes in the hotel take on much darker edges than we might normally expect from the show, and the episode as a whole continues a trend that is quickly becoming the driving force of this season of the show: the idea that Don Draper is hardly the exemplar he appears to be at first glance, that he is in fact, in many situations, a malignancy rotting out the people around him, a parasite feeding their needs to obscure his own.

We see Don exert his power in a variety of ways tonight, and while previous seasons of the show often painted his ability to outmaneuever others as an admirable trait, in each instance tonight we are uncomfortably aware of the consequences of that exertion, and the collateral damage he leaves thoughtlessly in his wake. He forces Sylvia to wait for his every command in a hotel room, in an act of dominance that may initially be read as an attempt to quell her anxieties but soon is revealed to be just another Don Draper power trip. He drinks Ted under the table, subtly pressuring the lightweight to get plastered just so he can prove he's the bigger man. He shoves Peggy into the role she so gladly escaped, and he does so without a second thought. His prized protege is barely back in the office before he's shutting her down for complaining and undercutting her at every turn.

Don, it is increasingly clear, is so focused on the mystery, the transcendence, the reverie, that he flatly ignores the wants, desires, and even agency of those around him. He doesn't think of the people in his life as individuals with their own thoughts, wants, and needs: they are there to fulfill a particular function in his life, and if they start to stray from that role, Don recoils violently. Think of how he reacted to Peggy's attempts to grow back in season four's finest hour, "The Suitcase" (if you can't conjure the sound of Don shouting "that's what the money's for!" it may be time to revisit what is still one of the show's crowning achievements), or consider his response to his wife's desire to leave advertising and become an actress: Megan was supposed to be his perfect little wife, making him proud in exactly the way he desired, and the second she broke from the role he had in mind for her, he walked off into the darkness and into the arms of someone, anyone else.

Its easy to think Don treats Sylvia as he does tonight because he thinks it is for her benefit, and in fact, I am sure he thinks that, or would at least rationalize it that way. But Don never really thought of her at all. He thought of the excitement of what he was doing, the mystery he would be shrouded in. He thought of the eroticism of the whole thing, perhaps, but the charge he was looking for was completely one-sided. There was no room for Sylvia to think, feel, or want, and what happened in that hotel room is, ultimately, a near perfect encapsulation of what has been happening to Don his entire life. He uses his charm to attract people, treats them like pieces on a chess board, exerts power over them, manipulates them, and uses them until eventually, they don't play by his rules, even for a second, and then the spell is broken and reality sets in. Everyone in Don's life is just another person, and while he makes speeches about freedom, he never really means freedom for anyone else: it is freedom for Don Draper he is most concerned about, to the exclusion of anyone else.

This idea that the show has been playing with this season, that Don doesn't see the people in his life as people at all, has been portrayed, I think, in a way that has lead to the least fruitful subplot of this season, a story that is problematic even as I see what it is doing and can at least give the show enough credit to say it might be intentional. Sylvia has never really been a three-dimensional character, never clearly displaying her own wants or needs, outside of her wanting Don. This illustrates the theme we've been discussing fairly well, but its also lead to the show spending roughly half a season seemingly repeating plot points we've seen before and projecting them on a flatter surface (that's no insult to Linda Cardellini, a very good actress given little to do here). If they wanted to make the point that Don is callous and unthinking towards others, I'm sure there were other, newer ways to do that, and even if this was chosen to underline how little has changed over the course of the series (another pet theme of Matt Weiner's), it didn't play as particularly compelling television, at least in comparison to the show at the top of its game.

If the show is done with Sylvia (and I hope she's at least a presence in the rest of the season, as Cardellini is great and I've become quite fond of Dr. Arnold Rosen as a character), it gave her an exit that was far more touching and profound than I would have guessed possible considering the shallowness of the character. Sylvia has a dream, and in it, she goes home again and tells Arnold she's been away, but she's home now. It isn't exactly subtle, but Cardellini plays the hell out of it, and it turns quickly from one of those nice little speeches the show does from time to time that may be a bit on the nose into an emotional gut punch as we see Sylvia walk silently off the elevator and back to a life that, while not perfect, at least promises her the comfort of familiarity and intimacy, only to follow Don upstairs where he drowns out his wife's talk of a vacation and then stares vacantly out the window while she mourns for Robert Kennedy. Sylvia can go home again, and can find comfort there. Don, on the other hand, has just lost his shiniest new toy and comes back to find his older ones not looking so great by comparison. Sylvia has the intimacy that comes with a long marriage, even an imperfect one. Don can't help but drift further and further away the more the imperfections reveal themselves. Don doesn't have a home to return to, because he's always planning his next escape, his next reinvention. If home is the place you escape to, Don is incapable of finding one. He's a man always counting his exits.

I always pay particular attention to the title of a Mad Men episode, and even at their most innocuous, they tend to hold oceans of meaning. "Man with a Plan" is just such a title--its an idiom, and easy to dismiss as such. But make no mistake, at its core, this episode is about Don as that "Man with a Plan," and the way he reacts when things don't go according to it (hint: poorly). Don plans to upstage Ted by outdrinking him, but then Ted gets his moment in the sun (literally) when he flies his own plane to meet the client. Don's reaction is completely petulant, but Ted's smile couldn't be wider. He's thrown the master planner off his game, and won the day in the process. Yes, Don Draper is a man with a plan. And tonight, he may have begun to learn what we already know about the best laid plans.

Grade: B

Notes:

-Turns out a lot of things not Don related happened in this episode, and I barely touched on any of them above. This season feels particularly focused on our man Draper, and my reviews have followed suit in this regard. But Pete's mother has dementia (which Pete cruelly exploits for his own good, showing shades of Don), and Joan has an ovarian cyst, which leads to a moment of self-interested heroism from Bob, who gets to keep his job as a result.

-Harry Hamlin is still around, basically doing a riff on Roger Sterling. This can keep happening forever and I will not complain.

-"Have a seat." What is this? A bed?"

-"No, Burt. I'm letting you go again." "You can't do that!" "Probably doesn't make a difference at this point, but no one fought for you."

-"You're a real prick, you know that?" "Damn it, Burt, you stole my goodbye!"

-"I just spoke with Dawn." "Black or white?" This joke does not work on the page, but was funny when Ted said it.

-"You said there were no wrong answers." "I didn't say that."

-"Is this going to be Detroit again? You lie down while I pace around?"

-"There's a lot of bridges to Manhattan."

-"I have to eat something." "Doesn't ice count?"

-"If I wait patiently by the river, the body of my enemy will float by."

-"And its...well, its St. Patrick's Day." "Its May." "No it isn't."

-"Sometimes when you're flying, you think you're right side up, but you're really upside down. Gotta watch your instruments."

-"Its easy to give up something when you're satisfied." "Its easy to give up something when you're ashamed."

-"I don't understand what's going on. They're shooting everybody." Going into this season, I kind of expected they would tackle MLK and RFK in one episode, as a sort of apocalyptic release after the looming paranoia the show builds so well. Instead, by spreading them out a bit, the show has underlined these events, not as catharsis, but as just another brick in the wall of dread.

-On the next Mad Men: Pete is indignant; Ginsburg is confused.
Tags: Mad Men
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