The sixties were astoundingly similar to the time we’re in now. Violence, unrest, distrust of the government, a youth in revolt, and a wide gap between the classes that served as a wedge between cultures. Religion, race, gender politics, and sexual politics were hot button issues that polarized the country.
It was a time of change. A dismantling of everything Roosevelt accomplished during World War II. A deconstruction of the newly-built middle-class. As fast as we built it, our children tore it down. How can we believe in war when we can’t believe in the media?
Matthew Weiner has always used hindsight to comment on the present, but in its sixth season, Mad Men has really taken its setting and run with it. Just a few weeks ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the start of a harrowing, apocalyptic episode about doubt and fear and isolation. This week, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination closed an episode all about control and chaos.
It’s the kind of symmetry that all great writing has in common. Even Shakespeare used this technique, beginning and ending Hamlet with a murder. What’s a better way to bookend a story than to process death? Everything from Oedipus to The Godfather has used death to begin and end their stories. Mad Men is no different. The political turmoil surrounding the characters in SCDP is, in the solipsistic way only Mad Men can pull off, is a manifestation of their own personal nightmares.
SCDP has merged with CGC, bringing Peggy back into the fold, but this also means that Ted, creative director from a formerly competing firm, must stand t0e-to-toe with the egomaniacal sociopath that is Don Draper. They’re both threatened, and they both, in their own ways, try to resist one another’s charms. It turns into an exercise of control. One that Ted ultimately wins with a (quite literally) high-flying stunt.
Don isn’t used to collaboration. He works best when he’s in charge, and Ted is proving to be Don’s superior in every regard. Ted is hungry, and Don is full. He spends most of the episode playing strange games with Sylvia, who stays in a hotel and allows Don to treat her like an animal. He forces her to wait for him, naked, for an entire day. He forces her to undress in front of him. He forces her to resist answering the phone as he calls her repeatedly. It mirrors last season’s sexual tension between he and Megan, where he forced her to clean in front of him in her underwear.
Don’s obsessed with control in all forms. I would call it sexist (mostly because it is), but he performs the same degrading role for Ted, who he gets blackout drunk on his first day of work–for the sole purpose of humiliating him in front of his new co-workers.
The chaos surrounding SCDP’s merger is unsettling to Don, who is obsessed with control, and he does everything in his power to offset this unbalanced atmosphere with mean-spirited games that don’t sit well with anybody who observes them.
Peggy chews Don out over the situation with Ted, and rightly so, as she is the only person in the office who Don will listen to regarding ethical blind spots. Her return to SCDP is awkward, funny, and works completely as the fan-service that it is. It’s exhilarating to see Peggy back with the gang, and I can’t wait to see where this season takes us with her arc.
Another pleasant surprise was Joan’s screen time. She’s been short-changed most of the season, but this week episode included a sub-plot where Bob Benson (seriously, Weiner is taking forever in revealing his intentions with this guy) discovers Joan, bent over in excruciating pain, throwing up in her office, and takes her to the hospital. He genuinely cares for her well-being, and, by extension, for the well-being of everybody he comes across at the office. Benson is a very interesting character to include this season, as it’s so focused on isolation and selfishness. It’s as if Benson represents total selflessness and empathy in a world where neither actually exist.
Come to think of it, Benson, to everybody in the office, doesn’t exist at all. I can’t wait to see where Weiner is going with his character, and what that character means to the show as a whole.
“Man with a Plan” is an episode brimming with perfectly-framed shots, brilliant character arcs, and a firm grasp on what it wants from the setting surrounding Don.