The article below contains spoilers for “The Quality of Mercy,” the June 16th, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”
Turns out, Bob Benson (James Wolk) is not a spy or a journalist tasked to infiltrate and tease out the dark secrets of Sterling Cooper & Draper. He’s a fraud. “The Quality of Mercy,” directed by Phil Abraham and written by Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, was an episode stacked with grandmaster-worthy manipulative feats and feints in the office and the domestic sphere, one that outed Sterling Cooper & Partners’ relentlessly smiley new addition as a man who’d lied about his past, his education and his former employment, who’s from West Virginia and previously spent three years as a “manservant to a senior VP” before showing up at SC&P with a shiny, fabricated resume and some serious ambition. He may not really be 28 years old — he may not actually be named Bob Benson.
That sounds… very familiar. And, fortunately for Bob, the man who found him out was Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who’d gotten so trounced by Don Draper (Jon Hamm) back when he thought he had the upper hand regarding his perceived rival’s secret history that he apparently never fully recovered.
Pete’s entertaining confrontation with Bob toward the episode’s end began with a threat (“I wanted you to stop smiling”) and ended with him admitting defeat, without Bob needing to do much more other than acknowledge that Pete was the one who’d hired him in the first place. Bob only asked, seemingly sincerely, for a day’s head start to leave the office, but Pete had already psyched himself out — “I have learned not to tangle with your kind of animal. I surrender,” he said, assuming that Bob is capable of Don-level actions and preemptively conceding a share in the Chevy account and a future involving a lot of quality time in Detroit with the younger man (with the insistence he keep his hands to himself). It’s a good thing Pete’s life is already falling apart — the show has made the Chevy account into a very specific “Mad Men”-style hell for his predecessor Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), right up to his getting shot during that hunting trip, à la Dick Cheney. (A deadpan scene that had to have provoked at least one “Oh my god, they killed Kenny!” in a living room somewhere.)
Is Bob a newer model of Don? Don finds power in his aloofness and his willingness to walk away from things that don’t please him (an ability that’s also become a burden) while Bob, despite recent glimpses of steeliness, has so far been all ingratiating servility. But once upon a time Don was a lowly fur salesman who had to plead with Roger Sterling (John Slattery) for a job, and who in an echo of Bob’s story about Pete showed up at Sterling Cooper after a boozy night claiming that Roger, who didn’t remember a thing, had hired him.
The parallels between the two characters seem not all that essential, at least unless we get a chance to see how Don reacts to another professional liar under the SC&P roof — Pete’s assuming the two men are somehow the same says more about him and his ideas about class and connections than about how much Don and Bob actually have in common.
When it comes to office politics, Bob has so far been lucky as much as he’s been clever and uncrushable — he ended up assigned to the Chevy account as a passive aggressive move by Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin), who was upset by the unevenness of the merger, and he wouldn’t even have a job if it weren’t for Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) intervention on his behalf during the layoffs. And in contrast, the show also gave us a reminder of how skillfully Don can play people, and how pissy he can be, when he saved the St. Joseph’s ad by taking credit for it away from Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and giving it to the late Frank Gleason, ruining her chances at getting recognition for the work while simultaneously disputing the cozy flirtations between her and Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm). He may have been right — Ted looked in danger of losing the debate with the client — but he also humiliated the two of them with the tease of making their feelings for each other public before stealing the ad from Peggy and giving it to a dead man.
Don’s never had a problem with condemning others for something he himself has done — he’s hardly remained faithful in either of his marriages, and only last season he was, smitten, gliding around the office in the wake of his new wife Megan (Jessica Paré), giving her a job she had no background for and blowing work obligations off to spend time with her. But there was an eddy of self-loathing in his conversation with Ted after the meeting — “You’re not thinking with your head,” he barked, but he was there himself not that long ago.
Don’s perception of Ted as looking foolish and obvious as he fawned over Peggy has to have something to do with how Don no longer feels that giddy infatuation with Megan, how he was discovered boffing his neighbor’s wife by his own daughter, an incident that’s left him spiking his morning orange juice with vodka and curling up in the fetal position, “Requiem for a Dream”-style, twice in this episode. Does Don dislike seeing Peggy and Ted together because he really believes their work is suffering, because he disapproves or because he hates seeing a reminder of people in love when he no longer is himself? What he says and what he actually feels in this regard are two different things.
Meanwhile, Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) paid a visit to the prospective boarding school she requested, while Betty (January Jones) tried and failed to get a reason for the change out of her daughter. It wasn’t because of boys, or because of Betty, it was because of what she saw, though the closest Betty got to that truth was Sally’s definitive decree that “My father’s never given me anything.”
Betty may be petulantly good at prodding at people, but her daughter’s grown up to be a formidable force of her own — what more would you expect from the offspring of two such complicated people? During her overnight at the school, she summoned a now teenage Glen Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner) and pal to party until, displeased that one of her hosts was getting more of his attention than she was, she set the two to fighting. Sally may not get along with her mother, but that small smile when she saw the boys tussling (“You like trouble, don’t you?”) was pure Betty. Boarding school seems like just as fraught a place of power dynamics and structures to learn as SC&P, but for Sally, it should be cake compared to dealing with the difficult being that is her father. And as we approach the season finale with Don apparently the same emotionally distant, fidelity-allergic man he began the series as, who can blame her for wanting to get away?