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‘Mad Men’ Highlights Don’s Power Games, at Work and in the Bedroom

'Mad Men' Highlights Don's Power Games, at Work and in the Bedroom

The article below contains spoilers for “Man With a Plan,” the May 12, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”

Don (Jon Hamm) likes to be on top — not that there was ever any doubt. Don Draper, ad man extraordinaire, has refused to be pinned down by contracts, difficult clients or the ladies in his life, preferring to come and go as he pleases (and to tell people to fuck off whenever he feels like it), impelled by the deep-seated restlessness and self-examination that have shaped his life.

“Man With a Plan,” directed by Roger Sterling himself, John Slattery, and written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner, is an episode built around a pair of Don’s power games as he tried to establish his ascendancy in two different realms. One was with his mistress and neighbor Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini), and the other was with his counterpoint Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) in the recently blended family of SCDP and CGC. That the workplace was the more interesting of the two says as much about how repetitious Don’s bedroom antics have become as the state of the new office. Yet another of Don’s romantic partners drifted away, and this time it was hard to feel much at all.

Somewhat disappointingly for anyone who’s been a fan of Cardellini from back in her “Freaks & Geeks” days, Sylvia has served mainly as a mirror for Don’s continued dissatisfaction, there to showcase the fact that he’s been unable to give up infidelity, to sleep with him and worry about him without having much else to fill her out as a character. Her Italianness and her Catholicism are details thrown in as a sort of shorthand, signaling a mild European exoticism and poetry and a few tendencies toward guilt without providing much else of substance — and it’s never been clear if this is intentionally reflecting how Don perceives her. In last night’s episode, she played along with his sudden turn into dominance and submission, her attempt to summon him (“I need you, and nothing else will do”) sparking something in him that had him banishing her to bed nude after a lunchtime assignation and ordering her to stay there until he returned, whenever he chose to.

The most titillating part of the sequence, which found Don sending Sylvia a red dress from Saks to wear for him, demanding she bring him his shoes and forbidding her from picking up the phone, was actually the knowledge of what prefaced it — his overhearing her shouting at her husband while in the elevator on his way to work. As much as the hotel scenes were provoked by the goings-on at the office, they also came with the context that the Rosens’ marriage is in turmoil. Don was playing at keeping Sylvia in check and satisfied when, by his perceptions, her husband couldn’t.

It doesn’t last — after a day of games, Sylvia called an end not just to their hotel tryst but to the whole affair, and it was Don who finally begged her to stay, his “It’s easy to give up something when you’re satisfied” countered by her “it’s easy to give up something when you’re ashamed.” Don, for all his desire to control, can’t hold on to her when she decides to go — a point the show made with unfortunate clumsiness, even as he went back home to a Megan (Jessica Paré) eager to reconnect with him and to spend more time together in a monologue her husband tuned out. Don’s continued womanizing is fine — is expected, really — but the Sylvia storyline has felt like a retread of themes we’ve seen before, with the character coming across sometimes as a convenient amalgamation of past women who’ve found themselves in our hero’s bed.

The Chaough thread was better because, like “For Immediate Release,” it gave us a glimpse of Don from the outside, as brilliant and difficult and as a real pain in the ass to work with. Chaough is responsible, he shows up on time, he invites input from his team and compliments them on their work, and he has an adorable formula in which he figures out his approach to problematic campaigns by figuring out which “Gilligan’s Island” character the product would be. Don, we know well, balances out his flashes of greatness with a striking disregard for his colleagues, thinking nothing of wandering off for an assignation in the middle of the day and showing up 40 minutes late to a meeting. Chaough’s niceness and his seeming disinterest in having a pissing contest shifted the sympathy in his quiet duel with Don to his side.

When we’re not just gazing at the world through Don’s eyes (via the show’s signature show of the impassive back of his head), he’s less of an all-consuming protagonist, his flaws more glaring and less absorbing. “He’s mysterious, and I can’t tell if he’s putting it on,” Ted observed to his cancer-ridden partner Frank Gleason (Craig Anton) in the hospital, with the answer being that it’s genuine but also an act. Don is actually unsettled by Ted, which is why he acted the way he did, and why he pointed out that while Don might know the exec at Mohawk, Ted was the one flying them up there in the plane he owned. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) knows Don well enough to call him out on his behavior in defense of her former sole boss after Don drank him under the table. While he mocked her for suggesting the merger and everything that’s followed was all about her, it wasn’t a completely wild accusation. He may have left more of a mark on his former protege than she did on him, but she was right in recognizing that he doesn’t like to have things taken away from him, even if he’s unappreciative of them when they’re there.

Whether Don and Ted will produce great work together has also been left mysterious — the margarine pitch the Don came up with wasn’t world-shaking or particularly collaborative, and the yet-to-be-named car model they’re going to market to the world will be the notorious Chevy Vega, which doesn’t bode well. But it’s telling that in an episode in which we see a private and a public Don, it’s the outside glimpse that’s more interesting — approaching Don through the eyes of others, as a challenging coworker who must be managed and figured out.

And his were not the only power struggles in the episode — Pete “Petulance” Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) had to deal with a mother (Channing Chase) suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, just as he felt his position in the office was in jeopardy thanks to the round of layoffs following the merger. Pete feeling his place is threatened is nothing new in “Mad Men,” and it doesn’t seem particularly justified this time around except in Pete’s head, but his interactions with Dot, who’s still sharp enough to pick up on the state of his marriage, were nicely prickly, as was his vengeful insistence to someone already foggy on details and time that she shouldn’t go outside because it was Saint Patrick’s Day.

And Bob Benson (James Wolk), after running around SCDP looking for a pat on the head from a higher up for several episodes, lucked into a moment with Joan (Christina Hendricks) when he escorted her out of the office and to the hospital after finding her sick. It’s unclear whether his gallantry was calculated or came from a sincere place — his puppyish cheer has been unfaltering, but he also did show off his ability to manipulate in helping her get seen faster in the emergency room (and either way, again, in this show, the answer is usually a more complicated mixture of both). His connection to her did save him from the chopping block, with Joan stepping in at the last minute to elegantly suggest his usefulness. It may be true that “every good deed is not part of a plan,” as Joan’s mother pointed out, but they certainly don’t hurt when easily dispensed of, and Bob’s (and to a lesser extent, Ted’s) technique of smiling through suggests a different approach to playing the same game. SCDP has always been a place in which the employees constantly jockey for position — the addition of a host of new employees can only make it worse.

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