Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Benefactor" (season 2, episode 3)

Mad Men - "The Benefactor" (season 2, episode 3)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on August 10, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner & Rick Cleveland; directed by Lesli Linka Glatter): After featuring prominently in the previous episode, Pete is entirely absent and Peggy makes only a brief appearance, looking very uncomfortable as her co-workers screen a TV episode about a hidden pregnancy. Surprisingly, it's Harry Crane who steps to the fore; the timid, bespectacled writer is growing claustrophobic in his shared office, and when he "accidentally" opens Ken Cosgrove's paycheck (to see that it's $100 more than his own), he begins to wonder if he should just fly the coop. Calling a friend who works at CBS, he gets another idea instead and pitches a controversial abortion-themed Defenders to the Belle Jolie lipstick company. The representative doesn't bite but is impressed nonetheless - and Roger Sterling is too. Harry is promoted to the head of the one-person "television department" and summons up the courage to ask for a raise. He proudly returns to his expectant wife to announce that he now earns $225 instead of $200, although he hesitates to tell her the subject of the episode that vaulted him to a (slightly) higher level.

Meanwhile, Don's secretary Lois falls while Harry rises; Don fires her when she proves unable to "manage expectations" one time too often, and Joan temporarily steps into her place. Don's primary task in "The Benefactor" is to manage a troublesome client, the cutting and often drunken comedian Jimmy Barrett (the always-unsettling Patrick Fischler, seven years after Mulholland Drive and nine years before Twin Peaks). Jimmy has brutally mocked the overweight wife (Jan Hoag) of Hunt Schilling (Steve Stapenhorst), the owner of Utz Chips. Don's attempt to smooth things over involves a dinner date with himself, his wife, the Schillings, and the Barretts: Jimmy and his wife/manager Bobbie (Melinda McGraw). There's a lot more going on here than just a business arrangement - Don has already had a fling with Bobbie and he may be as eager to wield Betty for her benefit as for Jimmy's (who acts absolutely smitten). When Bobbie tries to force Don to bribe her into making Jimmy apologize, Don shoves his hand up her dress and threatens to destroy her husband/client if he doesn't comply. Jimmy says he's sorry and on the way home, Betty begins to cry - not because of the cynical way Don exploited her (or any suspicion of his behavior with Bobbie) but, ostensibly, tears of joy because she's glad that she and Don can spend time together this way, working as a team.

My Response: 
The episode functions both as a standalone, with some self-contained storylines that exploit the era or flesh out supporting characters, and as potential set-up for longer arcs. While I doubt we'll see the woozy, sharp-as-nails Bobbie again, Betty has her own potential affair brewing; at the stable where she rides, the pushy, pouty young Arthur Case (Gabriel Mann) tries to force a kiss and perceptively observes that she's "so profoundly sad" to which she responds, "It's because my people are Nordic" - which made me laugh out loud in the middle of an otherwise not very funny scene. Though this season's premiere and at least one first season episode teased Betty's repressed interest in other men, it's still hard to imagine her making that leap - but I suspect Arthur will test that resolve. (Speaking of a repressed interest in other men, Sal encounters the lipstick rep he flirted with last season, and still seems deeply uncomfortable with his presence.) For his part, Don's dalliance stirs up a woozy guilt we haven't seen in him before - it really does seem like he hasn't cheated since Rachel's ship sailed and he's a bit discombobulated by venturing back into this world again. When Betty hands him a watch she's had fixed for him, complete with a brand new monogram, he's so touched that he seems to be in the brink of weeping.

That sensitive Don, however, is eclipsed by the ruthless Don of the episode's end, who essentially assaults Bobbie as part of a larger strategy to put her in her place. Betty seems more lost than ever as she cozies up to the man who not only betrayed her, but then paraded her like a good luck charm in front of the woman he (presumably) slept with as well as the man he cuckolded (who is presently hitting on her - there's a very weird sexual dynamic going on around this restaurant table). This is Glatter's second Mad Men episode and as in "5G," in which Don pays off a sibling to send them out of his life, the director proves adept at exploring how the character treads on others' emotions to preserve his own position. There's also a particularly sharp look to several of the scenes, with Don's and Betty's final drive into the night an obvious example, but Jimmy's commercial is even more unusually striking in its juxtaposition of bright, crisp lighting and the encroaching darkness of the soundstage. Jimmy's shtick is more bizarre and unnerving than uproarious, and at times he seems like an edgier doppelganger for Don, the Id to the adman's Superego. Both rely on destructive assertion to assuage their discomfort in their own skin. One does this openly, the other behind closed doors. Decide for yourself which is worse.

Next week: "Three Sundays" • Last week: "Flight 1"

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