Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Man With a Plan" (season 6, episode 7)

Mad Men - "Man With a Plan" (season 6, episode 7)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 12, 2013/written by Semi Chellas and Matthew Weiner; directed by John Slattery): Two agencies are coming together under (what was once) SCDP's roof and the office is bustling as cumbersome furniture moves in and nervous employees worry about being moved out. The executives also experience an adjustment period, with Ted and Don particularly mismatched. Guiding a margarine brainstorming session in Don's unexplained absence, Ted's more collaborative, team leader approach to the creative department is contrasted with Don's role as the aloof, enigmatic diva. Don proceeds to drink Ted under the table in a display of dominance, parallel to his hotel rendezvous with the willingly captive Sylvia (both Rosens have fled their apartment following a blow-up over their rebellious son). She's turned on by the master/slave dynamic Don deploys as he orders her to strip, stay in bed, and wait for (and on) him day and night. Don is definitely on some psycho shit in "Man with a Plan" but the prowess of his in-office hazing gives way to sweaty anxiety in the cockpit of Ted's private plane, and his authoritative leer melts into despair when Sylvia gently informs him that the game is over and she's going home. Hamm's face is as malleable, iconic, and instantly evocative as those classic masks of Greek drama - this is absolutely one of his best performances in the series. Don's dual power plays provide the coiled spine of the episode, around which Pete attempts to deal with his increasingly senile mother and Joan bonds with Bob Barker (James Wolk) in mutually beneficial fashion (he manipulates his way into a doctor's office when she has a medical incident, and she in return saves his job). Finally, in a brilliant stroke after all the personal and professional turmoil, the time-addled Mrs. Campbell wakes her son to inform him, amidst claims that he'll be late for school, that "they shot that poor Kennedy boy." "That was years ago, mother," Pete sighs before falling back asleep. And then in the final shot, a newscaster's voice and the chatter inside the ill-fated Ambassador Hotel as its only soundtrack, Megan weeps and Don broods as history does, in fact, repeat - or at the very least, rhyme.

My Response: Slattery often brings a light touch to his episodes, and despite its gloomy trajectory "Man with Plan" has several examples of his comic timing both in front of and behind the camera (most notably, Roger's superbly executed termination of poor Burt Peterson, whose first firing I don't even remember; I doubt I'll forget this one). I almost chose the aerial image of Don and Ted squished side by side above the clouds to crown this review, but I couldn't in good conscience boost Don's comical comeuppance at Ted's hand over his far more profound one in the palm of Sylvia's. My instinct about their fling being on its way out was correct but it's quite a ride up before the drop, and the conclusion is so well-executed that it erases my doubts about this development. I still wish they'd gone lighter with the perfunctory "poor Don" punctuation throughout the season's first half but the same concept finally pays off here. It will be interesting to revisit the earlier seasons and figure out if Don's desire for control over others (or rather, his demand for dependence) was a running theme throughout his life with Betty as well. Did it really come up at all before the Dick Whitman secret was resolved? Was the concept simply inapplicable, or even redundant given the power dynamics in that relationship? Control has certainly been a consistent throughline in his marriage to Megan, but the Drapers' penultimate scene in "Man with a Plan" finally made the fundamental problem obvious to me. Don isn't struggling with Megan's independence, he's not caught between two lives, he's not running a risk out of pure compulsion. He's fallen out of love, or at least out of infatuation with the woman whose appeal was rooted in her ability to mother (his children as well as him) while simultaneously demonstrating subservient admiration. There's no conflict in this marriage, no attempt to bridge impossible desires - that conflict ended long ago when that desire was snuffed out. He's been watching, not hearing, Megan speak for over a year.

So that's it for the second Kennedy. Of course two momentous assassination episodes nearly back-to-back would have been too much, and of course Mad Men handles the event just perfectly, an offhand bummer which may complement the JFK episode even more than the MLK one. Everything is repeating, only more tawdry and abrupt than before...even down to Don's primal abandonment. However, it seems I was wrong about Don's second (or, technically, third) marriage going out with a bang alongside Bobby. Or was I?

Next (active on October 25, 8am): "The Crash"Previous: "For Immediate Release"

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