Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Quality of Mercy" (season 6, episode 12)

Mad Men - "The Quality of Mercy" (season 6, episode 12)

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 June 16, 2013/written by Andre and Maria Jacquemetton; directed by Phil Abraham): At first, I was quite certain I'd seen Ken's head get blown off by clients in Michigan, in the midst of a hunting excursion which all-too-logically culminates months of reckless abuse. I was wrong; he later shows up with a eyepatch and ragged scars across his cheek. But this shocking incident destabilizes the opening act, creating a mood of palpable anxiety reminiscent of...well, Rosemary's Baby, which "The Quality of Mercy" references both explicitly and implicitly. That tension is there as Don's drinking continues to spiral out of control, the worst it's been since mid-season four; as Pete and Duck scrape away at Bob's persona only to find a gaping, bottomless hole; and as Don continues to steamroll Ted's business interests despite the partner's generosity toward Mitchell in the previous episode (maybe this is, among other things, a subconscious rebuke for what happened as a result of that requested intervention). And the tension is also there in the other piece of audiovisual media referenced in this episode: a Nixon ad depicting the nation's ongoing traumas and promising a grim order to deal with them. The episode's one big success story, Pete's replacement of Ken on the Chevy account, is also tainted both by the threat of violence associated with those General Motors madmen and especially the even more unnerving, amorphous threat of Bob.

What Duck reveals after some digging is as unsettling for what it can't answer as for what it can. Bob hails from a hardscrabble West Virginian background; he worked as a manservant to a wealthy individual and basically faked his way into everything else. For starters, it doesn't appear he was ever actually hired at SCDP. He just showed up one day and acted like he had the job. Sound familiar? Pete certainly thinks so and, recalling how his run-in with Don turned out way back in 1960, he decides to declare a truce this time. "It terrifies me to think what damage you could do in a single day," he spits in Bob's face. So he'll keep his knowledge to himself as long as Bob keeps his distance. "I'm off limits," he declares, although he does have one request: get Manolo out of his mother's life. It's a tall order. Mrs. Campbell (or, now, Mrs. Colon?) even shows up at the office arm-in-arm with her supposed fiancé, ready to cruise off into the Caribbean sunset. On the other side of the generational spectrum, Sally retreats to the all-girl prep school Miss Porter's for an interview and trial run, as she continues to recoil from her father's world (she hasn't visited the city since discovering him in bed with Sylvia). And there she too finds trouble with the prodding of a couple would-be classmates Mandy and Millicent (Kathryn Newton and Sammi Hanratty). Inviting Glen and a pal from his own boarding school through the dormitory window, Sally avoids both pot and the pawing of Rolo (Liam Atkin). In the process, she impresses the other girls while activating Glen's protective instincts (since it's Mandy he makes out with, that brotherly affection is all she can hope for at the moment).

As important as the Bob discoveries may be, the episode's thematic core is Peggy's Rosemary's Baby-inspired commercial for St. Joseph Aspirin: a version of the final scene witnessed from the infant's point of view, into which the mother enters as a comforting presence. This concept is obviously evocative of Don's speed-fueled mother complexes in "The Crash" as well as the overhead shots of Don in a fetal position in the opening and closing scenes here (tellingly, Ted and Peggy put Don in the baby's place when they're practicing this pitch). However, there are practical as well as personal reasons for Don to subvert the whole enterprise, albeit practical reasons which have a personal character themselves. All season, Don has been disturbed by Ted's growing bond with Peggy and he's not the only one. Everyone in the office has noticed, with sighs and eyerolls following the blissful collaborators wherever they go (including to the movie theater where Don and Megan catch them watching the film for a second time). Ted, as Don puts it, isn't thinking with his head - but Don certainly is. His calculations include: encouraging Harry to pursue Sunkist after initially dissuading him (the encounter at the movie theater, in which he sniffs out Ted's vulnerable position, is the trigger here); phoning St. Joseph with the way over-budget proposal in the midst of a casting call; and finally, terrifying the boardroom during a meeting with St. Joseph rep Ray (Dan Warner) by turning to Ted and saying that there's a personal reason for his devotion to this expensive idea.

And then - surprise! - Don reveals his flourish. He credits the concept (which Ted assured Peggy would win her a Clio) to the recently deceased Frank, claiming that it was his very last idea. The St. Joseph rep melts (the ploy works) but Ted and Peggy are crushed. "You're a monster!" Peggy snarls, before leaving Don to curl up on his couch, ending the episode the way he began it.

My Response: The Shakespearean allusion of the episode's title refers most directly to Pete and Bob: "It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." In Pete's cynical formulation, mercy is pure calculation, not only sparing himself the feared blowback but unleashing Bob as a destructive rogue agent on the rest of the office. Always a bitter, conniving little bastard, Pete has reached his zenith here - topping even his attempt to expose Don in season one, in a deeply ironic parallel form. But is confidence warranted? Why shouldn't Bob, now knowing that Pete is in on his secret, want to take Pete out...perhaps literally? Mutually assured destruction has failed Pete in the past, just a few episodes ago in fact; besides, Duck knows the truth and could readily blab to someone else at SC&P especially if (or rather, when) he realizes that Pete never pulled the trigger himself. I never commented much on this new character as the season chugged along, viewing him initially as amusing color around the office, mostly serving the purpose of underscoring just how big and bustling it has become. When he emerged as a calculating but still helpful figure in both Joan's and Pete's stories, I bought what the show was selling - even feeling a bit sorry for him when Pete spurned his advances. In other words, Mad Men had me exactly where it wanted me and, like Pete, I have no choice but to surrender (albeit with far more delight - it's fun to anticipate a sneaky move, but even more fun to be blindsided).

Bob is also a brilliant conceit to reframe our perception of Don. Pete explicitly ties them together - or rather, almost explicitly given that he never mentions Don's name once to either Duck or Bob (he doesn't have to). This new character, whose deception makes us uneasy, whose boyish cheer is not as powerful a mask as Don's brooding machismo, is the sort of double character who exposes what we're usually willing to overlook in a protagonist. Indeed, the promotional art for season six features what appear to be two versions of Don passing one another in the street and looking over their own shoulders. I still have mixed feelings about the way this season has handled him - ladling the sociopathic tendencies on pretty thick without fully committing to this lack of sympathy; yet again, for what must be the seventh or eighth time, we close with a woe-is-me vision of Don (although at least this one is a clever callback to the film reference running through the entire episode). With Bob, we can't get close at all, reminding us how other characters may see Don without our privileged glimpses into his past and private moments - although they do have longstanding relationships with Don in a way no one does with this newbie. On the flip side, our own insight into those moments - our borderline omniscience when it comes to everything Don is up to - may in fact make us more likely to look at him askance; after all, even those who know some of his deceptions don't know all of them.

Of course, what does Don himself really know about his own behavior? For a figure so incredibly calculating, he may move more by instinct than conscious reflection. "The Quality of Mercy" is careful to justify Don's sabotage of Peggy and Ted on all sides. They are really getting in over their heads in full sight of the entire office. St. Joseph's really is more likely to calm down when given Don's excuse rather than the reality. Ted probably does need a sensible dressing-down over his own recklessness. And yet it's so readily apparent that Don's motives are personal, even predatory; the airtight rationalizations he effortlessly weaves around himself only make the aggression more infuriating. If Ted is getting carried away with his passionate enthusiasm for Peggy, then Don is also losing himself in a kind of pathological professional jealousy (to call it professional is not to deny its personal nature - for Don the two realms are increasingly intertwined). In that sense, the final exchange and subsequent image are all too perfect, because that's Don: the frightened child and the vicious beast all at once. Why didn't we ever imagine what Rosemary's Baby looks like from the baby's point of view?

Next (active on November 29, 8am): "In Care Of"Previous: "Favors"

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