‘Mad Men’ Recap: “Man with a Plan”

So I finally got my wish – Joan Halloway was featured in a major plotline in an episode of this season’s Mad Men. Up until now, our favorite secretary-turned-partner has been woefully underused, simply pushed off to the sidelines – her patented pearls of wisdom were even jettisoned. It was nice to see Christina Hendricks finally act. It’s too bad then that she had such a dull episode foisted on her. “Man with a Plan” sounds like an excellent title – as if a lot will happen. And a lot does – only very little of it is actually interesting.

From last week’s episode viewers get to see what actually happens when the ad agencies merge – SCDP and Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough merge after Don and Ted Chauough form an alliance to combat the larger ad agencies. There are predictable growing pains, and we see a lot of shuffling of offices and secretaries wandering the hallways with Joan presiding over all this like a polite drill sergeant with a clipboard. Of course none of this will go smoothly because there are too many egos, and everyone is trying to prove him or herself. Joan’s got a chip on her shoulder (rightly) because even though she’s a partner, she’s still corralling secretaries like an office ranch herder; Don’s a prodigious talent that is slowly inching out of relevancy; Ted is an eager puppy trying to latch on to the moving times; and Peggy’s trying to find out where does she stand in the midst of all this. No one has it easy – especially Burt Peterson who gets the heave-ho for the second time in “Man with a Plan” after the merge takes place and Roger’s not willing to tolerate any undermining from the bitter Peterson.

And while Don’t professional life is in flux, his personal life has regressed back to what it was when he demolished his first marriage; Mad Men fans will remember in the earlier seasons how Don could not remain faithful to the beautiful but Madea-like Betty, and it’s the same with his current wife, Megan. His continuing relationship with his neighbor Sylvia takes on an ugly turn in this episode. After Don overhears a mighty fight between Sylvia and her husband Al, the two meet up in a hotel, where Don proceeds to act out a domination fantasy in which Sylvia is his living doll – there for every whim, want and need. At first she goes along with it, even though she’s momentarily nonplussed by his brusque and leering behavior; it’s disturbing to watch only because again the barrage of misogyny from the show is unrelenting and it’s starting to blur the line from simply representing or mirroring to perpetuating. I know it’s a period piece and I know we have women like Peggy on hand to show us just how far women have made it by 1968, but it’s still rather perverse and uncomfortable to watch women like Sylvia (or Joan, for that matter), give themselves up to men who don’t deserve them.

Speaking of Joan – she’s given a little bit more to do than usual and for that we’re grateful. She’s able to deal with the collision of the two ad agencies with her custom aplomb, despite being plagued with a nasty pain in her side. It’s creep Bob Benson to the rescue who dashes her away to the hospital and gets her in front of the line by playing to the nurse’s condescending sexism by concocting a cock and bull story of how Joan downed some furniture polish. His act of chivalry doesn’t go unnoticed – when it’s time to slash jobs, she quickly saves his ass (but throws another guy under the bus in the process – oh, and by the way, was anyone else but I disappointed that with the merger came the inevitable firing of the other female copywriter, who like the rest of us, saw it coming?) When Bob stopped by Joan’s apartment to check up on her (and to give her baby a football), her busybody mother immediately prodded the bodacious singleton to go after the guy, despite his youth – Joan, though, seems to flirt with the idea, even though her last workplace relationship, Roger, ended in heartache and disappointment.

But aside from Joan, no one else seems to be handling this merger well.  Peggy looks out of sorts – she’s got Ted, who she’s got a crush on, and of course Don, with whom she shares a deep history. She’s not exactly caught in the middle, but she knows each man too well and understands the messed up competitive dynamic, especially when Ted staggers into a meeting, completely shitfaced, while Don glides in without so much as a slip; all of creative look at Ted in alarm as the guy basically passes out on the table, while Peggy immediately knows that her former mentor pushed her current mentor to down a few too many tumblers of hooch.

And the inevitable confrontation happens, and as we suspected Don’s acting oblivious to his behavior, despite knowing that he goaded Ted into getting drunk. Peggy lashes out at Don – we’re reminded yet again just how far she’s grown. She correctly nails him for treating Ted like a rival on the playground. “Move forward,” she demands as she slams the door behind her. Don’s baffled and turns to the female relationship in which he believes he has the upperhand: his dalliance with Sylvia.

But it’s not meant to be – Sylvia finally has an aha moment (and this is like 20 years before Oprah) and realizes that she has to end it with Don. He’s unhappy – yet again, having to give up something, some sense of control, and it’s scaring him. He returns home to  his wife, who cluelessly blathers on about taking another holiday to Hawaii. Her speech is slowly silenced by the oppressive soundtrack and all we is Megan mouthing away – a perfect snapshot of how Don views his missus.

As bad as Don has it, Pete has it worse because he’s trying to maintain some kind of semblance of power at this new version of the ad agency while dealing with pangs of paranoia that he’s being squeezed out. At the same time his mother is slowly losing herself to dementia, much to her son’s chagrin. His brother flatly insists that Pete and Trudy take her in, unaware that Trudy isn’t the most receptive person to Pete’s need at the moment; so Mrs. Campbell is stuck in Pete’s bachelor pad, where she wanders around confusing her son for her dead husband and generally pushing Pete to the limits of his strained patience.

But she has one strong moment of lucidity which ends the episode on its best note: she wanders into his room early in the morning, telling a grumpy and sleepy Pete that the Kennedy boy has been shot. Thinking she’s referring to John F. Kennedy, he huffs that his death happened years ago and turns over back to sleep. We only get confirmation that it’s Bobby Kennedy when we see Megan tearfully watch live coverage of the aftermath of the assassination, with Don in the background, impotent to her emotional needs.

Not much of the episode was all that compelling, and during the airing, my mind drifted to characters I wished I saw more of – like Sally Draper, who was such a force last season, but is seemingly back to just being a kid this season – a grave error I think. I also was hoping a brunette Betty Francis would appear – but with a cast so large, it’s expected that some will be shortshifted in favor of others at times.

Here are some things I noticed:

  • I don’t know if this is significant, but Syliva was passing the time in her hotel room reading James McMurty’s classic The Last Picture Show; now on Mad Men a cigar is never just a cigar, but I still haven’t figured out the importance of the novel.
  • When Peggy told Ted she talked to Don, he quickly asked, “The black one or the white one” – a neat quip.
  • Peggy and Joan are genuinely glad to see each other – when Peggy quit in season 5, the viewers saw her leave after an emotionally-draining meeting with Don; as she walks away she shares a knowing look with Joan. While the two are never bosom buddies, it’s interesting to see how the two grow in parallel
  • It was neat seeing the vintage Coca Cola can Bob was drinking from in the hospital scene
  • With the death of Bobby Kennedy, Mad Men dealt with the all the major passings of the 1960s: Marilyn Monroe, Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy.

So what did you think? Did you find “Man with a Plan” as a bit of a dud? Or am I being too harsh?

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