‘Mad Men’ recap: “The Quality of Mercy”

This week’s episode of Mad Men is titled “The Quality of Mercy” after a line in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The line is from a speech that the comedy’s heroine, Portia, gives in the climax of the play to the infamous Shylock. The popular quote goes,

The quality of mercy is not strain’d/
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest/
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

Portia is asking Shylock to forgive Antonio his debt. The gist of the quote is that if one is merciful then not only is the forgiven blessed, but so is the forgivee.

I had to re-read the quote after watching this week’s episode of Mad Men to see if I can figure out why the episode’s writers – husband and wife team Andre and Maria Jacquemetton – chose the phrase. Who in Mad Men is in the position to forgive?

My first thought was Sally. Remember from last week, Sally caught Don inflagranti with neighbor and friend Sylvia Rosen. Instead of talking things through, she dashed into her bedroom in tears, while Don was desperately trying to control the situation by offering his daughter impotent platitudes like he was just “comforting” Mrs. Rosen and that Sally just doesn’t understand. This week we learn that Sally’s good at holding a grudge, refusing to come over to Manhattan.

Of course Don feels guilty, but he cannot betray his image of perfection, and does not try to reach out. On the phone with exwife Betty, he’s petulant when he learns that Sally’s stood up her dad yet again. When he finds out that she’s interested in boarding school, he’s only too happy to offer financial support, so that Sally could be out of sight and out of mind.

After being dropped off at the boarding school for an overnight trial, Sally meets up with a pair of mean girls who intimate that there will be some hazing going on. Initially I felt bad for Sally, who was trying her best to fit in, but then I remembered that Sally’s pretty bad ass when she wants to be and that those girls would do right by not underestimating her – after all, she’s Don Draper’s and Betty Francis’ daughter – and both Don and Betty are known for grinding their opponents into dust if need be.

Sally’s slumber party is another chance for us to see Glenn Bishop again. Glenn’s an interesting character because he’s evolved from that creepy kid who pined for Betty into an okay guy. He comes along with a buddy and the kids get high and drunk. Glenn comes to Sally’s aid and punches his friend in the stomach when he makes some grody passes at Sally. I was struck at just how good the friendship is between Sally and Glenn – and how he of all people was always there for her – a consistent presence.

On the drive back home, Betty and Sally experience a slight thaw when Betty shares the good news: Sally’s got an in with the boarding school. And then she makes a bid for Mom of the Year by offering her daughter a cigarette. Betty smirks that her father’s probably given her a beer, to which Sally spits out, “My father never gave me anything.”

While alienating himself from his daughter, Don’s also doing his best to distance himself from the other important women in his life -namely Megan and Peggy. Megan doesn’t feature all that heavily in this episode, but she does play the part of the cuckold wife well. But it’s Peggy that Don’s tussling with – and things get ugly.

Don’s never been all that keen with Peggy’s friendship with her new mentor Ted. If nothing else, Don is a possessive, greedy, jealous little boy (in fact, twice in the episode we see Don in a fetal position – I practically expected him to suck his thumb). He likes to have his possessions, and one of them is Peggy – or Peggy’s creativity. He bristles at the growing flirtation between Ted and Peggy – which to be fair, is getting ridiculous. Ted’s infatuated with his protegé, making eyes at her, and allowing her very good idea for a St. John’s Aspirin ad to spiral out of control – the original $15,000 budget has ballooned to $50,000 because Peggy’s idea for a kid aspirin commercial is a take off Rosemary’s Baby, and it requires a large cast of actors.

Don does two things – he manages to save the account and torpedo Peggy’s chances at a Clio – no one can accuse him of acting badly even though he does. When the clients balk at the growing costs of the ad, Don swoops in and shares a secret: Ted is so fond of this account because it was the last idea for the late Frank Gleason – Ted’s former business partner who dies of cancer. The client is suitably impressed and ups the budget to $25,000 and leaves happy. Don quickly diffuses Ted’s anger by rightly pointing out that Ted’s judgement is severely impaired by his affection for Peggy.

Things ain’t over yet though – Peggy has one last confrontation with Don, in which she accuses Don of resenting Ted for being a good man. Don tries to be implacable, but Peggy has the last word, calling the guy a monster. Ouch. As justified as she is, I was a little taken aback at Miss Olsen’s ugly missive. Don has some serious introspective thinking to do, and he curls up into the fetal position on his couch.

The other major plot line has Pete versus Bob Benson – the smiley, handsome, really creepy guy that sort of just hangs around the office like a bat. Last week we got the impression that Bob’s dropped his facade a bit and made a pass at Pete. Pete’s not thrilled with Bob and tries to sell him off to Duck Philips, who tells Pete that Bob’s an enigma – a self-made facsimile of an ad man with a spotty and murky history. So apparently Pete’s been caught in another shit storm – like Don, Bob’s got a secret pass that Pete’s privy to, and like Don, Bob’s faster, smarter, smoother, and better than Pete – but Pete’s smart enough to know not to try and out maneuver Bob like he did with Don. The two then forge an uneasy but mutually beneficial alliance. And I still think Bob’s up to no good.

Ken Cosgrove is also in this episode – though he acts more as a conduit for Pete getting ahead. Ken’s on a hunting trip with the rowdy guys from Chevy and one of them pulls a Dick Cheney and shoots the poor guy in the face (at least Ken doesn’t apologize). Wearing an eyepatch like a cartoon pirate, he tearfully begs Pete to take over the account, which Pete’s only too happy to do – but is forced to work with Bob, which sets off the weird codependant relationship the two embark on.

“The Quality of Mercy” is another solid entry into an otherwise pretty good season. It went by quickly and none of it dragged – it’s interesting because at this point, I’ve finally decided that Don Draper is no longer an anti-hero, but a villain. I’m pressed to find any redeeming qualities in the guy.

So I’m still trying to figure out who is supposed to be the forgiven in this episode. It may be Don who screwed over Sally, Megan, Ted, and Peggy. It may be Bob, who is at the mercy of Pete – who has also some apologizing to do to his ill mother. It could also be Ted who is carrying on this adolescent flirtation with Peggy despite being married, and at the cost of his professionalism.

Here are some interesting/fun notes I caught:

  • Joan didn’t have much to do in this episode, but I vote for her as MVP of “The Quality of Mercy” due to Christina Hendricks’ hilarious Jewish mamala impression when performing for Don in Peggy’s and Ted’s ad pitch for St. John’s.
  • Don’s going back on his word with Ted and going after Sunkist shows him in a particularly despicable light – I’m hoping Ted doesn’t do some magic tricks on his end and get Mitchell Rosen pulled from the National Guard, and therefore vulnerable to the draft.
  • Post weight gain Betty has gained a lot of maturity and gravitas and has become an altogether thoroughly more enjoyable and admirable character as a result.
  • Megan’s beautiful, but as evidenced from her work on her soap, she’s not exactly a great actress.
  • I always suspected that once Ted’s and Don’s ad agencies form their unholy alliance that Peggy will be caught in a nasty crossfire – and boy was I right. The only option Miss Olsen has is to quit – she’s powerful enough at this point to be able to walk away to another high-paying gig, and I think for her sanity, she should exercise this option.
  • Sally going to boarding school is a problem because that could translate to less Kiernan Shipka in the final season – something I’m just not happy about.
  • What is the deal with Rosemary’s Baby? There are clues dropped all over the place (you need a dustpan and a broom to pick them all up) but I don’t know what to make of them. First we have Megan wearing the late Sharon Tate’s iconic shirt (and Tate was the wife of Rosemary Baby director Roman Polanski), then we have Sally reading Ira Levin’s famous horror tale, in this episode we’ve got Peggy and Ted and Don and Megan (sounds like the title of a late 60s sex comedy) going to see Polanski’s film, and finally we have Peggy and Ted pitching an ad idea spun off from the movie. I think it’s more than just a way to subtly clue us in on the time.
  • And speaking of which, the writers handled the inclusion of Jacqueline Kennedy’s second marriage to shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis very clumsily – it’s almost as if they wanted to have Don break the fourth wall and remind viewers, “Hey folks – remember it’s 1968” but they thought a sneaky way to do that would be to have Don correct Betty when she refers to the former first lady as “Jackie Kennedy,” by intoning, “Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.” I swear, I think I caught him winking at the camera.

So what did you all think of “The Quality of Mercy”?

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