For better or for worse, Mad Men has had a close relationship with dramatic irony. Sometimes the writing in that vein will prompt a cringe: season one, for example, with little Sally Draper covered in a plastic bag. At other times, the viewer gets a feeling of uneasiness, like when seeing season three’s wedding invitations bear the date of JFK’s assassination. But there are also moments of poignancy among these bits of foreshadowing and finger-wagging. I’m thinking about the moments where, if you were a child at the time and you were looking back with 20/20 vision, you would see the full picture. You’d be closer to understanding the feelings that were being suppressed, in an effort to maintain not just acceptable appearances, but a kind of beauty. An elegance, with everything in its right place. Doors shut, flowers in vases. A small example would be perhaps from season one, when Roger’s daughter admired the dress Joan had on and Joan offered shopping advice like a concierge (not a mistress) would. In subsequent moments, Margaret and Joan have exchanged looks, and I’ve wondered whether the full spectrum of their relationship is wholly clear to either of them. Or, I guess, if it even matters. How much weight does love have if the people in it have other, more important identities to uphold? Roger and Joan’s affair was (and arguably is) a big deal to Joan, but does it really change Margaret’s life to know that this woman was romantically involved with her father? She has never had to call Joan her mother. She has never had to call her anything but Joan.
“Favors” is the title of this episode. That kind of stings. This is the episode where Sally walks in on Don sleeping with Sylvia, and, as Don says when he is trying to explain what Sally saw, it’s complicated. The set-up is pretty involved. Sylvia and Arnold’s son Mitchell has been reclassified as eligible for military service after turning in his draft card in protest. (This apparently happened to people.) Sylvia is distraught, and Arnold doesn’t know what to do. Mitchell attempts to get Megan to find shelter for him in Canada, and Don commits a serious faux pas in trying to get General Motors executives to pull some strings with the defense department. This move on Chevy rightfully infuriates Ted, who yells at Don for almost ruining the client relationship by bringing up the war. Ted offers an olive branch: he will try to get Mitchell a position as a pilot, as long as Don backs off and stops acting like a one-man agency. Don tells Sylvia, and they have a confusing conversation about their relationship because Sylvia suspects that Don did this more for her than for her son. Sex ensues. (I still don’t really get Sylvia’s whole deal, but I also don’t really care, so whatever.)
Sally happens to be staying with her dad because she and a friend are going to a model UN conference in the city, and Betty won’t allow staying in a hotel with a ton of boys. (Moment of interesting blindness to hindsight: Sally argues that there will be a chaperone, and Betty retorts, “She’s twenty-five!” How old was Betty again when she was caring after little Sally with the plastic bag on her head?) Sally sees Mitchell in the lobby and instantly has a crush on him. Her friend compares him to Mark Lindsay, which sounds square to my ears but they’re how old, 16? They giggle, they fawn, and later that night they play a slumber party game where they write down all the things they like about him. (“His ass? When did you see that?”) Sally’s friend then puts this makeshift love letter under the Rosens’ door — with Sally’s name on it — and an embarrassed Sally sneaks into the apartment to retrieve it, only to see her dad on top of Mrs. Rosen, “comforting” her.
As sympathetic and wonderful as Sally Draper is, the protagonist of this show will always be Don, so it’s his reaction to the situation we see first. He cries in the elevator; he attempts to run after her and gets drinks in a bar instead. Later, when he is explaining the situation to her to the best of his abilities (in other words, terribly), we see him back away, we see him close the door and wonder what Sally’s thinking. By contrast, we see Sally lie face down on her bed, her tears obscured. It’s a moment that is the reverse of those Margaret moments with Joan: the subtext had been made text, and it’s the consequences that we are wondering about. What is Sally going to do now that she knows for sure that this is who her father is? Nothing? Does it really change who she is to him? Is their relationship more important than her father’s moral failing?
Meanwhile, Pete’s mother is being comforted, too, by the male nurse recommended by Bob Benson. She’s under the impression that they are in love and insinuates to Peggy (after confusing her with Trudy and making reference to their “child together,” which got a great reaction from Elisabeth Moss) that she is having the best sex of her life. Peggy tells Pete this gross information over celebratory cocktails after they get an account. It’s an interesting touch to have Pete deal indelicately with his mother as a sexual person while Sally’s frustrations over her father’s infidelities are largely hidden from us beyond an outburst at the dinner table.
Ugh, I am glossing over what was my favorite scene in the whole episode, next to Bob Benson’s accidental cruise (more on which later). The scene with Pete and Peggy was such a good scene. Drunk Pete calling Peggy out for being in love with Ted, Drunk Pete asking her if she pities him for not being as successful as she is. So many beats, so many pregnant nods. These characters have somehow found a second, non-romantic wind in their attraction to one another. There aren’t many friendships like that on this show, right?
Anyway. Pete threatens to fire the nurse and yells at Bob for even suggesting him. Bob calms Pete down with a drink, and he, well, makes a pass. I guess. It was too beautiful a speech for me to write it off as Bob just cruising. It’s clear when Pete rebuffs him that Bob sees how big his mistake might be, how his carefully constructed cover might have been blown in the space of a minute. But it was even bigger than that because of James Wolk’s performance. Those eyes he gives as he talks about true love! Gah. So soapy, so dramatic.
But is Bob right? If you care for someone and make their well-being your priority, isn’t it possible that that affection could be reciprocated in a deeper, more affecting way? If you take care of someone by doing a favor, by making sure her son doesn’t get killed in the war, or by supporting her creatively in the office, or by helping her kill rats in her apartment, isn’t that laying the foundation for getting something in return? Does it matter so much who the person is, as Bob says, if it’s real love? The answer the show gives is a resounding no. It matters more who you are in status, in stature, in stasis, than what you feel. It matters to Pete that a man would love another man; it matters to Peggy and Ted that he is married and her boss; it matters to Sally that Sylvia isn’t Don’s wife, let alone Sally’s mother. These pieces of context matter more than the big picture, the core emotions at hand, but those emotions still persist. Pete might not be unlovable, as his mother accuses him of being. He has been loved, of course. But by whom? And what would it mean for him to be loved by them?
Other things that happened: we saw Stan’s apartment and he has weird taste in decor; Peggy got a cat to take care of her mouse problem; and Roger can juggle. I suppose everything can’t be momentous toward the end of the season.