It’s been said that every single scene in a script is, at some level, about the transfer of power. As a bluntly literal example, look at Iron Man getting supercharged by Thor’s lighting in The Avengers. That’s an exciting scene, though not because Iron Man gets to use a bigger repulsor blast; what makes it work is getting to see the mortal Tony Stark turn the tables on a literal god. Power exists everywhere, not just in comics, and sci-fi: it cannot be created or destroyed, or even felt in a tangible way, but so long as there is social interaction, power is as vital to human existence as oxygen. It’s the driving force behind the toppling of empires, and how your restaurant order is affected by that of your date’s, and as such, power is also the essence of drama. CGC and SCDP may have agreed to a superhero team-up last week, but Mad Men, as a great drama, knows that the partnership can’t possibly last two minutes before each side starts trying to make the other its sidekick.
As ever, the show likes to tease out such a theme instead of openly addressing it, double-talking and hinting at the subject matter, while leaving the obvious metaphors in the prop room (give or take a Sun Tzu quote), because power as a concept seems kind of feudal. Over on HBO’s Game of Thrones though, where characters are more willing to speak their minds, power is the only constant in the universe, and everybody knows it. I face a weekly struggle to resist drawing comparisons between Mad Men and Game of Thrones every bloody episode, but this time I’m too weak to say no, because the thematic undercurrent in “Man with a Plan” would be right at home in Westeros. You could point to Vary’s rather on-the-nose speech about the nature of power, and see clear parallels between the little man that is Dick Whitman, and the great shadow he casts as Don Draper, but both shows managed to create a much more subtle, and realistic point about it through a game of musical chairs.
Within weeks of each other, both Mad Men and Game of Thrones create status quo-rocking stakes out of seating arrangements. Sure, each plays the scene for a laugh, because, come on, it’s ridiculous to think that life can be determined by whose ass is in which chair. But it is, one way, or another. What it comes down to isn’t a matter of who’s sitting where, but of how people interpret, and react to the chair they find themselves in. Burt Peterson, the account executive fired to make room for Lane Pryce during the British invasion, gets to plant himself on what looks like an ungodly mess of a recliner in Roger’s office, but his buttcheeks fit all to comfortably in the hot seat of a man about to be fired. “No one fought for you,” Roger tosses off, as casual as a Sunday stroll, but it’s a killing blow; in an instant, Burt becomes aware that the power he thought he had was illusory.
Power is not a thing that can be amassed, merely siphoned. It gives as much to any person as they are able to handle. Being the last one to the meeting leaves Pete without a seat in the first general assembly of the high council at CGCSCDP (no new name, yet), which, in his mind, is a slight that must be acted upon. Whereas “groovy” Teddy knows that chilling on a credenza doesn’t make you any less of an asset to the company, Pete’s obsession with appearances exposes how fragile his belief in himself really is. Despite having home field advantage, Pete’s looking at many of the new faces in the building as his possible replacements, a ridiculous notion at episode’s open, but not without merit by its close. When he returns to the office after taking care of his mother, only to find Teddy and Don have gone to meet Mohawk without him, his last shred of his power follows his voice out the open office door, as he berates his secretary, Clara.
He may have misplayed things horribly, but as is often the case, Pete is right to feel ill at ease around so much new blood, which creates redundancies for both sides. Most of the early cuts come from the creative grunt workers (Margery, we hardly knew ye. Or your name, until this episode), and the secretary pool dries up a bit, but things are mostly stabile near the top. I was perhaps a tad too doomy and gloomy last week with regard to Peggy’s station, as -at least for now- SCDP-CGC only has one copy chief, and that’s her. Roger and Cutler, meanwhile, look to fill the same role, but it’s clear each will relish having an equally adept wingman at their side for the time being. And it’s even reasonable to think Bert Cooper would have a lovely time, sharing avuncular wisdom and chocolate pudding with the president of CGC, who was introduced back in “The Flood.”
What separates Pete’s actions from those of others is his dependence on perception, something he’s learned from the master. Don, as the show’s ultimate font of perceived power, comes into focus more clearly in “Man with a Plan” than any episode this season. Both in the office, and at his other home away from home (a hotel room), Don tries, and initially succeeds in exerting his authority over others. In what plays like an excerpt from somebody’s Fifty Shades of Dray(Per) fan fiction that I’d bet my life exists, Don capitalizes on Sylvia’s frustration with Minnesota-bound Dr. Rosen by ordering her to a hotel room, then indulging in a little dom-sub roleplay that initially vexes Sylvia…before she starts to play along. This is the idealized fantasy for Don: a woman at his beck and call, who doesn’t talk, think or do anything, save wait in bed for his arrival. There’s something sickly Pavlovian about seeing Sylvia….ring her bell after Don orders her not to pick up the phone.
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Power exists only so long as other people want to buy into it -hell, that’s part of what made Mad Men so appealing at its start. Don Draper, for all his ennui, was someone we were supposed to envy, and those around him professionally still see that ruse. Teddy gets hammered in more ways than one when Don takes the first round of their creative power struggle handily. Exploiting Teddy’s inexperienced liver and drunken cravings, Don convinces him that a cloying sentimental pitch for margarine is the best idea of the day. Parading a drunken Teddy through the office further establishes his dominance to everyone in the office, especially Peggy. She had feared the booze-soaked cynicism of SCDP would get to a decent guy like Teddy, and she’s proven right in less than a day. Teddy bought into the Draper disguise, just like Sylvia, and both find themselves under Don’s thumb by the episode’s midpoint.
We, as an audience privy to the sickness, and malice, and sadness in Don, see these acts as those of a desperate and pathetic man, but no one else can…except Peggy. Returning to the room where she last took control of their relationship, Peggy lets Don’s petty insults over leaving him bounce off her like Teflon, before delivering the two words Don Draper has needed to hear the last two seasons: move forward. You could practically hear the audio distortion from such a mic-drop-worthy evisceration of Don, one Peggy manages with a scant few words. This is the thing he’s been running from his whole double life, being seen for what he really is; if one person can do it, what’s stopping everyone else?
Sure enough, Peggy’s not the only one able to cut through Don’s bullshit persona. Gleeson, with the wisdom of a man who knows such artifice is ultimately meaningless, inspires Teddy to not throw in the towel. If Don had it his way, his alpha status was cemented the moment Teddy started babbling about Kennedy vs. McCarthy, but that’s an outcome that only exists if Teddy believes it too. Instead, he flies Don to the meeting with Mohawk himself (frightening viewers who know next week’s episode is called “The Crash” in the process). All Don can do is read Sylvia’s book passive-aggressively aboard the flight, because no matter how cool he might be, Ted’s the guy who flew them to meet Mohawk in his own private plane. Sometimes, you just can’t compete with a pilot.
Don’s battle with Ted ends in something of a draw, but his sexual ju-jitsu with Sylvia comes away with a clear winner. Don overcommits to his fantasy, as his demands of Sylvia sound less and less sexy, and more and more obnoxious the longer he makes them (in a twist, Don is mirroring Pete, and his sexual fetish hinted at in the boudoir scene last season). Don’s idealized relationship is ultimately undone by itself, as leaving Sylvia with nothing to do but wait in a hotel room for hours on end gives her plenty of time to look at her time with Don, and see it for how sad it really is. Everyone wants to go to the hotel every now and then, to tear up the bed sheets and let loose the parts of themselves that stay hidden, but a hotel is not a home, and through some combination of Sylvia’s own fortitude, and Don’s waning influence, she overpowers him. The last person to say anything in that room is Sylvia, and it’s an order that they both leave the hotel. Don obliges, and the episode’s power transfer is complete, and total.
Mad Men has historically used each season’s seventh episode as a chance to experiment with structure, but “Man with a Plan” plays things straight, and to the point. The title is an ironic punchline, because the close of the episode sees Don resembling nothing like a man with a plan. He’s lost the woman who made him feel powerful, and is too weak to recommit to Megan. He hasn’t beaten Teddy yet, and already proven to Peggy that she can still shake him like no one else. Titles and chairs are meaningless now: taking Don’s internal struggle, and making it real, Robert Kennedy, a respected senator, and possible heir to the most powerful throne in the world, is gone in an instant. Another pivotal moment of 1968 becomes a thematic afterthought: the mighty can be laid low the moment someone doesn’t see them as such.
- Stray Thoughts
-Season six is now more than halfway over. To paraphrase Burt, get ready to put your head between your legs, and kiss your Mad Men goodbye pretty soon.
-The Pete/Don parallel material is everywhere this week, particularly with how they treat the women in their lives as things to be kept in isolation. Pete gets in on the mind games too, exploiting his mother’s dementia to gain control over her.
-The power plays get their most obvious payoff through Bob Benson this week, who saves his job by maybe saving Joan from an ovarian cyst. “Every good deed is not part of a plan,” says Joan’s mother. Bob has quickly become not just the season’s biggest source of laughs, but also a human mystery box. Sorry Ms. Holloway, but that boy aint right.
-Bert reading the company’s press release for the CLIO’s made me realize Robert Morse was born to play a southern civil war general.
-Roger gets a killer scene 86ing Burt, but John Slattery was also responsible for some fine direction this week too.
-If memory serves, Burt was kept around Sterling Cooper for so long originally because his wife had cancer. 50 points to whoever comes up with how that might connect thematically to Cutler’s own health problems.
-And while we’re at it, 10,000 points to whoever comes up with why Don’s hotel room was 503. I’d recommend starting with bible quotes.
-Stan did not work on Daisy. But he did work on a KKK thing.
-The following is an excerpt of the notes I wrote whenever Bob Benson appeared on screen. They have been edited for content:
“I thought you said come in.” $*^@ YOU BOB BENSON YOU LITTLE %$&^.
Wow, he actually seems like a human being for a moment.
$*^@ YOU BOB BENSON AND YOUR RIP VAN WINKLE BULL%$&^ AND YOUR GODDAMN COFFEE CUPS.Previous