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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