Mad Men Review: “The Quality Of Mercy” (Season 6, Episode 12)

Jon Hamm and John Slattery in Mad Men

Anybody got a cigarette? Looks like last week’s feint of an episode wasn’t just playing possum up to its knockout final act –it was setting up for a full-blown Mad Men clinic, one full of doppelgangers, secret affairs, and Don earning his 10th Dan black belt in office asshole martial arts. “The Quality of Mercy” has the temerity to show Ken getting shot in the face in the first act, and then decide, eh, let’s check in on Megan and Don for 15 minutes before getting back to that.

Hell, even AMC decided to twist the cocaine-laced knife of excitement, by cutting and scoring the “Next Time On” like it should have been for Breaking Bad. It didn’t even have any actual footage from next week, but proved to be an appropriately white-knuckle tease, given the lightning-fast pace of the preceding hour. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Dr. Hecht had figured out how to broadcast the energy serum from “The Crash” over the airwaves, because my usual sadness from knowing the show will wrap up for another year shortly is almost entirely masked by the need to know just how it’s going to happen.

All of which is to say A LOT happened on tonight’s Mad Men, and seeing as next week is the season finale, it’s about damn time. The absence of clear seasonal throughlines is always what makes Mad Men such a fascinating creature to consider, dissect, and spew crazy theories about, but the right brain demands there be something to actually help classify each year of the show as being distinct from others. There’s a good reason for Matthew Weiner’s dislike of weekly Mad Men recap, because the shape of each season rarely becomes clear until it’s almost all over. The midseason merger has easily been the biggest season 6 landmark, but not because of how it has affected the office’s residual supply; it’s the employees, not the clients, that have become causalities in the war for Sterling Cooper and Partners, and with the frontlines seeming to change by the day, it’s not so much a battle, as it is one gigantic, Oceanspray-ed clusterf*ck.

And the worst part is, “The Quality of Mercy” tempts us with proof that we were so, so close to peace. For half the episode, Don looks like he’s ready to uphold his armistice with Teddy, now that he owes him a big favor. Granted, that big favor also led to Don’s relationship with his daughter winding up in the woodchipper, so somewhere between getting caught in Sylvia’s bed, and curling up in the fetal position on Bobby’s, you can imagine some recess of Don’s brain hard at work, trying to gin up a narrative to past events that extricates him from all the awfulness he has wrought.

The fallout from Sally’s walk-in has pacified Don, as he’s once more able to lay down arms with Betty, the two flirting a little bit over the phone to push passed the news that their daughter wants nothing to do with her father. Don curling up tighter and tighter into a little ball of self-pity and misery has grown less engaging over time, but the man still has pressure points that have yet to be fully exploited by his self-destructive tendencies, and his children might be one of the last big ones. So, what’s his response when he hears Sally wants to go to bordering school just so she can stay away from him? “I’ll pay for all of it.” Don Draper folks: always a man to turn to when you’re looking for a little Father’s Day cheer.

Despite the hole Don has dug for himself, he at least makes a passing attempt at keeping his word with Ted, though fate, and Harry Crane intervene. When the folks at Sunkist drop an orange sack worth $8 million in TV revenue at SC&P’s feet, even Cutler is looking to immediately turn traitor in the Great Fruit Juice Debate of ’68. Don doesn’t press the point however, because he doesn’t have to; when there’s enough money on the table, almost anyone in the office will change their tune on a specific position…except Ted, the lone dissenting voice in ditching Oceanspray (along with some of the company’s credibility) in pursuit of a quick buck.

And because Don is at such a low right now, “The Quality of Mercy” needs to balance it out by putting Ted on a high, both from chugging too much sugary Cranprune juice, and from escalating his flirtations with Peggy from “get a room,” to “just %$^# already!” The Olson-Chaough tag team is indeed a creative force to be reckoned with, coming up with an ad for St. Joseph’s based on Rosemary’s Baby that’s both charming, and non-satanic. Their dress rehearsal with Don as the baby, and Joan (remember Joan?) as a chicken soup-slinging bubbe is a big blue bolt of silliness and joy in a place that hasn’t had any of that from a non-chemical source in ages.

This of course irritates Don; Ted can go around pretending to be the good guy, but he can’t be Peggy’s good guy. Don, like the big baby he so convincingly plays for a few moments, does not like to share, especially if sharing involves the one woman he still has a platonic relationship with that isn’t completely in the crapper right now. So, when Don offers to help Ted smooth over a squabble involving casting residuals with St. Joseph, you start to get a little bit suspicious. And when we see Don framed alone at the head of the conference room, like he should be petting a fluffy white cat and warming up a death laser, alarm bells start to go off.

When Ted’s best nice guy efforts do nothing to satisfy the purse string holder from St. Joseph, he’s relieved to have Don step in, only to find out his secret weapon is about to misfire in his hands. Teasing out Ted’s “personal” reason for screwing up the account with all the tenderness of a spine-ectomy, Don humiliates Ted and Peggy in front of most of the partners, and then comes out looking like Superman for having saved the account, having brought Frank Gleeson’s corpse out for one last favor. So much for giving peace a chance; the show won’t be satisfied until every main character is framed in solitude by the glass walls of the conference room at some point, and when all’s said and done, Ted’s entry is a late front-runner for “Most Soul Crushing.”

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