Mad Men: Fifty Shades of Draper

By  · Published on May 13th, 2013

Don Draper’s devolution into being completely unlikable is nearing completion. He’s been the perpetrator of selfish office politics, continued his adulterous streak, and now he veered into some really cringe-worthy sadomasochistic stuff with Sylvia. This week’s Mad Men, “Man With A Plan,” written by Matthew Weiner and Semi Chellas and directed by Roger Sterling himself, John Slattery, did indeed serve as a heavy critique on Don’s morals, putting him up against his CGC equivalent, Ted Chaough, and how they compare as creative leaders.

We also got a healthy dose of Joan, which is always encouraged, as Joan had to discern whether or not a certain kindness was the product of someone trying to get ahead. And some comic moments with Pete and his ailing mother, though this storyline is a tarnished retread of one from the past. Oh yes, and the RFK assassination officially happened.

While Don is still prone to a burst of creative genius now and then, his passion for advertising has obviously diminished since the show first began. He is undisciplined, walking into an important meeting over forty minutes late, because he thought it acceptable to leave in the middle of the day for a tryst with his mistress. Ted, unlike Don, still thinks it important to start meetings on time. And unlike Pete, he thinks it’s important to be chivalrous and give up his seat to a lady. Ted is really depicted as the idealized ad man in this episode, even in the eyes of Peggy, who later tells Don that she hopes Ted will rub off on him (and not the other way around).

Though this being Mad Men, Ted is more well-rounded than that. He is intimidated by Don, and falls victim to Don’s game of outdrinking everyone in his sight – Ted shares his doubts with a hospitalized Frank Gleason. After all the Don S&M business, it’s nice to see Don get some comeuppance as Ted flies him in the airplane and Don looks like he is about to barf with nerves. Kevin Rahm as Ted is a welcome addition to the contract players this season and is adept at bringing to life one of the show’s only fully-likable characters. I love his chemistry with Elizabeth Moss’ Peggy – while it would be a bad idea, ultimately, is it wrong to hope that they make out again? Their kiss two weeks ago was lovely! It’s also refreshing that there’s a character who can hold his own against Don. And now that Don’s not exactly the only alpha dog in town, hopefully he’ll step up his game and stop taking sex breaks in lieu of taking meetings.

Ugh… the S&M stuff. I mean, I get it – we’re not really supposed to like Don all that much this season. But honestly, some of this was just plain uncomfortable to watch, and not necessarily in keeping with Don’s character up until now. Earlier episodes this season have really prefaced Don as having some “whore complex,” but this really takes the cake. Though good for Sylvia for not taking it that long. Don overhears Sylvia arguing with her husband when he is in the elevator in their building. Perhaps he is turned on by all this yelling, because when Sylvia calls the office and tells Don, “I need you – and nothing else will do,” he leaves pretty much immediately and the kinky stuff begins soon after. Post-coital with Sylvia, Don lustfully orders her to search for his shoes. On her knees. Sylvia doesn’t quite get what is going on at first, and doesn’t stoop to the low of crawling around the hotel room floor, though she is pretty complicit:

Don: “You can talk about your kid, but I don’t want to hear about your husband.”

Sylvia: “I can talk about whatever I want.”

Don: “Can you help me look for my shoes while you do it?”

Sylvia: “You want me to look for your shoes?”

Don: “I want you to crawl on your hands and knees until you find them.”

Sylva: “They’re right over there.”

Don: “Do it.”

The worst thing, though, is that Don subsequently makes Sylvia wait for him, undressed, in the hotel room and forbids her from making any phone calls. He tells her, “You exist in this room for my pleasure.” And so she does. This streak of sexual cruelty in Don recalls that time when he fisted Bobbie Barrett in a lobby in Season Two. Though this is a lot worse, and being the show’s main protagonist for these six seasons, we’ve been conditioned to like and identify with Don, but it’s really hard to in this instance, especially watching this from a woman’s perspective. After waiting all day, and having sex again, Sylvia thankfully ends it with Don, much to his befuddlement, and it’s disgusting that she went along with any of this at all. While I am all for provocation, watching this is somewhat jarring in terms of a character arc for Don. Does he feel out of control at the office and therefore that’s why this is happening? Or does he just need to constantly label Sylvia as a “slut?” Either option here isn’t too pleasant, and while I do really like Linda Cardellini as an actress, I’m hoping that Don and Sylvia truly are no more.

Which brings us to Pete. It seems we have a bit of a repeat here, as he is forced to co-habitate with his mother, who is now suffering from dementia and can’t live alone. The same thing happened when Betty’s father Gene had to go live with the Drapers. Maybe it’s a bit too soon to start recycling, Mad Men.

Nevertheless, watching Pete lose control is not without its merits, especially since Pete’s future at the new super-agency is looking pretty unstable. He didn’t have a chair at an important meeting, Don and Ted flew off to the Mohawk meeting without him, and there are many redundancies afoot. Dementia or not, Pete’s mother knows what’s up in terms of him staying in the city, since he clearly lives there and not in the suburbs with Trudy. I appreciate that Pete adheres to his character and never softens toward his mother by the episode’s end as he says, “My mother can go to hell. Ted Chaough can fly her there.” Yes, Pete. Don’t bend, no matter what – you are so very enjoyable as an insufferable little opportunist.

Speaking of which, is Bob Benson an opportunist? He probably is, but that would mean he just completely manipulated the goddess Joan, and that’s pretty deplorable. In light of the recent firing of Head of Accounts, Burt Peterson (formerly of SCDP, currently of CGC), who was to be Bob’s direct report, Bob is scrambling. He happens upon Joan in pain in her office and takes her to the doctor, even lying to the receptionist to get her ahead in line. Turns out it’s an ovarian cyst, and she’ll be fine. But then Bob takes it further and brings her son Kevin a football to Joan’s apartment. Joan voices her suspicions of Bob to her mother, but then protects him from getting fired at a meeting the next day. While the wool isn’t pulled over Joan’s eyes completely here, I would be very upset to see her get manipulated after having dealt (and still dealing with) the Herb incident. It’s about time that Joan gets truly appreciated, and not for her voluptuous figure. It’s overdue.

The Upside: Ted is delightful and gives Don some much-needed comeuppance. Also, Joan storylines are always encouraged – though she’d better watch her back!

The Downside: Sadomasochistic Don is quite unpleasant to watch. Also, the Pete’s mom storyline is overly-reminiscent of Betty’s father Gene’s storyline.

On the Side: According to this interview, Vincent Kartheiser’s rapidly receding hairline isn’t a natural occurrence – it’s been shaved back gradually to add to Pete’s character.