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UNFORGIVEN: MAD MEN SEASON 6, EPISODE 12, “THE QUALITY OF MERCY”

June 17, 2013

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia tries to save Antonio from the punishment of delivering a pound of his own flesh, and “the quality of mercy is not strain’d” is the moving speech she delivers in his defense. In this week’s episode of Mad Men, Don is shown a certain quality of mercy, but it’s a murky one.

What are the repercussions for Don’s actions so far this season? Well, his affair with Sylvia has had a major impact on the course of Sally’s life. She’s stopped speaking to or seeing Don, and she wants to go to boarding school – but she hasn’t told Don’s secret. And at the office, Don’s consistently shitty treatment of Ted has now lost him the respect of Peggy – but, on the surface, he’s saved a difficult account problem. Things appear to be somewhat in order, but it’s all just a glass of orange juice hiding a whole lotta vodka.

That’s right, Don is drinking again – heavily. “You gotta pull back on the throttle a little honey,” says Megan, who is entirely ignored. The episode begins and ends with Don lying in the fetal position like a boy, and in between, he drinks alone. It’s bleak. (It’s also worth noting that the lying-on-a-bed-curled-up-like-a-child motif is one that has been used to signify Betty’s immaturity many times; now it’s Don’s turn.) This drunk Don is of the silent, cold kind – a different but equally disturbing manifestation of his alcohol dependency than we saw in Season 4, a la the Life cereal pitch.

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Now, he is drunk, depressed, and wholly uninterested in his wife. Still, he remains calculating. His handling of the St. Joseph’s aspirin meeting is somewhat terrifying in its precision – how does he come up with this stuff, anyway?

And speaking of cold, calculating characters, let’s talk about good old BOB BENSON. Bob mother-effing Benson. He looks right at Pete and says: “You should watch what you say to people,” and in that moment he possesses a creepy power that we haven’t seen before. So, who is this guy?

Well, he’s like Don in that he’s not who he says he is. And in his professional rise, and his good looks and charming demeanor. What I don’t know is this: is Bob actually gay? It seems, now, that his coming on to Pete last week HAD to have been something different – if every move he makes is designed to give him an advantage, why would he put himself in the position of confessing his love for a male co-worker? But if he’s NOT gay, and that WAS part of some plan, then WHAT’S THE DAMN PLAN? There are still a lot of questions here. (Also, if he is gay, is he Manolo’s lover? And is Manolo in cahoots, purposely screwing with Pete’s mom? And what’s going on?)

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Regardless, we know now that he’s not to be trusted. But, for some reason, he’ll still be around. In another Don/Bob parallel, Pete confronts Bob with information about his true identity, just as he once confronted Don hoping to gain the upper hand with information about Dick Whitman. The difference is that now, Pete is a grown-up, and he appears to think that by showing Bob some mercy, he’s gaining that upper hand. This was a carefully mapped and very confusing scene. Is this Pete on a power trip, eager to keep Bob around and in a servile position to remind himself how clever he is? God, I hope we get a seriously huge Bob Benson revelation next week.

Meanwhile, Peggy and Ted are kids in love. They flirt over cran-apple ads; they sneak out to see a movie; he places his hand on her little waist as they act out the St. Joseph’s commercial. Don is right that everyone can see it (Joan, certainly, is not blind), but I’m still angry with his handling of the situation. Poor Ted, seriously. Peggy is right to march into Don’s office and call him a monster – which she does, emotionally ruining him.

Now both the women who really matter to Don – Peggy and Sally – find him unforgiveable. “My father’s never given me anything,” says Sally as Betty drives her to her boarding school interview. On her overnight, she encounters weird hazing, drinks a little, and pushes off a creepy boy named Rollo. Glenn Bishop, in a triumphant return, defends her honor. What is his role in Sally’s life? They grew up together, she says, and they have similar issues with their messed up families. I wonder how he’ll continue to influence Sally as she enters adolescence, particularly now that she’s declared full war on Don.

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In The Merchant of Venice, Portia pleads on Antonio’s behalf because he has given all he could for her – he landed in debt over money borrowed to connect her with her beloved Bassanio. Here, Sally withholds her mercy because of all her father has taken: her childhood, her faith in people, her feelings of safety. Don owes Sally a deep emotional debt.

A few things to note:

–       We had the second Rosemary’s Baby reference of the season. In “The Crash,” Sally was reading that book when Grandma Ida broke in to Don’s apartment. Now, Ted and Peggy and Megan and Don go to see the movie, and an ad is based on it. Maybe Bob Benson is the spawn of Satan?

–       I would be remiss not to mention dear Kenny and his dear poor eye. But seriously, thank GOD he wasn’t killed – that almost gave me a heart attack.

–       While home “sick” and drunk, Don flirts on the phone with Betty. Their relationship continues to be fascinating.

–       Favorite line of the week goes to Ginsburg (who I still desperately want to see more of), talking to Peggy and Ted: “During all this levity, did you mention that cran prune sounds like a glass of diarrhea?”

Get into the mercy on Portable.

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