'Mad Men' Recap: Bob Benson As You've Never Seen Him In 'The Quality Of Mercy'

mad men bob bensonNote: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 6, Episode 12 of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "The Quality of Mercy."

Finally, "Mad Men" supplies an answer to the question we've all been asking: What has Glen Bishop been up to lately?!

I'm kidding, obviously. The centerpiece of the episode was the revelatory scene in Bob's non-descript office -- the somehow sad space decorated with an unconvincing paper map of Michigan tacked to the wall.

It turns out Bob's whole persona is about as thin and disposable as that map. Tonight, we found out that Bob -- dun-DUN-dun! -- is a big, ol' lying liar who lies. He has about as much experience with white-collar work as Roger has with sobriety, which is to say: not much.

The beating heart of this episode was the confrontation between Pete and Bob, which is well worth examining in detail. Even before that scene, however, we found out some new things about Bob: He speaks Spanish; he knows how to stage a tactical retreat during a tense meeting; and most importantly, he's nobody's pushover.

The conversation he and Pete had during their tense handshake was perfectly acted: By this point, Vincent Kartheiser can do Pete's entitled selfishness routine perfectly, and in that moment, James Wolk segued with tremendous deftness into Bob the Hard Case, whom you would not want to meet in a dark alley. "You should watch what you say to people." Oooh, Bob can be one cold mofo.

Earlier in the season, Don reminded us how important the timbre of one's voice can be, and as soon as Pete started giving Bob a hard time, Bob's voice changed noticeably, but not in a way that would draw attention to what everyone around them took to be a genial, back-slapping conversation. Bob is an expert at fitting in and not being noticed (though of course, everyone notices him when he's down in Creative, just mooching around). His whole thing is passing, fitting in, being smooth and bland enough so that people decide he's not truly worth their time, even if they're vaguely annoyed with him for one reason or another.

And let's not forget that, as Don has, Bob has spent a lot of time observing how people behave and copying their rituals and speech patterns. Pete's actually not wrong about the fact that Bob's prior job as a servant was great preparation for what Bob does now. What's the difference between bringing rich guys their towels and coffee and sucking up to jackass clients? Not much, really, and Bob and Don probably both had the same thought at one point: If these idiots can make so much for doing so little, I'm going to try to get in on that action. They're both certainly smart enough to pull it off. Well, up to a point ...

Tom and Lorenzo wrote a tremendously interesting post about Bob last week as part of their weekly Mad Style meditation on the show, and if you haven't read it, I highly recommend you take a look. I think I was one of many people who couldn't understand why Bob made a pass at Pete last week, especially after Pete had made derogatory remarks about Manolo and homosexual men in general. I didn't really get Bob's mindset or understand his actions, but TLo's post did what any worthwhile critique does: It made me think differently about a work of art that is worth considering deeply.

Tonight, we did find out that Bob did not, as TLo (and many of us) assumed, ever reside in the great state of Wisconsin (your loss, Cheddarheads) -- nor did he go to Wharton or do a stint as an investment banker. But just because TLo assumed Bob was one kind of overachiever does not mean they were "wrong," necessarily.

Bob is, it turns out, a different kind of overachiever -- one of the Don Draper/Dick Whitman school of faking-it-'til-you-make-it. "Mad Men" loves its parallels and doppelgangers, and Bob is very, very much like Don: He comes from a poor, rural clan; he had a string of service-industry jobs before clawing his way into the white-collar world; and he has faked it for much of his adult life. Like Don, he's someone who constructed (or stole) the identity he wanted to have, and then became that person.

Unlike Don, however, Bob is gay, which (in that era) was even more of a reason to conceal one's real identity. One thing TLo's post made me realize, as well: "Mad Men" has shown all season that Bob has a crush on Pete. I didn't re-watch every Bob scene, as they did, but they're so good at what they do that I'll take their word for it and accept that Pete's been an object of fascination to Bob for a long time. Having thought on their post and other analyses, I think I understand Bob's actions a little more (even if I'm not fully convinced Bob should have chosen that moment to make his big play).

In any case, based on the information we have now, we know that Bob (like Don) has taken a lot of huge chances in his life. He knew he was taking a risk by touching knees with Pete, but so what? If Pete flipped out and got him fired, he could always Draper his way into another job, another life. He's been doing it long enough -- it wouldn't be that difficult. One of the things I found most interesting about the confrontation was that Bob didn't even attempt to defend himself. He instantly assumed Pete knew he was a faker and prepared to ditch his job (and self-help records) immediately. It was obvious that Bob has been in this position before.

The confrontation in Bob's featureless office recalled another famous confrontation in Season 1, when Pete thought he'd gotten the ammunition he needed to take Don down. That was a different Don Draper -- the one we've seen lately is not the guy we saw in Season 1. You wouldn't call this Don "Batman"; he's lost a lot of his mystique in the process of getting dinged by the vagaries of adult life. It irritates me when the show forgets his various growth spurts, but I do think, overall, he's evolved, at least a little: He has a relatively healthy relationship with Betty (though, of course, he couldn't manage to have that kind of friendship with her when they were married); he helped the Rosens with their son's draft problem without necessarily expecting a reward (though, of course, that situation went horribly south because he's Don); and he has tried -- really tried -- to make his relationship with Ted and the CGC crew work (though he, of course, torpedoed a lot of that good work with his stunt in the St. Joseph meeting).

As we know, Don is starting from a huge deficit when it comes to his maturity levels. Given that he's spent most of his life as a self-hating, narcissistic a-hole, he can evolve a lot and the Dalai Lama wouldn't exactly be hearing footsteps. Let's face it: If Don is half as mature as Sally by the time he's 50, he'll be well ahead of the game.

So Don is no longer an untouchable superhero, and though Pete is still Pete, thus prone to frequent bouts of petulance, selfish irritability and brattiness, he's changed as well. Rather than try to get Bob fired, he's going to use him. Pete set the terms of their relationship -- Bob no longer gets to hit on Pete or declare his "admiration," and Pete gets to tell Bob what to do (and that'll probably involve Bob doing most of the work on the Chevy account). Season 1 Pete wouldn't have shown that kind of foresight or shrewdness, but these boy-men have grown up a little.

Sally's had to grow up much too fast, and it was hard to see her smoking in the car with Betty at the end of the episode; I don't want to think she's slowing turning into a clone of her mother, but it was hard not to think about that idea. I don't truly think that'll happen, however, because Sally's a smart girl and she has the drive and self-awareness to use her brains to become more than a decoration, which is what Betty amounts to in Henry's life. No, that new intimacy between mother and daughter was all about Betty finally being on familiar ground: Betty knows what bitchy Mean Girls are like and how they operate; thus, she and Sally have lots to gossip about. These two are now the same age, mentally.

Not that Millicent and Mandy were necessarily purely Mean Girls -- they couldn't quite decide how mean they wanted to be to Sally -- but as a former model who moves in well-to-do circles, Betty knows this world, and she knows this age. The thing is, Betty has been stuck in mid-adolescence forever, but for Sally, it's just a stage she's passing through. For the moment, however, they may be able to declare a truce and not necessarily be at war. If nothing else, they both know what a shit Don can be, so they have that in common as well.

Speaking of life at Miss Porter's School, no wonder Sally refused Rolo's clumsy advances; can you blame the poor girl? As far as she knows, sex is a dark, dank, secret thing that drunk, cheating adults engage in. The fact that she wants no part of it -- for now -- and has been so horribly hurt by her father will make her future therapists very wealthy someday. Some shrink is going to get a house in the Hamptons out of the daddy issues that Don bequeathed to Sally.

And speaking of hurt people, even Roger at his most trippy would have been able to spot the symbolism of the Don images that opened and closed the episode. We saw Don curled up on Sally's bed, still obviously distraught over his daughter's horrified rejection of him, and curled up on his office couch at the end of the episode, having just been angrily rejected by Peggy, the woman who knows him most intimately on a professional basis. (Symbolism alert: Don is the devil baby in the crib!)

It's a little creepy that the Don, who was spurned by Sally, reminds me a little of the Don who was dumped by Sylvia. I guess when a female who's close to him hurts him, he goes into that little-boy-lost mode. He's always searching for the nurturing female who gets him, and he always, always screws it up. Seventeenth verse, same as the first.

Oh God. I just had a terrible thought about Season 7. "Mad Men" likes nothing more than to cycle through certain ideas repeatedly and bring important threads full circle: Witness how Peggy's angry confrontation in Don's office recalled their iconic "That's what the money's for!" moment from Season 4's "The Suitcase." Witness the repeat of Pete's confrontation with an executive who's faked his identity. I could go on, but you get the idea.

One of the biggest themes that we've seen "Mad Men" hammer on -- sometimes maybe a little too much -- is that Don equates sex with both nurturing and prostitution; and for him, love can never be just love -- it has to be conquest, a contest, and a slightly dirty transaction as well. Well, Sally's not a little girl anymore, and everything coming full circle would involve Don becoming aware of Sally's sexuality. What if he finds her with a boy? Will Don's vodka-soaked brain liquefy on the spot?

I scribbled this on the back of an envelope after my third bottle of booze:

Glen Bishop + juice (Ted's juice - Don's juice) x LSD ÷ Sex + (prostitute - love) x daughter - whore = Don's brain melts and he SEES THE FACE OF GOD on the side of a bottle of children's aspirin.

Oh, and speaking of those maternal themes, obviously, they're Satanic this week (the better to feed the tangled web of "Mad Men" theories that have cropped up this season). I will not fall down that rabbit hole, thank you. Anyway, you could almost make the argument that Don was ticked off at Ted for putting Peggy forth as "the mother" in their little performance of the St. Joseph's ad. Don knows that Peggy has actually had a baby and that it was one of the most traumatic experiences of her life. But that's not really the reason he went after them. Don's shown some growth here and there -- his apology over the confusion over juice accounts was abject and appropriate -- but he just can't help sabotaging himself when he sees someone close to him getting or giving the love he knows he needs and knows he does not deserve.

The weakness created by these competing insecurities ultimately led to last week's awful scene with both Sylvia and Sally, and those flaws buried deep in his personality also led him to do something completely awful to Peggy and Ted. He tried to pass off his actions as altruistic, but Peggy, Sally, Sylvia and Betty all have his number: He's just not fully capable of pure altruism. Don lashed out because he couldn't stand that, in his moment of grief and sadness over Sally, Peggy was flaunting an emotional attachment to another man. How dare she? But this is classic Draper: When Don's hurting, he lashes out, and -- as has been the case so often in the past -- Peggy was the most convenient target.

What happens next? My two cents: Something radical. Don's as bereft and alone as he's ever been, and perhaps that will lead him to make an enormous change in his life in the season finale next week. He might not be the only one contemplating a break with the past, either. I've said this before and I'll say it again: I wonder if Peggy will strike out on her own, grabbing a few key staff members (Stan, Joan, Ginsberg) along the way. (Next season is all Peggy and Stan smoking pot and flirting with each other. Please!)

Seriously, though, Peggy's been the focus of a tug of war between Ted and Don all season, and she's got to be fed up with that. She's worked at two important agencies at this point. She's not a young girl anymore, she's an experienced executive. Why wouldn't she just say, "To hell with this nonsense," especially after Don more or less emotionally abused her in that meeting? I don't think that term is too harsh, given that she was sold out in two different ways in that St. Joseph meeting: Not only did Don take the credit for the ad concept away from her, he created a situation in which Ted had to publicly affirm that the credit should go to a dead man rather than the woman sitting next to him. Don betrayed her, and he set up a scenario in which Ted had to betray her as well.

Right now, Peggy has a ton of responsibility and far too little of power. I'm reminded of a Virginia Slims ad that came out in 1968: "You'e come a long way, baby."

Peggy really has come a long way -- and she has much further to go. Can she get there with these men and their issues holding her back?

Bullet points:

  • Dear Rolo, nobody is allowed to wear sandals with a turtleneck. You are gross. Go away, skeeve.

  • Tonight we saw the debut of the new SC&P logo, on Bob's coffee mug and on the logo in the reception area.
  • Don's fetal-position moments reminded me of this famous Rolling Stone cover -- minus Yoko, of course. It's telling that the first shot of the episode was of Megan -- the woman Don did not turn to in his hour of need.
  • Essentially, we found out that James Wolk is playing a con man with a secret identity -- again! The four people who watched Fox's "Lone Star" will get that reference.
  • So, hey, as noted earlier, Glen Bishop was in this episode! Marten Weiner's thespian stylings made their annual appearance, so there's that. Moving on ...
  • It turns out Betty is a loyal customer of Carnation Instant Breakfast!
  • After a spate of assassination references this season, we see poor Ken Cosgrove take a spray of buckshot right to the face. Oh, Ken. You couldn't tap-dance your way out of that one.
  • Everybody: PETE'S SHOTGUN IS BACK! I just loved that shot of him cleaning his trusty .22.
  • Another, even more prominent "Rosemary's Baby" reference. Cue the conspiracy theories ("Sally and Glen are going to have a demon baby and Ghost Megan will feed it poisoned cranberry juice!").
  • I've been missing Sally's sassiness all season. Tonight's episode did not disappoint in that regard.
  • Moments of Joan Greatness: Her look of "My God, you are all such idiots" as she watched Ted and Peggy flirt and giggle their way through a meeting. Also, her Jewish neighbor persona during the aspirin ad was hilarious.
  • This week's .gif moment needs to have sound: It has to be Don saying, "Waah! Waaah! Waaah!"
  • We got two quality Pete Campbell door slams this week. Nice.
  • Back to Joan: I find it hard to believe that she didn't check Bob's references. She's usually more conscientious than that, but maybe since she's moved up in the hierarchy and has left that task to a (lazier) underling.
  • Anyone else think that St. Joseph ad is maybe not such a great idea? I know that when I'm choosing products for my child, I'm always thinking, "Which product had horror-movie imagery in the ad? That's what I want!" Uhhh ...
  • Ted has provided an interesting contrast to Don of late: Ted's behavior with the St. Joseph executive was the kind of immature crap that Don would have pulled a few seasons ago (and, because he's Don Draper and could alpha-dog most other men into submission, he often got away with it). But in that meeting, Don recognized something Ted didn't: The St. Joseph executive needed a reason to increase the budget -- a reason needed to make sense to him, not to Ted. "The creative is good" wasn't enough in that moment. The man needed more, but that was the only arrow Ted had in his quiver. Don can be a selfish ass at times, but he at least knows how to reassure nervous clients in moments like that. Ted's got as many blind spots as Don; they are just in different places.
  • "My father's never given me anything." Six season of "Mad Men" explained by young Sally in six words.
  • "You're a monster." Peggy bests Sally by distilling the whole thing into three words.
  • "Mad Men" airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.

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