What About Bob? Mad Men , Episode 12


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

-- From "The Second Coming," by W.B. Yeats

"The Quality of Mercy," the Father's Day Episode 12 of Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, ends with Don in a fetal position after Peggy dubs him a "monster." The Mafia-like "Don" earned this rebuke after adroitly tanking an ad pitch for St. Joseph's baby aspirin. Peggy and her office crush, Don's putative agency partner Ted, dreamed the ad up based around the closing crib scene in Rosemary's Baby. It was the second time that Don thwarted his "protégé" (Peggy's work on Glo-Coat won Don the Clio).

Message: Don remains the real boss despite the agency merger, and anyone who threatens his power and prestige is squashed. Naturally, such transparently evil and childish shenanigans have severe personal consequences (thus, Don in fetal position).

A thinking person's soap opera - even as it riffs on soap opera conventions - Mad Men announces this episode's power play with soap star Megan (Don's alternately vacuous and insightful French-Canadian trophy wife) gossiping like a soap fan herself upon seeing Peggy and Ted at an afternoon screening of Rosemary's Baby. Her later dopey use of the words "Oh My God" may seem era inappropriate, but it is actually a nod to the intellectual slide in the country at large. A slide, it could be argued, that the denizens of the Mad Men world helped engender.

Meanwhile, early teen Sally Draper, a mirror anima to her own emotionally traumatized animus father -- in episode 11 Sally famously caught Don in flagrante with "Mrs. Rosen" -- senses how alone she has become. And, with the code of silence she signed with a simple "okay" behind a mere bedroom door separating Sally from her fallen father, she's left with no one to hear her stifled adolescent scream. Instead, Sally, like her father - whose childhood was equally traumatized by adult immorality - must hold tight to her traumatic secret, while heroically hanging on to shreds of the moral discipline, innocence and decency that her parents and peers have long since lost.

And in whose company does Sally have to endure this horrible burden? Her own mother, the jaded debutante and original lonely, disaffected suburbanite, Betty Draper (now Betty Francis), who is just as sick, twisted, if stereotypically hot, as Sally's own Dad.

Mad Men -- the defining work of the current Golden Age of Cable Television -- soldiers on against a Vietnam backdrop, as its carefully crafted semblance of American probity collapses in a sea of late 60s ennui. As episodes 11 and 12 make clear, by the late 60s, the rituals of debauchery and indiscretion have been done so many ways that they now just seem pathetic. The thrill has gone, lethargy has set in, as the early decade's signature idealism settles into a Polanski horror show (surely the Manson Murders are next), foreshadowing the numbed out robotic blah of the 70s and beyond. The elder children of the Korean War generation and the younger children of the WWII generation are just going through the expected rituals - smoking, drinking, sneaking boys into dorms - without any of their parents' savoir-faire. That is because the prevailing culture no longer offers principled guidance or highbrow resistance. For instance, the morally daft Betty Draper offers her eldest child a cigarette that Sally is reticent about accepting because such verboten gestures now seem empty, shallow, and without a shred of risk or meaning (and also because smoking a cigarette hardly seems like a badge of resistance when pot and drugs are omnipresent).

In this way, Mad Men at last speaks to me directly and, through Sally, to my odd little slice of the Boomer era. We who were born in the late 50s and early 60s are technically Baby Boomers. However, for us, the early-to-mid 60s were this glorified and groovy picture show that we witnessed from a distance because we were still largely shielded from its excesses by the vestiges of mindful, if detached, parenting, and because we were not yet of draft age. By the early 70s (which episode 12 elegantly foreshadows), we were finally old enough to sniff the remnant stench of what was once considered rebellious, hopeful and new. And, for those few of us with eyes to see, and brains to discern, the whole knee-jerk rebellion shtick felt boorish and un-original. Smoking cigarettes? Trite. Rock and roll? Still vibrant, but increasingly canned. Free love? Maybe not such a great idea anymore. We are the interstitial generation caught between two worlds and at the end of a party we never really attended.

And Sally Draper is our representative.

It is a sad and bitter world that Sally Draper is asked to inhabit. And in her dour, pouty face we see ourselves, still lost without a burning purpose outside of cleaning up the mess that our party-loving, self-enamored forebearers left behind.

This was by no means a delicious Mad Men episode. And that's because the culture's hypocrisy, rot, and manipulation have gotten so deep - the personal is corporate is societal in the Mad Men world - that there is literally No Exit. Instead of finding a safe harbor beyond the reach of her alcoholic father's philandering and her mother's corrupt inanity, Sally finds herself trapped in a boarding school dorm room with wastrels and imbeciles whom she can't escape, except at the hands of an odd old neighbor friend, Glen, who was once a philosophical outsider like herself, yet, despite his chivalrous protection of Sally in this scene, is now part and parcel of the collective decay.

As season six draws to an end with next week's episode, we see Mad Men show runner Matthew Weiner carefully closing the circle on what the early 60s cultural earthquake hath birthed: a complex and consistent series of after-shocks that cannot be quaintly summarized under civil rights, queer theory, or identity politics. We are watching what it was really like to inhabit this at first exhilarating and now terrifying new world where the inherited moral code no longer applies; it's now everyman for himself, anything goes, your heroes will be shot, and their deaths played on national TV. Some aspects of this tumult are for the good, but, some, as even a blue-blooded toad like Pete Campbell surmises, are so strange and new that they are a bona fide threat to the entire Old World artifice that SC&P inhabits.

Beyond his overt homophobia, account exec Pete sees something new and different in the crafty facade of the impenetrable Bob Benson (even as Bob's false front parallels Don's grand deceit). To Pete, junior exec Bob is a creature that is almost half-human in his habitual obeisance and simulacra of decency and compassion. Bob's a new type of corporate climber that the self-aware Pete cannot remotely find in his own devilish soul. As if speaking to Satan himself, Pete engages in a kind of ritual exorcism when he says to Bob, "I would like to think that I've learned not to tangle with your kind of animal. Where you are and who you are is not my concern. I surrender."

But, if I know Matthew Weiner by now, Pete's exhortation is futile. This new corporate beast cannot be easily tamed by damning "information" alone, let alone by the "the quality" of Pete's "mercy." Bob is too crafty, too slick, and too sunnily adaptable for even seasoned Machiavellians like Pete - and Pete's mentor-headhunter Duck Phillips -- to grasp. We have now entered No Country for Old Men, Madison Avenue style.

And the centre cannot hold.