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Don Draper is a big, giant, monster of a baby. When you’ve got an episode that opens and closes with overhead shots of Don lying in the fetal position, as well as featuring a scene in which he impersonates a crying baby, it becomes quite clear where the show is going with this character. Don’s infantile tendencies are on full display in this episode, as he plays hooky from work and later puerilely sabotages Ted’s campaigns. Still reeling from his confrontation with Sally in the previous episode, Don is in full-on depression mode as the episode opens, and because of his selfish and impetuous actions, he finds himself exactly where he started. Don acts like a toddler, lashing out whenever something he doesn’t like or agree with occurs. “The Quality of Mercy” is another episode in the latest streak of increasingly successful installments this season, and builds up great tension for the upcoming season finale.
The most intriguing of the conflicts continues to be SC&P’s struggle to prosper as a unified agency. After giving Ted his word and agreeing to collaborate and cooperate with his new colleague, Don dismisses this entirely and actively seeks ways to get back at him, obviously threatened by Ted's budding relationship with Peggy. The drama derived from this storyline is absolutely superb and engaging; it is incredibly frustrating to watch Don go down this road. Despite all the morally questionable things he has done in his past, the audience still sympathizes with and roots for him. Of course, his relationship with Peggy has grown more vulnerable since the merger and his jealousy of Ted’s closeness to her inform his actions. It is true that Ted’s judgment has been clouded by his affection for Peggy, but some of Don’s actions in the episode suggest that he isn’t very different. His decisions are essentially fueled by a personal vendetta, much like Ted’s drive to please Peggy. Don has noticed Ted and Peggy’s bond and now (suddenly) he is interested in the company; he isn’t working for the benefit of the company, but to soothe his own ego and maybe cause a rift between his colleagues.
Don gets the upper hand over Ted at Peggy’s expense, ripping the authorship from the St. Joseph’s campaign away from her; again the writers utilize the wealth of character and story history to add dimensions to the narrative. We know that a significant part of Peggy’s struggle while working under Don has been her longing for recognition and credit for her work, (we will never forget “The Suitcase”), so Don’s betrayal particularly stings Peggy. When Peggy confronts Don later in the episode the scene has so much weight and meaning (because of what they have previously gone through) that when she tells Don he’s a monster, it is completely devastating and heartbreaking to him and to the audience. He has disappointed and alienated yet another important woman in his life, one with whom he has developed a significant, long-term relationship. Regardless of how deceitful his motives are, there is no denying that Don Draper is great at what he does, and when he wants to take control he does so flawlessly. The tension and anxiety in the meeting with Byron from St. Joseph’s (definitely the best scene in the episode) is totally palpable and one can see how perfectly Don plays Ted. Also, wonderful silent, reaction acting from Elisabeth Moss and Kevin Rahm in this scene; they do so much with their faces that they're able to communicate their entire inner monologue using only expressions. Absolutely fantastic. Speaking of great silent acting, Christina Hendricks is perfection in the scene with Ted and Peggy; her expression as she watches the pair giggling obnoxiously and flirting is priceless and Hendricks totally sells the moment. Annoyance and exasperation are clear on her face and there is no dialogue necessary. And about that obnoxious flirting, it is increasingly irritating to watch the two openly flirt and banter. At times it feels as if the show goes overboard with trying to convey their relationship. I know it's meant to be that way so the audience is clear that their co-workers are all aware of their bond, but I would appreciate some subtlety.. This is coming from someone who enjoys their relationship and their interactions.
The Don/Peggy/Ted dilemma isn't the only thing going on in the SC&P offices; after spending almost the entire season perplexing audiences with the mystery of Bob Benson, the show finally reveals who he really is, or, more appropriately, who he isn’t. In a serious moment of déjà vu we learn that Bob has basically created a new life and identity for himself and manipulated his way to where he is, much like Don (alliterative names and all). Bob’s motives and background have been a point of intrigue since the beginning of the season, so theories concerning his past have come close to what materialized on the show. What is more interesting is the way this revelation involved Pete, providing him an opportunity to show growth. Pete is one of the very few people who knows the truth about Don, and because of his failed attempt to blackmail him, knows how to handle Bob in a way that will be beneficial in the long run. He knows Bob’s dirty little secret and as long as Bob keeps Pete “off limits” all will be well for him. Now that Ken has hit the breaking point with Chevy (who wouldn’t after getting shot in the eye?) Pete is finally given the responsibility and job security he has been searching for all season; now he doesn’t have anything getting in his way.
The other main storyline in the episode takes place outside the SC&P offices and doesn't work as well as the work stories. While I usually love any time we spend with Sally, the boarding school storyline feels entirely mediocre and expected. A bit too Gossip Girl/teen drama for my taste. All of a sudden we're taken to a CW type show about the lives of over-privileged, entitled teenagers that is completely incongruous with what we've come to expect from Mad Men (not that I wouldn’t want to watch that show; TV execs should really get the ball rolling on a Sally at boarding school spin-off, but the scenes just didn’t belong in this hour of television). It is fun to see creepy Glenn again (accompanied by sandal-wearing Rolo) and to see Sally’s powers of manipulation at play (her cool and unfazed reaction to the schoolgirl’s demands is pretty awesome as is her delight in seeing Glenn defend her), but the plotline does not merit the amount of time it receives. Sally’s interaction with Betty is far more interesting and entertaining (and involves another great use of January Jones this season); a little Betty goes a long way on this show. It is great to watch as Sally becomes more and more like her mother, even, towards the end of the episode bumming a cigarette and smoking alongside Betty as they drive back home. A more thorough look into their relationship would be a bit more interesting than the boarding school shenanigans.
It is hard to believe that there is just one episode left for season six of Mad Men, we've felt the rise in quality episode after episode; this increase suggests that the finale will be a magnificent hour of television. There are still many stories that warrant exploration and advancement: What is Bob Benson’s end-game? Will Ted sever his relationship with Peggy? Will Don and Peggy ever get their friendship Back? Will Megan become privy to her husband’s infidelities? The final episode could provide answers to some of these questions, or none at all; there really is no way to know how Matthew Weiner decides to close a season that brought a new dynamic to the series. I, for one, cannot wait.
-- This is the second time in the season where we are teased with the possible death of Ken Cosgrove and the second major accident (that we know of) that poor Cos has suffered by the hands of Chevy. Will Pete’s tenure as the Chevy account man be less eventful? Also, is Ken, like, invincible or immortal or something?
-- Not sure if Don’s “I’ll pay for all of it” in response to the possibility of Sally going to boarding school means that he wants her to be far away or that he just wants to please her and spoil her for her forgiveness/silence. I’d say the latter; he is obviously still feeling very guilty over what transpired previously. Neither one of these options is probably an admirable parenting move, though.
-- Sally, like her father, feels the need to run away and escape from her problems/home; she is more like her father than she wants to admit. It's interesting seeing her grow up and adopt some of her parents’ mostly negative traits, such as Don’s impulse to run away, Betty’s cattiness, etc.
-- Megan’s reaction to learning that it's Harry on the phone is absolutely great. Nobody likes him.
-- “Lee Garner Jr. made me hold his balls.” Easily the best/funniest line of the episode, wonderful delivery by John Slattery.
-- We see Joan aptly exerting her authority when it comes to financing the company, but what happened to Avon???
-- Okay, taking away the inappropriate underage smoking aspect of the scene, I really enjoy the Sally and Betty mother/daughter bonding time, especially how Sally even opens up to Betty about her feelings towards her father.