Is Don Draper the worst dad ever? Or at least the worst dad on “Mad Men”?
Let us consider the evidence: In Sunday’s episode, “Favors,” Sally Draper catches her father “comforting” his on-again mistress, Sylvia Rosen. This latest trauma arrives just a few weeks after Sally’s harrowing encounter with Grandma Ida, which, lest we forget, was made possible by Don.
And that’s just this season. Other examples of Don’s lousy parenting abound. Already woefully neglectful, Don appears to have been rendered completely useless by his infatuation with Sylvia -- ironic, given how she is continually portrayed as a kind of mother figure. Let’s just hope that Sterling, Cooper & Partners really does become the advertising super-agency it has the potential to be. Otherwise, Sally will never be able to afford the years of intensive therapy (or rehab) she’s going to need in the very near future.
It all begins innocently enough. Sally and her friend, Julie, are staying with the Megan and Don during a field trip to the city for a Diplomacy Club meeting. Julie is sexually precocious, or at least pretends to be, and slips a note attributed to Sally under the Rosens’ back door.
Horrified to discover what Julie has done, Sally sneaks in to the Rosens’ apartment, where her anxiety over the note to Mitchell is immediately forgotten thanks to something approximately a million times more upsetting: the image of her father in flagrante delicto with Sylvia. Sally is unwittingly reenacting the central trauma of her father’s severely screwed-up adolescence. The setting and the haircuts are more upscale, but otherwise the situation is remarkably like the one in which teenage Dick Whitman caught his pregnant stepmother having sex with another man. The irony is that Sally is only there in the first place because she doesn’t want Mitchell thinking she’s some kind of 14-year-old floozy.
It’s the latest, and by far the most shocking, in a string of too-much-too-soon moments for little Sally (remember the Codfish Ball?). The worst (and most telling) part of it all is Don’s response. Yes, he leaps off of Sylvia and chases after his daughter as soon as he discovers her presence. But once he makes it to the lobby and finds out that she’s already sped off in a cab, Don wanders back to the elevator, pauses for a moment, then tentatively walks out the front door. The implication is clear: In a moment of crisis, he can’t decide whom to comfort, his daughter or his mistress.
It’s hardly the first time we’ve seen him display such insanely misaligned priorities. In the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Don was more concerned with Sylvia’s well-being than that of his own offspring.
Then, rather than going to either woman, Don chooses to comfort himself with drink. He stumbles home hours later, reeking of booze, just in time for Arnold and Mitchell to stop by to say thanks in person. “You are the sweetest man,” declares Megan, having misinterpreted Don’s string-pulling as a selfless act of protest -- a sign that, perhaps, she and her husband are actually on the same page about the war and that the gulf between them isn’t quite as big as she'd thought. Likewise, Arnold sees the act as one friendship.
Apparently the only person who truly seems to understand Don’s motive is Sylvia. When he tries to explain away the favor as a gesture of parental empathy, she isn’t fooled. “I know that’s not why you’re doing it,” she says. Exactly, Sylvia. Time to run for the hills.
The question now, of course, is what poor Sally will do. Coming clean about what she saw will almost certainly hasten the end of father’s marriage, which, in turn, means her losing Megan, possibly the most loving and accepting adult in her life. But the other option, keeping the affair a secret and thereby being a party to Don’s deception, is probably worse for Sally in the long run, particularly given the psychological trauma of catching her father copulating with his mistress. Leaving an event like that unprocessed is a great way to ensure that history repeats itself.
Knowing Don, he’s likely to proceed as if his pathetic explanation about “comforting” Sylvia was adequate; knowing “Mad Men,” his lies are likely to come back to haunt him
The theme of this episode, in case you missed it, is that that few good deeds come without ulterior motives, and that they nearly always have unintended consequences. Exhibit A: Bob Benson. For weeks, he’s had us all wondering. Is he a serial killer stalking his next victim? An undercover reporter writing an expose about the advertising business? Or perhaps Peggy’s time-traveling love child?
The truth, it turns out, is even more far-fetched. Bob Benson is just a guy with a crush on Pete Campbell -- balding, paunchy, double-breasted-vest-wearing Pete Campbell.
But let’s set aside the issue of plausibility for the time being. We know now that Bob’s gesture of kindness to Pete – recommending a nurse, Manolo, for his senile mother – was intended, like Don’s help for Mitchell, as a kind of romantic overture. Indeed, even when confronted about Manolo, Bob’s explanation sounds more like a pass. “Couldn’t it be that if someone took care of you, very good care of you, if this person would do anything for you, if your well-being was his only thought, is it impossible that you might begin to feel something for him? When it’s true love, it doesn’t matter who it is,” he says, pressing his knee against Pete’s.
Peggy's storyline this week puts a (mostly) comic spin on the theme of favors. She calls up Stan in the middle of the night, offering him a little something in return for disposing of a maimed rat; he declines. For any woman who’s ever been single and lived in a rundown New York City apartment on her own (ahem), it’s a hilarious but painfully familiar moment. Being single is one thing, but having to fend off filthy vermin the middle of the night just in order to sleep? That’s one indignity too many.
But the rodent escapades serve a more serious purpose: reminding us how far Peggy has come over the years. This point is underscored when Mrs. Campbell mistakes her for Trudy, dredging up the very deeply repressed memory of her secret love child. With “Mad Men” heading into its final season, the biggest question I have -- after Don’s fate, of course -- is how the Peggy-Pete storyline will be resolved. Their relationship, and the child which resulted from it, is mentioned so infrequently that at times it feels like “Mad Men” has forgotten about it.
What’s fascinating is that, despite all the changes in her life since then -- she’s now a copy chief with at least three men in the office crushing on her -- Peggy’s odd connection with Pete remains intact. “Please tell me you don’t pity me, because you really know me,” he says over drinks. “I do,” Peggy responds, tears welling in her eyes.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. One of the most exciting things about this season has been the way that Matthew Weiner and his writers have deployed all of Elisabeth Moss’ considerable talent. Her two big scenes this week are shining examples of that, as she shifts with ease from achingly poignant to awkwardly hilarious (e.g. “Did she go to China for that tea?”). Whoever Peggy ends up with -- Pete, Stan, Ted or even Don -- we hope he brings out the best in her the way “Mad Men” has for Moss.
--Anyone else notice the giant ceramic cocker spaniel in Pete’s office?
--Loved Peggy’s little blue-and-white-striped number.
--Interesting how the back doors at the Draper and Rosen residences have almost become supporting characters this season on “Mad Men.” The premiere episode was called “The Doorway.” Make of this what you will.
--In all the madness, Sally didn’t even get the note back. Let’s hope Sylvia had the sense to throw it out.
--It’s worth noting that Don’s favor for Sylvia is only made possible by help from Ted, who’s got his own, very clearly stated ulterior motive: winning Ocean Spray.
--“You’re not interested? Then why are you using your sexy voice?”
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