"You need to feel the conspiracy," said Ted Chaough in last night's Mad Men, the penultimate episode of the sixth season. Mad Men asks you to think of individual episodes as short stories, and this was the defining bit of text in "The Quality of Mercy." Could you feel the paranoia in the air?
With all this talk of conspiracy, it makes the most sense to think about how the episode toyed with the reader-fueled conspiracy theories propagated outside the walls of the program. Weiner knows we're waiting for something catastrophic, so he teases us.
It smelled like cheap alcohol on the breath of a loved one. The episode opened with Megan Draper drawing breath and waking up alone; Don's passed out in Sally's bed, curled up in the fetal position. Shot from overhead to emphasize his helplessness, Don appears like something broken. (The shot was replicated for the final shot of the episode, more evidence that these episodes work like polished tales of woe that, when taken as an entire scene, chart a long course of pain.)
He's looking to spirits to mend him, and freshens up his Tropicana (!) orange juice with vodka (not Don's drink of choice, it's worth noting; clear booze is Roger territory) before spending the day at home. Megan wants him to rest, to take his hand from the throttle. He does.
And then Ken Cosgrove gets shot in the face.
New York magazine's TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz read the drug episode "The Crash" as commentary on the show's writing process. I'm more inclined to apply a meta dimension to "The Quality of Mercy." With all this talk of conspiracy, it makes the most sense to think about how the episode toyed with the reader-fueled conspiracy theories propagated outside the walls of the program. Weiner knows we're waiting for something catastrophic, so he teases us.
It's a rough tease, shooting Kenny in the face. Weiner milks the moment for all it's worth, letting multiple scenes and a commercial break pass before checking in on Kenny's health. Of course—and you can feel Weiner grinning—he's fine; he only caught a Dick Cheney out there with the boys from Chevy. His pirate status allows Pete to step in and take over the count, which brings us to the second tease of the evening: Bob Benson as Don Draper.
Plenty of readers have speculated that Benson is a kind of Don Draper, and not just on account of the alliteration. Last night's episode provided more fodder for that argument. Pete goes to Duck to dig up information about the possibly gay, possibly sociopathic Bob Benson, and Duck discovers that he's a man without a past. Or, rather, a past he's trying to hide. Benson's no Wharton man. No, he's a hustler who's lied about his pedigree to make it. Pete takes this information to Benson, thinking of the situation he encountered with Don far earlier in the show's history, and the two men come to an angry truce. Campbell won't do anything to jeopardize getting Chevy, so he can't expose Benson. He can only ask him to keep his distance. Meanwhile, Benson's shouting in Spanish, presumably to Manolo, about how Pete's a sonofabitch. Is Benson going to take out Pete?
These developments allow the Internet theories about B.B. to continue to build, but, deep down, we all know we're helpless in the face of the show. Know how I know? Because I damn near fell out of my chair during Sally and Betty's interview at boarding school (Sally's request, presumably to keep away from Don), when the headmistress calls for Carla. Did you flash to the former nanny to Sally, Bobby, and baby Gene, too? Could you feel the show toying with us? Could you feel the conspiracy?
Viewers have been thirsting for blood all season, but last night only gave us bird shit and a fight among boys. Of course, that fight marked the triumphant return of Glen Bishop, true friend to Sally Draper and lover of jacket pins.
At boarding school, Sally comes face to face with an icy cabal of mean teenage girls, a moment that fit in with all the talk of Rosemary's Baby and its satanic apartment cult. Thankfully, Glen does the right thing and kicks the ass of a kid named Rollo (just asking to get beat down, with name and a hat like that). Sally deserves plenty of credit, too, as she didn't let Rollo feel her up. The way Rollo assumed he could touch her was horrible, making it a sweet, sweet victory when he got touched. See, not everything is terrible.
Unless you're Peggy, in which case Don embarrassed you and Ted. But, as Don points out, they were embarrassing themselves. Everyone could see the budding love, no conspiracy there. All Don did was make them feel it, at a meeting with a hospital in need of a TV commercial.
Hurt and angry, Peggy confronts Don, saying, "You killed him." No, Ted's not actually dead, but there was the death so many of us were looking for.
Somewhere, Matthew Weiner sits making a fleshy triangle with his outstretched fingertips, like a conniving shrink, pleased with having put viewers through the wringer. This has been an exhausting season, especially these recent episodes. Give the man the credit he's due.
RELATED: Don Draper, Why Do You Have to Ruin Everything?
RELATED: Don Draper Communes With the Dead
RELATED: Don Draper Climbs Your Mountain of Sex
RELATED: Don Draper Is on the Drugs
RELATED: Don Draper Wants Your Inner Goddess On Hands and Knees
RELATED: Does Don Draper Work the Slide Ruler?
RELATED: Everybody Likes to Be Sad
RELATED: Don Draper Won't Save Himself
RELATED: Don Draper and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Fearful Symmetry
RELATED: Don Draper's Pretty Face Is Going to Hell