Mad Men Season 6 Episode 12 Deconstructed

by: L.P. Hanners

This week’s episode of Mad Men analyzes “The Quality of Mercy”……

Don Draper is a phony. He was born in 1926 and christened Richard “Dick” Whitman. His childhood was extremely unhappy and his stepmother never let him forget for one minute he was the child of a whore. While serving in the Korean War Dick Whitman assumed the identity of a man that he was posted with at an isolated base, after that man was killed. This man’s name was Lieutenant Don Draper. Dick Whitman, now Don Draper, cut off all contact with his family and created a new life for himself. He, impressively, weaseled his way into a position at a top ad firm without any real credentials. His good looks and charisma got him in the door and his talent has taken him the rest of the way. He has built the new life he had always wanted on a foundation of an enormous lie – much like Bob Benson.

The big reveal in this week’s episode of Mad Men, entitled “The Quality of Mercy”1, is that Bob Benson is not simply gay2, but rather a man with no past, no name, and who is conning his way to the top. He does not have a Wharton degree, an important family, or a prestigious resume. Rather, he is simply a nobody from The Mountain State3 who has a shady history of disappearing from jobs, the most notable of which was working as a “man-servant” to  a senior vice-president.

With the help of Duck Phillips, who is contacted by Pete Campbell in hopes of luring the living, breathing thorn in his side known as Bob Benson away from Sterling Cooper & Partners, we find out the truth. Bob, as Duck later says, got his job because SCDP was the only agency dumb enough not to ask a lot of questions (Like Don!). This arms Pete with all the ammunition he needs to deal with his burgeoning professional rival. But alas, this is not Pete’s first rodeo. When Duck calls Pete with the crucial information about Bob’s background (or lack thereof), he says, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Pete replies, “I have,” an obvious reference to Don Draper.

Way back in Season 1 Pete Campbell risked his career by revealing the information he happened upon about Don to Cooper – in an effort to get Don fired4. Mad Men fans can still hear Cooper’s delightful response: “Mr. Campbell. Who cares?” He then adds that the Japanese have a saying: “A man is whatever room he is in.”5. A historic and poignant Mad Men moment, and one Pete has learned from. Rather than try to get Bob fired, he’s decides to be merciful, and to use him. Pete approaches him and blackmails him into 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.

So, Bob is a typical Mad Men character after all, flawed as the rest of them. And he may also be Pete’s pawn or partner in crime moving forward. We shall see…..

The Quality of Mercy” wasn’t all about Bob Benson of course. The anticipation for this week’s episode was agonizing for a myriad reasons. The first is that this is the second to last episode of the season – and it is hard not to recall it was the same episode last year in which we lost Lane Pryce. Secondly, this may be the final episode directed by the husband and wife team of team of Andre and Maria Jacquemetton, who have been with the show since the very beginning and are leaving after this season to work on their own projects6. They will certainly be missed.

No, this episode was loaded with activity. We found out that Harry once tried to use traveler’s checks to pay for a hooker and that Roger once had to hold Lee Garner Jr’s balls! – Revelations of the grandest of orders7. And we found out that Sally is most likely going to be just fine….

Sally appears stronger than many giver her credit for. She seems to be realizing that she operates on a different level than her parents – the figurehead adults in her life. As we find out in a boarding room dormitory8 she has no interest in losing the rest of her innocence just to spite her father. In the car ride home from the boarding school visit Betty mentions that Don must have given her a smoke before. “My father has never given me anything,” Sally precociously responds, perfectly detached.

Ted and Peggy spent the episode flirting and laughing like schoolchildren. They even sneak off to see the film Rosemary’s Baby9 where they are “caught” by Don and Megan who have also sought refuge in the movie theater – a recurring Mad Men theme. Don begins to inquisitively glare at Peggy, a look of realization that continues throughout the episode – in reaction to what he sees, and everyone else sees, brewing between them. Clearly spurred on at the sight of Peggy and Ted together, Don puts in a call to California, a.k.a. Sunkist, against Ted’s wishes. So much for that “favor” Ted.

The episode climaxes in a meeting with St. Joseph’s about the pitch Peggy constructed based on Rosemary’s Baby, the one that is way over budget. The entire office knows that Ted is backing Peggy’s pitch as he is blinded by love, and Don Draper uses this moment to both save the account and make fools of these blossoming love birds. Don tortures the couple a bit during the meeting, letting a pregnant pause linger too long after telling Byron that this project is “personal” for Ted, and then eventually saves the day with a lie, declaring this pitch was the final idea from the late Frank Gleason. A simple act of mercy10, not revealing the true “personal issues” behind the pitch.

Don cannot help but to sabotage a situation when someone close to him is getting or giving the love he knows he needs, love he knows he does not at all deserve. It was heartbreaking to watch, and even Joan is appalled at just how deeply Don has embarrassed the two of them. It was inappropriate and gutsy move, but like Don said…it was the best he could come up with. They did win over access to the budget they need, but at what cost?  Don has called them out, and as Peggy reiterates later, Don has ruined the relationship between them. He’s fucked up his creative department.

The episode ended just as it began – with Don Draper curled up in the fetal position. In the opening shot he was lamenting over the loss of Sally, curled up in her bed after drowning his sorrows in a sea of alcohol. The image of him sleeping on a child’s bed is a symbol of what he has become this season. He’s vulnerable, confused, powerless, cursed, unhappy, and driven by all the wrong things. He’s the faceless silhouette of a man depicted in the opening credits now more than ever, ever before.

In the closing shot he was distraught after a heated confrontation with Peggy, the woman who knows him best on a professional level, after she called him a “monster”. He lost his real daughter because of selfish actions and now he is losing his protégé for trying to make up for those actions – for trying helplessly to do the right thing. Don is a drowning man, lost at sea and it is hard to believe he will be saved any time soon. As Don lies on a couch far too small for him, broken, we are taken into the credits by The Monkees’ “Porpoise Song (Theme From Head)”…..the lyrics “Wanting to feel / To know what is real / Living is a, is a lie” accurately summing up the man who the world once knew as Dick Whitman.

  1. The episode’s title comes from a speech by Portia in Act IV, Scene I of “The Merchant of Venice.” []
  2. The red herring []
  3. West Virginia []
  4. In the episode “Nixon vs. Kennedy” []
  5. He also tells Pete that maybe he “imagined” the information in his accusation, and even if it were true, the country was built by men who have done far worse things. []
  6. These two are the creative minds behind “Blowing Smoke”, “Commissions and Fees”, etc. []
  7. Tonight we saw the debut of the new SC&P logo, on Bob’s coffee mug and on the logo in the reception area. Most notably, it looks more like CGC’s old logo than SCDP’s old logo. []
  8. Welcome the return of Glen! – Glen reappears at all the perfect times throughout the series.  Every time he comes back, he’s more clearly defined as a character too.  This might be because the actor who plays him, who just happens to be Matthew Weiner’s own son, is getting better at the craft of acting itself. []
  9. The very same book Sally was reading in “The Crash” when the burglar snuck in []
  10. Another relevant ‘Mercy’ storyline was Pete offering mercy to Kenny, relieving him of his Chevy duties – but for personal gain of course. []

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