A Girl on Mad Men: “You Killed Everything. You Can Stop Now.” (“The Quality of Mercy,” S6/E12)


It took me a second to recognize it, but I laughed once it came to me: the song that closes this episode of Mad Men is from Head, the 1968 cult film starring the Monkees. Critics like Renata Adler and Pauline Kael trashed it upon its release, but the film has found its aficionados like all hypnotic messes tend to do. Critics like J. Hoberman have contextualized it as a significant, albeit disastrous, part of counter-culture cinema, at least as worthy of consideration as other Bob Rafelson productions like Easy Rider. Head demonizes the media in ways that are cliche now: America, as Hoberman puts it in his Criterion essay, is portrayed as one big fake place, propped up by ads and movies and sensations. The Monkees, of course, were satire, the joke being that there was very little difference between who they were on the show and who they were in “real life.” They were twin images of the same thing, ultimately: a popular band of four people. If it’s constructed, does that mean it’s any less affecting? If you bought it, does that mean you approve of it? If it feels good, is it really that bad?

Anyway, the song itself is called “The Porpoise Song.” It sounds like a Beatles song, but it’s not. Bob Benson, as we find out in this episode, is hiding something of Draper-like proportions, but he’s not Don Draper. There will be no showdown in Bert Cooper’s office, despite Pete’s role in both situations as the man who discovers a secret. Pete has learned his lesson from Don. He will use this information about Bob — namely that he had no qualifications upon arrival at SC&P, and his name might not even been Bob Benson — to make life a little easier, to keep a gay man from putting his knee beside his.

I’m not disappointed by the revelation, although it seems like we’ll learn more later. And there were some good lines in their confrontation, though nothing on the level of Bert Cooper’s “With all due respect, Mr. Campbell, who cares?” “You don’t respond well to gratitude,” Bob says astutely to Pete, and you have to admit that’s pretty right. Pete is a spoiled child who never gets what he wants. He has no manners even when he has genuine concern for his friend Ken, who, by the way, got shot in the face by the Chevy people on a hunting excursion and wants off the account immediately. Pete doesn’t even wait to seize the business opportunity and offers to take the account away from Ken. Bert and the rest see Bob helping Pete transition, and to Pete this means hotel rooms with a man who has expressed sexual interest in him. This seems more important than any success, probably because Pete loathes himself so much that he despises anyone who might not feel similarly. “I don’t know how people like you do it,” he says to Bob with disgust. “You’re certainly better at it than whatever I am at what I do.” What Pete does is try to get ahead. It’s the same as what Bob does, but Bob just seems to have more to lose.

The show has been presenting a lot of doubles, a lot of repetition, a lot of twins this season. History is repeating itself. Nixon is running for president again. Jackie Kennedy is in the news once more, this time as the wife to Aristotle Onassis. “She did well twice,” Betty says, to which Don replies, “So did you.” Megan also sees similarities: between Don and her and Peggy and Ted, who are caught by the Drapers at the movies together on a work night. Well, what Megan sees is gossip and love, and what Don sees is something he doesn’t know what to do with yet. He reacts by telling Sunkist that color TV sales have spiked and those oranges would look awfully nice on a set. This idea sells, and the Sunkist people offer more money than Ocean Spray would give the agency. This burns Ted, who feels as if Don has gone back on his word, but it doesn’t matter. They’re getting the account. Don’s account. There was a conflict between the two very similar brands (those twins!), but Don’s version won.

But the part of this episode that made me feel like I was going to throw up was a storyline about another product entirely: aspirin. Ted and Peggy are working on a campaign for St. Joseph’s children’s aspirin that plays upon Rosemary’s Baby. (I’m with Don; this is a disturbing idea.) The work they come up with will end up costing more than the budget will allow, and Don brings this to the attention of the client because no one has yet. Ted hasn’t wanted to dampen Peggy’s enthusiasm. Of course, all of this has one layer of meaning — Ted wants the best for his creative team, Don wants to make sure things are done according to the books — but there’s another layer that everyone, even the secretaries, can see. Ted is in love with Peggy. And Don hates it. So he does what he knows how to do best, what he did with Roger in previous seasons and what he does with women. He destroys other people’s happiness so that he can get his own way. He humiliates Ted in the meeting by hinting at Ted’s feelings for Peggy; then he swerves and exploits real feelings of grief by saying that Ted’s only pushing for the extra money because this ad was Frank Gleason’s last idea. It’s kind of rotten, even for Don.

Peggy calls Don a monster (notably without closing the door, which is a detail I love). Don’s other daughter, in other words, has called him what he is. Don responds by curling up in the fetal position on his couch. Which is how we saw him at the beginning of the episode too, sleeping off some booze on a spare bed because he didn’t want to wake Megan. Don’s putting vodka in his orange juice (his Sunkist?) in the morning, by the way. There’s a lot of attention called to oral stimulants and depressants in this episode. Megan tells Don not to drink so much, to pull off the throttle (he doesn’t listen). Betty asks Sally for some of her McDonald’s in the car on the way to the boarding school Sally desperately wants to escape to. Sally invites Glen and a friend to hang out with the girls she’s staying with over night, and they smoke weed and drink liquor. Betty lets Sally have a cigarette on the way home. The aspirin itself is a palliative, administered by hand by a loving mother. But any time there is discussion of love or something more troubling, other parts of the body get attention. Parts of the body that can’t be nourished as easily. “Your little girl has beautiful eyes, but that doesn’t mean you give her everything,” Don says to prove a point to Ted. “You complimented my tie,” Bob says when describing the day Pete hired him. Ted touches Peggy’s waist during a meeting, Ken’s eye gets shot out and he can barely cry out of it without feeling the sting. Is it any wonder we see Don lying on his couch with a tumbler of whiskey on his chest, over his heart? Corny. But it’s all there. The coven in Peggy’s aspirin ad recommend plasters, chicken soup, but what the baby really needs, as Roman Castavet says to Rosemary Woodhouse, is his mother. That’s what that movie is about in the end, you know. Life can be alienating and topsy-turvy in the big city, in 1968, for a woman trapped by men in apartments that are too old. But instincts don’t change. Who you are essentially will always come out sooner or later.

Other things to note: Harry apparently once tried to pay a hooker with traveler’s checks, which might be the funniest character detail about Harry Crane, like, ever; Harry Hamlin said “great Caesar’s ghost” to express surprise; Pete was racist, again; and Joan gave a great, terrible impression of a Jewish mother when they were acting out the aspirin ad in an ideas meeting.

Again, I feel like I am leaving out Sally, and this isn’t by design. I just feel like her story is a long, loose thread; I feel less like I’m watching someone tie up a neat bow. And thank God. She’s a perverse little girl, inviting boys to hang out with boarding school frenemies, smiling as Glen beats up his friend for forcing himself on her. She likes trouble. What will happen to her! Will she blow up a post office? It’s really hard to raise a girl, you know? Almost as hard as it is to be one in these times. Did you catch that Nixon ad, by the way? “This time vote like your whole world depended on it”? Such subtle shame in that “this time.” The jerk knew how to manipulate people into giving him a second chance.

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