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'Mad Men' recap: Don Draper, man or monster?

June 17, 2013|By Meredith Blake
  • Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) is humiliated by Don for having fallen in love with Peggy, in Episode 12 ("The Quality of Mercy") of "Man Men" (Season 6).
Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) is humiliated by Don for having fallen in love with… (Jaimie Trueblood / AMC )

“You’re a monster,” Peggy Olson tells Don Draper in the final moments of  “The Quality of Mercy,” the penultimate episode of “Mad Men’s” sixth season.

Since the series pilot when Peggy first arrived on the job at Sterling Cooper, she has served as a proxy for the viewer.  But her role as audience ambassador has never seemed more fitting than it does now, as her feelings for her former mentor curdle into disgust.  Just like us, she once admired and was fascinated by Don; just like us -- or at least most of us -- she now views him as a kind of abomination. While not quite the unholy spawn of Satan and Mia Farrow, Don now seems something less than entirely human.

The breaking point, of course, is Don’s decision to publicly shame Ted for having fallen in love with Peggy. Our protagonist begins this episode at his lowest point to date, curled in the fetal position in his Sally’s bed after another night of self-medication. It’s been a few weeks since he was caught in the act with Sylvia, and Sally is, quite understandably, refusing to visit.

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The sense of loss is exacerbated when Don and Megan run in to Peggy and Ted at an evening showing of “Rosemary’s Baby.”  Don pretends not to be fazed by the encounter, but it’s obvious Ted has usurped -- and even surpassed -- his role in Peggy’s life, and that he’s rattled by this change. It’s no accident the run-in happens in a movie theater, both Don and Peggy’s favorite place to “dust off the cobwebs” on a weekday afternoon.  Even Don’s shirt, a very Chaough-ian turtleneck, hints at their role reversal.

Unable to make amends with Sally, Don chooses instead to meddle with Peggy. I suppose you could argue that his motives are not all bad, that he’s trying to protect his former protégée from heartbreak, but Don’s actions come across as spiteful and sadistic.  How else to describe the excruciating 50 seconds he waits before explaining that the “personal” reason the St. Joseph’s ad has gone overbudget is because of a sentimental attachment to Frank Gleason’s idea? It’s a lie, of course, and had Don offered it up immediately, it would qualify as a stroke of genius.  Instead, it’s a humiliating spectacle. Not only has he shamed the lovebirds in front of their peers, but he’s also effectively negated Peggy’s creative accomplishment, attributing her inspired, Clio-worthy idea to a dead guy.

Naturally, Don pretends he was only acting out of interest for the agency. “I know your little girl has beautiful eyes, but that doesn’t mean you give her everything,” he scolds Ted. “Your judgment is impaired.  You’re not thinking with your head.” How many times has he allowed his sordid personal life to jeopardize the agency’s fortunes? Don might as well be looking in the mirror, because the entire lecture is a nothing but an act of projection.

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From his affairs with Rachel Menken and Bobbie Barrett to the weekend he was supposed to use generating ideas for Chevy but, instead, spent pining for Sylvia, Don is the undisputed master of impaired judgment.  And if he really were acting out of concern, rather than rejection after having lost two of the people closest to him, Don wouldn’t bother with the bullying put-downs. Instead, he implies that Ted’s feelings for Peggy are not just dangerous but inexplicable. (“We’ve all been there -- I mean not with Peggy.”) Don is quite a skilled liar, but his greatest tell is unnecessary vindictiveness.

Peggy, of course, sees right through Don. Marching into his office, she unleashes hell.  “You hate that he is a good man,” Peggy says. Her outrage is justified, yet there’s something terribly sad about the entire scene, given how it echoes some of their most touching interactions.

In an antihero series like “Mad Men,” it’s all but inevitable that viewers will turn on the protagonist.  While I don’t wish some horrible fate upon him the way I do with, say, Walter White, his character seems to have turned a corner this season, from wounded man of mystery to borderline sociopath. It’s unclear how he’ll be able to recover, or even if he can, particularly now that he’s lost his most steadfast ally.

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