There’ve been more books in “Mad Men” than most — and quite possibly all — TV shows. So many that last year the New York Public Library compiled a list of them through season five. Season six opens with Don reading “Dante’s Inferno,” which we later learn was given to him by Sylvia Rosen, his neighbor, mistress and a reader with eclectic tastes. In this past Sunday’s episode, “Man With a Plan,” Sylvia brings a copy of Larry McCurtry’s “The Last Picture Show” to the Sherry-Netherland for what turns out to be her last tryst with Don.
Don’s meeting with Sylvia is one of three storylines that take characters away from the office, where low-grade chaos unfolds around the merger of Cutler, Gleason and Chaogh and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Don’s tryst is the only one where the character starts off in charge. He arranges his absence, while Pete and Joan are pulled away by genuine emergencies.
Pete is summoned from the office several times — and very much against his wishes — when his brother sends their dementia-addled mother to stay with Pete. Joan ends up going to the emergency room, accompanied by the surprisingly gallant Bobby Benson (who for the first time doesn’t appear obsequious or doofish) — for what turns out to be an ovarian cyst.
The subplots reinforce what we already know about these three. Don thinks himself above the rules, showing up 40 minutes late to the first meeting of the newly merged creative teams. Pete’s insecure about his status in the new organization, and is furious that he’s pulled away on this critical day when he wants to assume his position. (He arrives uncharacteristically late to a meeting, and there is no chair for him! He then misses a meeting upstate with Mohawk Airlines, because Don and Ted refuse to reschedule to accommodate his unspecified crisis!) Joan on the other hand is confident, if private, and seems more wistful about her personal life than fretful about or threatened by any changes stemming from the merger.
Back at the hotel, Don has effectively imprisoned Sylvia, locking her in the room and then, later on the phone, ordering her not to answer the phone anymore. He’s playing his dominatrix card with Sylvia, in what might be his most repugnant scenes yet. When he returns, he takes the copy of “The Last Picture Show.” Sylvia is incredulous. It’s her sole distraction, there doesn’t seem to be a television in the room. Taking the book, more than asking her to crawl on her hands and knees to fetch his shoes — which she does not do — and ignoring the fact that a woman has to eat — seems crueler than cruel.
Don pulls out the book on his flight in Ted’s plane to Mohawk in upstate New York. The day after getting Ted drunk, Don’s taken down by Ted who, as Don puts it, will always be the man who flew his own plane to the meeting. These two may tussle for dominance from here to eternity, but for now at least it seems a fair match, with a possibility of Ted running Don ragged in the end. Roger and Jim have become buddies rather than rivals. They’ve even invited themselves to pay a visit to Leica in Germany.
Peggy is holding her own. She takes Don to task for getting Ted plastered, observing that she’d hoped Ted would be an influence on Don and not the other way around. She tells Don that no one can drink like he can. “He’s a grown man,” Don protests. Peggy tells him he is, too. This quiet but important scene makes clear that Peggy has returned to her old office with her confidence intact and her interpersonal skills honed.
When Don returns to the hotel, Sylvia breaks it off with him. She says she dreamed that Don’s plane had crashed and Megan had cried on her shoulder at his funeral and that she’d gone home to Arnie and told him she’d been away and she was back. It’s over. Don asks her to reconsider. Please. But she holds her ground. At home, a clueless Megan prattles on about taking another trip to Hawaii. In an eery audio move, her voice grows fainter, as Don dim-mutes her as he dissociates.
The episode closes with news of Robert Kennedy’s shooting. Pete’s mother wakes him up with the news they’ve shot that Kennedy boy. Pete, thinking she’s confused, tells her that was years ago and tries to go back to sleep. (For anyone who’s dealt with a loved one with dementia, the scenes with Pete’s mother are as spot-on as they are poignant. I especially liked the flashes of awareness. In an exchange about her rhyming daughters-in-law, Trudy and Judie, Pete’s mother quips, “Now I suppose I’m crazy for mixing those up.” Touche!) At the Draper home, Megan watches the news footage on the bedroom TV, her back to Don’s.
All in all, another stellar episode. Roger Slattery, who directed, has quite an eye. I love that Ted is a pilot. We’d seen some aviation decor in his office, but who knew it meant the man could fly his own plane. Or that there was an assumption that anyone else did. (In the partners meeting, Jim asks Don what kind of a plane he flies!) I didn’t have a strong reaction to Don’s treatment of Sylvia — which prompted countless “50 Shades of Grey” tweets — because I concluded earlier this season that his twistedness knows no bounds.
As for next week’s books, I can’t begin to predict what’s next.
A few additional observations. Thank goodness that:
– RFK’s assassination almost certainly isn’t going to dominate an entire episode. It would have been too much on the heels of the Martin Luther King episode, which had parallels to season three’s “The Grownups” around John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Smart choice, that.
– Don’s affair with Sylvia ended the way it did, organically, without Megan or Arnie discovering it. Either scenario would have become melodramatic with the spouses’ respective responses, and also forced the question of fallout – will the one who knows tell the other, will the one who knows leave. This denouement should mean a clean break, unless Don gets pathetic and asks for another chance. Let’s hope not.
— The writers addressed Dawn’s whereabouts, the Don/Dawn sound-alike and the possibility that someone can mention race in a light-handed fashion, all in a few lines. Peggy says something about Dawn not knowing where Don is, which suggests she’s there, we’re just not seeing her. Then later Peggy mentions Don, and it’s not clear if she means it’s Don or Dawn, and Ted asks, “Which one? Black or white?” A first, that.