For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. We’re unveiling those shows, one per publication day, culminating in our picks for the top three of the year.
Sonia Saraiya: Even now, with the distance of six months, I can’t quite tell you how I feel about “Man With A Plan,” the seventh episode of Mad Men’s sixth season. That’s the one with the sex game—where Don aggressively dominates his new mistress, Sylvia, without really asking her permission. He steamrolls over her agency for a day or so, keeping her in a hotel room naked, waiting for his phone call. At first glance, Sylvia Rosen is just another bored housewife. She is ironic, knowing, and impatient—she seems perpetually tired with her life, with her role and her routine. Linda Cardellini plays her so subtly at first that she is just another figure in the background. But she’s vivacious when she warms to something, and absolutely stunning, and she starts to catch the eye as the season goes on. By the time they sleep together, Don wants to possess her almost as much as he wants to have sex with her—both impulses are intertwined, right from the start.
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There’s nothing comfortable about that hotel escapade. It’s not purely kinky or purely reprehensible; it’s both. The need to succumb entirely to desire—to play a role in the theater of sex, as either someone totally in control or someone who is totally relinquishing it—is both terrifying and intoxicating. And just as sex is an intimate act, punishment is a kind of intimacy too. Don is getting into Sylvia’s head—flattening her agency, which is often so cumbersome, and instead offering her a place in the world that’s free of decisions. Don’s in control—or, at least, it looks like he is. He gets to play God, ordering Sylvia around and practically dictating her thoughts. But he’s totally in the thrall of the fantasy, of his own desire for power. Sex gives him a stage to be every possible version of himself—to transcend Dick Whitman and become Don Draper.
Don’s slept with a lot of women. He flatters himself that he knows women or gets women—and it’s true, he can always find the right buttons to push to get a woman in bed with him. But Don’s far too concerned with being the guy in charge to ever really let himself succumb to intimacy with a woman. He wants to pretend he’s still the guy that can get any woman in bed, instead of owning up to the fact that he can’t keep any woman in bed. In “Man With A Plan,” he actually orders Sylvia to stay in bed. And takes her book away from her, because he doesn’t want her to even think about anything else. Sex is the most convenient theater for Don to stage his illusions.
After all, this season is also the season where we see, in a flashback, how Dick Whitman lost his virginity. I’d argue that’s the birth of Don Draper—more than that moment with the dog tags in Korea. This man who flirts with the idea of loving women, and is taken with the fantasy of a man who understands women, but who ultimately pulls up short.
As pivotal as that final moment is, that moment where Sally walks in on him and Sylvia is the climax of the season. Sylvia disappears from the season after that scene, and no wonder: She’d served her purpose, which was to pull Don down into his own illusions so far that it affects his little girl.
Caroline Framke: Ever since her first adorably lisped appearance, I was dying to know who sharp, rebellious Sally Draper was going to become. This season, with the help of Kiernan Shipka’s astounding acting, Sally’s defiance has taken the far more cutting form of imitation—spitting out her words with Betty’s meticulous bite and lifting her chin with Don’s practiced arrogance. Slowly but surely, Sally has become Betty and Don’s mirror image, forcing them to look at themselves when they look at her. Betty’s trip to the bowels of Greenwich Village signaled a compassion for Sally’s friend that Sally herself couldn’t feel, because the Betty of years past never would have either. And as Sally smoked her victory cigarette in the car ride home from Miss Porter’s, Betty looked across the dashboard and recognized herself with a distinct mixture of pride and fear.
But Sally’s ability to reflect her parents back at them makes her especially crucial to Don’s story. Don has spent his entire life not just avoiding himself, but outright rejecting himself, and this season it became too much to bear. We watched as he got more and more careless with his infidelity, drank himself into more and more stupors, and cared less and less about the work that once gave him so much power. If the illusion of Don Draper was a dam keeping the flood back, Sally was the dam-wrecking force.
I just can’t imagine that Bobby walking in on him and Sylvia would have elicited quite the same response. Sure, Don might have been embarrassed, but there could have been a “boys will be boys” pep talk that would have swept the whole thing under the rug, or at least kept his ruse alive for a while longer.
But Sally’s different. Sylvia’s undoubtedly important to Don, but she’s temporary. Sally’s permanent, and she scares the hell out of him. Here’s a girl he’s responsible for, who has thoughts and feelings he can’t bend with his usual manipulative charm, who glares back at him with an intensity he’s only ever seen in himself. The second Sally sees who Don really is, it’s reflected right back at him. Watching Sally break means watching himself break—and he’s spent his entire life denying the fissures were even there.
With that said, I liked the sixth season of Mad Men, but I didn’t love it until the last few exquisite shots. Don—or, rather, Dick—takes his children to his childhood home, and while Bobby and Gene have no idea what they’re looking at, Sally immediately recognizes the enormity of the gesture. Hamm and Shipka have never been better together than in that moment. As Don/Dick gazes at the dilapidated brothel he’s been running from all his life with a calm he’s never felt, Sally doesn’t just realize that her father’s a person—as we all realize about our parents at some point or another—she realizes that he’s such a deeply flawed man, he couldn’t communicate the depth of his flaws without bringing her to their source. Sally can’t possibly know how much that means, but it’s undeniable that her journey into adulthood led Don to realize it for himself.
SS: That’s the same thing I wrote in some of my brainstorming notes for Mad Men—how this season was Don facing himself in the mirror for the first time in his life in a slow and painful manner. I think it’s fair to say that both Sylvia and Sally are dark mirrors for him, reflecting back some reality of himself he doesn’t quite want to behold. But I agree with you that Sally’s definitely the linchpin of his transformation. I get hung up on Sylvia, because I recognize her willful embrace of a comfortable status quo—but I also identify with Sally, who is angry with everything and everyone for perfectly valid reasons.
You know, if we want to get Freudian—and I don’t know how we couldn’t with a show like Mad Men whose main character is actually named Dick—there’s a killing-the-mother theme that runs throughout the show. Once we learn about Dick’s complicated mother—and the even more complicated story of his birth mother—Don plowing through women to find himself makes even more sense. He’s trying to prove he’s not better than his (birth) mother, but also trying to not disappoint his (adoptive) mother.
Which reminds me that we need to talk about the ghost of Rachel Menken before we go any further. (Because we sent each other emails that just read RACHEL MENKEN, all in caps.)
CF: Ahh, Rachel Menken. I miss her every day—and I suspect Don does too. Rachel was the first (and I’d argue only) woman Don ever accepted to be a fully realized person outside of their affair, and she was also the first woman we ever saw throw Don’s bullshit right back in his face. I wonder if Don thought of her as he angled for the Los Angeles job this season, since Rachel only broke it off when he begged her to run away with him to Los Angeles. “You don’t want to run away with me,” she told him, unsurprised, but furious that he could be so clueless, so cowardly, and worse, so cliché. “You just want to run away.” Megan couldn’t realize that even after years of being married to him.
I’m not convinced Don ever accepted Sylvia to be a real person the way he did Rachel, but I agree that Sylvia knew exactly what she was getting herself into. Even as she waited in that hotel room, her discomfort didn’t seem to come from the sex game itself, but more from the fact that, like Rachel, she wasn’t at all surprised.
Still, I never really connected with Sylvia the way you seemed to. She felt more like a metaphor than a person. It’s no coincidence that Don chose to have an affair with a woman who lived in the same apartment building the year he collapsed under the weight of his own lies. Yes, he and Sylvia had crazy chemistry—but more importantly, they both represented such clear and calculated risks to each other that disaster wasn’t just imminent, but inevitable. Even if they weren’t ready for the consequences, they were both waiting for someone to walk in on them. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence Don decided to fall down the rabbit hole with a deeply devout Catholic woman. As long as we’re talking Freud, nothing says “moral masochism” quite like committing mortal sin.
SS: What we seem to have uncovered is that Don used Sylvia, Rachel, and all the other women he’s slept with as means to one end—to further his own illusion of himself, to run and run away from who he is and what his true demons are. It’s hard to blame him. All of Mad Men is about the whole country doing just this. Running toward a pleasant fiction, as the chickens come home to roost.
The past six seasons, we’ve seen Don move a little closer toward being an integrated human being, then back toward his own fantasy of who he thinks he should be. I think we got Sylvia in this season, because now the show is wrapping up and we already—we always—had Sally to pull Don back to himself. He can divorce Betty, cheat on Megan, drop Faye, disappoint Rachel, and dominate Sylvia, but he’s not rid of Sally so easily. She’s too much like him, and she sees so much.
And, he wants Sally to love him. Isn’t that something? I remember how he built that playhouse for her, in the first season and then got her a dog (which she adored). Sylvia, his latest mistress, is beautiful and sexy, but she’s not capable of loving Don, not really. She’s almost as empty as he is. But Sally has the capacity to love him so wholly, with the adoration of a child that is putting her father on a pedestal. That’s transformative.
Maybe the reason Sylvia was so compelling to me this season is because she’s made of the stuff that looks strong and glamorous and powerful—she’s very much Don’s counterpart, insofar as any woman could be Don’s counterpart. They’ve both managed to build lives for themselves where the messy and the vulnerable don’t play a part. But they’re both terribly unhappy people.
Sally, though… Sally is an uncomfortable reality, both for Don and the show. She’s a casualty of his charlatan sex life, a counterpoint to booze and money. There’s nothing about her innocence that looks cool. But then again, I feel like what Mad Men is teaching us is that nothing cool really lasts.