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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: “The Quality Of Mercy”

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Freud said that all men long to return to the womb. Well, not precisely. What he said was that all men have a kind of fascination with the womb. As males, we cannot create and nurture life inside of our bodies, thus creating a kind of awe when it comes to a woman’s uterus. For a man in love with a woman, being in love with that woman is a hoped for return to the mother, to a place where we were nurtured and held in utero, where every need was provided and we needed to do very little. From the moment men are born, Freud would argue, there is an increased horror in the idea of never being able to return to that place. We might long to, and we might race toward it, but no man can return to that state or even recapture it in the process of forming a relationship. We are eternally doomed to be without.

Which might seem like a weird way to get into “The Quality Of Mercy”—a title that one might expect to lead to thoughts of Shakespeare or at least The Twilight Zone—but then one might consider that the episode ends with an overhead shot of Don getting into the fetal position. And the more one focuses on that one shot, the more the episode’s fascination with babies—born and about to be born—becomes apparent. Ken and Cynthia are on the cusp of being parents. Pete only sees Tammy every other weekend. Rosemary’s Baby is screened. Sally says her father never gave her anything when seemingly recommitting to her mother as A-number-one parent. Peggy’s big idea for her St. Joseph’s ad involves a riff on Rosemary’s Baby, to the degree that she gets Don to say, “Wah, wah, wah,” like the whiny little baby he is. Like a small child, he wants what he wants, and he wants it now. Seeing Peggy fall under the influence of Ted has thrown him for a loop, and now he’s spending long nights watching Dragnet and not having sex with anybody in particular but especially not his wife. Happy Father’s Day.

Here, we should dispense with Shakespeare and Twilight. “The Quality Of Mercy” is the first line of a famous speech delivered by Portia in The Merchant Of Venice. Portia, one of the most purely lovable of all of Shakespeare’s characters, is speaking to Shylock, one of the most reprehensible (and, to modern eyes, one of the most problematic, since he’s basically an Elizabethan era Jewish stereotype that Shakespeare only fitfully tries to humanize). The speech involves Portia trying to get Shylock to stop chasing so fervently after justice and instead embrace mercy. Shylock’s the one who goes after the “pound of flesh,” but once Portia confounds him in court, he continues to howl for some sort of restitution over the bond he was unable to collect. (Briefly: Antonio made the deal with Shylock where if he could not repay the money he borrowed, Shylock would get the pound of flesh as collateral, but once Antonio suffers the loss of his fortune at sea, Portia outwits Shylock in court by saying he must take his pound of flesh but only a pound of flesh, while spilling no blood. Both would be impossible.) The audience is clearly meant to take joy in Shylock’s misfortune here, and Portia asking Shylock to embrace mercy when he really has many good reasons to keep pushing for his money back is presented as an unbridgeable gap between Christians and Jews. Portia keeps making entreaties to God, but it’s quite clearly not the same God that Shylock would understand. Because Jews have not been given the mercy of God, they are unable to extend it to others. That Twilight Zone episode deals with much the same question: An American GI, gung ho about killing Japanese soldiers, is abruptly tossed into one of their lives, causing him to have an epiphany about the uselessness of pointless violence.

What does all of this have to do with trying to get back to the womb? It’s not immediately clear, but I think what’s going on in this episode is that writers Andre and Maria Jacquemetton and director Phil Abraham are getting at all of these unbreachable walls and unbridgeable gaps the characters have built between themselves this season. Take that Nixon ad Don watches during his day off from work. The political genius of Nixon was that he was able to turn the resentment he felt toward the cultural elites he felt had shunned him into a kind of resentment radar that picked up on what was causing the “silent majority” he spent so much time talking about to feel the Democratic Party had left it behind entirely. All political parties thrive, to some degree, on “us vs. them” rhetoric, but Nixon turned the idea of a nation divided into an art form. Those criminals in the streets weren’t just un-American. They were subhuman, and they deserved to be put down with swift and horrible justice, no matter what they were rioting about. Nixon wasn’t the first president to all but insist on the worth of the individual (at least if you were the right kind of individual) over the body politic, and he wouldn’t be the last, but he was the guy who made it seem like composing a sonata. Watch that ad Don watches again. It’s a virtual symphony of images meant to convey an America gone hopelessly alien. (For more on this, Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is a must.)

This is the irony that I’m not entirely sure Shakespeare grasped when he put those words in Portia’s mouth: Those who most benefit from mercy are the ones who usually ask for it. And maybe that’s not strictly an irony in the context of reality (where all of us beg for tiny mercies every day), but in the context of the play, it certainly is, because Shakespeare doesn’t seem to realize that the person who most needs that quality of mercy is Shylock himself. Portia’s speech doesn’t shrink the gap between herself and Shylock; it causes it to grow, perhaps intentionally. Similarly, when Don has the chance to put himself in another’s shoes in this episode, he either assumes the worst or doesn’t bother, over and over again in this episode. He’s incapable of understanding the bond between Peggy and Ted, unable to see just how much Megan worries about him, utterly isolated from his daughter. Where everybody else in the episode seems to be running toward the bonds of families both real and invented, Don has managed to isolate just about everybody in both his biological family and his workplace one. He is an island, the Nixonian silent majority yelling at everyone else to get off his lawn, precisely at a time when Sterling, Cooper, & Partners needs to be coming together.

Weirdly enough, the most merciful person in this episode is Pete, who remains the season’s most unpredictable character, even if he’s a completely sniveling bastard. As many of you—including myself—have predicted, Bob Benson appears to have pulled his very own version of the Don Draper, which is to say that Bob Benson isn’t his real name, and he’s mostly falsified his past. (Don, at least, stole another man’s identity, which isn’t exactly better but probably stands up to mild scrutiny slightly better. Which is to say that Duck Phillips probably wouldn’t have poked holes in Don’s story quite so quickly.) He worked at a previous firm as, basically, a manservant, which is why he’s so servile (the way Vincent Kartheiser spits out this word is marvelous), and, yes, he’s gay, and he’s apparently in love with Pete, which, why, Bob, why?!


The scene where Pete seems about to send Bob packing, then offers him an ounce of mercy might be my favorite in the episode, because it plays so thoroughly off of everything we know about Pete Campbell after six seasons of this show. My colleague Alan Sepinwall said after last week’s episode, with its exemplary scene between Pete and Peggy, that one of the chief pleasures of the show at this point in its run is the chance to have scenes between characters who have long histories. This isn’t really that, but it sort of is, because the ghost of Don Draper is in the room throughout. Pete has always chafed at the free and easy way that Don gets away with everything, and by banishing Bob, he wouldn’t just get rid of a man who made a subtle pass at him; he’d get a chance to have his symbolic revenge on Don as well. But something in Pete seems to recognize in Bob something that doesn’t need to be immediately snuffed out, and it almost seems as if the shift happens in the middle of that very scene. (I’d peg it to roughly when Bob asks for a day to get his things in order.) Pete doesn’t have it in him to do it. So long as Bob keeps his distance, he can keep working at SC&P. Pete won’t betray his secret. As Bert Cooper said so long ago: “Mr. Campbell, who cares?”

“The Quality Of Mercy” is a thoroughly engaging, even exciting episode, bringing a large number of the season’s plots to a head, but pushing very few of them over the edge to climax, meaning we could be in for a busy season finale next week. (Mad Men doesn’t always adhere to the typical cable structure of the exciting penultimate episode, followed by the more contemplative finale, but it has a couple of times, and most of the others were complete swerves into left field, so maybe we shouldn’t even begin to predict what might happen.) What struck me throughout is just how much of this episode—and how much of this season—revolves around Don’s increasingly corroded relationship with a woman who meant everything to him at one time and now calls him a monster. Peggy hasn’t gotten as much to do this season as some, but she increasingly seems like The Point of what’s going on. She’s had a taste of a mentorship other than Don’s, and even if she fell in love with Ted and even if Don continues to maintain that Ted’s no different from him, Don is incapable of viewing her as anything other than a child he discovered. He takes away her great idea—by assigning it to a dead man—and he watches the moment when Ted touches her waist while presenting the ad to him with a kind of angry hunger. He’s a lion, surveying his territory.


Viewed in light of all of this, the seemingly interminable Young Don Draper flashbacks of this season take on a new light. Yes, we’ve always known that Don has mother issues, that he longs for some approximation of mother’s love that he seems unable to find anywhere but in Peggy (who let him rest in her lap and stroked his hair at his most vulnerable moment). At one time, he might have found that in Anna, but he saw her so little, and then she died. He’s been adrift since then, even if he doesn’t realize it. (When, after all, did he most become attracted to Megan? When she treated his children like a kind and loving mother might treat a child who’d accidentally spilled something.) In Freud’s theory, the man will keep forming more and more attachments with women, having more and more sex, trying to attain the unattainable, to fill the gap in his soul that was left by the fact that he can’t get back to the woman who bore him. (As Tony Soprano would say on the show that has so many ties to this one, your mother’s the bus driver, and you just keep trying to get back on the bus.)

In that light, almost every relationship this season offers a perspective on Don’s increased sense of loss, the nostalgia he has for a world that never was that he keeps trying to create in his ads. Remember when he dug out that ad with the mother making soup back in “The Crash”? He’s twisted all of these emotions around, and he’s pushed so many of them onto the one woman who really shouldn’t have any of them pinned onto her: Peggy. He’s lost his daughter, and he’s pushed away his wife, and he’s increasingly seemed to be checked out at work. And when was the last time we got a scene of Don making a great pitch or just having a good time with his work pals, the Don Draper of old? That act isn’t working anymore. He’s a fallible titan, his entire lower half made of clay that his underlings keep chipping away at, and he’s not as safe as he thinks. When Don pushes back against Ted in a particularly snotty and pointless way, he’s not pushing back because he thinks Ted has taken his place in Peggy’s affections romantically or in the workplace or even as a father figure. No, he’s pushing back because he longs to get back to that closeness and keeps getting rejected by reality. Don isn’t fighting with Ted because of petty masculine bullshit; he’s fighting with Ted because of sibling rivalry.


Stray observations:

  • What a glorious and fun episode this was! All of the plotlines added up to something, and the tapestry of the show was unexpectedly rich. Even Glen (who seems to turn up more and more often just to deliver subtext in a monotone) ended up being a surprising amount of fun.
  • I’m enjoying the continued teasing out of the truth about Bob Benson, and I’m glad it’s nowhere near as dramatic as the Internet wanted it to be. (Though just you wait until he comes to the office wearing a Pete Campbell suit next episode!)
  • Great moments in leaving things hanging: Ken goes out hunting with the Chevy executives. The execs pull and turn when two birds burst up, and then one of them shoots right at Ken. Ken plummets to the ground. Now, he didn’t die—instead, he got buckshot all over his face and apparently at least some in his eye—but he was rattled enough to push the Chevy account off on Pete.
  • I really enjoyed the three scenes with Sally and Betty, which just reaffirmed for me how few great mother/teenage daughter relationships there are on TV right now. The two push each other’s buttons, yes, but they also have a real, honest connection, and I love watching them snipe at each other, then come to an understanding. (Betty’s “You’re polite with everyone but me” was great.)
  • Also: Sally’s going to boarding school, just in time for the final season! I always like seeing flashes of both her parents in Sally, and her ability to procure cigarettes seemingly with the snap of her fingers was vintage Don Draper.
  • Harry Crane is still out in California, and he’s landed the Sunkist account to the tune of $8 million! Everything’s coming up Harry! (Except he still won’t be made partner, because boo!)
  • Next week on Mad Men: It’s a clip show! Apparently!