Mad Men – Man With A Plan
It’s somewhat fitting that an episode built around repetition would borrow so heavily from the thematics of the hour that preceded it, but it doesn’t make it any less of a pain to write this review. Man With A Plan was the kind of episode that showed the screenwriters in the room clearly have one, probably up on a big board somewhere that they would have returned to again and again during the writing of this hour; doing what Ted termed an old fashioned technique, research. To mirror the plots core premise, the overpopulation of the company’s post-merger offices and the repetition and redundancies that come with such, the episode weaved in a number of references to episodes past; scaling from the blunt to the subtle. It’s no coincidence then that this is the episode where Pete’s mother is first shown to have some form of Alzheimer’s; she forgets but the show never does. Matt Weiner is the man with a plan and we best trust in it.
Unfortunately I’m not the sort of fan – of this show or any other – who can recall production codes for scenes four or five seasons back or the colour of the coat that a character wore the last time they saw this or did that so episodes like this can often go mostly over my head; some of the callbacks my subconscious will catch, as Peggy’s perhaps did that fact about margarine (provided that she wasn’t doing secretly planned research beforehand so that she could impress in Ted’s ‘rap session’) but others I only notice when more careful minded critics than I point them out. The most blatant reference came at the closing of the episode with the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, an attack which mirrored both the recent assassination of Martin Luther King and the earlier event with his brother in Dallas; but this, like the second firing of Michael Gaston’s ill-fated accounts man, was more of a shallow nod than a meaningful wink.
Just as it takes the firm’s pair of star creatives an juxtaposes them as mirror images, the episode also steals scenes from episode’s past, perverts them slightly and represents them: like Don trying to get Ted drunk as he once did Roger or Bob taking Joan to perhaps the same hospital she once took Don. One of the smaller touches, one that many will likely miss during the episode, is that the office Peggy is presented during her second orientation at the SCDP offices (given her familiarity the fact that she feigned ignorance and fear for Ted speaks volumes of her manipulation of that man) used to belong to Pete and more specifically that it contains the pesky pillar that once caused the man so much comedic trouble. This is a callback because the episode in which it last featured was directed, as this one is, by Mr. John Slattery.
Given that he was the man behind the camera its no surprise that Plan is something of a fast paced and funny hour; neither the stabbing banter nor the sight gags have ever been as sharp as they are under him, but the almost Bergman-esque character placement and controversial song selection (that closing credit sequence is bold) speak of him also having a set of talents beyond those of Roger Sterling. He is a consummate professional but here, for the first time, I had some issues with the work: sometimes though the cuts come a little too quickly, the scenes seeming to skip one from the next without the usual smoothness of the best Mad Men hours, an issue exaggerated by the somewhat split tone of the stories content. I don’t know who exactly to blame but it seems like someone failed to plan something during the shoot.
Given that the title highlights plans it seems important to pay attention to just who in the episode has one and how they work out. Joan has the floorplan of the new office in her hand as she stands upon the stairs but it does her no good; the fresh meat has no feeling for her: they don’t know who she is, what she’s done or that she’s not a damn to be trifled with and so she hands it off to her double, the Joan of CGC and slips off instead with a friend. Bob Benson, the strange, smiling specter that seemingly haunts the halls of SCDP takes her in later, seemingly by accident but his brown-nosing is so beneficiary that one must be suspect about whether or not he had somehow planned it all along, so to Ted’s totally charming behavior in the boardroom. Though of course he couldn’t know that Joan would be sick or that he was so close to severance, these occurrences were unplannable.I talked extensively in last week’s review (HERE) about how characters in the show attempt to control things only to have their plans curbed by the chaos of the world around them. That theme was repeated this week, though in some interesting new ways. Don, whose life has always been split into two equal parts, found the office a flustering flow of people and files and Dawn, his one calming influence, his codex of control, mysteriously disappeared and so he attempted to wrestle complete control of his romantic relations. Megan is meaningless to him, drowned out by an internal melody, and so he heads to Sylvia, sticks her in a hotel room and tells her to stay completely still when he is not around. He wants her in a vacuum, he wants her to be an island, he wants a world like the one in videogames where people only act, only exist, when you are around to awaken them, but that kind of control is just creepy and so like all of last week’s individual thoughts it blows up in his face.
Don’s rivalry with Ted, which I’d never really brought before now, shows another side of this same story; just as it shows us another side of Don, we are so used to his drinking and ducking out of the office that Ted’s strict timekeeping and inability to imbibe at the same pace come as something of a shock, the whole CGC team offers something of a mundane opposite to the drunken arrogance of SCDP. When he asks his friend what to do about the conflict Ted is told nothing: he is instructed not to plan and not to fight, to leave things in the hand of the universe and simply let Don tire himself out fighting against them. That approach, interestingly given by a man who has seemingly been shafted by said universe, works wonders; Don flinches and Ted walks away the happy man, the man who people like working for, the man that Don wishes he was but never can be; the grass somehow greener in the mirror’s image.