Mad Men – Favors
“Eighteen, nineteen-year olds…they have no sense of their own mortality.”
“Or anyone else’s! That’s why they make good soldiers.”
Favors, while fitting, isn’t exactly the most inspiring of titles. It’s far smaller than most of the names that Mad Men offers up for its episodes; I might have been tempted to go for something far larger, to follow in the footsteps of last week’s Tale of Two Cities and call it War and Peace. Vietnam has been bubbling beneath the entire season so far, but because the characters are all out of draft range – so old and rich and white – it’s never really been a textual issue until now. This week the war starts to hit home for Don, quite literally striking a blow one floor beneath his bed with the possible drafting of the Rosen’s boy.
Given the season’s equally strong sense of duality this story was of course off-set by Sally, Don’s own daughter, attending a mock UN peace summit in the city. The idea of Sally and her schoolmate shaping the world is a silly one, political dress-up, but there is little more serious and more real than the fate awaiting Mitchell. We’re willing to entrust youth with the responsibility of fighting wars but not the power to shape or end them. Vietnam was a children’s crusade fought with, not for, the future generations; it’s the culmination of the culture shock that the show has been depicting since Season One.
The United Nations was a great idea, idyllic in many ways; it imagines a utopia of camaraderie between all of the world’s countries but unfortunately does so with this world wherein power oft comes to those without such traits. Sally’s mock-UN won’t actually change the world, but then more often than not neither does the real one; nations only succumb to stipulations and ratify treaties that they would have anyway. Which brings us to the episode’s central question: Is there really such a thing as selflessness? Has anyone in the history of the world ever actually done something for somebody else? Or do we only do favours when we know that they will be “worth our while”, as Peggy puts it to Stan?
One can’t talk about favours without making mention of Bob. Everyone has a theory about the brilliantly mercurial Bob Benson, mine is that he is a Rorschach test. Matthew Weiner introduced him to the show as a sort of pop-quiz, to see what we have learned from the near six-seasons of Mad Men that we have now seen. When you look at him, at his constant juggling of coffee cups and compliments – of favours – do you see “a great salesman” swiftly working his way up the ladder of SC&P with a smile or a genuinely selfless individual? He seemed either an accurate reflection of our own caustic perspective – one keenly developed by the likes of Don, Pete and Roger – or an indictment of it. Though thanks to that heart-breakingly tragic scene we now know that he was doing it for love; perhaps the most selfish desire of all.
Whatever their inspirations though all the characters of Mad Men are forced this week to be be considerate; they have to think of others for once, and it often doesn’t end well. Rather than simply following their own drives, their own desires Don and the other partners have to stop and think of the kids being drafted now, think of the women married to the men they sleep with, think of the mothers of the men who once got them pregnant, of the man now sleeping with their mother, of what their actions might look like in the eyes of their daughter and they have to adapt how they act to better suit this.
Thanks to the merger ‘SterlingCooperDraperPrice’, the company of individuals, no longer exists; now they are ‘SterlingCooper&Partners’, a communal title, a society, and this changes the way that things work. The Sunkist/ Ocean Spray debacle that stands as the episode’s ‘work story’ only occurs because none of the SC&P partners pay any attention to what the others are doing, unless its for some competition; the two hemispheres are out of sync. Teddy is told this week to start thinking of all SC&P business as equal instead of either his or Don’s, just as Pete last week was told to think of all new business as his but neither man can do that; both are self-driven, selfish men who want theirs, they don’t want to share, they may not even be capable of it.
The episode is full of favours, both asked for and offered, but very few of them seem genuinely selfless. The doorman in Don’s building goes out of his way to assist all the characters that cross his lobby, he alone seems sincere in his help but then, late in the episode he utters a line to an elderly resident and her nurse that he had a day early used on Sally and her friend (who was also suspiciously helpful) and all of a sudden even he seems false; his friendlyness as much a front as Don’s towards the Rosen’s. Sure he’s nice, but that’s because it is his job, because that’s what the money is for.
This isn’t a condemnation though, not from me or the show, which seems to be saying that, ‘Sure, we’re all selfish but that’s how society works,’ and we see this in the deal that Don and Ted make; a shake not of gratitude but of mutual assistance. So favours aren’t selfless, favours aren’t free, they are instead a free market-economy, these little two-sided deals grease the wheels of diplomacy and they can decide the difference between life and death. I guess they’re not so little in the end.