Mad Men – The Quality of Mercy

by deerinthexenonarclights

Last week Favours took most of us by surprise when, after an amicable first-two acts it showed Sally finally seeing Don for the Dick he really is in the third. This week I was going to be prepared for the drama and it looked like I was going to need to be. This episode, The Quality of Mercy, was scripted by screenwriting married couple Andre and Maria Jacquemetton (and if this show has taught me anything it is that marriage makes you unhappy) in their now trademark penultimate place, right where their last script Commissions and Fees sat. Directed by Phil Abraham, a man oft trusted with the show’s more important moments, Mercy seemed like it would have none, that it was to be the bloodbath, third act climax of a season brimming with banal dread. Instead it was the most fun that a Mad Man can have while – relatively, Vitamin B free – sober.

In the world of Manhattan ad men the concept of mercy has a different meaning than it does in our own, if it’s existance is acknowledged at all. The episode builds its stories in a relatively linear fashion, moving them all towards (or, in one case, away from) a moment of Mad. Ave. mercy. The hour then is full of people forgiving others their faults, but only ever in the backhanded, behind their back way that Betty so fears from Sally; the one character who isn’t open to a Father’s contrition. Sally’s response to her recent discovery is to stretch further forward into that seedier side of life she accidentally stumbled into, to become an adult, but in a strictly sexless way. It’s unclear at this stage if this is her repudiating Don’s lifestyle (and adopting Betty’s; her last line was evocative), or a sign that she is in the early stages of living it. As we have now seen Don was similarly repressed at her age, until he was ‘forced’ into sex and found himself unable to stop ever since.

So Sally shows no signs of getting over what she saw last week, but Don shows no sign of forgiving himself either. That opening scene of him waking up and taking the day off of work is so full of self-loathing that it could easily have preceded a suicide. Despite that Don has mercy on Ted, his intrusion during the budget meeting is a mercy killing; he acts the villain in a way that allows his rival to remain a hero. His act is not entirely virtuous though, in fact it seems equally driven by the desire not to see his Utopian reflection Ted degraded as he himself has been by life as it is by hate, by not wanting anyone else to have a romantic Creative-Head + Copy-Writer relationship since he can’t seem to keep his own up any longer.

Pete and Bob have a similar moment to that meeting, wherein we all assume the worst is coming, that Pete is poised to strike a character that we have come to love despite his mysterious ways, and yet he also doesn’t. In a scene that finally differentiates this show from its progenitor The Soprano’s Pete shows some growth, perhaps the last character anyone would expect to.  When presented with a double ( yet another) of Don he decides not to kick up a witch hunt but subtly use the information for his own profit. Arguably this is growth in the wrong direction, but change is change; in an episode that has Don again returning to the drink, a creative head again getting too close to Peggy and Ken again getting ready to leave the business you have to take what you can get.

So what of Bob’s revelation? He is actually gay, but he’s also a conman. This might seem like a letdown to many after the numerous insane theories that were floated around regarding his real reasons for being in the SCDP offices but it worked for me. Being born poor, a bastard, then growing up in a whorehouse won’t stop an attractive white male from being a success today, nor would it in the late sixties like it would have a mere decade earlier; but even in the late sixties homosexuality had such a strong stigma that it would. Therefore his sexuality actually does explain Bob’s behaviour to date: staying in the closet socially was like being a covert operative, it required a life of half-truths, an identity half-lies and a chummy charm that can only come from giving out good free coffee. Like Sally in the dorm room he has good reason to lie and so we forgive him. The way that this episode places him in regards to Don, as the next generation of dual-identified man, is interesting but the way that he both matches and mirrors dear departed Sal is likely worthy of an essay unto itself.

Unfortunately the episode appeared comparatively light on literary content, less concerned with theme and more with plot, which makes it a hard episode to write about but a very easy one to watch. From Don wailing like a baby – a moment that Jon Hamm surely enjoyed, but not one I necessarily bought coming from stoic silent type Don – through Ginsberg’s great lines to poor Ken getting Dick Cheneyed in the face there were laughs enough here to classify the show as a comedy and in the many aforementioned confrontations there was drama to spare too. Though perhaps uninspired compared to some other episodes Mercy ticked all the necessary boxes. When a show is as daring as this one has become it’s easy to forgive the occasional bout of consistency, but I better see some cult murder to come in the finale.