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Dear TV: 'Mad Men' Season Six: Episode 12, Post 1

Don Draper as Hamlet

Jamie Trueblood/AMC

Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.

Dear Television, At Sterling Cooper Whatever, the Juice Wars rage on; though Don and Roger had agreed to stop chasing Sunkist out of deference to Ocean Spray, a sudden TV deal brokered by Harry Crane changes the game. Ted Chaough reluctantly accepts that going with Sunkist makes economic sense, but complains that “[t]he right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.” But of course what both sides really want is the upper hand, which is exactly what Don acquires when he and Megan run into Peggy and Ted at an afternoon showing of Rosemary’s Baby.

Lili, describing the recent infantilization of nearly every Mad Men character, noted that “Ted seems slightly more grown-up than his colleagues,” and it’s significant, I think, that he and Peggy cast Don in the role of baby for the purposes of demonstrating their aspirin ad. Though he plays along—his fake wailing deserves to go next to “Father Abraham” on the Don-Draper-acting-momentarily-out-of-character highlight reel—being reduced to infancy clearly awakens Don’s need to assert his patriarchal bona fides. In the last episode, Don played at being a benevolent, merciful father; here, he plays at being a stern, disapproving one, cutting spendthrift Ted’s allowance and warning him not to get too serious about his girlfriend.

Or is he more like a rebellious teenager? Earlier in the season, I wrote about “the contest between Ted and Don, with Peggy in the middle,” and hoped for “an expanded role for Peggy … Is she Daisy to Ted’s Gatsby and Don’s Tom Buchanan? Emma Bovary to Ted’s Charles and Don’s Rodolphe?” The answer, for this episode at least, seems to be that she’s Gertrude to Ted’s Claudius and Don’s Hamlet: Peggy is playing the mother in a weird Oedipal drama as opposed to the lover in a more straightforward romantic triangle. (Maybe this episode’s Shakespearean title—“The Quality of Mercy,” an allusion to The Merchant of Venice—set me off.)

But, indulge me: Don as Hamlet. I’m thinking in particular of the scene where he spitefully invokes an absent patriarch—Frank Gleason, who he posthumously credits with the idea for the St. Joseph’s campaign—in order to shame the illegitimate couple and reclaim his own rightful place (or so he hopes) in Peggy’s affections. In one sense, this moment marks the welcome return of Genius Don, of whom we’ve seen so little this season; once again, he’s blindsiding everyone with a brilliant idea, as he did routinely in the show’s early seasons. And it works: The client eats it up. But it’s also breathtakingly inappropriate, as is Don’s follow-up conversation with Ted, in which he mixes up the language of lust with that of fatherhood: “I know your little girl has beautiful eyes, but that doesn’t mean you give her everything.” Coming from a man who has recently given his own little girl the gift of catching him in the act of adultery, of course, advice on either sexual restraint or parenting is a bit rich. (Happy Father’s Day, everyone!)

Peggy’s reaction to Don’s power play is, predictably, to defend Ted, just as Gertrude stands by Claudius. “You hate that he’s a good man,” she tells Don, seething. “You’re a monster.” Peggy has only rarely allowed herself to talk to Don like this; the last time she accused him of an ethical lapse, in Season 4’s “The Suitcase,” it culminated in the infamous “That’s what the money is for!” speech—a harbinger of this season’s increasingly heavy-handed prostitution metaphors. (The staging and shot composition of the scene—Don slumped on his couch, Peggy berating him from across the coffee table—even mirrors “The Suitcase.”)

Mentorship, and the difficult, often unsatisfying nature of the master-apprentice relationship, has been a central theme of Mad Men from the beginning. I’ve long had a pet theory that Peggy Olson is to Don Draper as Matthew Weiner was to The Sopranos’ David Chase, and that Mad Men dramatized the frustrations of working for a brilliant but distant boss. This season, Ted Chaough—who is not so much a “good man” as a good mentor—has thrown Don’s inability to nurture Peggy into relief.

Another mentoring relationship gone wrong is that between Pete and Bob. In many ways, Bob Benson was the new Pete Campbell—an ambitious young up-and-comer with “blueblood connections”—and, after casting around for a wing to be taken under for most of the season, it seemed as if he might have finally found one. But Pete turns decisively against Bob in this episode. (By the way, I may just be watching too much Arrested Development, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the fact that Ken’s duck-hunting accident leads to Pete paying Duck to headhunt Bob was a sly narrative joke.)

This brings us to—[drum roll]—the Big Bob Benson Realization everyone’s been waiting for, which I, frankly, found a little disappointing: like Don, he’s a fraud who has been using an assumed name and a fake past in order to get a leg up in the advertising business. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Duck says to Pete, who replies, wearily, “I have.” Having learned from previous experience that no one at Sterling Cooper cares about charlatans as long as they’re charismatic, Pete decides not to reveal Bob’s secret but instead uses it as leverage, and declares himself “off limits.” In a way, it’s a failure of imagination: All Pete wants of Bob is not to have to mentor him.

You don’t need anyone’s help but St. Joseph’s,