Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.11
"What Sally Knew"
Guest Writer: Corey K. Creekmur

Monday, June 10, 2013

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The tenth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

"What Sally Knew"

Written by: Corey K. Creekmur (University of Iowa)

“Don, I owe you,” Dr. Arnold Rosen asserts, after nudging his son Mitchell to offer thanks and a handshake to Don Draper for intervening in an attempt to prevent the young man from being drafted into the Vietnam war. Don’s wife Megan, until this moment unaware of his efforts (“It’s not our problem,” he had earlier insisted), adoringly tells him “you are the sweetest man.” However, his daughter Sally, burdened by her new knowledge of her father’s actual motives and deception, immediately announces “you make me sick” before storming out of the room.

The dramatic climax of this eleventh episode in Season 6, titled with deceptive simplicity “Favors,” summarizes an installment of Mad Men tightly organized around the rituals, rewards, and risks of obligation and debt. If Don’s favor to the neighboring Rosen family, which itself requires a favor to Don from his new business partner Ted, succeeds in keeping Mitchell out of the war, does it then matter that, as Sally knows– as does Sylvia and we viewers – that Don’s favor is motivated by his selfish desire to recapture his neighbor’s wife as a sexual conquest? Do the ends justify the means, or must genuine favors be offered in sincere, good faith without the demand of repayment? What is the final balance when calculating the acquisition of admiration from one’s wife and gratitude from one’s neighbor against the simultaneous debit of disgust from one’s daughter and (perhaps) self-loathing from the neighbor’s wife? (Arnold informs Don that “Sylvia sends her gratitude,” adding that “she is overwhelmed,” and unlike him we know to isolate rather than link those closely stated but significantly distinct claims.)

To take another example from the episode, does it matter who actually writes a letter if it gets the job done? Everyone seems to agree, following Ted’s suggestion, that Mitchell’s letter to the Air National Guard declaring his lifelong desire to be a pilot should be written (for convincing effect) by Don and just signed by Mitchell. Will the potential happy result of Mitchell’s protection from the draft justify this (George Bush-like) fraud? (With somewhat heavy-handed irony, the former Dick Whitman had earlier declared that Mitchell” can’t spend the rest of his life on the run.”) Another letter in the episode – written by Sally’s precocious friend Julie to Mitchell and delivered to the Rosens' apartment -- misrepresents Sally’s romantic/sexual interest in the boy, and is on the verge of being successfully retrieved by Sally before it reaches its recipient, but only at the considerable psychic cost of her knowledge of her father’s sexual deception. (These deceptive letters seem to locate Mad Men near the end of a long tradition of narratives centered around forged, misleading, or purloined letters.)

In the latter half of his career, much of Jacques Derrida’s work centered around his demonstration of the impossibility of the pure practice of a number of related concepts, including gift-giving, friendship, and hospitality. These are “impossible” for Derrida (extending Marcel Mauss’s foundational work on the gift) because they become immediately entangled in ever-expanding systems of symbolic debt and obligation. If someone seems to generously offer me a gift or do me a favor, or welcome me into their home, as soon as I recognize these acts as gifts or hospitality I incur their debt, and am obliged to return or repay the favor, which then extends into an ongoing and perhaps unending cycle of reciprocation.

“Favors” serves as a virtual dramatization of the tangles and snares of obligation as it traces, in now-classic Mad Men fashion, the intertwining of the economic, political, and erotic in the lives of its characters. Figured by Roger Sterling’s surprising juggling of Sunkist oranges (“Not all surprises are bad,” he misleadingly informs us at the start of this episode), and suggesting nothing less than an update of the interlocking structure of Arthur Schnitzler’s famous play (and its cinematic adaptations) La Ronde, the structure of the episode weaves together three major instances of such “impossible” exchange and spiraling debt:

Instance #1: Most intricately, Don’s attempt via Ted’s favor to offer his help to the Rosen family entangles Don in obligations to a business partner even as he obligates his neighbors, in an act presented as empathetically parental (as Don weakly claims to Sylvia, who knows better) and vaguely political (“The war is wrong,” Don tells Arnold before they affirm the necessary obligation of patriotic sacrifice in their own, earlier careers as soldiers). Again, the plan also involves what all its participants seem to accept as justifiable fraud, with Don writing a letter that Mitchell only needs to sign.

However, for Sylvia (and the audience), Don’s ulterior motives are obvious, especially given his initial, self-protective claim that Mitchell’s fate was of no concern to the Draper household. The shared secrecy of Don and Sylvia’s affair, previously broken off by her to Don’s notable dismay, can now be revived by Don under the pressure of her newly incurred debt to him. This re-conquest, however, is literally interrupted by Sally (to whom we will return), whose knowledge threatens to expose the self-serving desire behind Don’s ostensibly self-sacrificing act.

Unlike many episodes of Mad Men marking historical location through very precise references (such as the previous week’s television coverage of the late August 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, described on this blog by Caroline Levine), this episode’s less specific but insistent referent is the Vietnam war, and, again, this historical backdrop intertwines with the fortunes of the advertising business as well as the personal (inevitably sexual) lives of its characters. Don risks mixing politics and business when he brings up Mitchell’s situation at an otherwise jovial dinner he attends with two General Motors executives, first centered on discussions of fishing (despite pointed references to the pollution of Lake Erie and a joke by Roger about legendary angler Ernest Hemingway’s suicide at the start of the decade). After Ted has attempted to deflect the discussion by declaring the draft situation of young men “just one of those problems that can’t be solved,” what Don will later call the “temperature” of the GM executives on this matter is clearly registered: attempts to dodge the draft makes one of them “sick.” (Pete had earlier identified GM as “one of the largest defense contractors in the world,” prompting Don’s misguided attempt to exploit their “clout” in Washington.)
Letter from 1968

The next day, Ted expresses outrage at Don’s transgression, and links his and Don’s own inter-office rivalry with the war. Demanding that Don “lower his weapons” and “stop the war” (which Don first hears as the absurd demand that he end the Vietnam war), Ted clarifies that they are “on the same damn side” and insists that their final, ritual handshake “is not a handshake of gratitude, it’s a binding contract.” Recalling that entanglement in wars is often itself the result of binding treaties and political (as well as economic) obligations, the brief fantasy that Don Draper might stop the war – if only within his company – comes with Ted’s important reminder that even truces incur outstanding, perhaps unresolvable, debts.

Instance #2: We discover, through scenes of squeamish discomfort, that the great favor Bob has done for Pete, in locating the Spanish male nurse Manolo to tend to Pete’s mother Dorothy, also mounts its own debts. “Oh Peter, he’s a gift to me,” Pete’s mother claims, extending the episode’s emphasis on the structure of obligation gifts establish. Following an early, awkward conversation with Peggy that inadvertently recalls her own sexual history with Pete, Dorothy claims that she and Manolo are passionate lovers as well as patient and nurse. Paralleling Sally’s troubling discovery of her father’s sexual deceptions, Pete recoils with horror at the thought of his mother having a sexual life of any sort (“I don’t even want to think about her brushing her teeth,” he tells Peggy).

When he later confronts Bob, we encounter one of the episode’s major “revelations,” Bob’s indirect intimation of his own attraction to Pete, asserted generally through a discussion concluding that “when it’s true love it doesn’t matter who it is” and more directly through prominent insert shots of Bob’s knee moving to touch Pete’s leg. Pete’s summary decision that he will still give the “degenerate” Manolo a month’s pay even though he finds his mother’s relationship with him “disgusting” seems to also provide his response to Bob as well (yet another rebuff to threats of homosexuality that has characterized the series as a whole). In any case, the network of ongoing obligation that follows from accepting a naively accepted favor is again dramatized by the episode, though Pete, typically (as when he forces a tip into Manolo’s hand earlier), acts as if all debts can be paid in full, and in cash.

Instance #3: More comically, Peggy’s attempt to secure a favor from her co-worker Stan (she calls him in the middle of the night to seek his help removing an injured rat from her apartment) also directs the obligations of friendship towards sexual reward, albeit playfully rather than with the force we assume Don exerts on Sylvia. She offers to “make it worth your while” to Stan, who knows this offer isn’t true (“no you won’t”): he then signals through the professional language of co-workers (“great, I’ll see you Tuesday morning”) rather than the more intimate talk between friends or lovers that he is not alone in his bed, information which doesn’t faze Peggy (“bring her along,” she suggests).

As in her earlier scene with Pete, when their drunken banter noticeably excludes Ted from their play, the debts and obligations Peggy participates in or even offers to incur in this episode rely on the full and shared knowledge of the participants in the negotiation. Pete notes that Peggy “really knows him,” and he and Peggy share awareness of her attraction to Ted and Ted’s to her when he steps away from the table. Peggy and Stan also know where they stand with one another, and thus demands based upon friendship can be casually refused, without apparent repercussions. (Eventually, Peggy will resolve her rat problem by taking on the responsibility of pet ownership: we see her watching television with a new tabby cat, who one presumes understands its own domestic obligations.)

In this complicated fashion, “Favors” culminates in a complex sequence that dramatically displays the interlocking and often contradictory structure of debt, promise, and obligation when Don passively accepts thanks from Arnold and Mitchell, and even adoration from Megan just before Sally declares her disgust with her father. Sally’s ability to enter the Arnold’s apartment itself depended on special favors afforded her by the apartment building’s doorman Jonesy, himself in eternal debt to Dr. Rosen for saving his life earlier this season. Mad Men has previously, somewhat daringly, depicted Sally’s budding sexual knowledge and curiosity, but the cost of knowledge that fully arrives with this episode seems to align her with notable forbears including Henry James’ Maisie and Freud’s Dora, both girls woven into the intricate networks of sexual deception and intimate exchange undertaken by their parents and their lovers.

Sally’s gain in knowledge appears to literally reduce the value of her father, who is noticeably disheveled and distracted throughout the conclusion of the episode, despite what appears to be Sally’s weak acceptance of the obvious lie that he was “comforting” Mrs. Rosen. He otherwise seems to fail in his attempt to reorganize her experience: “I know you think you saw something … it’s very complicated.” Sally in fact seems to know exactly what she saw, and what it means. Despite the gulf that now isolates them, the form of the show emphasizes their affinity: it’s worth recalling that the episode began with Sally and her mother in familiar discord, with Sally taunting “You hate that Daddy supports my dreams” and Betty snidely noting “Your father is a hero.” Even if Sally’s dreams are now nightmarish, and her father’s heroism is lost, Don and Sally are still aligned through symmetrical gestures, him holding his face in his hand in the elevator, and her repeating the gesture in her room (her earlier listening at the door of the Rosen apartment also replicates his action in a previous episode).

Their final encounter has them leaning on opposite sides of the door that now stands shut between them, which remains closed in an episode heretofore structured by doors that open and close at the beginning and end of scenes, serving as spatial and temporal transitions binding together the strands of the entire narrative: these of course include the door Sally entered and through which her father was exposed (in multiple senses) to her. The episode’s final shot, holding for a few seconds on the door Don closes at the end of the hall as Sally’s door remains shut on the left of the screen, participates in Mad Men’s frequent spatialization of many of its most powerful meanings and emotions. The cost of opening those doors for both father and daughter promises to be high as the current season -- and perhaps the 1960s -- come to their conclusions.


Make A Comment


MKB Now! said...

Excellent analysis! One quibble: Do we really, unequivocally, know that "Don’s favor is motivated by his selfish desire to recapture his neighbor’s wife as a sexual conquest?" I see it as more complex than that, and as perhaps the one "favor" in the episode that is least clearly simply part of an exchange. Surely this selfish motivation is part of it, but can we not grant the possibility that, at some level, Don genuinely wants to help--partly to help Arnold (out of guilt over Sylvia but also out of the common experience of being a father, however poor a father Don is), partly to help Sylvia (because, in his own way, he genuinely cares about her)?

Lauren said...

Thanks very much MKB and welcome to Kritik!

Andrei Molotiu said...

I had exactly the same thought at Keith--it seems to be done much more out of Don's love for Sylvia, rather than in the expectation of any sexual rewards.

Also, my favorite scene was actually the early one in the restaurant, which both humanized Pete and made him likeable for once, which I had never expected would happen.

Lauren said...

Thanks Andrei and welcome to Kritik! I liked that restaurant scene as well.

I have some thought too on your point and MKB's but would like to hear Corey's reply first.

Corey Creekmur said...

Unless stated outright, motive is of course difficult to ascertain for any fictional character, especially one as careful to hide his thoughts as Don Draper (who is, of course always at some level busy hiding the fact that he isn't really Don Draper). Does he love Sylvia? I don't know: what textual evidence would support that for me? Does he feel guilt regarding his adultery? I think only insofar he feels guilt about deceiving Arnold, who Don seems to have genuine respect and affection for. It does seem to me I could clarify that what Don seeks is not just sex from Sylvia, but the control he lost in that relationship, which, typically, Don views as sexual control, as Sylvia's availability on his terms and when he desires. It's harder for me to see him acting out of genuine paternal feelings: Sylvia calls him on that claim, and he doesn't protest. When Arnold asks Don what he would do, Don tellingly asks if it the question refers to him or his kids, and his response is about himself. When he notes that he's lucky his boys are too young for him to worry about the draft at the GM dinner, that sounds like something he knows he doesn't have to concern himself with than something he genuinely projects as a fear. So I'm willing to recognize complex and contradictory motives in Don's action, but not much generosity or empathy. Again, I think he is driven by attempts to control his world, and that often mainfests as sexual control.

Corey Creekmur said...

Some typos/missing words there, but perhaps the gist of my thoughts is clear. Jump in, Lauren!

M. Keith Booker said...

I think it is clear that Sylvia is different than Don's other affairs, and that he is at least partly seeking in this one the loving mother that he lacked as a child. In that sense, he is seeking a situation in which, for once, he doesn't have to try to be in control. [For evidence that she is a mother figure, in addition to the fact that she IS a mother and is older than his other lovers,look back to episode 6.8, which contains a complex of mother images, as when the woman in Don's oatmeal ad (the "mother" who "knows what you need") was clearly modeled by Don on the prostitute Aimee. That episode establishes Sylvia's status as a mother figure for Don, thus helping to explain his difficulty in letting go of her. Also note how Don and Sylvia, when Sally catches them, are in exactly the same position in which young Don/Dick had observed his stepmother and the bordello manager. MAD MEN loves echoes like that ...]

Lauren said...

Corey, first let me thank you so much for joining this series! I am so very appreciative. And welcome again to those reading and posting on Kritik for the first time.

On the question of Don's motives: I would say I agree entirely with both positions! That is, Don's way of loving is entirely selfish (what love boils down to in the infantile sense). I am called back to Rachel Menken's epiphany when Don invites her to run off to LA with him in S1. "You don't want to run away with me; you just want to run away." Although he is in many ways a romantic, even noble sometimes, his way of loving the "other women" in his life amplifies the way in which all love is a kind of fantasy of what another is doing for us (cf. Bob Benson's insight).

It's a cliche no doubt but Don uses the women in his life to take the place of a core emptiness (all those flashbacks to poor motherless Dick)--an emptiness exacerbated by the traumas du jour (in this season work pressures, the pressures of aging, the pressures of the merger, the pressures of feeling guilty about and then rejected by Sylvia). When Megan broke the spell by leaving advertising for "her dream" at the end of S5 Don needed to invest some female beloved to fill his wound. So I think for him their affair is about that sensation of filling rather than the sexual gratification per se or even power for its own sake (I'd say that what Corey is calling control and what I am calling filling the wound are the pretty much the same thing.)

I do think that Don respects Arnold and feels guilty about it. He is not precisely Arnold's "friend" because Don doesn't really have any friends (as Ted intuits).

I think this season is interesting in doubling Don with some new characters who are somewhat more likeable than the usual Mad Men crew: one of whom is Arnold and the other Ted. One of the things I find interesting about Ted is how much he gets off on competing with Don. He seemed completely satisfied with himself in having been able to get Don (as he sees it) to acquiesce. Don was not aware that there was any "war" going on as such; it was business as usual from his view. But Ted is so happy, he can finally go home and play with his kids. If Don could get something that strong out of competing with men professionally he would probably be a better husband and father--and a more reliable ad man.

Others have commented this season that Sylvia is special because she is older. But Bobbie Barrett was even older (certainly in relation to Don's age at the time and probably slightly older than Sylvia is now) and was also a mother who talked a lot about her kids. To me, Sylvia's age is important because she's just about Don's age: that is to say, something like an equal. That's part of the reason why she reminds me most of Rachel. (That and because she is married to a Jewish doctor.)

Finally Don is hooked on Sylvia because she doesn't love him: because, as she admitted, she didn't feel anything with him. She used him for her pleasure in other words. She out-Donned Don. That he would want her all the more for her no loving him was Betty's insight this season.

Corey I liked your thought at the end about the 1960s. It strikes me that MM is so much better this season when it stays aloof from politics qua politics and history qua history.

Jez B. said...

I liked the restaurant scene too. I agree that Don loves other people to love himself. Thanks for the great blog (and v. good comments too).

Funny Bush reference too.

M. Keith Booker said...

The Bush reference is not JUST funny. Remember that it was 1968 when W joined the Air National Guard ...

Jez B. said...

Yes, I agree M. Keith Booker. The date is exactly right.

Rob Rushing said...

This was an altogether great post—I especially appreciate that you bring in Derrida's analysis of the "impossible gift" and show how this notion structures the episode (and yet, you manage to keep it easy and straightforward throughout). I'm inclined in MKB's direction, however, in ascribing just slightly more complex motivations to Don—but then so very, very happy to see you ask what the textual evidence for believing in those more complex motivations (not just manipulation) might be. I would say that MM usually signals that kind of dramatic irony (say, one character manipulating another) pretty clearly, and that doesn't happen here; for both Don and Sylvia, the motivations behind Don's act remain somewhat ambivalent. My friend Todd McGowan and I might be inclined to suggest that this is yet another form of personal/professional suicide for Don; it's perhaps reminiscent of Pete's offer to help the au pair with her stained dress, which initially appears altruistic, and only later appears sordid and coercive. Not with Pete, but with Don, I have to wonder if the sordid follow-up is not a way for him to mask his altruism, his selflessness which is also away for him to eliminate his self.

PS. I remain convinced that Bob is a space alien or an assassin or a spy. I see him, like Milton from Office Space, simply burning down SC&Co. at the end of the season.

Lauren said...

Funny Rob - in my house we were talking about how there are never too many additional shoes to drop on Bob B. Homosexuality can't be his only secret. There were certainly episodes that made us think he must be a corporate spy at the very least (I hadn't considered space alien but why should Ginsberg be the only Martian on the show).

Jez B. nice turn of phrase!

Corey Creekmur said...

Rob, thanks for the kind words: I was worried that anyone familiar with late Derrida would roll their eyes at the way I simplify his subtle explorations of the gift, debt, legacies, haunting, etc. but you recognized what I was hoping to do to make this useful and accessible in this context. I am curious about all the speculation about what Don is feeling or thinking when, as you also note that I note, there's little direct evidence from the text for discerning these things. I'm intrigued by the notion that Don is committing a kind of symbolic suicide. My go-to text to help explain Don would probably be Freud's "Concerning a Particular Type of Object-Choice in Men," which might lend some indirect support along those lines ...

Lauren said...

Yes on the symbolic suicide (something that was always a slow burn and is now an ongoing symphony of signs!).

Corey, on this interesting note of why we speculate in the way that we speculate: what makes you intuit or infer that Don used force on Sylvia (or do you mean that simply figuratively--he used his position of conferring a favor to "force" a resumption, however temporary, of the sexual affair).

My impression is that Sylvia would have offered readily enough: albeit out of guilt. This was what I took away from her saying (from memory) "You've been better to me than I was to you."

I think it's somewhat out of character to think of Don as someone who forces himself on women: but again that is possibly misreading what you may have intended more figuratively. That Don is manipulative as all hell I agree with entirely!

Lauren said...

PS I should add (though I already said it privately) lest I sound unconvinced that this is just me thinking aloud. Overall I share Rob's sense that the analysis is great! The idea of the web of favors which shapes our sense of what love and ethics can be is spot on.

PSS If you have any time to answer my first question about the 1960s that would be great...

Corey Creekmur said...

To clarify: yes, I only meant that Don "forces" Sylvia back into the affair because she "owes" him. My motivation for the focus of my post was the fact that the words "owe," "favor" and "gift" are all spoken in the episode. I did not mean to suggest -- as there's no textual evidence for this (again, I'm way of making guesses based on anything else) -- that Don uses physical force on Sylvia (or other women). His form of seduction may be manipulative at times, but not through physical force.

As for the 1960s -- I appreciate that most of the historical touchstones are explicitly mediated (usually by TV broadcast). That is, they don't go so far to have characters at the sites of assassinations, riots, etc. But I don't mind that these are used to ground the series in real time -- there does seem to be a veering toward and away from explicit referents in the rhythm of the season. I do wonder what leaving the 60s will mean for the show (of course popular logic is that the mythic/symbolic 60s didn't match the exact contours of the decade): we seem to be on the verge of 1969, which means Woodstock, Altamont, and Stonewall. Actually, it would seem to me artificial if these characters registered any of these except perhaps the first.

Corey Creekmur said...

That should read "I'm WARY of making guesses ...)"

freudenthal said...

RE: Don's motivations to help the kid. Certainly the homosocial triangulation of Sylvia to the Don/Arnold relationship is relevant, as are his complex love-ish feelings for Sylvia.

But I'm surprised no one mentioned Don's own war experience as a motivator. Several characters mentioned it, and Don himself actually showed some feelings about it to Arnold. Don's war experience transformed him from Dick to Don. He said about Mitchell, but also clearly about himself, "he can't spend his whole life running."

I think that Don wouldn't have risked the GM relationship so recklessly for a woman, or even for his only friend/foil/Other Arnold. But I do think he'd have risked it for this attempt to heal himself through the pseudo-son figure's path through war.

Corey Creekmur said...

I do mention Don's line, which obviously refers to his own history. Although Don was scarred by war, my sense is that he and Arnold are sincere in seeing their service as patriotic (another obligation in the pattern I am tracing), whereas Don explicitly states his disagreement with the Vietnam war. I just can't see his willingness to help Mitchell (when he begins the episode by prominently refusing) as based in his identification with Mitchell or his empathy as a father: it seems more about his status in relation to Arnold and Sylvia than anything else: again, I'm trying to base this on what the text itself offers me.

Helena said...

This is all fascinating. There's another aspect to Don's willingness to help Mitchell : Adam. Don helped Suzanne's (Sally's teacher) epileptic brother in a tiny attempt to make up for the huge burden of feeling responsible for Adam's death. Helping Mitchell could be another.

John Branch said...

Such a fine post and set of comments. I wish that I'd managed to read the post earlier and that I had more time at the moment (I'm at work). First, quickly, thanks to everyone concerned.

Second, a quick thought on Don's motivation. Personally, I lean toward viewing it as partly selfless, but I can't point to reasons why. For the opposite view, taken in the post itself, we have first of all the evidence of the episode's title, "Favors." A favor done is typically a debt incurred, as Corey repeatedly points out; Don's act of "help" is easily regarded as a favor (with the expectation of repayment), because the title tells us the episode is all about favors.

Don't have time to review that for clarity.

Lauren said...

Thanks to everyone for such interesting comments on this post--a pleasure for us to read!

Thanks, also Corey for your thoughts on the 1960s; I agree that these characters whom we know so well exhibit an appropriate kind of interest in the events introduced primarily via television.

I think that this has changed the show's relationship to history--that is, changed the kind of historical fiction that it represents. Doubtless we'll hear more about history from Jeremy Varon who is next week's blogger (and the editor of an academic journal called *The Sixties* for those readers who don't know Varon from previous blogs and from his chapter in *Mad World*.