Mad Men is so good at dropping bombs like the climax of “Favors.” Serial dramas have us trained to look at Bob Benson and see a corporate spy. The unlocked doors in the Draper residence scream impending Manson. That’s probably what happens when a violent season full of deadly omens results in a suicide many predicted. But when I think about the big surprises on Mad Men—things like Sal getting fired in “Wee Small Hours,” the SCDP coup in “Shut The Door. Have A Seat,” and the Jaguar-Chevy swap and subsequent CGC merger in “For Immediate Release”—there’s no teasing involved. Things just have a way of suddenly escalating on Mad Men. And that’s what happens in “Favors.” Bob Benson is just a red herring.
But while we’re on the subject, and since he’s been such a source of speculation, Bob Benson’s big secret is that he’s gay. Kind of a letdown next to government agent come to try Dick Whitman for his crimes, but there it is. And it’s clear from a dismayed cutaway of Bob as Pete calls his mother’s allegedly gay nurse a degenerate, so at least Matt Weiner and company had the good sense not to keep dragging it out. He fixes Pete a drink, sits just across from him, and explains how it’s possible that Pete’s mother might fall in love with her nurse. “When there’s true love, it doesn’t matter who it is,” he says smiling that sad-puppy smile and sliding his leg to touch Pete’s. Bob has never looked lonelier than when he stared into Pete Campbell’s eyes and saw a potential match.
Forward-thinking Pete gives Manolo a merciful firing, and tells Bob to his face that “it’s disgusting.” It’s not quite “Wee Small Hours,” but these adulterous former cigarette-salesmen sure are entrenched about homosexuality, huh? Then again, Sal got fired out of the blue for keeping sex and work separate and was never seen again. Poor Bob tries to hit on Pete and is left to shuffle off a little embarrassed. Progress! But the two seasons have a lot in common, actually, both periods marked by assassination and restructuring, at work and at home. Maybe they’re all seasons of runaways and separations and deaths, but three and six feel especially emphatic, what with the divorces and the comic violence. Does anything else on Mad Men compare to the lawnmower incident and Peggy’s bayonet? And now the gay character outs himself. There’s another divergence. At least Bob gets to choose to open up.
And he couldn’t have picked a better time, because “Favors” is full of outings. Pete’s mother candidly discusses the tingling of her loins with Peggy. Sally’s friend Julie takes a list the two of them made about how cute Mitchell Rosen is, signs it Sally Draper, and slips it under the Rosens’ door. Sylvia doesn’t want anyone to know that Mitchell is being drafted but Arnold tells Don. Oh, and Sally walks in on her father having sex with Sylvia to the apocalyptic despair of everyone involved.
She’s going to the Rosens’ apartment to retrieve that letter about Mitchell’s cute ass. As in “At The Codfish Ball,” Sally’s still caught between childhood and dirty, disappointing adulthood. But she can’t escape it. This glimpse of adulthood comes by way of a thoroughly juvenile subplot. She’s there because of a prank involving a slumber-party letter from a friend who knows how to talk to boys because she’s been to second base twice. Sally gets into the Rosens’ because she’s a little kid who lost her key and the doorman Jonesy loans her his key ring. And then she spots the letter, which Sylvia has helpfully set on the kitchen counter, and then just down the hall, the bomb goes off. And it’s a doozy, not least because Don and Sylvia had genuinely split up, to our knowledge, until that very encounter. First moans, then the visuals, although the pair are relatively clothed, all things considered. Then Don looks up and sees her and everything falls apart. It remind me of The Shining, the shot down the hallway through the open door of the furry going down on the businessman, not just the similar images but the sudden shock and the shame of seeing something you feel like you weren’t supposed to. Which also recalls Dick Whitman, who for some reason can’t shake his own memories of watching his mother work at a brothel through a keyhole. He’s more interested in what he sees. Sally drops the keys, forgets the letter, and flees. Don races after her, unkempt, totally lost in his own lobby. Sylvia pounds her bed like her life depends on it. It’s been an emotional day for her.
Sally’s devastated, and Kiernan Shipka is once again incredible. That’s her father, the man Betty sarcastically calls her hero. She worships him, tries to stay with him in the city and play house. While Sally thinks her mother just thinks of her as a pain in the ass, she says her father supports her. This in the same episode that Pete’s mother tells him he’s always been unlovable. So that explains that. Come to think of it, Ted, too, fits in. He gets in trouble from the nagging wife for being at work all the time in a subplot with that recycled symbol stamped into the corner. Only, he actually adjusts his life and makes a point to be home early. This isn’t about his wife, who’s asleep. It’s about spending time with his kids, making sure they know he cares about them. No Pete Campbells in that family.
But back to Sally, the not-so-secret protagonist. The dinner scene is just as perfectly orchestrated as the discovery. Don arrives home drunk as a skunk. Sally’s quietly waiting for him at the dinner table with her friend and Megan. Don tries to get out of it to go lie down but Megan says he needs food. Then the Rosens stop by to thank Don (by way of Ted) for getting Mitchell an Air National Guard draft deferment. Now it’s not just Sally sharing a secret that she doesn’t want. She’s keeping a secret while the people hurt by the secret are in the room and the wrongdoers are acting like nothing’s the matter. The master shot has Sally in the foreground while all the adults are off toward the living room, and there’s a cut to her listening to the exchange where all the lies involved just sicken her. After the Rosens leave, Sally blows up and stomps off to her room. Don tries to talk to her through the door, and it is heart-breaking watching Sally slump to her side of the door and put her ear to it. It’s like she can’t bear to face her father, but she still wishes he were there for her, so she settles for this facsimile, maybe a memory, where he’s there but she doesn’t have to see him. But the spell doesn’t last long. The tears start flowing from the moment he speaks. “It’s very complicated,” he tells her. She reluctantly agrees, but mostly because she doesn’t know what else to say. There’s nothing to say. There’s no going back.
- “Favors” is written by Semi Chellas and—wait for it—Matthew Weiner (“Far Away Places,” “The Other Woman”) and directed by Jennifer Getzinger (“The Suitcase,” “For Immediate Release”).
- What a tawdry title when you get down to it. Sylvia tells Don he isn’t helping Mitchell to be neighborly, and the next thing you know she’s thanking him with sex. Even Peggy tries to offer sexual favors in exchange for Stan (not, as I accidentally wrote the first time, Abe) solving her rat problem.
- Roger discovers he can juggle. “See? Not all surprises are bad.” Wrong episode, pal.
- Peggy has a rat, another home invasion (on top of Sally’s) to add to the case against Megan Draper surviving the season.
- Great moments in Pete’s mother’s dementia: She tells Peggy, “I’m glad you [and Pete] swallowed your pride. If for nothing else but for the good of the child you have together.”
- Betty Explains It All: “Like everything else in this country, Diplomacy Club’s just another excuse to make out.”
- Pete’s mother: “Don’t you think that I’m entitled to the pleasures of love?” Pete: “Do not be more specific!”
- Speaking of Manolo and Pete’s mother, an old woman’s fantasy or an actual romance? Maybe he’s bisexual? Someone should tell Bob.
- Next week on Mad Men: Don wheels around in a turtleneck!