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Mad Men: "The Benefactor"

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As despairing as Mad Men can seem at times, it can also be one of the slyest and funniest shows on TV. Witness the fine bit of silent comedy early on this week, as Harry receives Ken's paycheck along with his own, opens it, discovers that Ken is paid more than he, then spends the next minute or so trying to find a fresh envelope to stuff Ken's check back into. Then the scene continues, as Harry calls home to get some sympathy from his pregnant wife, only to find her goading him into taking a stand, based undoubtedly on the inflated impression he gives her every night over dinner of his standing in the firm. ("You're making that place! And that mannequin makes 300 a week?") She's undoubtedly trying to help Harry feel better; instead she only reminds him how small he is.

Harry eventually does get his moment of glory in this episode–he tries to sell one of Sterling-Cooper's clients on advertising on a controversial episode of The Defenders, and gets a promotion and a raise out of it–but that doesn't change how well-observed both halves of that scene are. There's a difference between how confident a man feels at home and how well he can carry that side of himself into his work life. There's only so far that the husband-wife partnership can carry.

Three more married couples figure prominently in "The Benefactor." The first is comedian Jimmy Barrett and his wife/manager Bobbie, who negotiates with Don over whether the smart-mouthed comic is going to apologize for insulting the heavyset wife of the owner of Utz Potato Chips. And helping affect rapprochement between the Barrett's and the Utz folks are Don and Betty, working as partners to charm all concerned.

There are kinks, of course. As happy as Betty is to be a powerful part of the Draper team for once, she doesn't know that Don is well aware that Jimmy is a wolf, easily persuaded by pretty women. In some ways, Don's whoring Betty out–or at least representing that he's willing to. (Shades of Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid.) As for how Don knows what Jimmy wants, well he gets it straight from Bobbie's mouth…right before she kisses him with it. Then, when Don gets home, he heads straight to the sink to wash Bobbie's stink off.

Not that Betty's hands are completely clean this week either. Back in the equestrian realm that we saw her in two weeks ago, Betty is trying–too meekly, in my opinion–to rebuff the attentions of young lothario Arthur Case, who's become the talk of the horsey set. Arthur talks of money, privilege, his college days, and then he tells Betty that she's beautiful, and that to him she seems "profoundly sad." Betty's reply? "No…My people are Nordic." (Yet another funny line.)

To some extent, "The Benefactor" seemed like a "let's nudge things forward" episode than a fully realized piece of storytelling, though the parallels between all the couples and their various levels of infidelity certainly gave it a lot of oomph. The episode also builds to a moment of delicious tension, as Bobbie tells Don that Jimmy's not going to apologize unless he gets a well-publicized raise, and Don responds by leaning in to kiss her, sliding his hand up her dress, then whispering, with a sexy kind of menace, "I will ruin him. Do what I say." Bobbie returns to the table, signals Jimmy, and the comic delivers the smooth and heartfelt sorry that he clearly had at the ready all along. Don Draper is back!

(Or is he? After his first smooch session with Bobbie, he's quick to introduce her to Betty at dinner, but looks away from Bobbie quickly, less out of shame than an apparent acknowledgment that he's not planning on making himself available to Bobbie again. I think he just wants to get her out of his life as quickly as possible. Though I guess we'll see if she returns in future weeks.)

Otherwise though, a lot of the scenes in "The Benefactor" struck me as provocative but disconnected. We've got Don checking out some French New Wave film during work hours. (I'm sorry to report that I couldn't figure out which film it was, though the recitation we hear on-screen is from the poem "Ballad Of The Ladies Of Bygone Times.") Then we've got Don demoting his secretary for failing to cover for him, and landing Joan as his personal assistant until another can be found. Not much is made of this–at least not this week. And we get a brief reminder of Sal's near-dalliance with the Belle Jolie guy last season as he returns to hear Harry's pitch then makes charged small-talk with Sal in the hall. All of these scenes may lead somewhere, or they may not. For this week at least, they felt a little like wheel-spinning.

But then, no one does wheel-spinning as entertainingly as Mad Men. How many other shows can get as much juice as this one does out of a throwaway line like Don offering a unsure "No?" in response to his daughter asking, "Can we go riding?" And how many shows would mock its own retro-obsession not once but twice? First by having Roger mutter "I miss the '50s," and then by having one of Harry's pals take nostalgia one step further, cracking "I miss the blacklist."

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

-Who do you think the crass comedian Jimmy Barrett is supposed to be? Jerry Lewis? Joey Bishop? Don Rickles? Soupy Sales?

-How awesome was the commercial set where Don first meets with Bobbie–all colored glass and silhouettes.

-Jimmy's quip to Don, "By the way, I loved you in Gentleman's Agreement," has some extra meaning, given Draper's GA-like double life.

-When we moved away from Virginia, one of the things I missed most was Utz's "crab chips."

-More Roger delight tonight, as he slackly made the sign of the cross in front of Harry, then muttered, "You are now the head of the television department."

-Where was Pete this week? Perhaps his absence was why I graded this episode just a notch lower than Season Two's first offerings.