Maybe this episode was about how we are all prostitutes, a little bit (akin to Kottke’s recent post about how we all commit three felonies a day). We have all complained before about how heavy-handed this season’s prostitution metaphors have been, not to mention the actual hookers. This episode, though, hit similar themes in a more subtle way. Several characters were willing to trade sex for favors in ways that were eminently credible: Don, Sylvia, Peggy, Bob, even Manolo, who trades the illusion of sex for good behavior from Pete’s mother. As you point out, Paul, there are no innocents, not even Sally, who has a gift for choosing best friends who are every mother’s worst nightmare.
Seth, I think you omitted one other important reason why Don does the favor for young Mitchell Rosen: his man-crush on Arnold. Given the way Don fixates on Arnold, I often wonder whether he’s sleeping with Sylvia just to become enmeshed with the good surgeon. Similarly, at their drunken confessional dinner, Peggy accuses Pete of being in love with Ted. Of course, that’s where the episode stopped being subtle. I can’t tell you how irritated I was at the Benson knee press. It’s always such a letdown when a mystery is solved and the answer is … He’s gay, even if Internet rumors have long abounded. How much more satisfying if the answer had been … nothing, as you wished for last week, Paul, and Benson had remained his thoroughly inscrutable shiny self for the whole of the season. Although I suppose we should have guessed it, since the vibe between Bob and Joan was more Elton John and Marilyn Monroe than Don and Sylvia.
Lately I’ve begun to think of the show as operating on two very different planes. One is full of fairytale conflict and Jungian archetypes and Biblical-level dramas. This is the plane on which Don and most of the characters from earlier seasons are trapped. The plot twist that led Sally into her worst Freudian nightmare was straight out of a 17th century play: a purloined letter. (In classic French farce characters are always eavesdropping behind doors and screens.) Meanwhile the original spirit of the show—rooted in a particular moment in American history and moving along with the decade—resides with the newer characters. While Don is sinking deeper into himself, Ted is building a bridge to the modern era. Ted is petty, neurotic, conflicted, effective, and processes his own emotions out loud constantly. (“I don’t want his juice. I want my juice.”) His life is one long employee review session. He can riff as well as Roger, only he doesn’t do it to deflect: “Imagine if every time Ginger Rogers jumped in the air Fred Astaire punched her in the face.”
As a couple, Betty and Henry Francis are frozen in aspic, but Ted and his wife are almost transportable to any modern TV drama, or as the second example in a trend story about the dangers of the opt-out revolution. Ted’s wife does not traffic in Betty-style self-delusion or even Megan-style strained optimism; she just tells it to him straight: “Even when you’re home you’re not here” and “I can feel how disappointing this all is compared to your battles at work.” Tack on a happy ending and those lines could come from Modern Family.
Seth, you asked about the Moshe Dayan poster in Stan’s room. In the late ‘60s Dayan would have been the Jews’ equivalent of Che, a freedom fighter for a cause which at that point in history many were still rooting for. And yes, the notorious eye patch gives the image extra significance, because this episode is so much about not seeing what you ought to. (Dayan’s ex-wife Ruth did not turn a blind eye. A chapter in her book is called “Moshe’s bad taste in women.”)
As for what Don said, it was surely bad parenting—Sally knows what she saw—but there is something profound about asking a child to collude with you in an obvious lie. (Marjorie Williams addressed this question in her beautiful essay about Santa Claus and dying of cancer.) Contrast Don’s decision to lie with Pete’s to bully his way into what he sees as the truth about his mother and Manolo. Pete refuses to see that “it’s complicated,” as Don tells Sally, so he winds up in a cruel place where he robs his mother of her only comfort, fires Manolo, and sneers at Bob Benson. Sometimes we need our lies—something an ad man understands better than anyone.
Good night, my sweet,