Bob Benson always seems to be around. Whether conspicuously eavesdropping, or dropping in at opportune times, Bob has been something less than a full fledged character–more a recurring bit of odd comic relief. If you’re like me, you may be asking yourself over the course of this season: who is Bob Benson. If so, know that we’re not the only ones. It’s not just that Bob’s always around, but that he’s often always available to help. Whether he’s serving up a cup of coffee for Don because he “always orders two–just in case,” or he’s helping Pete by grabbing some toiler paper for a mandatory night at the office, Bob’s earned laughs for his apparent brown nosing. Or is it that Bob is curiously earnest in an office so nihilistic that any good deed is insincere pretense for a power posture? We don’t know for sure because we do not have any significant insight into Bob’s motivations–and this bottom-line question–the mystery of Bob Benson’s identity and intent–was certainly highlighted in the most recent episode, “Man with the Plan.”
Joan is the latest recipient of Bob’s timely help. Stuck in her office in the middle of a hectic merger, Joan begins feeling sharp pains in her midsection, which prompts Bob to put on his Physician hat, asking if she’s had her appendix removed yet. Joan needs to see a Doctor, but she feels a pressure to be at the office. Bob, in what certainly seems like a gentlemanly act, offers to secure her exit in a concealing manner. As Grantland has captured in a still image, Bob is, to say the least, adept at sneaking around his colleagues, and he ably helps Joan leave undetected. But Bob isn’t about to let the extra mile escape him. He takes Joan to the hospital, where she learns of an ovarian cyst. And then, the following day, he stops by Joan’s apartment for a followup–with a cute get-well present, too.
What makes this turn of events interesting is particularly highlighted by the conversation between Joan and her mother after Bob’s kind check-in. Of course, Joan’s mother is smitten with “adorable” Bob as a potential suitor for her daughter. “He’s too young,” Joan sighs.
“I can tell you from experience that younger men are not intimidated by powerful women,” her mom counters.
“He’s not interested.”
“He saved your life.”
“It was just a cyst on my ovary. I would have been fine.”
Then comes the kicker from Joan when she continues, “He’s just worried about his job.”
Not as cynical as her daughter, Joan’s mother replies, “Well why wouldn’t he be? It doesn’t take away what he did. Honestly, Joan, every good deed is not part of a plan!”
The conversation poses the question directly: in the Mad Men world, is any good deed ever just a good deed? Or are all good deeds just “part of a plan”–opportunities to make self-interested power plays? This conversation–the culmination of the question of Bob Benson’s motivation–is fascinating to have occurred in this episode, which is especially marked with selfish power maneuverings in the midst of the company merger. Here’s a brief rundown:
-Made aware that firings are impending in lieu of the merger, one nameless employee establishes his position with a cliche threat: “I know where the bodies are buried.”
-Don almost immediately enters into a power struggle with new partner, Ted Chaough, who privately reprimands Don for showing up to a meeting forty minutes late. Of course, Don could care less that Ted cared enough to speak to him in private; he receives it as nothing but a dagger to his ego. So instead of taking the concern in stride, Don undermines Ted by getting him drunk during a meeting between the two of them, only to then trot him out in front of the creatives in order to embarrass his credibility as a hard worker.
-Ted enjoys the last laugh, though, when he flies Don to a meeting in his plane. It’s a humorous scene in which Don’s scared out of his wits during takeoff in the midst of a thunderstorm. His life is in his new piloting partner’s hands–and Ted makes the most of the opportunity and its power dynamics.
-The most obvious power dynamics in the episode, though, are featured in several scenes of Don and his mistress Sylvia’s relationship taking a sexually domineering turn. It’s a scenario in which Don’s desires and maneuverings are shown to be what they are without pretense. He wants a woman who will do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and however he wants it. But he wants this in every other area of his life, too; he just goes about achieving it with more subtlety as necessary. Don reacts so viciously to Ted’s challenging his integrity because, at bottom, Ted isn’t allowing Don to do whatever he wants. And that’s a problem because, for Don, unfettered desire is power.
-We can’t forget Pete, who’s involved in a struggle with his feisty, often incoherent mother. But the most interesting exchange that Pete’s involved in is when he erupts at the knowledge that Don and Ted flew to the meeting without him. After his secretary tries to reassure him that it was a good meeting, Pete’s scolding response says it all, “Nothing good happened if I wasn’t there.” He then issues a threat by reminding her that his fate is effectively her fate. Providing the backdrop for the exchange is an earlier scene in which there aren’t enough chairs at the Partners’ meeting.
-And Roger fires Burt Peterson. Again. (“I was imagining you talking over me in meetings. Now I don’t have that problem!”).
In a show so steeped in all of the ideological quagmires that a post-60’s literary criticism class could name, and all manner of corrupting power structures, Joan’s mother is like a voice in the wilderness. Yet, given the show’s record to this point, we’re left to wonder if her championing of good deeds for their own sake is pitched as the voice of naivete, particularly when Pete and Joan are shown saving Bob’s job near the end of the episode.
Will the show ever give us something that’s good all the way down, or will its primary manner of operation be primarily and perpetually deconstructive? Which is to say, is the show’s moral conscience limited to the brief cut-to, overhead shot of Don climbing into bed with his wife after just having his way with his mistress in the red dress?
For me, this is the most interesting question as the show draws to a close–and it’s certainly still a question for our time: is there a view of power that isn’t nihilistic? Or, is there a legitimately good use of power in which the person is genuinely interested in benefiting the other?
It’s another brilliant deconstructive moment when Don, thinking he has a clever response to Sylvia’s leaving him, says, “It’s easy to give up something when you’re satisfied.”
Sylvia’s response cuts him at his knees, “No, it’s easy to give up something when you’re ashamed.”
We’re still wanting to know, though, if we can be both satisfied and unashamed. If not, then it would be fitting that we all go mad.