I’m surprised at how much material from AMC’s Mad Men I find for this blog. First there was protagonist Don Draper’s masochistic sessions with a prostitute who slaps his face. Then there was the episode “Mystery Date”, which showed that Don was trying to be faithful to his wife, while a toxic cocktail of lust, fear and rage boiled inside him. Meanwhile, other characters had their own reactions to sexual violence.
And now, in “Man With A Plan”, Don goes full on dominant. Since the season began, he’s been having an affair with his downstairs neighbour Sylvia, the wife of a heart surgeon. While Don’s been lacking in sales meetings, he makes up for it by expertly playing on Sylvia’s Catholic guilt, setting her up for their trysts in the maid’s room.
He overhears Sylvia having a fight with her husband, and avoids them. Later, Sylvia calls him up and says, “No one else will do.” This comes at a time when Don has been feeling unwanted and frustrated, and always has a need for female attention. To get that, he controls women. He meets up with Sylvia in the hotel room he chose, and begins a serious session of dominance. Sylvia obeys, though not to the letter.
“I want you to get on your hands and knees and find my shoes.”
“Now undress yourself, and get back into bed.”
“Don’t ask any more questions. take off your dress.”
“You exist for my pleasure.”
This is how Don likes his women: somewhere else, waiting for him, ready for sex when he gives the word. He tells her not to answer the phone, then calls her, prompting her to masturbate. Later, he sends her a harlot-red dress. As in his professional life, Don exerts control by withholding and unavailability, strategic absence.
And then it all comes to an end. Sylvia just says, “Safeword. It’s been fun. I’m going back to my husband now. Oh, and I need a lift.” Separated from her husband, she could have read a trashy novel about getting ravished by a sheik or something. Instead she had one last fling with Don and got it out of her system.
The Don-Sylvia scenes call back to the Don’s affair with Bobbi Barret, who practices her own brand of strategic masochism to manipulate men. In both situations, Don thinks he’s Mr. alpha male dominant with a woman who’ll do anything, but the women actually know what they’re doing and are topping him from the bottom.
We know that Don hates it when a woman has the upper hand over him, when a woman uses him. The difference is that when Bobbi turns the table on him, he gets angry and leaves her tied to a bed. In “Mystery Date”, when his fever dream of Andrea calls him “sick”, he dreams that he rages and strangles her to death. With Sylvia, he just collapses internally and does as she says. “Please….” he says softly; for a guy like Don, this is crying and kissing her feet.
But it’s over for Don, and he is alone and powerless again. His consolation prize, his beautiful, smart, sexy wife, only has eyes for the recently deceased Bobby Kennedy.
As a handling of sadomasochistic dynamics in a mainstream TV series, this is actually pretty good. Sylvia enjoys her kinky games with Don for a day or two, then decides that it isn’t fun anymore and firmly puts an end to it. She doesn’t play on her Catholic guilt and get moralistic, condemning Don as “sick” or “cruel”, or play the victim. She makes the mature, adult decision that this just isn’t working for her, and she wants to patch things up with her husband.
Don’s dominance collapses like a paper tiger, and suddenly he’s that unwanted Depression-era boy he’s been fleeing most of his life. It’s a good example of the subtle interplay of dominance and submissive, it’s own kind of Hegelian dialectic. One theory is that power goes to the person who is least invested in the transaction. Usually, that’s Don, or at least that is the carefully crafted mask he wears. In this case, he’s the more desperate, the more needy, using Sylia’s obedience to prop up his own sagging ego.