Your ‘Mad Men’ Season 6, Episode 12 Talking Points: Who Is Bob Benson?

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No current TV show generates more Monday morning conversation than Mad Men. With that in mind, Flavorwire is recapping Season 6′s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce drama by giving you a handful of talking points to spark your own water-cooler debate. The penultimate episode of the season, “The Quality of Mercy” was packed with fascinating subplots and diversions, but its biggest revelation involved Sterling Cooper & Partners’ most mysterious new employee: Bob Benson.

After pointing out last week that “Bob Benson is gay” was an utterly unsatisfying explanation for the character’s bizarre behavior, I hoped that there would be more to his story. Well, this episode gave us even more Bob than I’d bargained for, explaining why he seemed to show up out of nowhere are the beginning of the season (shades of Dawn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and making good on his name’s similarities to Don Draper’s.

As Pete finds out from Duck Phillips, in the midst of a devious attempt to get Bob out of the office, the new hire really does appear to have emerged out of the ether. Looking into Bob’s background, Duck discovers that he didn’t go to Wharton, might not even be the age he says he is, and appears to actually hail from West Virginia, where “his parents are brother and sister or something.” Far from a third-generation Brown Brothers Harriman man, he was a “manservant to a senior VP,” performing functions we can assume to be less than professional.

Now, earlier in his career, Pete would have been overjoyed to make such a revelation about a rival. He would, in fact, have marched right into Cooper’s office to tell him about it. But, say what you will about Pete Campbell, it seems he’s finally learned something. He was, after all, the person who stumbled upon Don Draper’s true identity so many seasons ago, and exposing him just blew up in Pete’s face. This time, he simply confronts Bob in his office, tells him what he knows, and declares an uneasy truce. “I surrender,” Pete says, confessing that he knows there’s no winning against people like Don and Bob, who he admits are better at a job (and, by implication, life) they’re technically unqualified for than Pete is, despite his genuine pedigree and top-shelf training. His one condition: “I’m off-limits.”

We may well discover even more about Bob Benson before the season’s out — some theories say he’s actually Don’s abandoned son, fathered during his teenage brothel days, and it’s still not clear what exactly his relationship is to Manolo. There’s also something rather threatening about the way he tells Pete to “watch what you say about people.” In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, James Wolk, who plays Bob, goes so far as to compare the character to two of cinema’s most notorious villains: Keyser Söze and Aaron Stampler from Primal Fear. But what interests me most about everything we found out last night is that it sets up Bob as a mirror to not one but several of Mad Men‘s main characters.

Sure, the parallels to Don are obvious: the alliterative name, the fictional past, the humble roots, the kind of square-jawed good looks that seem to smooth over any suspicions or inconsistencies. Bob and Don look like successful advertising types, so that’s what people want to believe they are. What I’m beginning to wonder is whether Bob is a glimpse at what Don could be if he were entirely without vice — if he were listening to self-help tapes and trying to be his very best at every moment, rather than sleeping around and pouring vodka into his morning orange juice.

Of course, Bob does seem to have one point of vulnerability: he’s gay. Or is he? In light of what we learned this week, and the lengths we’ve seen him go to throughout the season to ingratiate himself to his employers, perhaps this, too, is a deception. Maybe coming on to Pete was a calculated strategy — which would be interesting in that it says more about Pete’s repressed desires than about anything intrinsic to Bob. After all, isn’t Bob too smart and calculating to do something so seemingly reckless entirely out of personal sentiment? And this is where he becomes a mirror for Pete: he seems to see something in his superior that Pete may be years away from admitting to himself.

Finally, and more subtly, Bob is also a reflection of Joan, who he assisted during a medical emergency earlier this season. Although we don’t get many details on the “manservant” gig, the implication is certainly that he worked his way up the same way she did: through sex, good looks, and the intelligence to use both of the above to his advantage.

Additional talking points:

  • Rosemary’s Baby: Continue flipping out, “Megan is Sharon Tate” conspiracy theorists. This week found her and Don running into Peggy and Ted at the Roman Polanski movie, which has so deeply pervaded the contemporary consciousness that Peggy thinks it would be a great idea to parody it in an ad for children’s aspirin.
  • “The Quality of Mercy”: As some have already pointed out, “A Quality of Mercy” is the title of a Twilight Zone episode, itself taken from The Merchant of Venice. The commonality between both of those points of reference? The mutability of identity and allegiance.
  • Sally and Betty reconcile: As they smoke a cigarette in the car together, it’s clear that Don’s infidelity has awakened some sympathy in Sally for her mother. Meanwhile, her total aversion to any kind of sexual activity suggests that catching her dad in bed with Sylvia has truly scarred her.
  • The return of Glen Bishop: Lookin’ good, creepy neighbor kid!
  • “You killed him,” Peggy says to Don, about (his other doppelganger) Ted. “You’re a monster.” Cue the Kanye mash-ups.