Mad Men's latest man of mystery hasn't made his move on Joan, is not a fan of brothels, might be a psychopath, and — spoiler alert — made a move on Pete Campbell on this week's episode. All of which might be a slow build to the coming-out party of the show's second major gay character, some of which might speak to bigger issues about being gay in the '60s, a little bit of which might be a preview of the Stonewall Riots to come, and none of which may mean much of anything concrete. But no matter whether you're trusting the conspiracy theorists, the recappers, or Matthew Weiner this season, Mad Men's big gay subplot probably won't get resolved that simply in the last two episodes. So what do you believe about Bob Benson? And what does this mean about next season?
Actor James Wolk has become a not-quite-regular in season six as Bob, the man who works upstairs and is always — always — happy to lend a helping hand. And this season has needed help. Amidst complaints that the show has been low on action and high on soap, the conspiracy theories have been arguably more exciting than the plot lines. (Megan Draper as a dead Sharon Tate is way better for the water cooler than Don making that lady from Freaks and Geeks wait around in a hotel room.) One of the big Internet mysteries to arrive in this more-meta-than-ever moratorium has led fans back to Bob, whatever the hell it is that he's been doing at the Sterling, Cooper & Partners office this spring. (He's a murderer! A journalist! A spy! A young Don! Or Peggy's time-traveling son!) Reddit's Mad Men page has been having a field day with spy theories, and gay blogs and recappers got more than clue about his veiled homosexuality on Sunday night, when this happened:
Yes, it wasn't just that Benson hooked up Pete with a whimsical male nurse named Manolo to take care of his mother. When confronted by Pete's accusation that Manolo was sleeping with his often forgetful mother, Bob countered with nothing short of a move on Pete, with that look in his eye and this great line, all classic Weineriean levels of perfect words and pronounced restraint:
"Is it really so impossible to imagine? Couldn't it be that if someone took care of you, is it impossible that you might begin to feel something for him? When it's true love, does it matter who it is?"
And then came the kneesies — that's footsies, but with knees, even if it's just a nudge:
And then the awkward walk away. "Of course," Bob says to Pete's denial, all brooding blank serious face on his way out the door.
To hear all sorts of recappers tell it throughout the day today, the kneesies was or was not the ultimate sign that Bob Benson is gay. Over at Towleroad, the gay blog that has been following the is-he-or-isn't-he speculation closely, Bobby Hankinson declared the issue all but over: "Sunday's episode of Mad Men finally answered the question." At Slate, Paul Ford wonders if there's more there: "I suppose the fact that Bob came on to Pete could be seen as the 'reveal' of his secret, but is sex the only driving force of this character?" Because maybe it's not that simple: "Benson harbors his own desires to make Pete happy," wrote Jen Doll here at the Wire. Meanwhile, at The New York Times, Sloane Crosley said Bob's knee bump "gives him depth" and insisted that it's "[n]ot the nature of the secret, but that it exists," while Logan Hill, on the other end of the conversation, said "all it proves is that Bob is seriously kinky." At The Atlantic's Mad Men roundtable, Amy Sullivan says there's more in store: "As for the Talented Mr. Benson? I have no doubt he'll figure into the last two episodes of this season. And I don't buy that his eager beaverness has all been for Pete's sake." At Esquire, Jen Chaney still thinks "that the perpetually hard-to-pin-down Bob is up to something."
So, wait, we're only at the "seemed to confirm" or wait-there's-more stage? What about the rest of Bob's suggestive story line? Gay sites like Tom and Lorenzo emphasized a very un-Mad Men lack of romance with Joan during that beach getaway a couple weeks back: "Let's note that there is yet to be any physical contact or affection at all between Joan and Bob. That's downright odd for any romantic or sexual relationship depicted on Mad Men." And remember episode six, when Bob was in a brothel — and Pete was in a room for which he got caught? Well, Bob didn't seem into physical contact then either. So, we suppose you could argue that aside from the kneesies with Pete Campbell kneesies (we're going to make this kneesies thing a thing), Benson hasn't really had a kneesies-level spark with anyone, male or female, gay or straight.
And, come on, Bob is supposed to be... important, right? Well, as we know, Mad Men has been really heavy — as in hit-you-over-the-head heavy — on the historical moments in this, its big important 1968 year. We've moved from New Year's Eve of 1967 to the late summer of '68 pretty quickly this season, since August's Democratic National Convention featured so prominently in the Megan-must-be-dead conspiracy-feeding episode a week ago. With two episodes to go in season six, that would seem to position Benson as a potentially pivotal character if season seven — Mad Men's last — were to pick up on the even more big important events of 1969. Namely, the Stonewall Riots of June 28, 1969, a night that changed gay history in America, and especially in New York City. "Mad Men has a habit of bringing in minor characters who signal the broader theme for the following season," Jaime Woo wrote at The Huffington Post, adding that the gay reveal and "his sudden appearance in Season 6 could allude to next season's big theme. To be sure, the supporting role as major storytelling device is a staple of Weiner and his writers, most recently put to work with Don's secretary, Dawn, and her confrontation with the death of Martin Luther King Jr., that awkward award show scene aside.
Which brings us to the return of Mad Men's other big character, Sal. (With respect to that Nordic design guy who tried to take Peggy to a Bob Dylan show once.) Could the departed design director return with the Stonewall plot, Bob Benson, and something more than subtlety when it comes to the show's gay themes? Vulture's Margaret Lyons wanted him back for other reasons:
In early seasons, Sal's closeted-ness helped amplify the themes Don embodied: That many of us live lies, that people see what they want to see, that the lens of today is different than that of yesteryear. And that sort of ran its course. But now that Don has scootched his way toward sociopath, there are themes the show's exploring through other characters that Sal's reappearance could help deepen.
Sal's not officially out of the closet anyway, according to the actor who plays him, and neither is Bob, at least not with two big Sundays to go. And besides, this is a season still waiting for its truly big reveal to satisfy the conspiracy theorists, and, hey, maybe Bob's just your friendly Madison Avenue sociopath! Sure, the jump from handsome, smiley, possibly-gay guy around the office to psycho killer sounds like a bit much, but this is Mad Men, and the TV critics like to get meta. "I'd argue, Bob has masterfully honed in on and exploited Pete Campbell's greatest insecurity," writes The Wrap's Tim Molloy, who insists that playing kneesies was merely a cool and calculated move on Bob's part: "He's psyched out a potential rival, and if Pete later accuses him of propositioning him, then Joan, for one, will attest that Bob sure doesn't seem gay to her, based on their previous history."
Then there's the theory from uber-meta critic Matt Zoller Seitz at New York, which is all about Bob Benson, "good sociopath." As in, he performs acts of kindness without any human connection. "I wonder if it's possible that he really does feel a connection with damaged or needy people, often at the moment of their greatest distress," Zoller Seitz wrote in his excellent recap today, suggesting that Bob might be coming on to Pete not because he's gay but in order to make Pete feel better about Pete's own repressed homosexuality. And that face Bob makes after his knee signal is rebuffed? That's an even bigger signal, Zoller Seitz adds:
Bob’s demeanor when he closes the door is fascinating: He’s suddenly a take-charge guy, with posture and gestures that reminded me of Don. His face as he leaves is notable as well. His expression doesn’t say, “Oh, hell, I screwed that up,” or “I better pack my things,” but something more like, “Well done, Bob, you totally nailed that,” or “That went even better than I’d anticipated.” It’s not a smug expression, though.
For his part, Weiner will only say that Bob is "definitely a liar" and that Wolk is "definitely mysterious. And that's deliberate." So there's that. Or, as Mark Lisanti's Mad Men Power Rankings at Grantland jokingly reminds us, we could be reading a bit too much into this whole thing:
Signal received. Now let's not throw around words like 'disgusting' too hastily. What if I told you I am a secret government spy, sent to monitor the internal workings of a high-profile ad agency? Would that change anything? No, of course not. That's ludicrous. I don't even know why I brought that up. Oops, knee's back. Let me move that out of the way. Sometimes it's got a mind of its own.
See you next week for another episode of Bob Benson, Mystery Man.