Bob Benson didn’t need to have a bombshell of a secret. In fact, history dictated that Bob Benson wasn’t going to have a bombshell of a secret. And yet, the Mad Men newcomer, played by James Wolk, raised suspicion from the moment he waltzed onto (the wrong floor, inevitably) of SCD&P (now just the offensive-to-everyone SC&P) in the series’ sixth season. Benson, a new accounts man, could have easily been regulated to a background bit – after all, even perennial accounts man Ken Cosgrove hasn’t gotten much play this season, save for his spectacular tap dancing sequence during the season’s drug-fueled “The Crash” – but the handsome Wolk has popped up in no less than eight episodes of the show’s latest season, and he’s been inscrutable at every turn. Wolk is also not some fresh face that comes without baggage – if you’re familiar with his work on such ambitious shows as the ill-fated Lone Star or the underappreciated Political Animals, you are also familiar with his panache for playing characters with major secrets comes part and parcel with seeing him on television. Wolk isn’t the guy you cast for some small part, he’s the guy you look to for some steadily building, multi-faceted character work.
The Bob Benson conspiracy theories have run the gamut (he’s a government spy! he’s a mole from another ad agency! he’s an undercover journalist! he’s just a total lunatic!), and while the real truth (or whatever “real truth” that Mad Men is willing to offer up) has been circulated as part of those theories, it’s still the least compelling and earthshaking option. Bob Benson is a man with a secret (one that, to him and to the person he reveals it to on camera, is probably a bombshell of a secret), but it’s not the one most Mad Men fans wanted, and it’s not even actually the one he revealed during the series’ phenomenally excellent third-to-last episode of the season.
(Spoilers ahead, obviously.)
Bob Benson’s apparent big secret, as revealed during last night’s “Favor” is not that he’s gay – it’s that he’s totally delusional (we are only somewhat joking about this). After all, what sane person would profess feelings of “true love” (with bonus sexy knee-rubbing) to Pete Campbell of all people? This surface reveal is a simple enough secret, really, and it fits in quite well with plenty of other “big” Mad Men secret reveals – the majority of which are never as interesting or compelling or weird as the theories dedicated Mad Men fans cook up on their own – but that doesn’t stop it from being a huge letdown in a multitude of ways.
At the very least, it does enable anyone who was on board with the seeming love connection between Joan and Bob that apparently showed itself two episodes back (thanks to a reveal that the pair were heading off to the beach for the day) to stop feeling residual feelings of anger towards Joan, who promptly went on what she thought was a date the very next week. Sure, that “date” wasn’t a date at all, it was a professional fix-up with the Avon man, but it still stung Mad Men fans who thought that perhaps they’d all been wrong about Bob Benson, and that he was just a sweet guy looking for a nice lady.
Sure, Bob is still a sweet guy looking for a nice mate, but he’s apparently set his sights on the office cad, not handsome Don Draper or tap dancing Ken Cosgrove or even dreamboat Stan Rizzo, but Pete Campbell.
Or has he?
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner spoke to The Wrap last week and his chat about the enigma of Bob Benson (of course) only furthered the complicated mythos of a man dealing with the most basic of human emotions (not, you know, major government investigations or underhanded business practices). When asked about Benson’s character, Weiner gave away the barest of bits, agreeing that Bob isn’t a truthful guy, saying, “Yeah. He’s definitely a liar. I hope that you caught that…James is a great actor, and he is definitely mysterious. And that’s deliberate. He has very good manners, and that seems to be working for him.”
Bob Benson is a liar, and while he may just be a guy whose “lies” include hiding his sexuality in the workplace, he could also be a liar who uses clever bits of emotional manipulation to put the office creep into an awkward position that enables him to get the upper hand in – what? some spying? some massive story? some sociopathic tendencies? – that might finally prove a Mad Men conspiracy theory correct. (Though we’re still holding out for that Megan-Draper-is-dead thing.)
Or he could just be in love with Pete Campbell, which might be the strangest conspiracy of all.
Many thanks to Vulture for that essential knee-rubbing GIF.