But the show's sixth season, and specifically the introduction of James Wolk's chipper, uncannily helpful Bob Benson, has whipped online speculation into an unprecedented frenzy. Who is this guy? What does he want? Why is he so damned cheerful and eager to please? What, even, is his job at the newly-renamed Sterling Cooper & Partners?
Kevin Rahm, who plays Ted Chaough, recently revealed that even the cast had bets placed on what the heck was going on with Benson. So Digital Spy decided it was about time we did a little investigative work of our own.
So, what do we know so far?
Bob Benson was introduced in the sixth season premiere, 'The Doorway', as a new accounts man trying hard to make a good impression on Don. Don didn't seem to have the foggiest idea who he was, but given that Don spent most of the episode off his face, we're not necessarily sure this means anything. Later, Bob unexpectedly has catering delivered to Roger's mother's funeral, which leads the usually mellow Ken to admonish him for being a suck-up, but Bob claims that the gesture was meant to be anonymous. In the next episode, he ingratiated himself with Pete by offering to pick him up groceries after Trudy finally kicked him out.
So, he's an uber-keen upstart with an answer for everything and a coffee on hand for whichever superior might need it. He'll cater your funerals and pick up toilet roll for your depressing bachelor pad, and he'll do it all with a smile on his face. Strange, a little brown-nosy, but not necessarily sinister.
The theories really picked up some steam after the seventh episode, which was not coincidentally titled 'Man With a Plan'. Bob leapt at the opportunity to help Joan out with a medical emergency, and consequently avoided being made redundant when the agency was making cutbacks. Now, it wasn't clear that Bob knew that his job was in danger, but he's certainly shrewd enough to understand the concept of "last in, first out", so was his kindness to Joan indeed part of a larger plan?
A couple of episodes later, Roger arrived at Joan's apartment to find her and Bob heading out for a day at the beach. Were they dating? Or was Bob the Will to Joan's Grace? We were as much in the dark as Roger. The only thing we could be certain of was that Bob Benson can rock a pair of short shorts.
Finally, in 'A Tale of Two Cities', Ginsberg bluntly came out and asked if Bob was gay. Since the question came right after Bob had kindly talked Ginsberg down from a psychotic episode, it was relatively easy for him to dodge, but still, it was out there.
And then, this week's episode happened. Via a subtle knee nudge and a heartfelt speech about love, Bob appeared to confess his feelings for a bemused Pete. It was strange, and unexpected, and sort of lovely. So, is this the big revelation?
Well... maybe. It explains the concern for Pete's wellbeing, but not the attention to Joan or the general desperation to please. If anything, all the scene did was stir up even more speculation, so here are a few of our favourite theories about Bob Benson...
He's a government spy, employed either to keep an eye on the firm for government contractors like General Motors, or to investigate and expose Don Draper's identity theft. As far as we know, the latter hasn't been an issue since Pete covered for Don in the fourth season, but the Rosens' son trying to escape the draft seemed intentionally slanted to make us remember Don's own desertion. All the same, it seems unlikely that he'd be devoting this much energy to Pete and Joan if his job is to investigate Don, or for that matter dig into the entire firm.
He's an undercover journalist writing a story on the firm. Don did grab media attention with his anti-smoking letter to The New York Times in season four, we know that SCDP have won some awards, and at a push you could speculate that Lane Pryce's death has given the firm a morbid kind of intrigue. But we're still not sure they're a big enough fish to be of much interest to an editor.
He's working for a rival agency. Early in the season, some were speculating that Bob was a plant employed by Ted Chaogh, which was debunked once the merger happened, but it's still possible that another agency could be angling for SCDP's secrets, and/or trying to destroy them from within. Again, though, it hasn't been established that they're in a position to be that much of a threat, and with Cutler Gleeson & Chaogh out of the picture, a sudden agency rivalry would likely feel forced.
He's an opportunistic sociopath, wildly ambitious and determined to get to the top at any cost. After sniffing around Don and Roger in the season premiere, he identified Pete and later Joan as the most vulnerable targets, and honed in on their vulnerabilities. To Joan, a single mother who's not necessarily looking for romance so much as support, he offered his platonic assistance and company. And to Pete, a lonely recent divorcee who never feels valued, he offers unconditional love. This theory is feeling pretty plausible to us right now.
He's Don's long-lost son, unknowingly conceived when Don lost his virginity to that lovely prostitute. The irony of this, given that Don is himself the illegitimate son of a prostitute, would be fitting, but it sounds more like a storyline from Megan's terrible daytime soap than anything Mad Men would legitimately consider. The flashback to Don's deflowering seemed pretty clearly designed to delve into why he's so messed up, not to set up a love child subplot, so we're ranking this pretty low in our theory hierarchy.
He's a young reflection of Don. We know that Don got his foot in the door by brown-nosing and manipulating Roger, and it's not hard to imagine him working to ingratiate himself in the early days in much the same way Bob does. This theory seems to have been largely inspired by the sixth season poster, which shows Don walking past a mirror image of himself. It's intriguing, but Don's had next to no contact with Bob this season, so at this stage we can't see much justification for the idea.
He's Pete and Peggy's son, and has travelled back 25 years from the future. Why? Unclear. Honestly, we're only including this theory because of the amazingly creepy Oedipal possibilities, now that Bob has made a pass at Pete. On the plausibility scale, we're saying it's pretty low.
He's a genuinely sweet, earnest, hard-working guy who can do favours for others and offer up a heartfelt confession of love without a single ulterior motive. In the world of Mad Men, this is probably the craziest theory of all, which is why it's also our favourite. (And for an eloquent, insightful expansion on this theory, we would direct you to Tom + Lorenzo.)
So, what's up with Bob Benson? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!