“Mad Men” – The Collaborators episode review 18

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sits alone in a restaurant waiting for his mistress, Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) to return.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sits alone in a restaurant waiting for his mistress Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) to return.

★★★★☆

Last week, we discussed how death seems to follow Don, gaining on him like an insatiable predator. This week, we’re reminded that Don is often the predator himself, and maybe his chasing is just what might kill him. Pete, also captured the spotlight as Don’s shadow. Except without the confidence or the complete transformation from who he once was, Pete is meeting his doom at an accelerate rate. Trudy kicks him out in remarkable fashion (thanks in large part to Alison Brie’s sweet and sour acting style) after their neighbor’s wife comes over bloodied and beaten by her raging, jealous husband. Let’s rewind a bit to where his spiral started.

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The Campbells were entertaining their neighbors, and we interrupt when they are split up, schmoozing with their opposite sex guests. Pete offers the gals tickets to the musical Hair—his description, “profanity, marijuana smoking and simulated sex acts…with some songs” reminds us why he’s in accounts and not creative—and Trudy practically beats off the men with a stick when they ask if she’ll dress up as a bunny for Easter (I had to reprimand myself when my thoughts strayed to an admittedly piggish “Yes, please!”). The aura around this scene is all kinds of uncomfortable. Both Pete and Trudy seem to be coveted by the other couples. Trudy keeps her composure, because she’s perfect, and Pete soaks up all the innuendos. When they leave he plops on the couch and grabs the clicker, looking like the miserable goof he really is.

The awkwardness abounds when Don’s elevator stops at the floor below as Dr. Rosen and Sylvia bicker. As much as we revel in seeing Don being the suave and seductive ladykiller, I squirmed a lot when he hit the button to head back upstairs for cigarettes. Instead, he stops at the Rosen abode for some “breakfast” with Sylvia. She answers the door with a “I knew it’d be you” and frankly, it’s despicable. I don’t like despising Jon Hamm or Linda Cardellini but they aren’t making it easy! Dr. Rosen last week showed he was an honorable, and often humorous man. And Megan is everything he could have wanted in a mistress and he has her for a wife. Then right on cue, Matthew Weiner seems to offer some psychological explanation for his transgressions.

Forgive me, I may sound like a broken record when critiquing this show, but I can’t help myself. The ethos and mythos of The Sopranos are so indelibly linked, that Mad Men can’t help but evoke its creative ancestor. Both shows aren’t exactly elegant with flashbacks to their antihero’s childhood, but the two we get in this episode didn’t even justify their clumsiness. While I suppose we needed some followup to Don’s aside in last season’s “Signal 30″ about growing up in a brothel, does the upbringing justify his behavior now? Ultimately, it felt like overkill, and almost too forgiving. The darkness in Don has been explored in depth over the last couple seasons and it seems clear that Don is like the cheetah chasing its prey, or like the Germans after they were given Munich (a reference made by Roger and Don to Pete about the Jaguar exec Herb). He is never satisfied for long. No amount of professional accolades, wealth or marital bliss will take the shine off what sits in the shop window. This is what makes him such a good and astute copywriter, but also a hopelessly bad husband.

Therefore, when we watch Don and his mother (pregnant with Adam) taken in by her sister and her husband, I don’t feel much sympathy. Sure, it illuminates some things. When at episode’s end we get the flashback of Mack bedding his mother, we can see that Don finds this abhorrent, and it explains his protection of Joan from the clutches of the predatory Herb. But he and the Jaguar man aren’t all that dissimilar. Just because Herb is greasier, porkier, and clunkier with words, this makes him more villainous? I grant you, Joan consented only as a favor to the firm. It was prostitution at its very essence. But when Don holds out a wad of cash for Syliva because she “has money but never has money” it’s blatant degradation. And it’s hard to ignore later in the episode when he spells out the transactional basis behind their relationship for her at dinner, “You want to feel shitty, right up until the point I take off your dress off. Because I’m going to do that. You wanna skip dinner, fine, but don’t pretend.” As with any prostitute, she has agency. She gets her own reward. But it’s apparent what Don sees in her. She was the thing he wanted, but didn’t have. So he took it.

What is so fascinating about Peggy Olson is that she escaped. She actually was able to walk out a door and not fall in a pit. The constraints of her gender are not shackles anymore. She stills operates in a box, but she opens the flaps from time to time, and can think outside of it. But she’s getting a taste for the “man” box and it’s just as compromising. By being the boss man, it means adoration isn’t as readily available. The creatives fear her rejections, and so they prank her with Quest female deodorant (with an attached document reading, “Target: Professional women or other Olsons.”) Her only friend is Stan Rizzo, who she chats up on another late night. I swear, when did Stan become such a hoot? He answers, “Jimmy’s Condom Warehouse where the rubber meets the road, this is Jimmy” and I died for two whole minutes as I paused my DVR. Ted catches her mid-call and Peggy’s instinct is to cover it up, but instead he’s curious what made her laugh. She shares what Stan told her in confidence about some SCDP business.

Long scene short, Ken Cosgrove brings in Raymond from Heinz (I missed that guy!) who has in tow Timmy from the Heinz ketchup division. Timmy is played by Kip Pardue who I recognized as Sunshine from Remember the Titans. Good flick. Anyway, Timmy is so impressed by the sales bump Raymond got from signing with SCDP that he wants in on the action. It’s not an official meeting, but he’d love to see what they got. Raymond, however, lingers in the office and says that if they ever see Timmy again he will yank away their Heinz beans business. He equates Timmy flirting with them to watching some younger guy screw his girlfriend. Ken, itching for the “Coca Cola of condiments” says they ditch beans and go for gold…I mean, ketchup. Don has a different philosophy, “You gotta dance with the girl that brought you.”

When Ted hears this, he encourages Peggy to snatch up Heinz ketchup. He made some calls, and they are definitely taking meetings. Suddenly, she feels icky about betraying her old firm. Yeah, Don already passed on a shot, but he will certainly take it personal. Ted says he didn’t realize she needed friends more than business, because he’s in advertising. He may seem all smiles at first, but Ted Chaough is a shark. And he’ll gladly turn Peggy into a predator, too. He goads her further saying the only mistake her friend made is underestimating her, and lets hope Heinz does the same, so she can blow them away. You can tell she’s enticed by his speech, but will Peggy just become “one of the guys?” Will she forego loyalty and fidelity in order to take what other men have? This is essentially the fork in the feminist road for Ms. Olson. Will she do to the opposite gender what they did to her and take advantage of their weak position and use them? Or will she find a more honorable way to power?

While Don is off chasing what he wants, he is ignoring what he has. Megan is in the laundry room berating and then firing her maid when Sylvia Rosen walks in. Holding back tears, Sylvia suggests they go upstairs and talk. Megan admits that she recently had a miscarriage. In the little bit of characterization we get from Sylvia, she reacts jealously, which is very telling. Clearly, a lot of what plagues Don runs through her veins. She may not want a child from Don, but to know Megan was carrying his baby makes her chilly. When Megan confides that she had considered abortion, she voices her disapproval and judgement. Again, I apologize for those unfamiliar with, or sick of my Sopranos allusions, but both Brenda and Sylvia echo Gloria Trillo for me. They both seem just slightly unhinged and unsympathetic about the wreckage they could cause to the lives their men have built. I foreshadow more self-destruction to come that could be sparked by these fiery affairs.

One lament I have from these first three hours is that Christina Hendricks has been mostly sidelined. Curves that kill aside, she’s a stunningly good actress. And the few moments we did get this week were no exception. When Herb wanders into her office to remark on how much he misses her, slimily saying, “I know there’s a part of you that’s glad to see me,” her stoicism and sharp response had me awestruck, “And I know there’s a part of you that you haven’t seen in years.” If there isn’t a YouTube video of that scene with some people shouting OHHHHHHHH after that soon, then you have failed me, Internet. Equally impressive was her walk into Don’s office where she sweetly announces, “He’s here” and makes a beeline for the brown liquor, still as composed as ever. For many reasons, Hendricks and Joan both are women I admire a great deal. I hope Weiner expands her role substantially in subsequent episodes, because I want to pad that Emmy reel till they can’t deny her anymore.

Herb increases his creepazoid quotient when he coerces Pete and Don to push his idea of emphasizing local radio spots for local dealerships to the Jaguar board, thus taking a huge bite out of the national ad exposure. This doesn’t sit well with Don, so during the meeting he sabotages the pitch by overselling. It’s a marvel really to see this master deliberately tank. This way, he can’t be accused of not trying for the client, but he gets to win on principle. As Roger sums it up, “That was the deftest self-immolation I’ve ever seen.” And is there really a better description of Don? He’s been sinking his ship in the most stylish way ever since he took a man’s identity. Sure, he’s had his redeeming moments, and in terms of success he is hardly treading water, but is there anyone better at stopping Don Draper than Don Draper?

At dinner, which Megan has excused herself from due to lady pains, Don discusses The Tet Offensive with Dr. Rosen. Mad Men isn’t the subtlest show, but it’s handling of history as subtext in this episode was admirable. We hear and see the news reporting on the events at several different occasions like whispers of a threat. Then when Rosen spells it out for us, it doesn’t feel like exposition, but just two men talking things out. And it mirrors the theme of dishonesty running through the hour. Dr. Rose says frankly, “We’re losing the war.” Don replies, “You wouldn’t know it around here.” And like many quotable lines on this show, you could frame it as the thesis for the entire series.

The Sixties were a decade that ushered in the post-modern trend of stripping surface from substance. What I mean is, it started the phenomenon of symbols that are separate from the reality they come from. The world itself is in turmoil, much like the Draper and Campbell marriages, but on the surface they wouldn’t appear to be in shambles. We see the sexy, extravagant look about them and say they have it all. But the truth is much more pitiful and ugly. We see this reflected also in an exchange between James Wolk’s Bob Benson and Pete where he says, “You make this look a lot better.” Pete retorts, “It’s all about how it looks, isn’t it?” After all, what are advertisers but the salesman of status symbols. The sadness within them is disguised by the women clinging to their arms or the positions they hold. But none of those things they “have” are really things they truly are.  Peggy in a miserable excuse for a pep talk tells her creatives their work doesn’t reflect who they are. It feels empty when she delivers it, likely because she doesn’t believe it, but often these (m)ad men do believe that what they can buy, sell, collect, or achieve will make them better, happier. And they appear so, but underneath they are fragile, insecure, and terrified of changing times.

And those surfaces do start to crack. After Trudy drives Brenda to the hospital, she returns to their home and glares menacingly and knowingly at Pete’s body in bed, a warning of the hell she’ll unleash when he wakes. And it is horrifying, especially from the epitome of a lovely hostess that is Trudy Campbell. After she reads him the riot act about not being discreet after she practically gave him permission by allowing him to have his city apartment. And she says she’s done trying to make him happy. She dictates her terms as such, “You will be here only when i tell you to be here. I’m drawing a 50-mile radius around this house and if you so much as open your fly to urinate I will destroy you.” Pete Campbell was arrogant as can be by cheating with someone she knew, and for it he’ll pay a heavy price. There is no distinction between what he wants and has anymore, because he’ll lose it all.

Don is also playing the same highwire act, but he seems to be more wary that with one misstep he could come crashing down. After that dinner, where Gloria, I mean Sylvia, tested his patience by trying to ask for something more and he redefined their relationship as being purely about want (in an expertly edited sequence that cuts between them having sex and him describing that inevitability), he went home and kept up appearances with Meg. When she confessed to the miscarriage, he was understanding and said they can have the baby conversation whenever she wants. Don is conceding, but he is dictating the terms much like Trudy did. With these business types there is always a transaction, but also a negotiation. He has compartmentalized his life so that he has Sylvia for his lust, and Megan for his family. But this isn’t at all fair. And it won’t be long before she’ll see right through his performance and she that his heart has been divvied up in a deal she wasn’t privy to.

And as Bing Crosby’s “Just A Gigolo” goes from faint to roaring, he plops himself in front of the doorway. He knocked softly on Sylvia’s, much to her dismay, but he can’t even bear to enter his own home. As the prior flashback forcefully suggests, he belongs with the whores, not a wholesome home such as his with a forgiving wife and a future child. As the song lyrics emphasize, “Just a gigolo, everywhere I go. People know the part I play. Pay for every dance, selling each romance. Every night some heart betrayed…Youth will pass away, what will they say about me.” I promise, last time, but man! Does Weiner share David Chase’s gift for picking a song that embodies the episode’s theme or what? Dick has been playing at being Don his whole life. Maybe it isn’t the litany of women he has slept with that are the whores, selling romance. Maybe it’s him. Is he nothing but a whore, doling out affection to the highest bidder?

While I wasn’t sold on the integration of the flashbacks, I was profoundly affected by the themes of infidelity—to yourself and to others—that ran throughout. As always, Mad Men sticks with me like no other show. These characters and their stories strike at the heart of my deepest anxieties and insecurities. Who am I hurting by trying to be happy? Is this who I am, really, or is this just who I appear to be? I’m encouraged to see more diving into the psyche of Don, Pete and Peggy, but hope for more character development for Sylvia. Affairs are two-ways streets, and her psychological makeup should be explored. What made Gloria Trillo so dynamic was her resurrection of Tony Soprano’s mom. Who is Sylvia supposed to be for Don? And as evidenced tonight, more Joan and Trudy being strong, snarky goddesses is always welcome.