14
Apr
2013
Mad Men: Season Six, Episode 2
The Collaborators
Jordan
In the early seasons of Mad Men it was sort of conventional wisdom to crack wise about how the show, for all of the masculinity implied by its title, was very often more about its women. In the early going, Don Draper is, by necessity, such a cipher that it was easier to focus attention elsewhere, and to deepen characters like Peggy, Joan, and Betty (who gets a bad rap now, even from me, but who was developed incredibly well in the show's early going). "The Collaborators" is as obvious a piece moving episode as this show ever does, mostly just acclimating us to the current state of things for our characters and setting up future plotlines and conflicts, but because this is Mad Men, even an episode such as this is prone to moments of startling clarity and emotional acuity most shows never come close to. A less stellar episode of this show is still an amazing hour of television, an while some parts of this hour didn't blow me away, a lot of what it was doing was very interesting indeed.

At its core, "The Collaborators" is an episode about the relationship between men and women, more specifically, between the men and women we have come to know and between them at this particular time in history. Mad Men is a show about the inexorable march of time, and it often has things to say about the way its characters get caught up in history, almost without even noticing that as they live their lives, the world is moving forward in new, interesting, and sometimes terrifying ways. The Tet Offensive backdrops this episode (as far as I can tell. Someone much smarter than me probably used that clip of Johnny Carson to place the episode temporally with much more accuracy than I can, but the snippets of news coverage we here seem to back that up), and the show uses that breakdown in negotiations thematically in very subtle ways. Mad Men often gets criticized (deservedly) for being fairly obvious with its metaphors, but this was a nice piece of subtlety from a show that can handle it well when it chooses to. The Tet Offensive occurred when the North Vietnamese forces broke a supposed cease-fire to celebrate the Tet Lunar New Year, and the idea of betrayed agreements and the casualties those betrayals cause reverberates throughout the episode, though it rarely calls attention to itself.

The flashbacks to Dick Whitman's youth in the brothel at first struck me as odd, a discordant note in the episode of the sort this show rarely strikes. Mad Men resorts to flashbacks incredibly sparingly, and never without purpose, but I was thrown off by how meaningless they initially seemed. Only once I began framing the episode as a series of interactions between men and women, and about the way the power dynamics inherent in those relationships have started to shift, did the glimpses of Don's youth start to come into focus. We know that Don's attitude toward women was shaped in large part by his upbringing, both in the fact that his mother was a prostitute, he spent time around various other prostitutes, and that his father was a John and an adulterer, impregnating his mother while stepping out on his wife. None of the information we receive in these flashbacks is new, and that is why they at first seemed so strange and out of place to me. Previously, the show has used flashbacks to show us how, exactly, Dick Whitman became Don Draper, and to give us the sort of biographical information Don is never likely to share. Yet last year, in "Signal 30," Don explicitly told Pete about this part of his life. What he didn't say, and what perhaps he didn't even know, was how much it affected the way he approaches his relationship with the women in his life.

I would still call the flashbacks a slight misstep, but they are a coloration on everything that happens around them, to the point that I can appreciate the role they play in the larger episode. Don has always been good at affairs, and never been good at marriage. He is great at the mystery, the seduction, the escape; what he fails at is the connection, the intimacy. When young Dick Whitman peers through that peephole at what his mother does for a living, he is seeing the only thing about relationships Don will ever understand. As the episode ends, Don collapses into the hallway outside his own apartment, outside a door he cannot see through. Behind that door, his wife is in crisis, and in need of a husband who understands her, cares for her, and can be there for her. Don can't see his way to being that man, can't understand how to connect with Megan (recall the look on his face when she tells him about her miscarriage. He looks terrified, like a man who knows how he should react but is incapable of actually doing so), cannot actually connect with her as he should.

This is why Sylvia plays such an important part in the episode, even as she is still a bit of a cipher. I hope the show allows her to be more of a fully formed character in the near future, as Linda Cardellini is certainly capable of providing that, but for the moment, she plays the role so many women have before in Don's life. The two roll around in bed, discuss how they shouldn't, and make plans to do it again anyway. At first, Don handing her a pile of money on his way out the door didn't bother me all that much; he knows she is sending money to her kid and her husband isn't happy about that, and he solves the problem. But its hard not to recognize that this occurs in an episode that explicitly reminds us how much of Don was formed in that brothel, to the point where handing a woman money after sex seems natural to him, and the more I think about it, the more that seen makes me uncomfortable. The episode never explicitly underlines this (in fact, I don't think it ever puts Don and Joan in the same room), but I couldn't help recalling the way Don tried, in vain, to keep Joan from prostituting herself for the firm in "The Other Woman." Don's respect for Joan, and his love for her, is one of my favorite aspects of his character, and the way he seems completely able to turn his mistresses into whores but unable to imagine Joan in the same position says much about the man and his conflicts.

While we get plenty of Don and Sylvia in bed together this week, the meat of their storyline comes when their double date is turned into a dinner for two, and quickly transforms into a dance where each tries to feel out exactly how far the other is willing to take their dalliance. Don is positively shark-like in this scene, as hungry as we've ever seen him (it reminded me of his desperate pitch last season, where he was reduced to basically explaining how he, and most people he knew, were empty inside and needed more, more, more to fill themselves up, or at least distract themselves from the darkness at their core), and he goes so far as to tell Sylvia she is all he wants. This is true, after a fashion, but not in the way she probably hears it. Don spends his life trying to sell people the idea that what they really need to be happy, to be better, to be more themselves, is a thing, whatever thing he is being paid to sell them at that particular moment. Mad Men has never been shy, though, about the fact that the people in this business too thrive on the need for things, and try to make up for their own deficiencies by shielding them with anything that can make them forget the emptiness. For Don Draper, that has always been women, an endless and almost completely interchangeable sea of them that he throws into the void inside himself hoping one day to fill it up. He has a type, and part of that type probably comes from the way the women he is attracted to make him feel about how he uses them, but make no mistake, they are being used. Don may bed an endless series of brunette intellectuals, and early on, it seemed he was doing this because of a lack at home. It was easy, in the show's first few seasons, to see Don as cheating with the women he should have married, if only he wasn't so concerned with how he was perceived. But that's never really been it. The considerable admirable qualities his various mistresses possess isn't what draws Don to them so much as what he would prefer to think attracts him. What he's really after is another fix, another woman, another chance to fix the rot at his core, and the particular woman never matters nearly as much as he wishes it would. Maybe that's why Sylvia is such a cipher. Maybe the show is explicitly underlining how, despite Don's intentions, each of his conquests ultimately serves the same purpose for him, and ultimately leaves him just as empty as a result. Sylvia is all Don wants, but on another level, she is irrelevant to what Don wants. He doesn't want her as a person. He doesn't even know how to want another person. He just wants her for the same reason he has wanted a sea of women before her and will inevitably want endless more once this affair implodes. The woman, ultimately, doesn't matter to Don. It's the chase, the seduction, the escape he's after.

The show has spent most of its runtime setting up Pete as a younger version of Don, and slowly morphing him into the Don we met back in season one. Pete is, of course, slimier than Don, in part because he is from a different generation and finds repressing his desires more distasteful, and in part because he never seems all that concerned with being a good man. Don Draper is so compelling because he simultaneously wants to look like the perfect man and is struggling to become more like who he pretends to be. Pete, on the other hand, has never worried about much more than the surface. He sleeps with a neighbor tonight (played by Collette Wolfe, of Cougar Town fame), and the show underlines that Pete, too, has a bit of a type: unstable house wives desperate to escape their overbearing, controlling husbands and find solace in the arms of a man who at least tries to hide the fact that he's a monster.

The episode's best scene, and the one that I think underlines the point the show is making throughout "The Collaborators," is the scene where Trudy throws Pete out. This is the sort of thing that just couldn't have happened ten years before this scene takes place. Think of how traumatic divorce seemed when that single mom showed up, Glenn in tow, in season one. Recall how troublesome and distasteful the dissolution of the Draper marriage was. But the times, they are a-changin', and where just a few years prior, men like Don and Pete could get away with pretty much whatever they wanted with no fear of reprisal, the women of this show are starting to stand up for what they want. In the show's early years, its female characters struggled with the constraints society placed on them, rebelling in various ways against who they were told they had to be. Now, as the decade churns on, they have started to stand up and refuse to be pigeonholed by men any longer.

Mad Men is incredibly careful with episode titles. They always mean something, and they very often tell us a lot about what happens within any given hour of the show, and what its all supposed to mean. "The Collaborators" is no exception. We are given glimpses into three marriages throughout the hour, and in none of them are the parties actually on the same page. In none of them are they really partners in the way we like to think husbands and wives should be. These are not "collaborators," these are people in uneasy alliances they barely understand. And, like the Tet Offensive that backdrops the episode, these alliances tend to break down much more quickly than complacent parties are prepared for.

We've spent most of this (long) review so far discussing the male half of these relationships, and that's where the episode's focus lies. But it isn't where the series is focused (at least not exclusively) and the decisions these women contemplate and make tonight are vital to underlining just where each of them is and how their opportunities and self-conceptions are changing. Sylvia is close to Don's age (and thus, close to Betty's), and a lot of the opportunities we see opening up for women feel closed off to her. She is stuck in her marriage, stuck in a position of financial dependence, stuck in a place where she lacks leverage to change her circumstances. Trudy, on the other end of the spectrum, recognizes the immense amount of power she can wield, and exercises it over Pete, kicking him out of the house, curtailing his extramarital tendencies (she sets up a 50 mile radius around the house), and basically asserting her position as someone who demands respect and, for the love of God, the slightest bit of consideration. Mad Men has always been smart about just how much Trudy knows of Pete's extramarital affairs, and in the earlier years of their marriage, we watched her naivety stripped away and her dreams of happiness slowly crumble. Now, though, she's had enough. She has given her husband a wide berth and he, always seizing more whenever he's given even a bit of room, has thrown her consideration back in her face. Situated between these two poles is Megan, who has just miscarried, and who has (understandably) complex feelings about this. On the one hand, Megan was raised a "certain way." She was brought up to be a wife and a mother, in an era where that was pretty much all she could expect. But things are changing, and she has options before her that people like Sylvia can't even understand (Sylvia is completely open about how strongly she disapproves of the fact that Megan would even have considered an abortion, but knowing the character as we do, I would be willing to bet Megan would ultimately have terminated the pregnancy). She was "saved" from making a difficult decision (though thinking of a miscarriage that way is incredibly discomfiting), but she also could have made a choice that someone like Sylvia would not have even considered. Megan knows a pregnancy would end her burgeoning soap opera career; she knows that right now is just not the time for her to have a baby, and on some level, I think she knows that if she did choose to have a child currently, she would regret that choice down the road. Yet she is still completely uncomfortable with the fact that she considered that, not exactly sure whether she should want what she was raised to want or what she does want. She is lost, in other words, and her husband is too busy losing himself to even notice.

In an episode centered around relationships, its especially important, I think, that Peggy plays a prominent role and that Abe does not even get mentioned. Peggy's real relationship has always been to her work, and while many other characters are facing difficult decisions in their personal lives, Peggy is confronted with one professionally. Ted wants to go after Heinz Ketchup, who Peggy learns is taking meetings during one of her late night confabs with Stan. It was always clear to me that the show would position Peggy against SCDP at some point this season (The better to keep her storyline relevant as she is isolated from the rest of the main characters), but the way it was done underlines what may be one of the chief thematic concerns of this season, and to some extent, of the series as a whole. Peggy is thrown into conflict between her past and her vision of the future. She is forced to contemplate what she has, and then asked to consider what she wants. Where Don has always filled his void with women, Peggy has always buried herself in her work. It's inevitable, then, that she will discard one of her few remaining friendships to go after this account, that she will throw away what she has in pursuit of what she wants. What Peggy fails to grasp, what virtually everyone on this show is constantly missing, is that getting what she wants won't make up for what she lacks. It will be, as Pete described it in last season's finale, a "temporary bandage on a permanent wound."

Grade: B+

Notes:

-This is one of those episodes I definitely enjoyed more as I thought about it and wrote about it. The grade reflects my upward adjustment, but if you think I read too much into things or gave the episode credit it didn't deserve, feel free to mentally grade it down accordingly.

-My notes from the episode got inexplicably erased, so if there are fewer quotes, or if they are less accurate than usual, its because I am drawing from memory, not my general running transcript. Too bad, as I actually think there were quite a few excellent lines in "The Collaborators."

-"If you so much as unzip your fly to urinate I will destroy you." I do not need a note to remind myself of this line, nor of how amazingly Allison Brie played what is easily her best scene on the show so far.

-Don in the meeting with Jaguar was a thing of beauty.

-Well, it looks like all of the characters will still be on the show next week, and hey, they are still speaking English, so thanks for those tidbits, "Next Week on Mad Men" promo!
Tags: Mad Men
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