Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Collaborators" (season 6, episode 3)

Mad Men - "Collaborators" (season 6, episode 3)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on April 14, 2013/written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner; directed by Jon Hamm): Everyone has something to feel guilty about by episode's end. Don evades such sensations until that very point, confidently navigating his way past Sylvia's uncertainty by bluntly informing her that it's pure sentiment - really, when you think about it, more dishonest - to feel bad about indulging their mutual lust. Eventually, even he appears to be worn down by the burden of yet another double life. Don is haunted by what must be the first thirties (early forties?) flashback we've seen since the third season - this time to the whorehouse where his pregnant stepmother brought him to live (eventually he'll spy on her bedding the bordello's pimp Mack Johnson, played by Morgan Rusler). Closer to the present, he's troubled by the recent revelation that Megan has miscarried. And so he stops just outside of his own door after another rendezvous, sliding to the ground in a world-weary daze. Megan certainly has the least to feel guilty about (aside from firing an allegedly incompetent maid to express her stress). Yet she may feel the worst of anyone, weeping to both Sylvia and Don in a toxic mix of relief, shame, and grief - mentioning "how I was raised," she imagines her Catholic mentors reacting to her desire not to have a child, let alone her implicit consideration of abortion. Sylvia, of all people, only compounds this angst by judgmentally asserting that she can't understand how Megan could even humor such an option. It's a strange, almost shocking reaction that does little to assuage Sylvia's trepidation about her own betrayal of this friendship.

Peggy, on the other hand, quite accidentally betrays a friend. During a late-night call with Stan, she eagerly indulges in the latest SCDP gossip. He tells her about a disastrous Heinz meeting in which Raymond, aka "Baked Beans," brought along young hot shot Tim Jablonski (Kip Pardue), aka "Ketchup" - only to jealously badmouth the rep as soon as he was out of the room, warning Ken and Don not to even consider adding him to their client roster. Peggy laughs and, without thinking of the consequences, repeats the story to Ted when he overhears her. Eager to capitalize on this intelligence, Ted plots to play on the Heinz dissatisfaction, and Peggy realizes with a queasy feeling where this will be headed once Stan - and perhaps Stan's superiors - realize how this leak occurred. Another client/agency clash occurs when the loutish car dealer Herb Rennet returns to hit on Joan and suggest that vulgar radio spots for his particular dealership should make up a larger share of the sleek Jaguar campaign budget. Pete acquiesces, only for Don to cheerfully stomp all over the plan in a passive-aggressive manner when his "pitch" to the sophisticated British reps emphasizes how a scuzzy New Jersey lot will only detract from their brand's image.

Pete has much to be upset with at work and home: Herb is not the only angry bridge-and-tunnel associate seething at his betrayal. "Collaborators" opens with a house party at the Campbells in Cos Cob, Connecticut. The wives flirt with Pete while the husbands leer at Trudy but only one half of the couple (that we can see) follows through on the invitation. In the Manhattan apartment which his wife granted him in the city, Pete sleeps with Brenda (Collette Wolfe), only for her to show up back at his suburban door, bloody and bruised while her enraged husband Doug (Keenan Henson) yells from the street, "She's your problem now, Campbell!" Trudy shoots him a split-second glare then transforms into nursing mode for the rest of the night, taking care of the traumatized neighbor while Pete sweats in utter terror. He tries to tiptoe away the next morning when the Mrs. finally confronts him - not just after all these hours, but after all these years. Trudy's chirpy demeanor evaporates in a rage at the kitchen table as she bluntly acknowledges what she's always known, excoriates him for his carelessness, and asserts a new set of harsh rules that she'll be enforcing. This is no late-night drift toward divorce as we saw with Betty and Don in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, but a tearing-down of a much more flimsy domestic facade. As explosive infidelities go, Pete's is the Jersey dealership to Don's Jaguar.

My Response:
Once again Don Draper himself steps behind the camera; this is Jon Hamm's second time directing for the series, on both occasions following up the sprawling season premiere with a more focused study. What stuck with me from "Tea Leaves" was Hamm's compassion for Betty (that was the episode where she nervously awaited a cancer test result), a character whom Mad Men often presents as a cold, alienating figure. That compassion spilled over into Don himself, worryingly comforting his ex over the phone. This time, however, Hamm's sympathy for the female characters leads him to present his onscreen persona in the most unsympathetic light yet. For five seasons, Don has philandered his way through two marriages and a year-long lost weekend - but for almost the entire time, he's managed to convey the impression of a figure at the mercy of his urges. His flaws appeared more as a matter of weakness and vulnerability than true capriciousness. If he deserved some judgement for lacking a stronger commitment to the difficult but righteous path, it was understood that he did not wear the mantle of his sin lightly. (Such religious language feels appropriate to this secular show for reasons I'm not sure I fully understand yet.)

This is of course a common observation about, and criticism of, the prestige drama antiheroes of the zeroes and teens - certainly of the big three (Tony and Walter being the other, more overtly criminal icons). In those other two cases at least, the creators bristled at the audience identification and sought in later seasons to alienate the viewer, to express the perspective that "No, you're wrong, the guy you admire is in fact a fucking sociopath." I've yet to make it to the end of Breaking Bad, but several examples from The Sopranos immediately come to mind, as do interviews where David Chase hammered the point home explicitly in case anyone had missed it. It's hard not to see something similar at work here in "Collaborators". Don strikes an entirely different note during his morning visit to Sylvia than he did on New Year's Eve. Gone is his plaintive "I want to stop doing this," replaced with the gruffly flippant "Just don't think about it." Worse is the dinner dialogue which strips away any last pretense of a moral code, even one illuminated by evasion as in Don's earlier exchange. Don has always been callous in his infidelity, but he's never before seemed so cruel.

Of course some measure of that cruelty is allowed to sink in when he slumps down the wall in that final shot, a gesture meant to evoke his adolescent helplessness in the episode's whorehouse origin story. But those flashbacks only go so far, matter-of-fact explanations clinically identifying his pathology without generating much empathy, let alone an excuse. The episode does leaven this unmerciful gaze with other elements. Pete's buffoonish attempt to play the Draper game detonates in his face, making a mockery not just of his own pretenses but, indirectly, of Don's grandiosity. As portraits of the deceitful sixties bourgeoisie go, Pete is probably a more honest (or at least more ubiquitous) example than the Olympian Don; the latter's tragedy could almost be envisioned as a wishful daydream elevation of the former's comedy. Of course Pete earned his own genuinely poignant entanglement as well last season; this ensemble has plenty of room for complexity and contradiction. Don himself provides a counterpoint to his selfish love life in the office by sabotaging Herb, a reminder of arguably his most gallant moment in the whole series, when he intervened (too late) to stop Joan's fateful rendezvous. His Depression-era memories suggest that even this instinct arises from insecurity, driven not only by a desire to punish a more cartoonishly venal version of his own womanizing self, but also to deny what Joan's sacrifice implies about his own trade. That bordello peephole may as well be a mirror.

Next (active on September 27, 8am): "To Have and to Hold"Previous: (season 6 premiere) "The Doorway"

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