Among the many things Mad Men is smart about is the politics of business, the way that people in a particular line of work can find themselves all lining up behind a particular idea or person without really understanding why. Around the middle of “The Collaborators,” Ted pops his head into Peggy’s office to mention how it can be wonderful to hear about bad things happening at a place you used to work, and there is a certain self-fulfilling prophecy to that notion, isn’t there? You got out at just the right time, just before the sky started to fall. But for Peggy, who exited a position where she was slightly elevated above equals to end up at a position where she’s in charge and resented for it, it’s perhaps no comfort to know that Heinz ketchup is taking meetings, and her old colleagues’ hands are tied. There will always be parts of her that miss what she had, even as she likes much of what she’s gained.
“The Collaborators” is very much an episode that sets things in motion and puts pieces into place. Coming after a season première that felt much the same—if more thematically adventurous—it has a slight feeling of Mad Men by the numbers, though Mad Men by the numbers is still so good that it allows for moments of intelligence and reflection most other shows would shy from. Written by Matt Weiner and Jonathan Igla and directed by Jon Hamm, “The Collaborators” takes place at a point in history when the ‘60s, the decade, are tipping forward into The Sixties, the time period that would inspire warm-hearted Fred Savage sitcoms and NBC miniseries, yet it’s overhung with the malaise of the ‘70s, the sense from all of these characters that this is all there is and the growing confidence of the female characters. Trudy kicks Pete out in the episode’s best scene, and Joan feels free to tell off the asshole who made her prostitution a sticking point in signing with the company. Meanwhile, Don seems more lost than ever, acting like all he wants is his new mistress, Sylvia, even as he can’t stop thinking about being raised in a whorehouse.
It’s those flashbacks that strike the most discordant note in “The Collaborators.” For a while now, the origin story of Don Draper has seemed less and less important to the overall arc of the show. To a real degree, we got where he came from and what he was all about a few seasons back, and there’s little that the show can do to expand that notion now. Indeed, the flashbacks in this episode seem to be almost solely present to fill in the bit of his back-story hinted at in last season’s “Signal 30,” when he explains that, hey, he grew up in a brothel when he’s out entertaining clients with Pete. Emily Nussbaum said on Twitter shortly after the episode ended that Don’s back-story increasingly seems to be the sort that would explain the origins of a serial killer, not an adulterer, and it’s not hard to look at, say, young Don watching Mac bed his mother (pregnant with Adam) through a peephole and not have visions of Psycho dance in your head.
The world that Don escaped was so important to the first couple of seasons of this show, but the more the true enemy has become his own realization that no amount of money or prestige or power will fill the emptiness in his soul, the less this stuff has mattered. Adam turning up in last season’s finale struck the right note of reminding Don where he came from, but having Don stare off into space at a few junctures in tonight’s episode to remember his time among the prostitutes didn’t accomplish all that much, outside of continuing the series’ continued fascinations with prostitution and/or doing just about anything debasing for money, something that Don and his colleagues are well acquainted with, simply thanks to the industry they’re in.
Fortunately, the bulk of the episode, set in the series’ 1968 “present,” is a stronger affair. Affair is perhaps too on-the-nose, since the bulk of the episode deals with the affairs of Don and Pete, who are both chasing after a friend’s wife. Don’s lover is, of course, Sylvia from downstairs, someone much closer to his age and the sort of flinty, intelligent brunette he’s tended to gravitate toward when left to his own devices or not pursuing someone he thinks would make him look good. Pete, meanwhile, has fallen for Brenda, played by Collette Wolfe, of Cougar Town fame. Brenda’s taken to visiting him in his apartment in the city, and there’s just a hint of the unstable to her, as though Pete’s fancy for Beth last season has reverberated throughout his life. Then, when we find out how Brenda’s husband treats her, everything about her becomes more understandable, particularly as Pete treats her almost as loathsomely, spitting in her face, “What did you tell him?” while on the phone with a local hotel.
In prior seasons, a cheating husband who wanted to finagle his way around a wife who was suspicious needed only to tell a handful of lies that would allow everybody some degree of plausible deniability. Betty had to have known about Don’s many affairs, for instance, and did in several cases, but he also avoided shitting where he ate as much as he possibly could, spending more time with his lovers in the city. The times when the Draper marriage truly suffered for his affairs were the times when those affairs skirted close to home, with Bobbie Barrett, say, or Sally’s teacher. As Pete has slowly morphed into a more openly slimy version of Don, he’s followed a similar pattern. The characters on this show all work in an industry predicated on getting people to want the things they either didn’t know about or can’t have, and the men on the show are almost always chasing after things that they shouldn’t get.
This is not my attempt to excuse any of the adultery that didn’t occur close to home. Far from it. The point is that any time you enter into a negotiation with another party, both of you are going to have to pretend to be a little bit naïve. Most relationships with hard-struck rules are going to have some skirting of those rules around the edges, and when the guilty party isn’t caught, that skirting is going to get more and more blatant. The news event all of the characters hear brief snippets of from Vietnam is the Tet Offensive (so far as I can tell; I’m not sure the dates line up), and there’s a certain poetic symmetry to the foiled compromises that led to that situation lined up against the ways that Don and Pete betray their wives, coupled with how Trudy reacts with such fire. The show doesn’t push this point too hard or too far, but it’s there, buried in the subtext, and it’s the kind of skillful little turn Mad Men often has, where history is reflected most often via the people living through it.
Don’s betrayal of Megan feels all the more heartbreaking because she’s just had a miscarriage. She was a little sloppy with the pill while in Hawaii, thanks to the time zones, and it led to a pregnancy, one that she was considering ending via abortion until the miscarriage came along. (Knowing Megan, I would guess she ultimately would have ended the pregnancy.) It’s something she didn’t feel like telling Don, perhaps because she’s so uneasy about her own thoughts of terminating the pregnancy, which almost certainly would have led to the end of her burgeoning soap opera career. (The storylines she shares with Sylvia sound rather kooky, and I hope we get to see some footage of Jessica Pare as soap opera Megan later in the season.) Yet Megan was raised a certain way, and now that the miscarriage has happened, she finds herself, more than ever, adrift. If her husband would knock himself out of his own drifting, he might notice that, but he’s too lost in his own affair, and by the time Megan tells him what’s going on, he’s returning from an evening spent with Sylvia, at which a dinner date for the two couples gradually eroded to just the two of them, sitting around a table, playing chicken with just how far they’re going to push this relationship. For someone who said that he wanted the affair to end just last week, Don sure seems intoxicated by it.
If there’s a bit of a missing link in all of this, it’s Sylvia herself, who seems like more of a means to an end than an actual character so far. Hell, we’re getting more character definition out of her husband, while she, herself, seems like the sort of woman Don often goes for without really capturing all of that woman’s temperament. (She doesn’t ever seem to have money!) There’s an uncomfortable element of Don paying her off in the scene where he hands her the money she was asking her husband for earlier, and in the midst of all of this, there’s the fact that Megan idolizes the poor woman. Don’s slept with other women that his wives have known before, but I don’t believe he’s had a relationship with a woman this close to his wife. It’s a complicated relationship that seems almost certain to blow apart several other relationships, but neither he nor she can stop themselves. Yet, all the same, I want to get to know Sylvia better as something more than a fulcrum point in all of these complicated triangles. When we didn’t get to know Don’s lovers as well in previous seasons, it wasn’t such a big deal, but here, it feels vitally important that we get more out of Sylvia than we have, and Linda Cardellini is certainly capable of it.
Or maybe that’s sort of the point. The characters on Mad Men often act as if they don’t entirely know why they behave the way they do, even as they have completely obvious reasons for why everybody else does what they do. When trying to figure out why Raymond, Heinz’s baked beans guy whose success with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce last season has resulted in the ketchup division becoming interested in the agency, brought in the ketchup guy just to apparently prove a point, Ken offers up that he’s a scaredy cat, somebody who wants to show off but also doesn’t want to lose his one great success to the people he once mentored who now outrank him. And that’s probably true, as far as Raymond goes, but it’s also one of those lines that’s clearly meant to point outward from the situation to everybody else on the show. Everybody on this show wants to show off, but they’re also terrified of losing what they have. Those twin desires—the desire to have what they want in that moment and the desire to not lose what they already have—cause them to make rash, self-destructive decisions. They wonder why they can’t change, but never think to point the finger back at themselves. You’ve gotta dance with the one that brought you, Don says, but man, that ketchup account is so enticing.
All of which circles us back around to Peggy, sitting in her office at her new workplace, Ted telling her that it’s time to draw up some ideas for Heinz ketchup, so that the agency can go in pursuit of what could be a very lucrative account—the Coca Cola of condiments, Ken says earlier. Peggy has no desire to exploit something Stan told her in confidence to get ahead, but Ted encourages her to do so anyway, to see the opportunity knocking before she gets run over by it. Peggy, for whom friends are thin on the ground as it is, probably doesn’t want to isolate herself from one of the few she has left, but this is also the sort of thing that could put her name on the map, even as it brings her into conflict with the people she used to work with and learned so much from. The shape of the season seems so clear in that scene, but so does that eternal conflict between what you have and what you want, between who these people imagine themselves to be and who they actually are, and what they’re willing to grab hold of to make the former become the latter.
- I will be out of town next weekend, so please welcome your season two Mad Men reviewer Noel Murray back to the fold for episode four. I’m sure he will put me to shame.
- Trudy deserves a stray observation all her own, because the moment when she kicks Pete to the curb is the episode’s high point. It’s like if the Betty Draper of season one grew a spine and had the raw courage and intelligence to call her husband out on his crap, and it’s one of those rare moments in this show where somebody gets to read someone the riot act and feel completely justified about it. “If you so much as unzip your fly to urinate, I will destroy you” is the line of the evening, and Alison Brie gives it all the menace it needs. Because Brie so often plays very sweet characters—including Trudy—it’s easy to forget that she’s capable of stuff like this, but she’s got hard edges when she needs them, and it’s hard to see Pete ever crawling back into her good graces (not that he would even want to).
- My other favorite line of the episode is Stan telling Peggy that her wig will be ready to pick up when she needs to get out of a personal call at the office in front of her boss. We should all be as smooth as Stan. (Ted, for his part, doesn’t give a shit.)
- I didn’t even notice Harry’s sideburns in the facial hair festival that was last week’s episode, but they are, indeed, true works of art.
- Don does get his way in one scene, where he circumvents Herb and Pete’s plan to reduce much of the Jaguar ad buy to radio spots designed to get people to walk into local dealerships by acting too enthusiastic about it in a meeting with the Jaguar board, thus making it seem like he’s something of a two-bit huckster. It’s not hard to see a little bit of the Don Draper whorehouse flashbacks in that moment, I must admit.
- Despite now being a partner, Joan still takes the bus to work every morning. She also expertly parries Herb’s mention that some part of her must think about him with a great fat joke that leaves him unable to respond. Joan forever!
- Next week on Mad Men: Harry Crane stares pensively at nothing in particular.