Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 6, Episode 3 of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "The Collaborators."
Perception versus reality is not a new "Mad Men" concern -- it's the song this show has been singing for six seasons now. But when revisiting the theme offers the cast so many opportunities to shine, it's hard to argue with the idea of giving it another spin.
Don and Pete aren't really happily married men, Peggy isn't as confident and secure as she appears to her staff, Sylvia isn't as comfortable with her sins as she pretends to be and the clients who pay the bills have their own lists of private grievances. What's different now is how much harder it is to ignore the realities that everyone tries to keep stuffed in the maid's room or shoved into some other corner of their lives. It's not just that there are so many more things to worry about and compartmentalize; the characters are older and simply more tired of the burdens they've always had. The nimble avoidance of the unpleasantness life can dish out is just harder to manage these days.
Much of the tension threaded through "The Collaborators" came from news reports and updates on dire situations in Southeast Asia. There was a sense of the real world not just leaking in to everyday life but repeatedly intruding and bringing with it a sense of palpable dread and tension. That kind of intrusion has occasionally happened in the past within the world of "Mad Men" (memorably during the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example), but over the years, the show has gradually amplified the sense of danger and made scary events feel much more ever-present and unavoidable. Pete's awful evening ended with him flipping the TV to Johnny Carson, but even there he can't escape dire news updates, which have taken the place of light comic banter. Don and Sylvia's post-coital cigarette break is similarly punctuated with a report on the war. Arnold Rosen can't resist talking about current events at dinner, and he's unknowingly making a difficult situation that much more tense. We're pretty far from beatnik escapades in the Village with Midge.
Sometimes, the tensions the characters are carrying around explode, as in the episode's most memorable scene. I'd like to petition the authorities to have every episode punctuated by Trudy reading Pete the riot act, or at the very least, it'd be nice to have someone punch Pete in the face. Pete was at his ugliest in this episode; his efficient ejection of his neighbor's wife from his city apartment was only slightly less reprehensible than the way he hissed "What did you tell him?" to the bleeding woman. Not that the distinction matters; Pete's a selfish pig whose unhappiness seems as chronic as Don's (and at least Don's paramours are generally confident women, while Pete tends to go for immature child-women far less interesting than his wife).
Pete deserved every bit of the excoriation he got from Trudy, and his reward for his sloppy infidelity was even more isolation. (As was the case last week with Don, in this episode we got a wide shot of Pete looking lost and lonely in his office.) Now there's even more of a mismatch between what his life looks like and what it actually is. To Bob Benson, Pete looks like he's got it all, but this is "Mad Men," where the people who look like they have it all generally have hollow and flimsy existences.
"Couldn't you just pretend?" Trudy demanded. But that's the thing, Pete and Don tried to pretend, but they just couldn't stick with the act. (Say what you will about Megan, at least she gets paid to pretend.) Out of laziness on Pete's part and for a whole host of reasons on Don's part, the facade of a happily married family man has never really fit them. The upshot of Pete's disloyalty was that magnificent scene of Trudy rewriting the rules of their relationship, and when Trudy says she "will destroy" Pete if he doesn't live by her rules, he'd better believe it. That was some brilliant work by Alison Brie.
Pete just didn't try very hard, and Don stopped trying some time ago in his relationship with Megan; she doesn't know it yet, but his "faithful husband" machinery wound down a while back. Last week's episode was called "The Doorway," but this episode was even more full of doors, secret entrances and shameful exits. To Don, there's an illicit thrill in knocking on the back door of his lover's apartment -- even moreso when the man of the house is still there. Perhaps what he saw through the keyhole as a boy growing up in a whorehouse implanted the desire for that kind of transgression (or transaction -- him throwing money at a woman was a jarring moment). One thing that life experience probably taught him was the idea that entry into every new place -- even the most private places -- comes at a cost.
He's willing to pay the price with Sylvia, who offers him a challenge Megan does not, but Don's no longer going to pay up when it comes to Jaguar. And he can no longer collaborate on the fiction of his relationship with Megan, at least not for much longer. When it came to his own doorway, Don was simply unable to go through with that particular transaction. He can't walk through that door and offer up part of his soul in order to keep that facade going. If and when he walks in, that's his Munich, and he needs a minute to prepare for that surrender.
In the scene in which he sympathized with Megan over her miscarriage, he was kind, understanding and sympathetic. And that's just not how Don Draper is built. He can only be that guy up to a point, but that scene (among others) laid the groundwork for the end of that marriage. He wants to be the one taken care of, sparred with, questioned and desired. He's got all that with Sylvia, who was on the receiving end of the Full Draper Treatment at the Italian restaurant. He handled Sylvia like he handled Jaguar (and like Trudy handled Pete): He set the terms of the arrangement in ways that were very hard to resist.
Ted pulled a similar mind trick on Peggy, who perceived her relationship with Stan to be one of trust and friendship, but the canny Ted saw it partly as a means of gaining information. Was Peggy collaborating with the enemy by letting Ted talk her going into battle to win Heinz ketchup? Possibly, but the competitive side of Peggy would dearly love to land that account.
If only Peggy would see what's right in front of her: Her relationship with Stan is the best thing that's ever happened to her. Another petition: Every episode must involve these two talking on the phone ("Tuesday is perfect." "I will have your wig ready then, ma'am."). Stan and Peggy are one of the few healthy couples the show has ever depicted, but Peggy's always had a terrible time mixing friendship and romance. She and Don worked so well together because they never slept together; because that wasn't on the table, they were able to establish true intimacy.
Wouldn't it be lovely if Peggy were able to perceive that Stan doesn't regard her talent as threatening? Wouldn't it be great if she could see that he finds her intelligence attractive and her creativity invigorating? There are many different ways to define the word "collaborator," but Stan and Peggy are the best kind: They're two like minds who care about similar things and come together (at least on the phone) to enjoy similar mindsets and to encourage each other.
Her employees find her intimidating, and that's sad and frustrating, because the problem is more their inferior work than her management style. (In Season 1, can you imagine Paul Kinsey leaving a similarly barbed "gag" item on Don's desk? It'd never happen.) But the saddest thing would be for Peggy to think that their perception is reality, and for her to begin thinking that her lively mind and strong will limit her romantic possibilities. These advertising men and women work hard to make insubstantial perceptions harden into realities that everyone takes for granted; their jobs revolve around turning malleable opinions into perceived facts.
Is Don incapable of ongoing intimacy? Is Pete incapable of changing his self-absorbed ways? Is Peggy going to have to trade emotional intimacy for professional satisfaction?
It all depends on what they think they're capable of, and whether they begin to think those perceptions are fixed and unalterable. It all depends on what they decide to convince themselves is true.
A few more thoughts:
- Brilliant work from Linda Cardellini in her scene with Megan. Sylvia was clearly overcome with guilt, even as she counseled a woman who was herself beset by feelings of blame and guilt. The look Sylvia exchanged with Don when he came in was brilliantly layered; they were both frozen by surprise, shame and excitement. All in all, Cardellini has been a spectacular addition to the cast.
- Now we've got a bit of suspense that will likely continue for the next few episodes: How will Bob Benson mess everything up with Heinz? Or will he somehow pull off something grand (and make Ken livid in the process?)
- The episode was well-directed by Jon Hamm, and one of the high points was the way the dinner scene was intercut with Don and Sylvia's highly charged assignation. "You want to feel guilty, right to the point where I take your dress off." That's what should be written on your lighter, Don Draper.
- At what point does Dick Whitman's life story become so utterly filled with horror and tragedy that it tips into some kind of parody? It's not enough that he's the son of a prostitute who died in childbirth and that he had an abusive father and a life beset by emotional and financial poverty -- his pregnant stepmother also took him to live in a whorehouse, where he saw her pay their rent by sleeping with the creepy man of the house. His life is like 50 country songs condensed into one long litany of rejection and pain.
- There's not much levity in late-era "Mad Men," but Don's expert evisceration of Herb's idea in the Jaguar meeting could not have been more sardonically entertaining.
- Not much Joan in this episode, but her "handling" of Herb couldn't have been more full of restrained hatred. She only had a couple of minutes on screen, but Christina Hendricks made every second count.
"Mad Men" airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.