Mad Men Recap: Roosters in the Henhouse

Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC
Mad Men
Mad Men
Episode Title
The Collaborators
Editor’s Rating

All right, can I just say that, as much as I love this show and as strongly as I believe in the notion that characters don’t have to be likable to be interesting, there are still times when I fantasize about Don and Pete and maybe five other major characters lining up like dominos and dropping into that defective elevator shaft from season five? Don and Pete’s selfishness dominated “Collaborators,” which was written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner and directed by Jon Hamm. And oh, what swine they were.

Don continued his affair with Sylvia; because she lives one floor below him and her husband, Arnold Rosen, seems (at this moment in the season, anyhow) like a mensch, there’s an acquisitive undertone to the affair. It’s very Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. Is Don trying to be Sylvia? My colleague Margaret Lyons advanced that theory in a piece titled “Don Draper Wants to Be Every Woman He Seduces,” about Don’s “romantic transitive property.” Or is he trying to be Arnold Rosen? “This is the first affair of Don's that is less about the woman than it is about her husband,” my friend Jeff Strabone said to me last week. “He wishes he had Rosen's gravity, purpose, ease towards death. The affair allows Don into his home, his bed, his wife.” Or is it all about Don’s childhood? The episode’s flashbacks show Don’s pregnant stepmother moving into her sister’s whorehouse, and young Don (played by an actor who, sorry Matthew Weiner, really didn’t look a thing like a young Jon Hamm even though he’s played the role before) peeping through keyholes à la Norman Bates and watching his uncle, a self-identified “rooster,” laying his newest hen, Don’s mama. In the present day, Don ends a morning tumble with Sylvia by giving her a handful of cash. It was a callback to Sylvia and Arnold’s early conversation about money, half-heard by Don in the elevator; despite that, and despite their genuine chemistry, the moment still felt (intentionally) sleazy. Don should have just left the money on the dresser.

As for that whiny snot Pete Campbell, someone could make a mint selling punching bags shaped like his head. He cheated on Trudy with a neighbor, Brenda, after luring her to his city apartment with the promise of Hair tickets. (Note, ladies: When a guy promises to “throw in a hot dog,” he doesn’t always mean lunch.) When Brenda showed up at their house, bloodied from a beating by her jealous husband, it was all Pete could do to keep from physically ejecting her, as if she were more contaminant than person. I was a bit surprised by this turn of events, if only because the opening bit at Pete and Trudy’s party (Pete flirting with two women; two men flirting with Trudy, Playboy bunny cottontail Easter joke and all) led me to expect this episode would be about counterculture/Hair values infiltrating the suburban middle class — something along the lines of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice or The Ice Storm. But no, it was a traditional Mad Men setup, contrasting a man’s “boring” suburban life at home and his “exciting” “single” life in the city.

At least this somewhat tired subplot led to Trudy’s strongest scene ever. She dressed down Pete and made it clear that there would be no more appeasement, to invoke the Munich reference discussed by Pete, Don, and Roger in the office, in their home. “I let you have that apartment,” Trudy said. “I thought that there was some dignity in granting permission. All I wanted was for you to be discreet! She lives on our block!” She was tired of being “an object of pity while you get to do whatever you feel like.”

Appeasement — or “collaboration,” per the episode’s title — was the big theme here. Trudy had to decide if she could keep appeasing her husband and still live with herself, and realized she couldn’t. (My notes on Pete include the phrase “unrelenting scumbaggery.”) Besides Pete-Trudy, we saw Don grapple with appeasement on two fronts: appeasing his desire to be sexually bourgeois and “normal,” just another faithful husband with a good job, which he’s apparently still going to do for a while, despite that mournful closing shot of Don slumped in the hallway, unable to enter his own apartment; and in the workplace, where Don kept his self-respect by cleverly sabotaging a pitch by Herb, the Jaguar dealer Joan bedded to win her partnership last season, to redirect 60 percent of the account’s funds toward local ads. There were retroactive echoes of Joan’s appeasement in “The Other Woman” in that wonderful sequence of her verbally sticking it to the scuzzy oaf Herb (“And I know there’s a part of you you haven’t seen in years”), then taking refuge in Don’s office and wordlessly helping herself to a drink. (Don’s act of sabotage was partly a natural Draper response to being told what to do, but his affection for Joan may have been a bigger factor.) 

Peggy, meanwhile, is being set up for her own appeasement scenario. Her boss Ted overheard her talking to Stan about Heinz reaching out to their agency about possibly representing ketchup; by the end, Ted was pressuring her to wheedle information that her own agency could use to its advantage. Peggy’s ethics prevented an instant yes, but can she stand firm? Ted’s been so respectful of her for so long that I wondered when the other shoe would drop. Sure enough, here he was describing their competition with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as a war — shades of Munich, and the constant Vietnam updates on TV, along with references to the U.S.S. Pueblo incident, in which the U.S. government considered going to war with North Korea over a captured U.S. research ship. (Geek trivia alert: The Pueblo incident inspired an episode of Star Trek, “The Enterprise Incident.” I wonder if Paul Kinsey was in the writers' room at the time, if only fetching coffee?)

Collaboration/appeasement and prostitution were intertwined here, in ways that the script didn’t make coherent. This was one of my least favorite episodes of Mad Men overall — not just because it covered well-trodden territory and lacked the subtly cinematic moments that the first three hours of season five had in spades, but because it just felt muddied. The one big stylistic flourish — cross-cutting between Don getting Sylvia hot-and-bothered in the restaurant and their inevitable tryst — was sexy, all right, but the execution was cliché. I might have been more receptive to it if the affably terrible DaVinci’s Demons hadn’t done the same thing last Friday. The whorehouse flashbacks were purely expository and pretty clunky, and that final music cue, “Just a Gigolo,” was face-palm obvious, as if Robert Zemeckis had suddenly stepped in as music supervisor. I’m also not entirely convinced that a woman as seasoned and self-protective as Peggy would so easily break Stan’s confidence to Ted, even if she’d had a couple of drinks, but your mileage may vary.

Two aspects did intrigue, though. One was the apparent foreshadowing of an abortion story line, juxtaposed with those flashback images of Don’s pregnant stepmother. (Megan’s miscarriage prompted the Italian Catholic Sylvia to announce that she was anti-abortion. Television characters never state opinions on abortion unless somebody on the show is going to consider having one; can a Joan-style out-of-town trip be in her future?) The other was the male privilege motif, which is always a factor on Mad Men but came into the foreground in “The Collaborators.”

The script concocted numerous situations wherein women struggled to carve out space for themselves in a man’s world or coped with the fallout from past struggles. Peggy took a secretary’s advice to try a spoonful of sugar with her writers, but it seemed to cost her some respect in their eyes; they left feminine hygiene deodorant on her desk, something it’s hard to imagine Peggy, God forbid any male copywriters, doing to Don under similar circumstances. Poor Joan is always going to have that partnership-for-sex trade hanging over her (at least with the senior partners; it’s not clear if anyone else in the office knows about it); she won financial security for her and her son, but maybe at the price of her dignity? Megan and Don seem to grow more estranged in direct proportion to Megan’s acting success. He seemed happier when Megan was dependent on him; when she told him last season that he wanted her to work, he got her a job at his office, where his professional superiority served as a constant reminder of who had the upper hand in their marriage. Now that she’s on her own, sort of, his eye is wandering, along with the rest of him. That Megan had a miscarriage and didn’t tell him for days is, to put it mildly, not a good sign.

And what’s Sylvia’s deal, exactly? She comes on like a poised, bantering dame, somebody who can tell Don what she wants and needs and set some boundaries, but how strong is she really? She doesn’t want to fall in love with Don, and tells him as much, but it’s already happening. Her marriage to Arnold Rosen seems a matter of comfort and convenience. Shades of Peggy’s season-two pregnancy/adoption story line, she’s got a son named Mitchell out there somewhere; that’s what the money is for, supposedly. She’s a ripe target for a guy like Don, a rooster who has his pick of the world’s hens but can’t really seem to love anyone, least of all himself.

Odds and ends

* Linda Cardellini is a fantastic addition to the show’s cast and a perfect match for Hamm. I feel the same way about her character that Don Draper does; when they’re not together, I get a little antsy. Maybe it’s just my lingering Freaks and Geeks obsession.

* I can’t get a handle on Bob Benson, not that I’m supposed to — not yet, anyway. I’m predisposed to distrust him because I tend to think that anyone that even-tempered and helpful must be (a) a religious fanatic or (b) up to no good. He’s always taking notes on everything. He’s got a smile in his eyes at all times. Grumble, grumble, don’t like him.

* Don’s justification of not betraying the baked-beans guy was ironic considering the source: “Sometimes you gotta dance with the one that brung you.” I wanted him to add, “And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go cheat on Megan with my downstairs neighbor’s wife.”

* For your archive nerd pleasure: an ad for Quest. “Why take chances now that complete protection is easily obtainable?” it asks.

* Pete to Brenda, post-sex: “I really have to get back. Can you move along a little?” Move over, Cary Grant.

* While I don't doubt that Trudy showed Brenda some genuine sisterly empathy in the car, during her confrontation with Pete there was nary a mention of the bloody violence that her neighbor suffered. That Trudy and Pete's argument is all about Pete's infidelity, without a sympathetic syllable related to Brenda's plight, is chillingly correct for that time and place. In our somewhat more enlightened time, we see domestic violence as an obscene disruption of normalcy. But in 1968 — and for ten, maybe fifteen years after that — it was considered unfortunate but unremarkable, and through certain eyes, shameful, as something that just sometimes happened between married couples and that had to be managed until it couldn't be managed any longer. This moment reminded me of the end of The Gold Violin, in which the Draper family left their litter behind after a picnic. That moment was widely derided as an example of a modern show acting smugly superior to the values of the past. I wonder if Pete and Trudy's kitchen conversation will be similarly criticized? 

* Peggy and Stan have way more of a spark than Peggy and her ostensible boyfriend. Stan's “How was your day, honey?” was a just-kidding spousal salutation that sounded almost like the real thing.