Monday, April 15, 2013

Puddles of My Mad Men Season Six: "The Collaborators"

A recap of the Mad Men episode "The Collaborators."

Growing up, my friends and I were interested in girls.  And being friends, we were loyal to each other. We were loyal not out of some greater purpose or high sense of morals, but because it just seemed like the natural thing to do. Some of us had girlfriends and some of us didn’t—and everyone was always together. Girls and girlfriends would pass and one of my great friends had a habit of repeating part of Al Pacino’s speech from Devil’s Advocate. If you don’t know the speech, don’t worry, but there is a point where Pacino says, “Look but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste but don’t swallow.” And then Pacino laughs and overacts.

“The Collaborators,” the second installment of the sixth season of Mad Men is a fairly straightforward—for Mad Men—episode that meditates on loyalty and fidelity and the cost of maintaining those two seemingly lofty ideals. And, by focusing on these two abstract ideas, calls into question whether those values are even real and, if so, what they might mean.

Like many previous Mad Men episodes, “The Collaborators” creates its structure by using Don and Pete as foils. However, as we know, Don and Pete are just as similar as they are different, so whenever we are meant to take them as opposites, the results are interesting. On the surface, Don is the experienced adulterer who has managed to carry on multiple long-term affairs while also maintaining the appearance of a perfectly married man with a cookie cutter wife and children, while Pete is the inexperienced adulterer who has only carried out a few hasty mismanaged infidelities. However, by the end of the episode, both are dissatisfied and wearied with the results of their respective endeavors and levels of competency.

The episode starts with a foreboding and very seedy look into the unsatisfied marriages of Pete’s suburban existence. The husbands at the dinner party flirt with Trudy while the wives make overtures at Pete. Pete has sex with his neighbor’s wife at his Upper East Side pied-a-terre, but he doesn’t know what he wants. Even though he had his heart broken last season by Beth Dawes (aka Rory Gilmore), the mentally unstable wife of his neighbor, he doesn’t fully understand the stakes of a full-fledged affair. So, naturally the whole incident blows up in his face when his neighbors fight, his fling (who is clearly more game for the stakes of the romance and the infidelity) winds up bruised and bloody at his home. After further mismanagement, Pete lets the situation fall out of his grasp and the woman ends up divulging her transgressions to Trudy, who then kicks Pete out in a masterful show of power and knowing, at least on the surface, what she wants out of Pete. They will be a show couple in every sense of the word and Pete will play along because, while he may be driven and decisive (albeit impulsive) at work, he has proven himself incapable of the same qualities in his personal life.

Meanwhile, Don, the experienced adulterer, is entering far more difficult and murky territory with his downstairs neighbor Sylvia. After a daring morning sex-session, Don lays out his modus operandi to his latest mistress. “This didn’t happen,” he says, while they are lying in bed. Then, tapping his temple, he flatly states, “Only in here.” For Don, reality is only what you make of it in your head. If take action, and it is “wrong” or “dishonorable,” that is something that can be forgotten, that can be relegated to the farthest reaches of your mind. Because, once you do that, just as he told Peggy after she gave away her baby, “it will shock you how much [it] never happened.”

However, Don is getting older and the moral stakes he is playing with are becoming far higher. Megan—our ambitious and well-meaning Megan—has had a miscarriage while Don is carrying out an affair with the Italian Catholic wife of his virtuous surgeon neighbor; a man who Don has even termed his “friend.” In “The Doorway,” when Dr. Rosen visits Don’s office to pick up his camera, the surgeon takes a glimpse at the backside of a passing secretary as she walks off-screen—Dr. Rosen “looks but doesn’t touch.” Don is not capable of looking and not touching; he’s tried in brief stints, but he always falls victim to what he wants—even if that lasts for only a short time.

The high point of Don’s story comes in two contrasting scenes of dialogue with the two women in his life. The first comes when he and Sylvia are forced by circumstance to have dinner alone. While they sit, the two exchange a masterful bit of dialogue that exemplifies the way that power can shift in a conversation. Sylvia accuses Don of not knowing what he wants and thus in turn can have no idea what he wants or expects. Don then tells Sylvia exactly what she wants and how she is feeling about their affair. “You want to feel shitty,” he says, “right until I take your dress off. And I’m going to do that.”

When Don returns from dinner and his dalliance with Sylvia, he sits with Megan while she tells him about her miscarriage. As soon as the transcript of this scene becomes available, I would recommend reading it because I am going to pore over it. The way he and Megan use the word “want” to push power, acceptance and marital goodwill and innocence back and forth is astonishing. By telling Megan that he “wants” her to “want” to have the conversation about having a baby with him if that’s what she “wants” is a shocking show of manipulation. By doing this, Don becomes “infallible” in this decision within their relationship, while still maintaining the “reality” of their marriage in the midst of his latest affair.

And if all of that reads as exhausting, it’s because it is, which explains why Don can do nothing but sit in front of his door at the end of the episode, spent from all the emotional, mental and moral energy he is spending just to feel some modicum of satisfaction or control—if he even feels that.

Then, of course there is Peggy and Heinz and her “loyalty” to the trade of advertising while somewhat selling out Stan and by extension Don. Peggy’s mentor chose to be loyal to Heinz when he was presented with a chance to dance with a younger mistress. “Sometimes you gotta dance with the date that brung ya,” he says to Ken. The one instance where Don decided to be moral may end up coming back to haunt him and the firm.

Late in the episode, Roger and Don reference “Munich” in relation to Herb, the Jaguar dealer that slept with Joan. Don had to implode his pitch in order to shut down the greedy and manipulative Jaguar guy and effectively say, “No.” At their dinner, Don tells Sylvia, “I want you. I want you all the time.” Sylvia was unable to say, “No” to Don and now, like the Germans, he’s going to want more.

But as we know, more doesn’t even mean anything—even if you think you know what you want.

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