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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.