A Girl Watching Mad Men: Dancing with the One Who Brung You (S6/E3 “The Collaborators)

There was a theme of infidelity being batted around in this episode of Mad Men. Did you notice? Everyone is literally coveting their neighbors’ wives. Pete cheats on Trudy (and she knows it, too, which is amazing and awful at the same time) with the lady across the street, and Don cheats on Megan with Linda Cardellini one floor down. The consequences of these actions vary: domestic violence on Pete’s end, breathy warnings against falling in love on Don’s. I was brought back to the episode where Don basically forces himself on the hot teacher with the novel passion for night jogging. The scene where he makes his way into her cute studio apartment was juxtaposed, in a fashion similar to this most recent episode, with Pete raping the German au pair. I’m saying “forces himself” and “raping” as if a difference exists, but one does, the way the show has it, which is an annoying problem of its own. When Pete goes for a lady he wants, it’s deeply gross and always translates to some form of abuse. Maybe it’s his sneer? I don’t know. Don asking for what he wants and getting it, regardless of his commitments, always will be received by the other characters as titillating. (The scene in the Italian restaurant, where Don says that Sylvia wants to feel shitty right up until the point where he takes off her dress, is arguably the most powerful seduction we’ve seen from Don in several seasons. Bobbie Barrett would have been impressed. God, I miss her. Side note: I often think about how smart Peggy was to pick up Bobbie’s dry cleaning as a way to get clothes without being seen by her husband. So sensible! Like a spy novel, but with couture.)

There’s an obvious physical difference between the two men, but there’s something else, too. Don fumbles the Jaguar pitch when he’s supposed to be selling the ideas of the guy who traded a night with Joan for the account, and it’s made clear he’s doing it on purpose. When Pete calls Don out on it, Don responds, “I wish you handled your clients as well as you handled me.” Don is someone who is in control of when he loses control. Pete? Not so much. He fucks up where it counts: with his wife, with his choice of conquests, with his image. Weiner, et al., have always subbed him in when some comic relief has been needed. (Remember those tennis shorts when they all come into work to slave away on the American Airlines campaign? Well, I do.) He even messes up having a bachelor pad expressly bought for the purpose of screwing around. Don should be so lucky.

When something’s at stake, Don is preferable. Maybe. He’s not really there for his wife, who got rid of an unwanted pregnancy pretty quickly and is feeling major Catholic guilt about it. Megan’s closeted abortion hints at a more substantial plot line that I wouldn’t mind, i.e. her having more than two dimensions. It was just a hint though. Every conversation about the “miscarriage” was oblique and not in a fun way. “You have to know I want what you want,” Don says kind of limply. “Do you want to have this conversation?” she asks Don when they skirt past the issue of having kids. When Sylvia’s husband says to Don, “You’re lucky your wife works,” you’re made to wonder what that actually means for the longevity of Don and Megan as a couple, as if you haven’t wondered already, and there’s no more obvious outcome than divorce, divorce, divorce.

More subtly, there was a nice thread of people learning to reevaluate friendships and alliances. Peggy considers her relationship with Stan a friendship, a nightly conversation between equals, but her boss (whose name I’m forgetting; my viewing mates and I just call him a dork or a dweeb whenever he comes onscreen) sees that as a miscalculation. Stan, he says, is underestimating Peggy’s business acumen in telling her a story that happens to involve a client Peggy could potentially get. But Peggy doesn’t see it this way at first. They’re talking about their days, the people they know, funny things. Does she see it as a potential get once her boss points it out? Unclear. Elisabeth Moss’s face is somewhat inscrutable in moments like these. Pleasurably inscrutable, but inscrutable nonetheless.

Megan similarly evaluated her friendship with Sylvia as something between equals: women who were brought up religious and taught to disdain unwanted pregnancy. But Megan miscalculates, too, thinking that Sylvia will get it if she confesses to guilt over choosing her career over maternal duties. Sylvia does not get it. Sylvia pities, sympathizes, but she does not get it. (Poor Megan. Nobody gets it.) The primary force behind the dynamic of their relationship, however, is hidden from Megan, who doesn’t know that Don is cheating on her, even though it must be obvious, given how often Don sneaks out to see Sylvia. You can’t be friends with a woman you’re fucking over, even if your partner in crime sees no problem with sitting at the same dinner table. There’s a difference in status between the two women, and there is a difference in status between Peggy and Stan, even if there is willful denial behind every interaction among either pair. There’s totally a Henry James quote about this, I can sense it. Once you confront what a friendship actually is, it dies. Or something.

I will say, as an aside, that I hope Peggy and Stan fall madly in love and run away together, but that’s just me. Well, me and basically everyone else I’ve talked to about this show since the season premiere showed them gabbing on equal footing and essentially saying to each other, “No, you hang up.”

So, okay. This episode was much better than the season premiere, but it wasn’t without its faults. Missteps in this episode include: halfhearted Freudian flashbacks for Don, peeping on his prostitute mom with her swollen belly and a creeping john; the meager Joan portion, which you might have already forgotten due to its feather weight; and too much dull conflict between the Jaguar people and the guys, a pretty obvious set-up for what will eventually be something between Don and Joan, two people so attractive that their union might make the world cave in on itself. Let’s hope it does not come to that. We have tickets to Hair, after all.

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