Monday, April 15, 2013

Mad Men 6-3: Collaborators

Don, please stop being such a dick.

Pun fully intended, of course.

"Mad Men"'s Dick Whitman flashbacks have always been one of my least favorite elements of the show, and tonight's episode was a perfect illustration of why. I've never cared for the device because it seems to operate as clumsy shorthand for explaining why Don Draper is the way he is. This time it endeavors to shed some light on why he's engaging in what he clearly recognizes is an exceptionally tawdry affair. The crudest and least charitable interpretation is that treating Sylvia like a whore - schtupping her in the maid's room, paying her (ostensibly for dinner, but really for you-know-what), and contemptuously dismissing her affectations of guilt as just that, affectations - gets Don's rocks off, despite or more likely because of the fact that he essentially "came of age" in a whorehouse. But just because it's crude doesn't mean it isn't true. No doubt watching one's stepmother (pregnant with baby Adam, it looked like) submitting to the head whoremaster might be enough to mess with anyone's sexual psychology. But as a character-driving device it just seems too overdetermined, somehow, and doesn't diminish my weariness of his current affair. Yes, we're only three episodes in, but I'm already tired of it. Maybe that's the point - it's supposed to feel tired and empty and cheap. As such it doesn't, however, make for very riveting television.

It also doesn't help that Sylvia hasn't really been developed in a way that's calculated to inspire any sympathy. Even in her tete-a-tete with distraught Megan, we discover only that she doesn't watch daytime soaps and that she's a better Catholic than Megan as far as abortion is concerned - though not, evidently, when it comes to adultery. At least she has the grace to feel some pangs of conscience for receiving Megan's confidence, though not enough for her to cut things off with Don. In short, all we know about Sylvia is that she's Italian, is cuckolding a very decent husband, and is apparently meant to evoke associations with the devil (Dante's Inferno, steak diavolo, etc.). She just better not spill Megan's secret to Don or she will officially BE the devil.

Fortunately, I liked Don's other main storyline - his subtle jujitsu on Herb the Hutt's attempt to hijack the Jaguar ad campaign - as much as I disliked the Sylvia storyline. Interestingly, Don's conduct at work reflected the very qualities that have gone missing from his personal life: loyalty (to Heinz baked beans guy as well as Joan) and respect for a woman (Joan again). Or maybe it's just the flip side of his complicated attitude towards whores, in that it sickens him to think of Joan prostituting herself for the Jaguar account. Still, the connection to his childhood is much subtler here, and for that reason much more effective. And the denouement of the Jaguar plot, wherein Don undermines Herb's plans while ostensibly delivering what the guy wanted, was absolutely PERFECT - from Don's fiendishly clever play on Jaguar's fears of cheapening their brand, underscored by British Jaguar guy's cut-glass accent, to the slow realization dawning on Pete of what's going on, to Herb's total obliviousness, to Roger's final quip.

Pete Campbell and his sideburns got about as much as screen time as Don tonight, and not surprisingly, his storylines both paralleled and intersected with Don's. Like Don, he sexes up a willing lady neighbor; unlike Don, but very like Pete, he sees the tryst almost immediately blow up in his face. I would say that it also fundamentally alters the power dynamic between him and Trudy, except I don't think that dynamic really has altered; it's just come out in the open now that Trudy is done dissembling in Pete's presence. (Very fine acting this episode from Alison Brie as Trudy.) Angry Trudy is a force to be reckoned with, as Pete well knows. So, too, is Don, still, as revealed in his outmaneuvering Pete at the Jaguar meeting. By the end of the episode, the double defeat is etched into every line of Pete's face and body, and only emphasized by eager Bob the Climber's flattery.

Peggy's arc was largely a continuation of last week's - she's still intimidating her underlings, who predictably resent her for it, and still bonding over the phone with Stan - but did set her up for a huge impending conflict of interest between her lingering loyalties to her old comrades at Sterling Cooper and her desire for professional advancement. Looks like Ted Chuffnstuff is going to go after Heinz, which will put Peggy in a pretty quandary, especially if she has to make the pitch. Maybe she can take a page out of Don's book and pull a Jaguar-like feint.

Random observations:

-The shot of adolescent Dick Whitman pulling a peeping Tom on stepma reminded me of Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates peering through the keyhole in "Psycho."

-We are definitely in sleazier times, as the episode seemed determined to remind us right at the outset with that scene of Pete and Trudy entertaining their neighbors. Funny how the Campbells seemed almost old-fashioned in their initial reactions to their neighbors' come-ons; Pete, of course, being Pete, was soon happy to adapt, only to do it ineffectually.

-Speaking of old-fashioned: Don's still drinking them. And still prone to saying "This never happened."

-The blurring of the lines between Megan's "real" and "T.V." personas in her conversation with Sylvia was a very meta, very "writerly" touch. Surprisingly, it didn't annoy me.

-Still not enough Joan, though she did make short (and stinging) work of Herb's advances. I wondered for a brief moment if that was what inspired his turn on the Jaguar ad campaign, except I don't think he's capable of coming up with something like that so quickly.

-Not much Roger this episode, either, but as always, he made the most of his few lines: "Deftest self-immolation I've ever seen," on Don's performance at the Jaguar meeting, followed by this priceless exchange with Don: "As my mother used to say, your options were dishonor or war. You chose dishonor. You might still get war." "That was Churchill."

-Least subtle line of the week: the last exchange between Pete and Bob the Climber about the disparity between "what it looks like" (Pete doing what he loves) and the reality of what *is*. Bob's little speech about his own family did make me wonder if he's going to turn out to be a more important character than just an annoying climber. If Pete is Don 2.0, is this guy future Pete 2.0?


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