When it comes to Mad Men analysis I’m not sure how often reviewers more in tune than I try to draw connections between the world historical events that receive mention on screen and the smaller scale events on Madison Avenue—this is only my second recap, and when I was catching up with Netflix I didn’t pause to read what Alan Sepinwall had written. More often than not, it seems to me that Mad Men uses history to serve two purposes: first, to pinpoint the time, often to the exact date, during which a given episode is set; second, to watch as the main characters react to those you-remember-where-you-were moments. As a good example of the former, you can just look to last week’s premiere: When Peggy mentioned that she had to get her commercial ready for the impending Super Bowl between the Packers and Raiders, we could intuit that Season Six opens just as 1968 does. For the latter, we know that Peggy informed Pete that she’d given birth to his child against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we were forewarned episodes ahead of time that Roger’s daughter’s ominously-scheduled November 23, 1963 wedding would be interrupted by Kennedy’s assassination. I’m not sure, though—and this could still be a function of the level of attention I paid to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy Assassination episodes—that I’ve ever noticed the parallels between a historical occurrence and the Mad Men universe as much as I did in last night’s “The Collaborators.”
In January 1968, of course, we’re hearing about the Tet Offensive. A good Wikipedia summary or Lynn Hoppes blog post will suffice: the Tet Offensive was basically a campaign launched by the Viet Cong against the South that reneged on a temporary truce agreed upon in observance of a Vietnamese holiday. This much was explicitly relayed by the show; what was no less explicitly relayed, at least in my viewing, were the parallel uneasy truces established between some of the characters that threatened to, or actually did, unwind.
The truce between Pete and Trudy crumbled to the ground after Trudy discovered that Pete stupidly banged his neighbor after Trudy had given him an easy opportunity to carry on an affair with anybody other than a neighbor with the purchase of Pete’s Manhattan apartment. Trudy is not angered by Pete’s infidelity—she’s not dumb—but by Pete’s inability to be discrete; she’s simply amazed to learn Pete, in spite of all of his success, is that dumb, as elucidated by his incomprehension of an implicit deal that was obvious to her and to everybody who watches the show. (Though, of course, no viewer can be surprised by Pete’s flagrant disregard for implicit rules.) Trudy’s pain and anger were beautifully conveyed last night by Allison Brie; like Pete we were waiting with bated breath to see her unload after the looks she shot him while administering ice to his squeeze’s Gittes-esque nose. It’s Pete who openly violates the truce and Trudy who’s left bewildered, embarrassed, and shamed. Trudy is definitely the sympathetic character here, and she’s portrayed as strong willed on the show; her fault was not in under-estimating but in over-estimating her partner in the truce.
There’s an uneasy alliance between Don and Sylvia, too—an affair that fills both with (small) slivers of guilt but to which neither is immune, and necessarily implicates both Megan and Dr. Rosen as collateral damage. After these first two episodes, I’m still amazed how casual both Don and Sylvia are, even after accounting for Don’s notoriety in service of this skillset: Both families live in the same building, and who’s to say that Dr. Rosen can’t walk through his front door just as quickly as he leaves it when he’s on call? This relationship is the proverbial bomb under the table we’re waiting to see go off. The fact that the families are friends makes the impending damage to all involved all the more hurtful, and for all of Don’s controlling ways—he’s able to conduct his affairs more discretely than anyone else—he still won’t be able to elude the inevitable harm that results. In other words, we’re all as confident in this ending poorly as Don is in charming Sylvia into craving a juicy steak and some after-dinner sausage. (Somebody—Sepinwall suggested in his recap that it wasn’t necessarily Jon Hamm, last night’s director—deserves credit for editing Don and Sylvia’s dinner conversation/torrid love-making mashup.)
Then there’s the business relationships that are in jeopardy. A visit made by the weak and indecisive baked bean honcho from Heinz hinders SCDP’s ability to attract more lucrative business; he’s so threatened by his ketchup kingpin counterpart (I appreciate the not-so-slyness of casting the fat man for the shit product and the good-looking one for the sexy product) that he passes the threat onto SCDP. Another call paid to SCDP, this one by the Jaguar liaisons, reminds everybody (characters and viewers) of the unethical foundation on which this relationship was built; Joan’s retort regarding Herb’s paunchiness and Don’s undermining of Herb’s desired strategy mark the Jaguar account as a truce that merits some contempt sent Jaguar’s way. SCDP (or Don, really) is right to put a stop to Jaguar’s demands—god damn it, Don has learned the lessons of Munich!—but it seems that there’s no healthy way to proceed irrespective of whether SCDP draws a line in the sand or appeases its client; the uneasy truce will continue while everyone (save Joan and Don) skirts around the elephant in the room.
Finally, what’s expected of two former colleagues who now work for different employers? Stan and Peggy have enjoyed a fruitful and friendly working collaboration ever since their nudist brainstorming session, but now, after revealing the Heinz fiasco to Ted when Stan presumably appraised her of the situation in confidence, Peggy is tasked with aggressively pursuing the ketchup division, and hopefully devising a nice catchy jingle related to getting that sugary red crap (ketchup sucks, people) out of the damn bottle. SCDP is the enemy, Ted reminds Peggy, in a clear signal that it will be extremely hard for her to have things both ways. She values her overnight calls with Stan, of course, but that collaboration was formed through her work, and going forward their interests must diverge along with those of their respective agencies. Here we’re talking about the truce between competing employers: Sometimes the cost of doing business is the friendship shared between employees of competitors, because that friendship might lead those employees to leave many things unsaid. How much information will Stan trust Peggy with going forward?
As I said at the outset, I don’t know if this is the type of analysis that Mad Men usually demands, but with this season set in 1968, we know we’re about to see Madison Avenue butt up against historical fact and tragedy with far-reaching political and social implications. We’ve got the setting in place, and certainly we’ll witness Don et al react to the impending assassinations and riots. The question is, how much will their deterioration match the real world’s?
[kyra addendum] Faithful readers: don’t shit where you eat. That was the message of last night’s episode, beautifully recapped above by Buckeye. There are characters who fit all along the path from point A to B along the consequences of failing to adhere to this mantra. On one end, there is Pete, trying to give his best Don Draper impersonation, but he sucks at it. Trudy is a much stronger woman than Betty ever was, so she won’t stand for this kind of embarrassment and it blows up in his face. Brenda lived in their neighborhood for god sakes!
Next comes Don, who is dancing dangerously close to the fire. While we know Don has had his share of trysts in the past, I don’t think he’s ever been with someone as close to his wife as Sylvia, who ends up being the first to learn of Megan’s miscarriage. Don in the past has been very good about keeping up plausible deniability, but in a post-Anna Draper world he is flailing. Taking chances he normally might not like going to the Rosen apartment before the Doc is out the front door; openly seducing her at dinner when he could come back from his phone call at any moment (and engaging in the most effective eye-fucking I have ever seen). He is so checked out of his marriage following helping her get her TV gig that while he certainly doesn’t want to face the consequences of being caught, he wants to get caught. When it’s reached the point where he answers her serious questions about having a baby with ‘I want what you want,’ without putting much thought into the implications, it’s done. It’s only a matter of time before Megan finds out about Sylvia, but the question is how she will react.
Let’s not forget Mr. Big Shot at Heinz, who is also violating this principle. Openly hurting your own company by warning SCDP they can’t go after ketchup because this is your moment in the sun will surely hurt you down the road. I wonder how long they will remain a client. Do you really want to continue dancing with ‘the one who brung ya’ when the girl sitting in the corner is tasty and goes with fries, burgers, steak, and so many other things (sorry Buckeye, ketchup is delicious)?
Finally there is Peggy, who is just beginning to trod down this road. While yes, she does not work for SCDP anymore, she has to know what lobbying for Heinz’s business will do for her friendship with Stan.
A great episode of Mad Men. I love this show.
Correction: Buckeye here; turns out I initially spoke of Dr. Cohen when his real name is Dr. Rosen. WHOOPS.