Upon glancing at the fan comments on Mad Men’s Facebook page last week, it became clear that many hated the premiere. They used words like “BORING.” and “Way too dull for a premiere,” while failing to articulate what it was they were unsatisfied about. Much of the two-hour premiere’s conflict was internalized for each of the main characters, so I can understand why those who only gravitate to the show for the adultery, sexism and excessive drinking would be disappointed. Personally, I loved the premiere, with its obsession with death and aging weighing on the minds of the characters who once thought they had it all. “Collaborators” does not carry those themes over from the premiere in any overt manner but it does show characters like Don, Pete and Peggy desperately clinging to whatever it is that makes them happy.
For Don, this happiness is in the form of his newest brown-haired-girl Sylvia. Sylvia is an amalgamation of every mistress Don’s been with over the course of the series: she has the requisite brown hair, she’s closer to Don’s age, she has a sharp wit and, most of all, she is driven absolutely crazy by Don’s sexual magnetism. The one twist here is that she’s dangerously close to Megan in a way that Don has never risked before. When Megan confides in Sylvia about her recent miscarriage (which she hasn’t told Don about), Don himself walks through the door and each character is forced to put on an unassuming face. Everyone is withholding a secret from everyone else; the difference is in how each character deals with their own secrecy. Megan practically has a nervous breakdown over hers and tells Don about the miscarriage only a few days afterward. Sylvia’s dinner with Don makes her so uncomfortable that she darts her eyes around the room for any potential listeners, despite being “alone” with him. Don, on the other hand, is such a master at his craft by this point that he manages to confidently satisfy both Sylvia and Megan while giving the outward appearance of a man with nothing to hide. It is only in his sitting down in the hallway outside his apartment at the end of the episode that shows he’s honestly getting too old for this shit, both physically and emotionally. I’m curious to see what happens, considering Sylvia’s closeness to Megan and Don’s confidence with not getting caught. One curious element about the season thus far is the lack of Megan, compared to the last few. I wonder if this is because many complained about the last season for having “too much Megan” or if it’s because Don no longer finds her to be the exciting, younger girl as he did when he impulsively proposed to her. She isn’t a factor for him anymore, the latest toy to be thrown out and replaced with a more reliable model.
Trying to maneuver his own affair in this episode is Pete, whose nervous insecurity around his mistress pales in comparison to Don’s old-fashioned swagger. Like Don, he is engaging in his own affair with a good friend of his and his wife. However, he lacks the fortitude to see that the girl is unstable when she lists off the little signs she will do in the future to indicate that she’s thinking about him. Unsurprisingly, she shows up at the Campbells’ doorstep, bruised and bloodied by her husband, who has learned of the affair. After driving her to the hospital, Trudy finally scolds Pete, not for the affair itself but for the carelessness with which he chose a girl so close to home, literally and figuratively. Not only is this the best scene in the episode, it’s also a great moment in the series, since many of us have been waiting for Trudy to stand up to Pete and leave the little weasel of a man. I have to give major props to Alison Brie for delivering what could have been a cliche domestic drama scene with pent-up intensity. Pete is so insecure about fitting in and getting others to like him that he will do whatever it takes. He must have his requisite mistress on the side, he must schmooze every client with the subtlety of a slimy used-car salesman, and he must act as the asshole-with-a-smile with his male co-workers. The problem is, none of it is sincere in any way. Kudos to the casting department in picking Vincent Kartheiser for the part of Pete, his boyish face remains childlike after six full years, reflecting an insecure little boy playing pretend as confident ad man.
We get two different client storylines at SCDP, one from Raymond from the Heinz corporation and one from Herb, the fat cat salesman from Jaguar who Joan was coerced into having sex with last season. Raymond brings along the new head of the Ketchup division, a young go-getter named Timmy who Raymond secretly hates. Raymond tries to persuade SCDP to turn them down when Timmy leaves the room, essentially revealing his jealousy and his resentment at still being in charge of the decidedly less sexy Baked Beans division. Later, when Herb tries to solicit Joan for more sex, she goes into Don’s office and gives him a knowing look. It is intimated that this the reason Don later sabotages Herb’s idea of localizing the Jaguar brand. Both of these storylines reflect a desperate desire for these advertisers to hold on to what was once theirs while still trying to have more, much like Don and Pete.
The other storyline we get is from Peggy, who is doing whatever she can to make her creative underlings like her. After viciously shooting down their Clearasil ideas, she backtracks and acts more gently. She later has a phone conversation with old officemate Stan, who fills her in on the Heinz debacle. She relays the story to Ted, who uses the information as a way to gain Heinz ketchup as a client. Peggy initially feels bad about this course of action, considering it was private conversation with an old friend and co-worker, but seems to come around to the idea when Ted tells her, “This is how wars are won. Your friend’s mistake was underestimating you.” Peggy has been thrust into a genuine position of power, which she isn’t necessarily all that comfortable with. She has to play with the big boys now if she wants to gain any sort of leg up on the competition. I like this Heinz development, though, considering it is able to bring Peggy back into the mix with SCDP whether indirectly or not.
One of the most brilliant aspects of Mad Men is how it’s able to develop its characters in such a way that goes against the forward-moving culture of the ’60s. With so much social change going on around them, Don, Pete, Roger and most of the men, for that matter, are still stuck in the traditions of the ’50s and want to maintain that level of comfortable philandering while their wives sit unaware at home. Pete tries so hard to be one of the guys that he fails to comprehend the consequences of his actions. The flashbacks we get to Don as a teenager reveal how early he was exposed to sex and secrecy, which went on to form his entire adult life. This has caused him to repeat the same formula (marry beautiful wife, get bored, find a mistress more interesting than wife) while never understanding why he has become so unhappy. Meanwhile, Peggy has been so immersed in the culture created by Don Draper and company that her shrewdness is seen as out of date at her new agency. She wants to hold on to the company that made her who she is while also being her own independent woman. These character can’t have everything, much as they may try, and this conflict causes them to fly too close to the sun, secluding them to a world of stilted personal development and silent dissatisfaction. If only their co-workers, family and friends knew how similar their internal struggles truly are.
MVP: Alison Brie