This! Is! Mad Men! – The Collaborators


[This! Is! Mad Men! recaps the most recent developments of Don Draper and his lovable gang of sleazeball advertisers. In the spirit of the show, the post itself may very well be drunk. And sexist. Apologies ahead of time.]

One of the secrets of getting good at any game is to learning how to navigate through the rules. Just as a hacker can manipulate an operating system, a true sportsman knows how to bend, ignore, or even break the rules of his given game. In fact, this practice is so prevalent that many sports even develop their own sets of etiquette, terms, and conditions that are implicitly agreed upon.

Life, often compared to a game, certainly has its share of unspoken agreements.

But who’re the people that turn the other way when the rules are broken? Who deals in terms of tacit transactions? Well, it always seems to be The Collaborators.

As has been the case throughout the course of the series, the sixth season of Mad Men sees Don Draper embroiled in some illicit activity. However, this time `round the shadiness cloaking Draper doesn’t concern his secret identity or some underhanded business deals, but his affair with Sylvia Rosen. Sure, it stands to reason that the coital-contract between Don and Sylvia would contain a clause or two about not telling their respective spouses. But there’re actually more implicit forces at work.

More specifically, it becomes clear that Sylvia thought her relationship with Don was more an entrée than a side-dish.  The revelation is dropped as Megan Draper tearfully confides to Sylvia that she just had a miscarriage. Seeing Megan, many years her junior and incredibly vulnerable, throws Sylvia through a loop. Perhaps Sylvia once thought that she was filling a void in Don’s life, but now she has to confront the reality that Don is still committed to his wife. Sylvia, initially only having a partial understanding of the tryst’s, now finds herself rife with jealously.

It’s a sticky situation.

This episode also provides some insight into the origins of the lasciviousness that makes Don think he can bang whoever he wants as long as his other responsibilities are attended. We find out that the teenage Dick Whitman spent some living in the whorehouse owned by his uncle. (I’m not sure, but I think that this guy is his stepmother’s sister’s husband. Does that make sense?) In addition to seeing the boy who would become Don Draper rockin’ a sick-ass bowl haircut, we also watch him acclimate to his new surroundings by keyhole-peepin’ at naughtiness and getting worked up when prostitutes talk to him.

Although I’m usually on board to learn more about the Dick Whitman years, these scenes just didn’t feel right to me. There’s something about the idea that Draper having lived in a bordello that seems like a bit of ham-fisted character development. Are we now to correlate Donnie’s insatiable sexual appetite with some of his formative years having been spent in a hyper-sexualized environment? Of course. Wasn’t it enough that his mother was a prostitute?

But maybe I’m just miffed that I now have to deal with another fold in the Draper-fabric. It was, admittedly, easier to attribute Don’s adulterous proclivities to the fact that he’s looking for anything to fill the void, whether cigarettes or booze or babes. But there’s no denyin’ that Draper’s sexual history is now more complicated than ever.

A second unspoken agreement is brought to light through the sexual escapades of Pete Campbell. At the start of this episode, we see Campbell mackin’ on some neighbor-wives during a party at his house. We then see Pete and a neighbor-babe ironing-out some genital wrinkles in an NYC apartment that Pete’s set up just for such purposes. Afterwards, the woman seems a bit clingy, but Pete tries to let her down softly and everything seems fine.

That is, of course, until this same neighbor runs crying into the Campbell household in the middle of the night, battered and bloodied at the hands of her husband.

The Campbells clean up the woman, and Trudy brings her to a hotel. But the next morning, Trudy unloads on Pete, telling him that although she’s allowed him to do whatever he feels necessary at that NYC apartment, he crossed the line by banging a neighbor. For all intents and purposes, it seems as though the Campbell marriage will be the Campbell divorce. In this moment, we learn that there’s been an supra-marital system set up for Pete, and he could not operate within its parameters.

Moreover, this scene is without question Alison Brie’s crowning achievement on the series. Brie exudes both agency and disgust, as a wife who realizes that even the exceptions she’s made for her husband have been taken for granted. Through Brie, the scene perfectly captures the disgust and resentment of having to tell Icarus that he flew too close to the sun.

The last foray into the world of assumed statues comes in the form of a Peggy Olsen dilemma. Peggy, as the genuinely human being she is, maintains a friendship with SCDP art director Stan Rizzo. During a speakerphone conversation, Stan reveals to Peggy that Heinz Ketchup came to SCDP, but the agency wouldn’t pursue anything because doing so would piss off Heinz Beans, already a satisfied client. (Even though the ketchup division would be huge, Don Draper puts it succinctly: “Sometimes ya have to dance with the one that brung ya.”). However, Peggy’s boss Ted overhears the conversation and tells her to go for it.

Peggy doesn’t want to step on toes at SCDP, and believes that she can’t act on any information given to her in confidence during a private conversation with Stan. Ted, however, doesn’t see things this way and believes that using such information is just part of the advertising game. As a player in the game, Peggy needs to decide how she prioritizes friendship and professional success.

The Collaborators shows us the risks of being party to the covert, the clandestine, the unspeakable occurrences that affect our lives. Whether lovers or spouses or business partners, when we engage in private affairs that have public implications, conflict will arise. The real question is whether we’ll be able to maintain like Don, crash and burn like Pete, or deliberate like Peggy.

What type of collaborator are you?