Mad Men season 6 episode 3 review: The Collaborators

This week’s Mad Men sees wars fought overseas, in the boardroom, and in the bedroom. Here’s Frances’ review of The Collaborators…

This review contains spoilers.

6.3 The Collaborators

If Edwin Starr had posed his ‘War’ question to this week’s Mad Men writers, absolutely nothing would not have been their answer. What is war good for? Why, for providing a palate of parallels and metaphors through which to explore late-sixties gender and workplace relations, Mr Starr. (Uh-huh. Yeah. Say it again y’all. And so on.)

We join Don and co. a month after we left them on the cusp of 1968. The North Koreans had captured the USS Pueblo, the Vietcong had attacked the US embassy in Saigon, and Pete Campbell had run out of toilet paper. In short, things in Mad Men were looking bleak.

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Don’s workplace battle was being fought with sweaty Herb from Jaguar, whose slimy return this week ensured the Tet wasn’t the only thing being offensive. Mad Men fans have come to expect a moment or two of boardroom magic from Don most episodes, and we weren’t disappointed. His deliberately disastrous Jaguar pitch, which aimed the elite product at a demographic of “New Jersey… truck drivers… housewives”, was a coup in reverse psychology, sending short-sighted Herb on his way, and securing SCDP the national campaign it wanted. We’ve all heard Don sell the smart idea, the visionary idea, the poetic idea… so seeing him sell the stupid idea was a fun twist. What kind of an idiot would you have to be to think that Don isn’t a salesman? Sweaty Herb’s kind, evidently.

Another season four client returned in the form of Heinz beans’ Raymond Geiger. After introducing SCDP to the lucrative Heinz ketchup account, Geiger once again showed his fearfulness by forbidding the firm from wooing his colleague. The story prompted a dilemma for Peggy, who is about to find out whether all’s fair in love, war, and tomato-based advertising accounts.

The fight between Peggy’s conscience and ambition wasn’t her only duel this week, there was also a pocket of resistance to quell from her male copywriting staff. Taking her cue from Don (the boss who taught her everything, including ten ways to tell her employees they’re useless), Peggy’s uncompromising attitude at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough was making her few friends. Will her experience firing Joey after he drew that crude cartoon of Joan in The Summer Man inform her next tactic in this week’s fight against sexist insubordination?

It’s an old observation but worth repeating that as a man, Don’s tough line never led to him being the butt of insulting jokes. The same qualities that make Don strong make Peggy a bitch, or so the workplace misogyny tells it. I feel exhausted just thinking about the uphill climb her character faces on that front; can’t we just zip Peggy along to the present day in the TARDIS and save her (most) of the bother? Without her kind wading through the molasses of gender politics back then though, the rest of us might still be limited, like Joan, to expressing our creativity through jaunty neck-scarves and capitulating underneath sweaty Herb. Shudder.

Nowhere was the war between the sexes more clearly drawn than in Pete and Trudy’s story this week. Though both Campbells were flirted with early on, it was Pete who doled out the business cards and took a neighbour to bed. When said neighbour was battered by her bastard husband as a result, Trudy learnt of Pete’s latest deception, and set out her terms. From “Couldn’t you just pretend?” to “I refuse to be a failure” and “I will destroy you”, Alison Brie’s breakfast table speech was finely written, and brilliantly performed.

One line in particular of Trudy’s was a pithy summation of her lot, and strongly reminiscent of season three Betty, “There’s no way for me to escape, for me not to be an object of pity while you get to do whatever you feel like”. If this is how Trudy reacts to infidelity being thrown in her face, what might the more emancipated Megan do if she finds out that Don isn’t just sleeping with a woman who lives on the same block, but in the same building?

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The historical context may have been insisted upon somewhat heavily this week (it’s tricky to establish time and place without having characters march into rooms and deliver lines like “Gee, how about those North Vietnamese, against whom the US is currently fighting a controversial land war?”, something Dr Rosen more or less did in that restaurant scene), but the prominence of the international conflicts at least paid off thematically when translated to the domestic.

Jon Hamm’s second episode behind the camera was a marked improvement on his first. Season five’s Tea Leaves ran through Betty’s cancer scare at a breathless gallop, crowding what’s usually a narratively spacious show with melodrama and bunched-up plot. The Collaborators didn’t hang around, story-wise, but gave its multi-stranded domestic stories ample room, and included the odd stylish touch too. The best of those was that smooth-as-Roger’s-tailoring transition at the end between young Dick and old Don, both lingering in corridors, caught in in-between spaces. They could just as well have called this one The Doorway.

The song playing as Don slid to the floor outside apartment 17B was as good a theme tune as the character could have. Just a Gigolo’s melancholic story about a dispossessed man playing a part, worrying that he’ll be remembered only as a tawdry puppet after death suits Draper every bit as well as that wool overcoat.

The Collaborators took us back to the moment Don’s sexual politics were formed, during his childhood at the best little whorehouse in Pennsylvania. Hamm’s camera trained us to equate Sylvia with the Mae West-alike prostitute who, like the bad fairy at sleeping beauty’s christening, bestowed a curse upon young Dick. “Little boy, find your own sins, stay away from Mac’s”, she told him, advice Don resolutely failed to follow, going on to grow up into nothing if not Mad Men’s rooster. (Incidentally, just how naughty was the flashback script this week, with that “Let’s get you off your feet” line to Abigail Whitman, precisely ‘Uncle’ Mac’s intention…).

It wasn’t just the camera matching that drew parallels between Sylvia and a working girl, but her accepting that wedge of cash in bed. As well as the money and the sex, Don also gave Mrs Rosen a lesson in the art of living a guilt-free adulterous life, explaining his ability to compartmentalise with that “This didn’t happen” mantra. Will Don file away Megan’s miscarriage under the same heading? As Heinz says, some things never change.

That being the case, let’s hope Mad Men‘s current high quality is one of them.

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