Review: Mad Men – Season 6 Episode 3: ‘The Collaborators’

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(Wri. Matthew Weiner & Jonathan Igla, Dir. Jon Hamm)

Once again charged with steering a season’s difficult third episode after its titanic feature-length opener, Jon Hamm returns to the chair to direct ‘The Collaborators’, a sombre and increasingly murky follow-up to the heft of ‘The Doorway’ (s06/e01-2). Whereas his season five directorial debut – the rather languid ‘Tea Leaves’ (s05/e03) – had the task of re-introducing Don Draper’s contentious ex-wife Betty Francis (then labelled Fat Betty) into the narrative whilst simultaneously bringing in a hot-headed new character (the frantic genius Michael Ginsberg) to the SCDP offices, ‘The Collaborators’ is much more of a contemplative and disconcerting spike in what appears to be this season’s near-total exposure to the darker territories the show has hinted at earlier on. It also returns to a narrative and thematic thread largely expressed in the past (in episodes such as ‘Signal 30’ (s05/e05) and ‘Lady Lazarus’ (s05/e08)), which is Pete Campbell’s desperation to fit into a Don Draper-shaped mould that, unbeknownst to him, is continuing to shift between several permutations. It is also a model even its founder continues to be unsatisfied with.

‘The Collaborators’ is an episode that explores the several literal and rhetorical ramifications of infidelity, and is in itself teeming with it as it seeps in to all of the narrative strands on show. Hamm displays a strong knack for balancing storylines concerning, essentially, the show’s three main protagonists, who come in the form of Don, Pete and Peggy, and equally does a great job of finessing such unlikable material. As highlighted at the end of the previous episode, Don has indeed shirked his mission for absolute fidelity and begun cheating on Megan with his newfound friend’s wife Sylvia Rosen (excellently played by Linda Cardellini), who lives a few floors below. Don is fervent and voracious in his single-minded dedication to this latest affair, pursuing his latest muse like an illicitly charged predator hunting his prey. We’ve seen him in the throes of previous dalliances before, getting his kicks and scratching the persistent itch whilst his family sit at home watching the clock. Here, however, it is performed a lot closer to home than before (literally under Megan’s nose), and just like his liaisons with Bobbie Barrett and Sally’s school teacher in previous seasons, the truth will out eventually as his eye continues to be distracted. He’s told women he can’t stop thinking of them in the past, and here he literally wont leave Sylvia alone, guided as he is by incessant infatuation. The scene with them playing chicken at the dinner table that should have been shared by their respective partners is as sexually charged as anything the show has done.

Pete, on the other hand, has made no bones about expressing just how unfulfilled he is with his current lot in life. That Trudy kicks him to the curb after finding out his latest bout of adultery – with, like Don, a neighbour – creates a new dynamic to their surface-layer marriage: it gives him exactly what he wants without the freedom because, in true Trudy fashion, she refuses to be a failure and bow to a divorce.

The episode saw the return of flashbacks from Don’s childhood growing up in a whorehouse, which, although rather lazily dropped in (Weiner’s stressing there are still pages in Don’s legacy still unturned), creates an interesting linearity with the series’ current narrative. Prostitution is alluded to in Don’s gesture of – after intercourse – giving Sylvia money after overhearing her husband refusing to give her any before he goes to work. The subject is also echoed throughout the rest of the episode, particularly with the re-appearance of Herb from Jaguar, which causes Don to revisit the frustrations of not being able to prevent Joan’s actions to secure her future at the agency a year ago whilst simultaneously averting Herb’s grip over his staff. If season five was all about success and the financial sustenance of SCDP as they sought and won business with the likes of Heinz and Jaguar, then this episode (and potentially future ones) is about the preservation and maintenance of said accounts. This is something of a rarity on Mad Men; usually we see the creative pursuit and eventual attainment of business, but seldom is the aftermath of it conveyed.

‘The Collaborators’ shows that it isn’t all smiling faces and bootlicking, but bartering and the negotiating of ideas plays a strong role in the requisite housekeeping. Raymond returns and Weiner highlights exactly why he was so demanding and hard to please whilst Don et al pursued Heinz Baked Beans last season: he’s anxious about keeping ahead of the game now that he’s got a successful advertising campaign for his small-time section of the business. That he warns SCDP not to chase the newly available Ketchup division (“The Coca-Cola of condiments” says Ken in the episode’s best line) sparks in Don an atypical sense of loyalty toward his client, something he can’t, or won’t, bring home with him. Sometimes, he says, you gotta dance with the one who brung you. He may not go after Ketchup, but it wont stop his nemesis Ted Chaough over at CGC from cocking his Peggy-shaped gun after she lets slip about the fact Heinz is taking interviews. An inevitable showdown between Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, master and apprentice, may occur, which will bring about another notch on the fascinating relationship between a man lost in time and the only woman he refuses to cheat on.

Extra thoughts:

·        Buckling under the emotional weight of her recent miscarriage, Megan is seen wearing an all-encompassing house coat very similar to Betty’s in all but colour.

·        The standout scene belongs to Trudy, Pete and the final breakdown in their marriage, which is something very similar to Don and Betty in seasons 1-3. Pete, like Don, skulks through the kitchen, coat draped on arm, kisses his wife goodbye and goes to leave for work, only to be confronted. Trudy is the opposite of Betty in many ways; she’s the empowered and successful housewife who, when push came to shove, made no bones about stating her demands, something Betty took years to muster the courage to do.

·        A prostitute in one of the flashbacks says to a teenage Don: “Find your own sins”.

·        Oliver Muirhead, the consummate token Englishman, plays a Jaguar employee here. He delivered his lines like he’s lucky to be in such a prestigious show.

·        Great final images of Don, in flashback, peeping through the keyhole of his uncle bedding his mother, whilst Don in present tense sits exhausted outside his front door, unable to go through to the mess he continues to make inside. If half-hearted, the flashback sequences remind us that Weiner is still chiselling at the ice block that is Don Draper.

·       Credits song: Just a Gigolo – Bing Crosby


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