Mad Men recap: What a Piece of Work is Man
“The first breath of adultery is the freest; after it, constraints aping marriage develop.” – John Updike, Couples.
Updike published his racy novel, about the sex-fueled indiscretions of the upper-middle class, in 1968 and it was a big hit. Times were changing, swingers were on their way in, and the uptight sexual mores of yesteryear were giving way to a new frankness. Mad Men‘s latest episode, set only six months after the Summer of Love, has more sex on its mind than a 14-year-old boy watching a yoga class from the back of the room.
It’s the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, after all. Pete has seen Hair, which he warns (or promises) is “filled with profanity, marijuana smoking, and simulated sexual acts.” He offers to procure tickets for the wives attending a get-together he and Trudy are hosting. (I kept expecting someone to pull out a fishbowl full of housekeys.) Trudy holds her own against the open flirtations of the men, but Pete practically hands the girls a pamphlet and map to the Pete Campbell Manhattan Sex Pad. After the sticky emotional entanglement of last season’s affair with Beth, Pete has learned to adulter like a pro, with his own well-appointed city apartment and everything. “I’ll throw in a hot dog,” Pete offers suggestively, doing all he can not to nudge them with his elbow, waggle his eyebrows, and add, “…with relish!” Later, in the swank safety of the Sex Pad, he’ll whip out, “Is the temperature okay? It’s been known to get hot.” Oh, Pete, you’re slicker than oil on an ice floe.
Pete’s affair is almost a pathetically comedic counterpoint to Don’s. He’s always been Salieri to Don’s Mozart when it comes to manhood. Don lives and breathes seduction and oozes self-confidence. He comes to it naturally, where Pete is always calculating and self-questioning. Don sleeps with women to fulfill some need, to temporarily caulk the Rosebud-shaped hole in his soul that prevents him from ever being content. Pete’s problem is more that he needs the need. He wants success, and success is synonymous with Manhattan Sex Pads and meaningless affairs. But where Don chooses a collaborator who values discretion as much as he does, Pete’s fling (Collette Wolfe) shows up on his doorstep and ends up telling Trudy about the whole she-bang.
It’s always nice to see the words “Guest-starring Alison Brie” in the opening credits and Brie gets to show off in a particularly fantastic scene in this episode, laying down the law on her wayward husband. Trudy has never been the unsuspecting wife obliviously tending the hearth. She’s as iron-willed and unambiguously ambitious as he is, and she’s been pushing him up the social ladder from behind for a long time. She and Pete have always been portrayed as partners in crime, and they treat his career like it’s their first-born child. We’ve seen her strategically rip an RSVP out of the slippery Don Draper, so it’s no surprise that she approaches this incident with a level head and steely determination. “I refuse to be a failure,” she tells Pete acidly, informing him that she’ll be putting him on the short leash from now on. “I’m drawing a 50 mile radius around this house, and if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you.” Holy crap. You go, Trudy.
NEXT: O come, all ye unfaithful…
“That man is not a salesman,” complains Herb, the sleazy toad from Jaguar, of Don, a statement that should have been immediately printed, framed, and labeled as the Wrongest Thing Ever Said. Don could sell fridges to Eskimos in the dead of winter. His gift for telling clients not just what they want to hear, but what they need to hear, has led him to seal more deals than Monty Hall, and he doesn’t leave the skill at the office at the end of the day. Don’s always selling something, even if it’s just the idea of Don Draper, and in “The Collaborators,” there is hardly a single moment where he’s not winding up the pitch. As Dr. Rosen might say, the man’s got a great spiel.
Megan may be the aspiring actress, but Don is a master at the profession. When he comes home to find Megan talking alone with Sylvia and crying, he slaps on the most neutral face imaginable, knowing that he’s walking on eggshells in a minefield. He’d be amazing at poker. “Oh…hello,” he says nonchalantly as he tries to figure out exactly what’s been said between the two women. The storytelling of Mad Men has always been so compartmentalized that you sometimes get the feeling that a lot of shallowly buried secrets might be uncovered rather quickly if you just stuck a couple of people in a room together and had them talk it out. While Don managed to dodge this bullet, he’s still got the gun pointed directly at himself and the life he has built with Megan.
Don and Sylvia end up alone together again after their respective spouses drop out of dinner plans, farcically leaving only the two cheating hearts at the table. They bicker over the menu like a bitter married couple on vacation, Sylvia peeved at how easily Don can shut her out when he needs to. Kudos to Jon Hamm, as I’ve never heard the words “eggplant rollatini” said with such sarcastic venom. The spontaneity of their affair appears to have given way to the mundane obligations of couplehood, that is, until Don gives her a speech as good as any he’s made in the conference room of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, growling “I want you, I want you all the time.” This performance is matched only by his words of reassurance to Megan later that night when she tells him about her miscarriage. Don is able to look her in the eye and tell her he’s ready to have “the discussion” even though he has only just returned from seducing another woman. His salesmanship is impeccable; he can be whatever you need him to be. The song choice at the end of the episode was wrong. He’s not just a gigolo, he’s the gigolo.
Don wasn’t always this way, and he certainly wasn’t always the lantern-jawed ladies’ man. We see a rare full-on flashback to Dick Whitman as a gawky teenager sporting a haircut borrowed from the head of Moe from the Three Stooges. The scenes at the brothel carry a whiff the show’s cousin-on-the-Sopranos-side Boardwalk Empire. It’s easy to see where Don’s lifelong relationship with women might have gone awry. He hands Sylvia a wad of bills after they finish up, ostensibly helping with the Rosens’ cash troubles, but really he’s just signing the bill of receipt for their encounter, echoing his earliest experiences with transactional sex. Don relies on women for affection, but can’t return that affection fully or monogamously. He’ll always end up betraying them, and if there’s one thing he should know thanks to Sylvia’s literary recommendations, it’s that there’s a special place in hell for those that betray.
NEXT: Playing ketchup…
The concept of fidelity is front and center in this episode, and not just in marriage terms. Heinz Beans sets up a meeting between SCDP and Heinz Ketchup, the company’s overachieving favorite son among all the 57 varieties. (Ken Cosgrove calls it the “Coca-Cola of condiments.”) And if ketchup is the blond-haired, blue-eyed quarterback in the Heinz family, beans is the weird sibling nobody wants to sit next to on road trips.
The head of Vinegars, Sauces, and Beans throws a mini-tantrum, demanding SCDP refuse to go after the ketchup account because of his personal hatred of the department head. Cosgrove thinks this is ridiculous, but Don offers up a little advice on a big steaming platter of irony: “Sometimes you’ve got to dance with the one who brung ya.” It’s a homespun needlepoint adage that sounds like it might have come from his days at the brothel, but it sums up the idea that there are certain things more valuable than pure practicality. It’s the same lesson Don tried to teach a few seasons ago when everyone was parachuting from Mohawk in favor of American Airlines, and it’s the same lesson Don will never learn for himself.
Peggy is also wrestling with the idea of loyalty after Ted Chaough catches her on the phone with Stan exchanging office scuttlebutt. Chaough wants her to take advantage of the information she gleaned from it, hoping to snag Heinz Ketchup before anyone else, but Peggy is hesitant. She also struggles with the fact that her copy crew doesn’t like her. Peggy isn’t used to either giving or getting encouragement, and her attempt at a motivational speech falls hilariously flat, with her pat on the back turning into a slap in the face. Her inferiors announce their displeasure by leaving a joke campaign for Quest Feminine Hygiene Powder on her desk, a bit of sexism that Chaough gets a chuckle out of. It’s a reminder to Peggy of what Joan said to her when she fired Joey for his misogynist drawing: No matter how big you get, they can always draw another cartoon. The brief interaction with her secretary, Phyllis, is heartening. She’s black and you wonder whether that has anything to do with the guilt Peggy may feel about her awkward behavior with Dawn, but it’s clear from the way Phyllis freely offers up advice to her boss that they have a good working relationship. Peggy may not be a Patton when it comes to inspirational speeches, but she clearly hasn’t forgotten where she came from.
As usual, the show throws in a few timestamp references like the U.S.S. Pueblo being captured by North Korean forces and the Tet Offensive ramping up in Vietnam. Politics and current affairs vaguely invade the conversations on the show, but it’s still mainly background noise. Megan and Sylvia’s interaction about the miscarriage—and Megan’s characterization of her pregnancy as a potential decision—got at the push-and-pull of sexual morality in that era, five years before Roe v. Wade. Sylvia’s upbringing leads her to judge Megan for considering an abortion as an option, even as she herself commits adultery with Megan’s husband.
At this point, Don’s affairs are admittedly getting a little repetitive. But that’s kind of the point. He’s caught in another cycle of misbehavior, of happiness gained and then self-destructed. When he slumps down in the hallway at the end of the episode, he seems tired of the whole charade, exhausted from going through the same old motions over and over again. But when has that ever stopped him before?
Jon Hamm directed this episode and there were a couple of nice visual bits, particularly the editing between Don’s dinnertable seduction of Sylvia and their lovemaking.
The Pete Campbell Manhattan Sex Pad had a TV, a record player, and a full bar. What woman wouldn’t be charmed?
“I have a little beans housekeeping” would make a great euphemism for something or other.
This episode felt a little more sudsy than usual with all the sleeping around and sudden secrets. You’d think after acting on a soap opera, Megan would be able to recognize that she’s living in one too.
At this point, I want Herb from Jaguar to get attacked and killed by an actual jaguar. He’s so gross. (I’ll admit to cheering when Joan hit him below the belt with “And I know there’s a part of you you haven’t seen in years.”)
Bob Benson, a.k.a. Encyclopedia Brownnose, keeps popping up around the margins. Pete, a fellow super-sycophant, seems to be impressed with him at least.
Stan’s hilariously lame extemporaneous excuse: “I’ll have your wig ready, ma’am.”
Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama