I am female. And because of that, I am quite happy that I didn’t have to experience the 1960s firsthand. Really glad, in fact. This week’s episode of Mad Men, “The Collaborators,” written by Matthew Weiner and Jonathan Igla and directed by none other than Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm, offers quite a powerful meditation on the rather hideous manner in which women were treated. Not since last season’s “The Other Woman,” in which Joan is offered as collateral for Jaguar rep Herb has a Mad Men episode created such a palpable unease as you watch female characters get pigeonholed as whores, belittled in the workplace, or deal with their tricky nature of their own bodies.
“The Other Woman,” however, was a far superior episode. This one suffered from the heavy-handedness in which nascent director Hamm employed the use of flashback. Several times, he cut from scenes between Don and Sylvia to a tween Dick Whitman arriving with his pregnant mother to her sister’s brothel. These flashback scenes were problematic for many reasons – chiefly because they drove home the thread of “women as unfair sex object” way too hard. While it’s usually a good thing to get the rare glimpse into the man-that-became-Don-Draper, these scenes are largely unneeded. We get the point. Also, in terms of Hamm’s direction in these scenes… it’s obvious. The young bumpkin Dick Whitman looks not unlike Alfred E. Newman. The prostitutes act like stock characters from an old time-y movie, and all other characters look like they stepped out from an SNL sketch – all caricatures, no real people.
So, we’re to believe that Don has such an unhealthy relationship with all the women in his life because he peaked through a keyhole at his pregnant mother having sex with the brothel “uncle?” That seems just a bit too convenient. And a bit unlikely. Don Draper is more of a product of his time, of wanting to fit within a certain societal mold and failing… and acting out his failure through extramarital affairs.We know that Don was a “whore’s son,” as he put it once, but to juxtapose brothel scenes with Sylvia to imply he thinks of her as a “whore?” I like the sense of unease that gives the episode, but it’s still rather mean-spirited and somewhat unnecessary.
It’s funny that because he is the show’s main protagonist that we, as viewers, typically sympathize with Don. We desperately want to find reasons behind his less-than-favorable actions and we are always willing to write off major character flaws. Though here, he has the gall to hand Sylvia a wad of cash… right after a morning quickie. Yes, Don overheard Dr. Rosen and her having a squabble over the money that she sends her college-age son. But poor timing, huh? And the frequent flashbacks to Don’s adolescence in the brothel make it clear that him associating her with a prostitute is hardly coincidental, especially with the direct juxtaposition of Sylvia coquettishly leaning against her doorway in her robe, saying, “I knew it would be you,” with the first flashback. Sylvia isn’t a whore – she’s just trying to be seductive.
Don and Sylvia have this vicious, sexual attraction to each other, and it’s seeming that this attraction stems from them just being bored with their spouses… and living in such close proximity to each other. Conveniently, at what was supposed to be a couple’s dinner, Don and Sylvia end up alone. They hurry through their meals to go home to what was a rather well-done and sexy love scene. Though the sexiness is somewhat undercut by his low opinion of her, which you really can never shake.
Whore complexes aside, stuff is getting serious between them, as manifested by Sylvia’s jealousy over Megan. She even tries to lay a religious guilt trip on Megan when Megan confesses that she had a miscarriage… but was considering an abortion anyway. Poor Megan. She trusts Sylvia and confides in her, only to be made to feel worse. And Megan is perfectly justified in feeling the way she feels – her career is about to take off and a baby would likely be a bad idea at this juncture. The Megan storyline offers a good counterpoint to the rest of the show, in that women are also victimized by women… not just by men. This scene between Linda Cardellini and Jessica Paré is a really episode standout.
Back in the world of advertising, Peggy is a strong, positive female character who is actually doing well. Though even she is privy to attacks on her sexuality – she’s a woman in a position of authority and therefore needs to be cut down to size. She has her male underlings scared to the point that they cannot enter her office, so they decide to pull a prank on her. Peggy receives a bottle of Quest on her desk, as well as a treatment for an ad campaign for it. Though the ad (and perhaps the drug itself, it’s unclear) is a hoax – the drug combats feminine odor and bloat, with the tagline, “Target: Professional Women and Other Olsens.” Peggy informs Ted of all this nonsense and handles it all quite well, saying “Of course when you want them to be funny, they’re useless.” Though when she looks at the bottle and fake treatment in her desk drawer later, she looks troubled. The prank worked. Peggy is admittedly struggling with being a female authority figure in the workplace, overcompensating with brashness and toughness to gain the respect of her employees, though it backfired here. However, at this point in history, there is likely nothing she could do that would take away the possibility of her womanhood being attacked.
Pete Campbell has gotten a lot worse, huh? Throughout the episode, I wanted to reach through my TV and punch him in the face. Repeatedly. Though I think that Don or Trudie would have held him down for me. And I love hating Pete – Vincent Kartheiser is never better when Pete is at his most loathsome. Pete and Trudie host the dinner party of two admittedly slutty couples – the two men converge on Trudie and the women on Pete. Though Pete takes one of the women up on her advances and has sex with her in the city, indelicately telling her after the fact, “I really have to get back. Can you move it along a little?” Trouble is with sleeping with your neighbors, shit gets real when you’re discovered. Pete and Trudie hear screaming at their door at night to find a that Pete’s paramour’s husband beat her face to a pulp when he discovered that she slept with Pete. Trudie’s no idiot. She knows exactly what is going on, drives the paramour to a hotel after stopping her face from bleeding, and tells Pete that she doesn’t want a divorce, per se, but that their marriage is effectively over.
Thank goodness Community gave us Alison Brie for tonight! I’m hoping this isn’t the last we see of Trudie Campbell this season – she brings a zip and a fizz into all of her scenes and really shined in this episode as she played the conflicted roles of both “strong woman” as she dealt with the paramour herself, but ultimately decided to play to the times and go on with the guise of her otherwise doomed marriage as to not seem like a “failure” in the public eye.
Pete continues to be a jerk at work too in continuing to suck up to the worst person ever, Herb from Jaguar, as he inexplicably wants to advertise more locally, in turn promising to really screw up SCDP’s national campaign. Though he wants SCDP to pretend that this is their idea at a forthcoming meeting with the Jaguar bigwigs. Pete, with a shit-eating grin on his face, does try to sell this half-baked idea at the meeting. Though Don pretends to sell it, publicly mocking Herb by saying that Jaguar is best sold to truck drivers and housewives in New Jersey to the knowing smirks of Roger across the table. In addition to thinking that Herb is an idiot, Don has not forgotten about the Joan situation from last season – he was the only SCDP partner to make any move to stop her from going through with it, after all.
Don’s loyalty to Joan here does somewhat help to redeem him from his whore complex transgressions from earlier. Almost. And here I am making excuses for him again…
The Upside: The episode had a very tight theme and covered a lot of important ground in regard to the male mindset toward women in during this time period. Filled with Mad Men-typical wonderful acting performances and writing.
The Downside: The juxtaposition between the brothel flashbacks and Sylvia might just have been a little heavy-handed.
On the Side: I love that Joan got to dig her claws into Herb with this wonderful exchange:
Herb: “I know there’s a part of you that’s glad to see me.”
Joan: “And I know there’s a part of you that you haven’t seen in years.”
That’s right, Joanie – get that bastard the hell out of your office.