“Now I understand. You want to feel shitty – right up to the point where I take your dress off.”
Never a show with a straightforward approach to dialogue or characterisation, Mad Men this week took its usual obfuscation of motive and events to new heights, in an episode directed by Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm. The ep was ostensibly another of those juxtapositions between Don and Don-wannabe Pete Campbell, showing their failings both professionally and socially. But, even more than usual, grasping what was truly going on relied on interpreting the Unsaid as much as the said.
Don (as I neglectfully failed to mention last week) has decided to take the plunge back into philandering, with the glamorous wife of his affable surgeon neighbour Dr Rosen. Despite the Jewish-sounding surname, Sylvia Rosen is of Italian stock, and plainly irresistible to Don. The Unsaid here is in the implication (rather heavily laid on) that Don hates himself for doing this, but somehow can’t help himself – it’s in his very nature. Lying in post-coital self-loathing with Sylvia, Don came out with the show’s oft-repeated mantra of denial – “this never happened”.
Some insight into why Don feels that serial adultery is his unchangeable nature came in some of the infrequent flashbacks to his adolescence. And who’d have thought the teenage Don Draper (aka Dick Whitman) would be so unattractive, with his weak chin and terrible bowl haircut? This time, we saw the occasion when his heavily pregnant mother brought him to stay with his ‘uncle’, a brothel keeper in the depths of the Depression, and the teenage Dick was ‘forced’ (by dint of spying through a keyhole) to witness his mother in presumably eager congress with his unsavoury ‘uncle’.
Was young Dick appalled or excited? Repulsed by his ‘uncle’ or inspired by him? Again, it was Unsaid. Like so much on this show, it could be interpreted either way. It’s significant, though, that this particular flashback immediately preceded the despairing Don slumping to the floor outside the door of his own apartment, after yet another willing/unwilling assignation with Sylvia.
In the usual parallel with Don, Pete Campbell too was ‘building relationships’ with his neighbours, even while maintaining his working apartment in Manhattan, safely away from the suburbs and his wife. Trudy got far more than usual to do this week, and reminded us that, not only is Community’s Allison Brie a fine actress, but there’s far more to the character than being a meekly unsuspecting suburban housewife.
The comparison between her and the Betty Draper we saw in season one was inescapable, though less overt than the Don/Pete comparison as Betty didn’t pop up herself. Trudy seemed like Betty, as she appeared blithely unsuspecting of her sleazy neighbours basically trying to chat her up at a dinner party, while her husband indulged in some far less subtle flirting with both their wives simultaneously. Pete may not be Don Draper, but he’s got tickets for trendy new musical Hair – a perfect excuse for his would-be conquests to visit his lair in Manhattan.
But while Don frequently has the luck of the devil, things never work out for Pete; and so it proved here, as the perennial loser’s nice little arrangement came a cropper in a big way. His latest conquest having proved a little too clingy, he moved swiftly to distance himself from her, coldly explaining that that wasn’t how it worked. Unfortunately for him, all his sins came home to roost when she turned up beaten and bloody at his door later that night, to the cry of her departing husband – “she’s your problem now, Campbell!”
While Mad Men frequently rubs our noses in how badly men treated women in the 60s, this was a rare and shocking depiction of the actual domestic violence all too prevalent at the time. With the exception of Greg’s rape of Joan, the show hasn’t really demonstrated this before, which made this all the more brutal.
Trudy was all too understanding, in a spooky Stepford Wives sort of way, bathing the unfortunate mistress’s face with ice and insisting her husband take her to a nearby hotel. But the next morning, we saw one of the episode’s instances of the Unsaid becoming the Said, as Trudy unleashed a tirade of rage against her hapless husband. Turns out that, unlike the wilfully blind Betty of earlier seasons, Trudy was well aware of her husband’s infidelities, but was prepared to tolerate them for the sake of appearances – as long as he was discreet.
It was a towering performance from Allison Brie as she let rip into her chastened husband, laying down the law that now he could have just as much freedom as she allowed him. That can only serve as further humiliation for Pete, and also makes Trudy somewhat less sympathetic as a character. She’s not concerned by the fact of her husband’s cheating, merely by its appearance; anything that threatens to spoil her image of suburban perfection is intolerable.
Meanwhile, the demolition of Megan Draper’s perfection continues apace. This week, she was hanging around the apartment with a glowing red nose, looking ill and melancholy. In a blackly comic twist, who should turn up for a light chat but Sylvia Rosen? The look on Don’s face when he found them talking was priceless.
Megan, though, doesn’t have an inkling about Don and Sylvia; she had other things on her mind. The light chat about her forthcoming soap opera storylines took a bit of a twist when she unexpectedly blurted, “I’ve had a miscarriage”, leading to another blackly amusing moment as Sylvia assumed she meant in the show.
But no, this was real; and another example of things Unsaid hanging over the conversation. Megan’s guilt, combined with relief, led to the heavy implication that the ‘miscarriage’ may not have been entirely accidental. Especially in light of her ‘nudge, nudge’ comments to Sylvia about “our shared background” – ie Catholic. She finally ‘fessed up to Don later, but if she got rid of the baby deliberately, she was keeping that quiet. I don’t think it’ll please Don, given his previously stated desire to have children with her.
Another elephant in the room was left unaddressed and Unsaid at the office, when sweaty old Herb Rennet turned up ostensibly to discuss the Jaguar account, but mainly to slobber at Joan. Herb, you’ll recall, was the unattractive car salesman Joan distastefully slept with to get SCDP the Jag account. This has never been directly discussed by anyone, but it hangs heavy over Joan and the partners. So much so that, when Joan stormed into Don’s office with the declaration, “he’s here”, then poured herself a stiff drink, he obviously knew exactly who she meant.
Herb, smarting from Joan’s rejection, was trying to sway the campaign in the dealers’ (ie his) favour with local ads for Jag dealerships rather than a national campaign for the brand. The smarmy Pete was quick to roll over, but Don – presumably still smarting at what happened with Joan – was not going to let that happen. Cue a transparently deliberate damning with faint praise for Herb’s ideas to the Jag execs, who turned up their noses at Don’s cheesy performance of salesmanship. Minus marks, though, for making the Jag guys stereotypical snooty upper-class Brits; Mad Men normally does better at portraying us than that.
Over at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, Peggy learned a harsh lesson about things that should be Unsaid, when her careless revelation of phone gossip with Stan let slip that Heinz Ketchup were in a hiring mood. Amoral Ted Chaough’s reaction to her discomfort: “The mistake your friend made was underestimating you.” She also made a hilariously hamfisted effort to bolster her troops’ morale, at the urging of her secretary: “It’s not the way you are, but the work needs work.” The “way they are”? What are they – Jewish; gay; Democrat? Maybe this time Peggy shouldn’t have left things unsaid…
Oodles this week. The Vietnam war was rumbling on, broadcasting loudly from radios and TVs in the background of several scenes. It went unacknowledged by Don and Sylvia, lying in bed together, but Pete (using a cumbersome example of an early TV remote) was dismayed to find the news of such significance as to delay Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show by fifteen minutes. Given that his main guest was Jim Garrison (as played by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s JFK), this could have looked quite suspicious. Carson’s contemptuous demolition of Garrison’s theories was fictionalised in JFK as the ‘Jerry Johnson Show’. Perhaps Johnny was a bit litigious.
The war also forms a central theme of then-trendy musical Hair, tickets for which Pete was using to entice prospective mistresses. A tale of bohemian hippies and their draft-dodging antics, it seems unlikely it would appeal to the strait-laced Pete; but if it can get him attractive women…
Noticeably, the war was discussed rather more in the office than the characters’ personal lives, and the chat revealed more detail about events. There was much cogitation on the First Battle of Saigon, the initial stage of the Communists’ infamous Tet Offensive, which began on 30 January 1968 and cost many thousands of lives, US and Vietnamese, military and civilian.
Taking advantage of the US military being bogged down in Vietnam, North Korea took the chance to seize US Navy Intelligence vessel the USS Pueblo – this was also mentioned in passing. It took 11 months of brutal captivity before the US crew was allowed to return home. With North Korea currently rattling its outdated nuclear sabre to a largely amused world right now, this was a bit of serendipitous timeliness.
Significantly, Don and Roger continued to embody obsolescence with their references to an earlier war – specifically comparing Pete’s acquiescence to Herb Rennet to the Munich Agreement and Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. This, presumably, is one of the aspects to which the episode title refers, though in typical Mad Men style, ‘Collaborators’ could refer to so many aspects of this script. Pete’s response? “Who won that war, anyway?”
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Fewer facial hair atrocities from the male cast this week, though Stan’s voluminous beard popped up at one point.
Some nice looks for the ladies though. Joan was resplendent in red and deep blue; these seem to be colours she keeps returning to.
Trudy Campbell, on the other hand, fared less well. During her confrontation with Pete, she appeared to be wearing a curtain:
This was another masterclass in understated drama, Hamm’s direction giving the actors full rein to play to the ambiguities of Matt Weiner and Jonathan Igla’s script. Given the heavy emphasis on Don, I’m surprised Hamm had the time, but he did well here. While the Don/Pete juxtaposition has been done several times already, there’s still plenty of mileage in it, together with Mad Men’s usual staple of marital infidelity on almost everyone’s part. One question – just who is the mysterious Bob Benson from accounts? Why does he keep popping up at meetings with no explanation? With his unflappable genial smile, he seems more than a bit reminiscent of the equally mysterious Mr Morden from Babylon 5. And like Mr Morden, there’s something about him I don’t trust.