Mad Men – The Collaborators
Last season slumped dramatically in its second week, with its third hour, Tea Leaves ( an episode that only stands out as weak once you have seen the staggering streak it sets up). It was a bolt out of the blue after the stellar season premiere and flattering finale before that. Many blamed January Jones for the flop, citing the character of blown-up Betty as bad enough to burst even the best of the show’s episodes. Her character is thankfully absent here but the team collaborating behind the scenes remains the same with Weiner writing and Jon Hamm again directing the earliest possible episode for scheduling’s sake and again it is a bit of a drop from the program proceeding it. As much as it pains me to say it I think we may have found the one thing that the man is merely good at.
As far as Achilles heel’s go though this is a relatively minor one, Hamm’s work suffering mainly from the fact that it is this show he is starting off on; were he to deliver this quality of work anywhere else it would likely be on the normal level, if not a step-up from it. Hamm is a big comedy nerd and has said many times that hosting SNL was a way of announcing that to a world who saw him only as a handsome, brooding actor; it was also a test, to see if he had learnt anything from all that time spent watching, if he was a student or simply an admirer. His direction here suggests that he is also an avid fan of that art, that he has learnt much from watching other shows and movies, but not enough of the one that he actually has to mimic.
The sturdy style that the show has developed over its seasons slips here but not for any deserving reason. During the awkward dinner sequence he overdoes it a little with the intercutting of the opera-scored sex scene and though that other snap of sequencing, the flashback, is not his fault the way he inserts it is less than flattering. Speaking of those flashbacks, people say that Mad Men is a depressing show but can anything be more inspiring than knowing that a boy like that can grow up to look like Don Draper? A rather reductive comment sure, but then this episode was much more about the surface than The Doorway.
For one it dedicates a lot more time to establishing story-lines in both of Don’s dual worlds that will surely play out over the course of the season than it does weaving thematic cues or character beats. There is certainly an appeal to seeing Sterling Cooper Draper Price operate, the boardroom scenes are always strong and this episode is no exception, but it all felt a little unmoored in comparison to recent weeks, especially since the core of the story seemed to have so little to do with the workplace.
The Collaborators could have been the title to an episode in which Don and Peggy worked together to come up with the greatest ad pitch of all time, it could have referred to a time that Roger and Pete put aside their differences to sell the hell out of an account but the actual meaning has much less to do with art and much more to do with ambushes. We are told three times of a joint movement by North Korean and Vietcong forces against an embassy and this event is seemingly meant to tie all of the stories together; dealing as they do with different partnerships enduring their own dramatic ambushes, most of which take the form of adultery.
Cliche has it that all is fair in love and war but common sense would seem to differ; there are rules of engagement in both cases. The Geneva convention maps out the boundaries of the former but where are the lines in love and who is there to call you on it when you cross them? Common sense would have it that cheating is one such crossing and that the price you have to pay is determined by your partner, but this doesn’t quite track with cliche. It says that it takes two to tango but which two? The truth seemingly suggested by the show this week is that it takes four for an extra-marital affair.
Trudy is the victim in Pete’s perverted tryst but it only occurred because of her misplaced trust and the self-applied misdirection of her own flirting with the neighbours. She is shocked when the girl bursts into her house screaming, like some sort of war scene, but her hands aren’t spared the blood.Similairly Don and the Doctor’s wife similarly don’t plan their dinner together, or what follows it, they are instead forced into it by their partners surprise disappearances which were, in part, spurned on by their own failures and inadequacies. Sometimes you’ve gotta dance with the one that brung ya, but sometimes they bring you so that they can watch you sashay with a stranger.
All of this wife-swapping could quite quickly become simple soap-operatics but the show deftly avoids that avoids that, even hanging a lampshade on it when Megan’s miscarriage is at first mistakenly thought of as a part of her fake-character’s plot line. The second time that she announces it should have been the biggest ambush of the episode, but in fact it is the one best handled; Dom reacting smoothly to the shocking news, though deep down it obviously triggers something strange within him. i didn’t expect this to be the direction of the season but i guess it makes sense: Babies are not only a natural result of all this sex, but it is the only way that they can result, they are inherently a collaboration.
Again, how this all syncs with the stuff at SCDP is a little harder to sell. There are plenty of ambushes there, the most memorable that of Herb darkening Joan’s door and reigniting shadows of the sexual encounter from last season that she would rather forget. They were collaborators of a sort too, both helping the other up with one hand and undercutting them with the other, and the evocation of that here seems to cast a certain light on many of the sexual relationships featured afterwards (Don paying for dinner in particular). Such it seems is the way of all allies in the advertising world, as Peggy is told to learn from one ambush how to set another; blurring the line between friend and enemy to her own advantage as the Vietcong did that day.
Sex and business are strange, political spheres that are never quite as simple as they seem, never quite as simple as shows tend to depict them and they only get stranger still when you mix them together. So it both stands to reason and stands as a strength that this was something of an obtuse hour metaphorically but because of how dramatic so much of the material is the fact that it felt so flat and formulaic does not. There were a lot of great elements here: great scenes, great lines, great ideas and great visuals but to my mind they weren’t able to collaborate and create a great episode, they have been watching the show too much and learnt its lessons too well. At the end of it I could relate too well with Don, I felt shut out, unable to get through the door or maybe unwilling.