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Monday, April 15, 2013

Review: Mad Men, The Collaborators

Season 6, Episode 3
Grade: B
Verdict: This week's Mad Men gave focus to one of it's more complex characters that was left out of the premiere, and tied his themes in with Don's fairly well. Yet, unlike the previous episode, there was far too much fat around the edges that didn't serve the story function satisfyingly and left one to wonder, "why isn't Don a serial killer instead?".

I'm thankful for this week's return to a one-hour episode, as Mad Men is such a thematically rich show, the longer an episode runs, the more thoughts come to paper. As it were, I could have written forever about last week's 2 hour premiere. This week's episode "The Collaborators", shifts focus just a tad; while Don is still, as always front and center, we also get that spotlight on Pete Campbell that I had been hoping for and knew we'd get sooner than later as he was fairly absent from last week's premiere.

I find Pete to possibly be the most fascinating character in Mad Men. Clearly, he's a weaselly fellow, who more or less does whatever it takes to get what he wants. This has been in evidence since the show began, when he dug through Don's private mail in order to gain leverage over him for a possible promotion. Pete's arc in this episode turns its attention to his infidelities. "The Collaborators" opens with Pete flirting with a couple of neighborhood wives, all right outside of earshot of Trudy. Pete then consummates said affair by inviting the blonde haired wife to his apartment in the city. Pete quickly learns that not all the women that are willing to sleep with him are so easily able to separate romantic feelings from sex. And when she arrives at Pete and Trudy's doorstep beaten and bloodied by her husband a few days later, that reality literally comes home.

Everything Pete does almost seems robotic. His efforts at work are seemingly an attempt at co-opting the same strategies that Don and Roger employ, but they're always a bit "off". The same could be said for his efforts at having an affair. When making romantic gestures towards the Brenda, the neighborhood wife, the utter awkwardness of Pete's efforts almost choke the scene. Nothing he does seems natural, and this makes Pete so fascinating. When Trudy finds out about the affair, which was just an eventuality, she kicks him out of the house and wants a divorce. Pete's attitude isn't one of remorse, but of vindictiveness, "you'll regret this!" more or less. Pete has lost control of his personal life, and all that does is make him angry. Particularly when it was pointed to out me later by Hannah that Pete was much more remorseful the first time he cheated with the German Au Pair. It doesn't excuse his behavior, but her forgiveness (or willingness to pretend it didn't happen) of that situation was all the excuse Pete needed to hang himself with more rope, which may have led to some of that anger as well, as misplaced as it was. The problem for Pete is that in this instance is that he (for lack of a better term) "shat where he ate", which was a lesson that Don had to learn the hard way in Season 3.

With Pete at this point, everything is a plan and anything that stands in the way of that is met with hostility, in his mind he is never actually at fault. When he's at his office and Bob, the accounts man who Ken Cosgrove had an encounter with in the premiere, approaches him, we finally get a chance to see a little under Pete's veneer. Bob is the Pete that started at Sterling Cooper when the show began, and when faced with this reflection of his former self asking him if there's anything he needs at the deli. Pete declines but then asks for toilet paper, or as I saw it "get me something that I could wipe my ass with". One potential take of that is the inner self-loathing Pete may have for where he came from originally in the corporate ladder, "I'm going to treat you the way I feel like I was treated". Again, Pete's vindictiveness and need to control someone rears its head, but this seems more genuine. Most likely though, Pete will be back at home by season's end, as their marriage is less about a loving bond and more related to social status and financial obligations.

The other half of the episode focuses on Don's continued affair with Sylvia and his inability to control his urges. As someone who just in the last episode remorsed over his need to need the affair, he seemingly can't seem to get enough of it. He's so adrift, that he misses alot of critical signs of the internal struggle Megan is undergoing. When Megan confides in Sylvia about a miscarriage she had recently had and was afraid to tell Don about, we not only get a sense of just how oblivious and self-absorbed Don is right now and we also learn a bit about Sylvia's character (not enough in my estimation). When she reveals to Megan that she would never terminate a pregnancy if faced with that option, it almost feels like not so subtle foreshadowing for the end result of what their trysts could lead to. I'm hopeful that won't be the direction the series takes these characters, as it feels perhaps slightly too soap-opera like for such a show that prides itself on verisimilitude.

Outside of predicting subtext, what actually occurred in the episode was quite strong, I was especially fond of the game of chicken played between Sylvia and Don over the dinner table after the initial "double date" fell apart. The episode struggled though, when it tried to tie this foible in Don's life to his past growing up in a brothel. I've always felt as though Mad Men is at its weakest when it maintains its fascination with the Dick Whitman side that drives Don, and this particular set of flashbacks was no exception. It almost seemed a bit cartoony, watching Don live in a brother with his mother with its colorful cast of characters that look like something out of a carny nightmare, and then the scene with Don spying on his mother felt almost Norman Bates-like. I had to deduct a full grade point for these sequences as they brought the episode to a halt in a way that was about as bad as Season 3 Betty. The flashbacks really didn't fit in with theme that Weiner was building in this idea of "scheming and collaborating behind closed doors, or in broad daylight between people" The other big issue with this episode was the under-utlization of Peggy. She basically spent the entire episode behind the desk and on the phone with Stan, just like last week. I understand they're building her career into her personality, but I hope next episode does her a little more justice, as she's one of the more delightfully three-dimensional characters Mad Men has. I'd prefer to not see her and spend more time with Pete or Don than have to get tiny glimpses that give us so little.

In all, a bit of a drop down from the premiere, but it did close with a beautiful closing shot, as after Megan confides in Don about her miscarriage and then gets promptly rebuffed by Sylvia the next day as her husband is home, he collapses in front of his door. If only we could read his mind.

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