"It's all about what it looks like, isn't it?"
This line, uttered by Pete Campbell near the end of Sunday's episode of Mad Men, accurately sums up one of the main themes of the widely acclaimed AMC drama. To critics who have only given Mad Men a cursory glance, the series is little more than a period soap opera about who is cheating on who and how awesome it was to be a white dude in the 1960s. Ad campaigns glorifying Don Draper as the epitome of cool have certainly helped cultivate this image, but the false argument that Mad Men is more style than substance is almost fitting. It proves that people will buy into the artifice created by the marketing department without doing their own research and forming their own opinion.
On the surface, Don and his compatriots at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce have it all — successful jobs, stylish suits, spacious offices, extramarital affairs with beautiful women. Without looking any deeper, Mad Men is a slightly classier Desperate Housewives. But if you invest in the series and watch the episodes closely, the show is thick with subtext, social commentary, and rich characterizations that extend far beyond the bedroom. Entitled "The Collaborators," this week's episode explored the duality of infidelity and loyalty personally and professionally, another key theme that has been revisited throughout the series.
Despite last season's affair with Shock Treatment Woman fizzling out and the subsequent ass-kicking he received on the train, Pete hasn't learned his lesson and decides to bring his neighbor's small-town wife, Brenda, up to his fancy big-city apartment for some midday sexcapades. You know she's already in love with this weasely little bastard because she withstands a barrage of his cheap, cheesy come-ons before succumbing to his... uhh... um, charms? "Is the temperature okay?" asks Pete, helpfully adding, "It's been known to get hot." Sure it has, Pete, sure it has.
Unfortunately for him, Pete goes from the frying pan into the fire when Brenda shows up at his doorstep later with her face looking like hamburger, thanks to her husband ("She's your problem now, Campbell!"), and his wife Trudy tends to her wounds. The poor girl must have been struck pretty hard, because she still wants to be with Pete and begs him to take her to his apartment while Trudy is out of the room. Trudy ends up giving her a ride to a motel and returns home late, worrying Pete. The next morning, Trudy stomps her foot down, directly on Pete's metaphorical nutsack, and orders him to remain away from the house unless otherwise instructed. She also warns him that if he unzips his fly for any reason other than urination, the metaphorical castration won't be so metaphorical anymore.
At this point, Pete is a completely irredeemable character. He doesn't care about anyone but himself, and he probably hates himself more than anybody else. After having sex at his apartment, Brenda exhibits a romantic teen-girl persona while getting dressed and babbles about leaving her car out of the driveway to show Pete she's thinking about him. "That's sweet," he responds, "I really have to get back. Can you move it along a little?" Pete is the most universally despised character on the show, but is Don any better just because he pretends to care more than Pete does? Pete is really a more advanced version of Don — Don Draper 2.0, new and improved with extra assholery — better equipped to handle the changes in the cutthroat world of business. Whereas Don has some professional scruples, Pete is devoid of empathy in almost every aspect of his life and appears perfectly suited for the "greed is good" phenomenon of the 1980s. Some observers believe Pete is the figure seen falling from the building in the opening credits, but I would wager he is the only SCDP partner prepared for the future and he will survive the series. Not to mention, he's the only one who isn't constantly smoking and drinking.
The episode also hosted the return of two of last season's most notable clients: Raymond, the baked beans representative from Heinz, and Herb, the sweaty, oversexed pig of a Jaguar dealer who insisted on a night with Joan before agreeing to do business. The individual stories following them dealt with loyalty and infidelity in a different context. Raymond brings in Timmy, the young head of Heinz's Ketchup division, to meet the SCDP gang, but he tells them afterward he doesn't want them working with Ketchup because it will take the Heinz spotlight off of Beans. Faithful to a fault in his professional life, Don agrees to stick with Beans, despite Ken's protestations that Raymond is "weak" and Heinz Ketchup is the "Coca-Cola of condiments." An underlying reason for Don's conservative decision is the relationship between Raymond and Timmy, reminiscent of Don and Roger's adversarial affiliation with Pete; Beans even mentions that he taught Ketchup everything he knew. Much like when he left Ginsberg's superior ad campaign in the taxi last season, Don is cutting off his nose to spite his face, as the old saying goes.
To Joan's gin-soaked chagrin, Herb waddled back into our lives and showed us that he is still just as repugnant and disgusting as he was last year. After Joan fires off some pointed barbs that sail over his head, Herb demands that the firm adjust the sophisticated Jaguar marketing to cover more direct local radio advertising in order to draw buyers to his car lots. Furthermore, he insists that Pete suggest the idea at the next meeting with the Jaguar executives. As revenge for Joan, Don does a masterful job of torpedoing the idea during the meeting by slowly dialing it up to 11 with his enthusiastic suggestions to reduce Jaguar's image as a luxury item and attract more housewives and truck drivers, including mailers and such that would bring in "regular" folk. As Don expected, the British executives are horrified by the concept of the common rabble owning their cars and dismiss the idea outright. This scene was crafted superbly and displayed the twisted genius of Don, although his transgression may come back to haunt him later this season. Not only did he fail to pursue Heinz Ketchup out of respect to Heinz Baked Beans, he has pissed off Jaguar's powerful dealer manager because of a personal vendetta on behalf of Joan.
Meanwhile at Cutler Gleason and Chaough, Peggy is still a raging bitch to her underlings and finds out about the Beans/Ketchup story from Stan. She innocently leaks it to her new boss, Ted Chaough, because he finds her laughing about it on the phone, and the next day, Chaough assigns her to pursue the Heinz Ketchup account. Despite Peggy's misgivings about using the information she heard from her friend in confidence, Chaough assures her that Stan is "the enemy" and they need to win the war. Last week, I wrote that Peggy had morphed into a female Don Draper, but will she go full Pete and screw over her friends to get ahead? No doubt she will get along quite well with the Pete-like Timmy from Heinz Ketchup.
We also got another glimpse into the Don Draper origin story, with flashbacks depicting young Dick Whitman and his pregnant stepmother moving into the whorehouse operated by her sister and her husband, Uncle Mack. This memory is tied directly to adult Don's treatment of women, as the next scene features Don doling out cash to his married mistress, Sylvia, following a sexual encounter. Another flashback shows Mack mounting his stepmom while young Dick peeps through the keyhole. Without any strong male role models, and with a stepmother who had no qualms about reminding him that he was the son of a prostitute, Dick Whitman was destined to become Don Draper.
As for Megan, it's hard to know when she is experiencing a real emotion because she has faked it so well so many times. Her acting friend's comment last season about Megan being such a good actress still sticks out in my mind, and when she tells Sylvia about her soap opera character's storyline, it sounds like she's talking about her own life. Sylvia can't tell the difference either at first when Megan reveals she had a miscarriage, adding that she never told Don she was pregnant because she didn't know how he would react and she didn't want to have to make a choice. However, did Megan want the baby herself? Now that her television career is on the rise, a pregnancy and a baby would stall her momentum and kill her career.
Even after discovering that Megan had a miscarriage, Don was more than willing to go out to dinner with Sylvia and her husband, Dr. Rosen, who had to rush out due to a medical call, leaving Don and Sylvia alone. Don, like a shark sensing blood, breaks down Sylvia's defenses of guilt and jealousy and gives her what she wanted, just like he does with his clients. Afterward, he can't bring himself to enter the apartment where his wife sleeps and sits down in the hallway instead, perhaps indicating his own feelings of guilt and shame. Or maybe he just doesn't want to deal with her.
Too bad Don's loyalty to his friends and business associates doesn't extend to his marriages.
FINAL GRADE: A