I almost wrote a contemplative recap focusing on Don’s continued slide into existential despair and the sharp uptick in people declaring that they don’t like Don as much as they used to. Character likeability has been a theme that’s swirled around the “Mad Men” fan culture since season one. But after watching “Collaborators” and reading recaps and comments, I opted to write up segmented observations about this week’s episode without coming to any sweeping conclusions. I do think that some recappers are tiptoeing around the direction of the show, which to me has not yet attained the quality of seasons past.
Don’s Rough-Tumble Childhood: It’s been several seasons since we’ve seen a flashback on “Mad Men.” I frankly thought we were done with them. I found this one the least essential. I suppose there was no other way to get this back story out there definitively. Don had mentioned in season five that he’d grown up in a place like this. I’m not clear why this wasn’t brought to the fore in earlier seasons. Matthew Weiner might be trying to suggest that Don’s repressed these later childhood years. I hope this is it as far as Don’s childhood tragedies go. It’s one heck of a trifecta: mother dying in childbirth, witnessing a horse kill his father, living in a brothel.
Peggy Half-Channeling Don: Peggy’s ineptitude at managing her underlings feels one-dimensional. She was a much more nuanced supervisor at Cooper Sterling Lane Draper, occasionally crumbling in front of Don but no one else. While I appreciate that she achieves authority in her new job with her snappish exterior, alternating gruffness with diffidence flattens her out. That she also has an African American secretary, to Don’s Dawn, feels contrived. Okay, we get the Don parallels. That said, her phone conversations with Stan have been the warmest, lightest touches in the first three hours of season six. I know I’m not the only viewer humming, “First comes love, then comes marriage …”
Don’s Assumed Identity: Last season I wondered if we’d heard the last of Don’s assumed identity issues. Megan was fine with it. Even Faye, the therapist Don dated before he impulsively proposed to Megan, didn’t find his past a dealbreaker. So I was intrigued when Don accidentally took the wrong cigarette lighter at the bar of the Royal Hawaiian in the season six premiere, and would be surprised if nothing came of it. The mix-up inspired me to re-watch “Kennedy v. Nixon,” the season one episode that contains the Korea flashback. (An essential flashback if ever there was one.) What’s striking on the heels of “The Doorway” is remembering that Dick’s cigarette lighter is what caused the fire that killed Don Draper. And that, because of Dick Whitman’s dropped cigarette lighter, he was disfigured beyond recognition was what made the identity switch possible. So Don Draper essentially killed Don Draper in order to become Don Draper. Yes, it was an accident. But still. This is a lot to handle on top of his traumatic childhood.
While the lighter didn’t figure in this week’s episode, the focus on Don and Sylvia got me thinking about Don’s latest choice of mistress, and how much Don’s assumed identity might figure into it. Sylvia almost certainly doesn’t know that Don Draper isn’t Don Draper. This could be part of her appeal, since it allows Don to slip back into the smoke and mirrors of reinvented identity, and to assert the power of secrecy over another. Should she learn of his past, it could make for an interesting turning point in their affair. I can’t imagine Sylvia accepting it as seamlessly as Megan or Faye did.
Trudy Will Not Be a Failure: I seem to be in the minority here, but I did not think Trudy kicking out Pete because he strayed too close to home was some tour de force act of courage. It was totally in character. Trudy has always been a pistol, a woman of agency if you will. I loved when she wouldn’t take Don’s no for an answer when he wanted to bow out of her dinner party, the one Don showed up in wearing that crazy plaid blazer. Trudy’s refusal to divorce him, because, as she declares, “I will not be a failure,” is as strategic as it is mystifying. She can’t possibly consider her circumstances a success, with Pete’s affairs and other shortcomings, even if divorce was much more stigmatized in 1968 than it would be even a decade later. That said, it was great to see the show leverage Allison Brie’s considerable talent.
Megan’s Miscarriage: Reading the confused comments around Megan’s exchange with Sylvia reminded me how much more satisfying it is to watch “Mad Men” online. (Episodes are available on Amazon.com and iTunes.) Not only do I get to watch episodes without commercial interruption, I can replay scenes for lines I didn’t catch. Folks, Megan did not have an abortion. Nor did she do anything to cause her miscarriage. She did, however, seriously consider having an abortion, and that’s what was tearing her up, along with, I suspect, the sense that her marriage is adrift. The key line here is Megan telling Sylvia, “I did know what I wanted to do and was so relieved I didn’t have to do anything.” (That Sylvia and Arnold live in the same building as Don and Megan, and the women cross paths in the laundry room and socialize as a couple creeps me out to no end.)
Heavy-Handed Symbolism: Sylvia ordering Don steak diavolo was groan worthy. (At least she didn’t order pasta alla puttanesca. That would be, literally, whorehouse style.) An eyeroll for Don giving her cash after their morning tryst on the heels of Don coming upon Sylvia and Arnold arguing over money. As for choosing Bing Cosby’s “Just a Gigolo” for the end music, in the same episode as the whorehouse flashback and ancillary symbolism, well, all I can say is yikes. That said, the current events that wove through the show, Tet, the Pueblo incident, even ongoing questions about JFK’s assassination, were effective reinforcements of the conflict and disorder percolating among the ranks on the homefront.
Missing Person Report: All these new and expanded characters — Ted Chaough, Bobby Benson, Sandy, the violinist friend of Sally who ran away – come with a price. We’re seeing too little of our favorites. More Joan! What’s up with Ginsburg? When will Betty be back? Ditto Megan’s mother! This episode felt overpopulated. I remain nervous that the show’s spiraling story lines, with more characters and settings, might mean the show ultimately loses its core. And I can’t possibly drink to that.