Mad Men Season 6 Recap: The Collaborators

Peggy stands, hands on hips, in her office
Has it already been a week since the new season of Mad Men began? It has, and in last night's Jon Hamm–directed episode, the diffuse setups of the season premiere are focused on work, love, and war—and sometimes more than one at a time. Read on for our three-person recap of last night's show.

"We just keep saying yes because we didn't say no to begin with"

The title of last night's episode was "The Collaborators," which is a perfectly Matthew Weiner–esque move given that there was about as much sincere collaboration in the episode's plot points as there is unpunchable real estate on Pete Campbell's face, which is to say almost none. Turns out "collaboration" is just fancypants adspeak for capitulation, trade-offs, and folie a deux, all of which we saw in abundance last night—particularly for Mad Men's female players.

First up, there's Peggy, who is still struggling to be the boss she needs to be—firm, high of standards, but fair—to a group of shuffling, uncommunicative dudes who have no idea how to relate to her. As Phyllis, her secretary, reminds her, it wasn't so long ago that Peggy was one of them, but the efforts to encourage her underlings and set them at some kind of ease backfire when she discovers she's the subject of a prank involving a canister of feminine-hygiene powder left on her desk. It's a reminder that she may be the boss, but she's still a woman—and whatever collaboration she thinks is possible will be indelibly colored by her gender.

Then there's Joan, who must contend with nasty old Herb from Jaguar (UGH!), who lurches into her office on his way to a meeting with Don and Pete to underhandedly remind her of the deal she made in order to become partner, the collaboration that was ostensibly a one-time affair but which is made fresh once more when Herb leers, "I know there's a part of you that misses me." Major points for the quick-thinking comeback: "And I know there's a part of you you haven't seen in years." But it's clear from how fast she whips into Don's office to pour herself a bracing shot of booze that Joan isn't shaking off this memory anytime soon.

And Trudy, who in grand Feminine Mystique style has little to leverage against her husband's ramped-up philandering. (Seriously, Pete? "I'll throw in a hot dog" has to be the most shameless double entendre ever, and now I never want to look at a hot dog again.) It's possible that the show is setting Trudy up for a Summer of Love revelation of freedom—I could absolutely see her founding Cos Cob's first consciousness-raising group, or pulling a Walk on the Moon retreat to Woodstock with a traveling blouse salesman—but right now, her "refusal to be a failure" means only that she gets the shit end of the stick.

Finally, there's Sylvia, who is unwittingly collaborating with Don's memories of a childhood spent among working women of another kind. It's been a while since we've had a Dick Whitman flashback, and this one's a doozy. After the death-by-horse of Dick's father, he and his pregnant mother take refuge at the home of her sister, who happens to own a whorehouse with her husband Mack. Mack promptly asserts to the young boy his own dominance of the house and its residents, and the flashback ends with the skin-crawlingly Norman Batesian image of young Dick peeping through a keyhole at Mack climbing onto his very pregnant, very resigned mother—the result of her "collaboration" with family. Perhaps it's no wonder that when Don pulls out a wad of cash at the close of an assignation with Sylvia, she seems neither surprised nor insulted; any woman who has slept with Don must come to know that, in his eyes, all sex is transactional. (Also, fellow Boardwalk Empire fans will relate to my new desire to get Dick Whitman and Jimmy Darmody, may he rest, into some kind of retroactive fictional-character group therapy for boys who grew up in houses of ill repute.)

Don whispers into the ear of Sylvia

Psst! Sylvia! The fact that this will end in tears is not a secret.

All in all, hardly the most subtle of Mad Men episodes, but its focus on the women in particular, and the costs they bear for choices that were never choices at all, was on point. Can another Betty-centric episode be far away?

Assorted notes:
Don's deployment of the line "Sometimes you gotta dance with the one that brung ya" in reference to forgoing the lucrative Heinz ketchup account to stick with Heinz beans was a small masterpiece of irony given both who Don is and his inability to remain loyal to anyone for long. I'm especially concerned about his relationship with Arnold Rosen, who—as Sylvia reminded us this episode—truly cares about impressing Don. Let's hope that their moment of reckoning doesn't coincide with Don's eventual smoking-related heart attack.

Who else had a BUtterfield 8 flashback when Sylvia opened the apartment door in her nightie and robe? With her hair and her sexiness, she's already working an Elizabeth Taylor vibe; could this have been a purposeful reference to that story, which found a not-quite-kept woman reacting very differently than Sylvia did after a man gave her money after sex?


"It's all about what it looks like, isn't it?"

Though last night's episode was largely about failing relationships—Pete and Trudy, Don and Megan, Don and Sylvia, Peggy and Stan/Ted, SCDP and Heinz—it was also about keeping up appearances for those on the outside. We learn that Trudy wholeheartedly agreed with Lane Pryce when he called Pete a "grimy little pimp" (though how Pete manages to be successful with the ladies using lines like, "It's been known to get hot in here" is beyond me) but since she's a respectfully married lady she wants everything to seem A-OK at House Campbell, even if it means banning Pete from within 50 miles of their home and glossing over neighborhood domestic violence (which, as Matt Zoller-Seitz points out, would have been typical for the time).That said, I cheered when Trudy told Pete that she was tired of being "an object of pity while you get to do whatever you feel like."

Don, as we see in some bad-haircut flashbacks, learned his relationship skills from Uncle Mack, the "rooster" in the whorehouse where Don/Dick spent his formative years. No wonder, then, that he feels more comfortable giving Sylvia a wad of cash than having a meaningful conversation, either with her or with Megan, who didn't tell Don about her pregnancy or miscarriage until days later. And speaking of, what do we make of Megan's heart-to-heart with Sylvia? Given her stance on abortion (and Mad Men's heavy hand zooming in on that gold cross she wears in every scene) I'd bet my bottle of Quest feminine hygiene powder that Mrs. Rosen finds herself with child before the season is up.

All in all I found "The Collaborators" a little clunky for a Mad Men episode (which still makes it better than just about anything else on television), and Peggy's scenes with Ted Chaough certainly didn't help. Why would someone as professional and sharp as Peggy spill the beans (pun intended) to Chaough about Heinz? Sure she's ambitious, but not ambitious enough to sell out her beloved Stan for a crack at ketchup, even if it is the "Coca-Cola of condiments." But that storyline was also about keeping up appearances—Raymond, the bean guy, doesn't want Timmy, the ketchup guy, to work with SCDP, but he sets the meeting up anyway. Peggy doesn't want Stan to know that she's talking to Ted about Heinz, but of course she is (argh!). Will Peggy pitch a "ketchup ballet" commercial and ruin her friendship with Stan? I hope not.

Assorted thoughts:
Was anyone else psyched to see Kip Pardue in last night's episode as superstar ketchup exec Timmy? Like James Wolk (who plays the still-opaque Bob Benson) Pardue always had a total '60s vibe to me. Also like Wolk/Benson, I don't trust him for one second.

The always-obtuse preview for next week has me hoping we finally get to see more of Joan in episode four. Does she still live with her mother in that apartment? Is one of the old Bobby Drapers playing Kevin? Please Mad Men, we need a Holloway-Harris fix!


Pete reclines on his couch, watching TV

Congratulations, Pete: You're still the absolute worst.

Feeling feelings
Man, people were totally the worst to each other last night, right? Not to get all "women are naturally more emotional than men" on everyone, but last night's episode showed us the vastly differing abilities of these characters to express and process regret. Megan comes clean to Sylvia, and later Don, regarding her miscarriage and the guilt of feeling relieved of no longer having to give up her burgeoning acting career. Sylvia, burdened with the proximity of Don and Megan's married life, acts out her regret on Don during an accidental dinner for two, only to later apologize to him for having had feelings, since apparently that's not allowed in affairs. And then Trudy! TRUDY! Not only does she care for her neighbor, who is literally dumped on the Campbell's doorstep after having been beaten by her affair-enlightened husband, but then she also puts Pete completely in his place the next morning. In possibly the night's most empowered expression of regret, Trudy breaks down for her dum-dum of a husband what an idiotic and hurtful idea it is to sleep with someone from down the street. While it's clear that she feels regret for being married to Pete and possibly for giving implicit permission for him to sleep with other women, she is not weighed down by her feelings enough to not take control of the situation.

On the flip side, Pete and Don are both A+ examples of suppression. Rather than working constructively on his marriage, Pete continues this season to flirt and sleep around. When he is forced to confront the consequence of his actions in the form of his severely beaten mistress, Pete's best suggestion is to hiss "What did you say to him?" at her, and then put her in a cab and send her to a hotel, all so that he can stop being confronted by responsibility sooner. When he's busted, instead of taking that as a moment to admit fault, Pete hides all guilt and sadness in the face of his marriage falling apart in favor of flinging an insult about how lonely Trudy will be that night without him. (With all the time he spends in the city, does Pete genuinely believe that Trudy can't handle being on her own?)

And even though we know that Don's whole life is one long act of distancing himself from the past, seeing him jump down Sylvia's throat for experiencing any emotions reminded us again that this is a man who hates weakness. Look at his passive- aggressive handling of Jaguar Herb (again, UGH!)! Don would rather jeopardize the cushy car account than say that he hates the idea of regional ads almost as much as he hates SCDP for whoring out Joan to win the account in the first place. With all the flashbacks to Dick Whitman's messed-up formative years, we are reminded again that there is a lot that's broken inside of Don Draper—and that it will remain so, because admitting damage would be acknowledging a lack of control. While coming out as Dick Whitman seemed to be a huge turning point for the character, Don is as guarded and destructive as ever, largely due to his inability to express the onion-like layers of feelings inside that handsome facade of his.

While not granted a ton of airtime or dramatic plot lines this week, Peggy's and Joan's handling of regret still stood out. Joan ducked into Don's office to play a classic Draper move of drinking instead of talking away problems (in the horror of watching "The Other Woman," it didn't occur to me at the time that Joan would have to deal with seeing Herb come into the offices like any other client!). Peggy had to be reminded by her secretary Phyllis that she should feel badly about the way that she's treating her creative staff, and then didn't know how to atone for her mistakes while still being taken seriously. As the rare high-achieving women in both of their offices, Peggy and Joan would be meet the harshest judgement for being emotional. Since they can't afford to appear weak, their overcompensation in resisting their feelings leads to them appearing Don-like. Unlike Pete and Don, Peggy's and Joan's suppression of regret doesn't yet appear to be taking much of a toll on our favorite Mad Women, which seems largely due to the fact that they are not expected to be masculine (just masculine enough to be taken seriously at work). I don't see either of them cracking under the weight of their pasts, but it is still the beginning of the season, so there's always time for more plot twists!

Assorted thoughts:
AMC, can you please post webisodes that are just of Peggy and Stan's phone calls? While the sneak peak of the next episode doesn't bode well for Stan and Peggy's easy friendship, it's so refreshing to see a healthy relationship between a man and a woman on this show (especially in this episode).

Unlike earlier seasons, I hadn't really thought about the maids of Mad Men until last night. Even though Megan did seem to have some legitimate reasons for firing her maid, all of the cigarette scapegoating and accusations of silverware theft reminded us all that  while both the SCDP and the CGC offices are hiring black employees, these characters' racism and classism are still as undiluted as ever.


Notable cultural references this episode: Hair (Pete's smug review: "Filled with profanity, marijuana smoking, and simulated sex acts"); Johnny Carson, many Vietnam updates via background TV.

Inappropriate office behavior: The office prank involving that canister of Quest powder, obvs. Also, Ted assured Peggy that it was okay to make personal phone calls after 5pm, but we still appreciated Stan's cover-up line: "We'll have your wig ready by then, ma'am."

Got your own thoughts? Leave them in the comments. But if you so much as unzip your fly within a 50-mile radius of this recap, we will destroy you.

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by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

I Can't Believe I like Betty More

Miscarriage my ass.

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The only thing worse than the flowery print couch is the jerk sitting on it.

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