Monday, April 15, 2013

"Choosing Dishonor"

Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Three, "The Collaborators"

Like the lives these characters are leading, this felt a very fragmented episode. Talking to Don about the mess the firm is in with Jaguar, Roger paraphrases Winston Churchill, attributing the words to his mother: "Your options were dishonor or war. You chose dishonor; you might still get war." The quote points out the irony in this episode's title--people who might appear to be collaborators are actually working against each other, whether they be married couples, supposed friends, ad agency and client, or members of the advertising field.

Like so much on "Mad Men," much of Don's storyline tonight appears to have its roots in his childhood when, after the death of his father, Dick's rigidly religious step-mother goes with him to live with her sister and husband who run a brothel. So, not only was Dick conceived in prostitution, he spends a formative time in his youth living among prostitutes and receives some early sex education watching through key holes where he sees his pregnant step-mother and his uncle together. Mrs. Whitman, I presume, "chooses dishonor" in exchange for her and Dick's keep. Something about his relationship with Sylvia flashes Don back to these scenes from his childhood. Is it that Sylvia reminds him of one of these prostitutes? She once opens her door to him in the same hand-on-hip pose as one of the women at his aunt's house. Later, Don gives Sylvia some money after leaving her bed. They have their "war" after Sylvia learns that Megan was pregnant and is jealous and upset about what she saw as Don's lie that he and Megan were growing apart. While they seemed to be collaborating to ease Don's anxiety about his existence and identity--as I'd interpreted last week's events--they now seem to be working at cross purposes.

Megan thinks that she has a friend to whom she can turn in Sylvia, so looks for a "collaborator" to help her construct a story that would make her contemplation of abortion okay. According to Megan's and Sylvia's upbringings, abortion would be the dishonorable way out of an inconvenient pregnancy. Megan weaves her real-life disturbing experience into her tales of what her soap opera character will be doing, using "I" to refer both to herself and her role. As a result, Sylvia at first thinks that Megan is telling her that the woman she plays on the show has a miscarriage. But, as Megan seeks validation from this "collaborator," it is soon apparent that Sylvia will not be on her side. Megan has no clue how far the situation goes into actual betrayal.

Infidelity also plagues the Campbell marriage and while Trudy--surprisingly to me--knew about Pete's affairs, she seemed to think that she could manage the "dishonor" and collaborate with Pete in hiding the truth away. "I let you have that apartment. Somehow I thought there was some dignity in granting permission. All I wanted was for you to be discreet." (As he says to the new accounts man at the end, "It's all about what it looks like, isn't it?") But, the Campbells are destined for more of a war now that Trudy has discovered that Pete slept with their down-the-street neighbor. While I disagree with her take on marriage, she shows her strength in her knowledge of what she wants and in the forcefulness with which she lays down for Pete how it will be: "We're done, Peter. This is over." She doesn't want to divorce: "I refuse to be a failure. I don't care what you want anymore. This is how it is going to work. You'll be here only when I tell you to be here." She's drawing a 50 mile radius around the house within which "if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you." I don't like this woman, but I liked that. Largely because I can't stand Pete. I still don't get what all these women--what any woman--see in him. He's a petulant, whiny, unattractive creep who just exudes his contempt for the world and all in it from every pore. When his neighbor with whom he had the dalliance shows up battered and bloody at the Campbells' front door, her husband yelling, "She's your problem now, Campbell!" Trudy surprised me with the matter-of-fact competence with which she handles the woman's injuries and makes sure she stays away from home. Pete pompously announces that he'll call "the authorities," but settles for a hotel when Brenda insists he not involve the police. When Trudy goes to get a towel, Pete just sneers at Brenda, "What did you say to him?" I don't know that Pete will ever be able to see how utterly dishonorable he is.

But while he's contemptuous with the women in his life, Pete is as obsequious as ever with clients. Herb--of Jaguar--comes back to the firm, demanding the ad men's 'collaboration' in getting his company to agree to put a majority of their advertising budget into a local radio campaign to draw customers into his lot. He also smarmily (is that a word? It is now.) thinks that he and Joan are actually collaborators as well: "I know there's a part of you that's glad to see me." But, Joan, though cold while talking to him, is upset by his presence, walking straight into Don's office for a drink after Herb leaves hers. Pete is willing to collaborate, but Don isn't. When Herb comes back with his fellow Jaguar men, who are opposed to his idea, he thinks Don will sell them: "Lord knows you're so damn persuasive." But, Don doesn't want to persuade. He oozes sarcasm as he throws a cheap argument for fliers in newspapers to draw in the ordinary man and housewives into the Jaguar dealership. Pete is angry with Don, but Don doesn't care: "Something about that guy makes me sick," he says. That Herb exploited Joan is what makes Don sick and that his firm collaborated in her prostitution still gets to him: "We just keep saying 'yes' . . . because we didn't say 'no' to begin with." While his childhood background with prostitutes might lead him to treat his mistress as one, his anger over the injustice against Joan is admirable. He's willing to forego the dishonor and go to war over this one.

Finally, Peggy learns a lesson in what she sees to be the dishonor of advertising when she doesn't want to exploit Stan's telling her about Heinz Ketchup looking for a new agency. Her boss puts it explicitly in terms of war, though. 'This is how wars are fought,' he says. "Maybe you need a friend more than you need a job. I didn't know that. I'm in advertising."

All of this happens in the context of news stories of the Tet Offensive. The United States and South Vietnam thought they had 'collaborated' with the North to grant a cease fire for the Vietnamese New Year, but were wrong. Those whom Americans saw to be weaker are winning the war. And the powerful men of this series have a very hard time with that concept. What if the weaker (like the women in their lives) start winning their wars in other arenas as well?


  1. Hi Cathy,

    you wrote a great article for reviewing this episode. I just watched this episode, and I love the way how Roger quote Churchill. You wording are very profound, and you are very knowledgeable, specially, in the last paragraph, you link this episode to the context of the Tet Offensive.

    I started watching Mad Men a few weeks ago, and I have to say I learned a lot of quotes from watching this show. You are a English teacher, and you must know much better than me.

  2. Thank you, Michael. I'm glad you found my post meaningful and that you've found Mad Men to watch. It's a fun--if sometimes maddening--show.

    1. these blog you wrote is valuable, and I am glad I found about your blog. Actually, your blog came out when I was googling the origin of Roger's quote.