The article below contains spoilers for “Collaborators,” the April 14th, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”
“You let Don talk, you should know better — the guy’s not a salesman,” Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba) barked at Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) toward the end of last night’s episode, after Jaguar shot down his plan to shift their campaign focus from a national to a local level. Herb’s wrong — Don (Jon Hamm), we know, is an incredible salesman, he just wasn’t interested in selling Herb’s idea to the auto executives, both because he disagreed with it and because he loathes the guy. Herb, the smarmy dealer manager for Jaguar, was last seen in season five’s “The Other Woman,” in which he initiated the brutal negotiations in which Joan (Christina Hendricks) slept with him in exchange for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce getting the coveted account. It wasn’t a plan Don supported, and he struck back here with what Roger (John Slattery) described as “the deftest self-immolation I’ve ever seen,” a futile gesture against their agency giving their clients everything they want.
That has, unfortunately for Don and his moments of pride, become the nature of the connection. And the transactions and rules inherent in various relationships, business and person, were an unmissable theme in the episode. Written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner, “Collaborators” was Hamm’s second turn as a director in the series — he also helmed last year’s “Tea Leaves.” And after last week’s moody beginning, this was one of the series’ weaker installments (despite a terrific moment in which Joan wordlessly stalked into Don’s office and helped herself to a drink after an exchange with Herb), a clumsier and more routine look at the life-as-a-set-of-sales-pitches theme the show sometimes wanders across. “Mad Men” has its domestic and workplace spheres and the sometimes uneasy overlap between the two, but “Collaborators” leaned hard on the show’s favorite themes of infidelity and office politics without bringing anything new to the table — which left it in danger, at times, of seeming like low-key parody of itself.
The cheating, in particular, felt familiar, and not in the way suggested in the season premiere, as signaling Don’s inability to change and his perpetual discontent and search for something more. The affair with neighbor Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini) is close to home for Don, which makes her uncomfortable as much as it doesn’t seem to be a concern for him. He’s had a lot of practice with extramarital flings, and so far there’s been little to distinguish her from the long string of women Don’s had on the side, first when married to Betty (January Jones) and now to a thus far oblivious Megan (Jessica Paré), aside from proximity. She and her husband Arnold (Brian Markinson) are friends with the Drapers, but Don has no problem compartmentalizing and with urging her to enjoy their affair as it is, without wondering where it’s going. “You want to feel shitty right up until the point where I take your dress off,” he told her, a flash of the old Don giving Bobbie Barrett (Melinda McGraw) what she didn’t know she was asking for. And it works — Sylvia tumbles into bed with Don again and stops asking questions, suggesting only that they be sure not to fall in love. How’s that for a sales pitch, Herb?
Sylvia might be able to shrug off her ingrained Catholic guilt, but Megan has been struggling with some of her own after a recent miscarriage. She didn’t tell Don, wasn’t sure he would have been happy and, at that stage in her rising career, didn’t necessarily want to stop to have a baby either, and yet she’s torn up about the loss and that her not welcoming the pregnancy may have somehow triggered it. The scene of them vowing to have that talk at the end emphasized an uncertainty in their marriage now that wasn’t there last season — Don’s tells her he’s willing to do whatever she wants, but he’s sitting outside the door of the apartment, unwilling to go in and fresh from another woman’s bed, at the end. Maybe nothing really does change for Don, though the pairing of the story with the flashback to his childhood and his now widowed stepmother (pregnant with Adam) sleeping with Mack (Morgan Rusler) in the rooming house in exchange for being taken in was an unpleasant one. Is that where Don learned to treat his relationships as bargains struck? In that case, what he’s signed up to provide Megan with isn’t matching what she thought she’d get.
While Don got a fright when walking in on Megan and Sylvia having a teary discussion, it was Pete who was actually told on. Always drifting in Don’s footsteps, even when its unknowing, he had his own neighborhood fling, only to miscalculate with his naive and clingy choice Brenda (Collette Wolfe) and have it end with her showing up at the Campbells’ house at night with a bloody nose, telling him “I want to be with you.” Unlike Megan, Trudy (Alison Brie) has obviously been harboring no illusions about her spouse for a while now — the sense of betrayal she displayed had everything to do with the disrespect he’d shown her by not being discreet and letting her pretend to be unaware. The Manhattan apartment had been a part of her calculations in their union, the price she was willing to pay in order to keep the “dignity in granting permission” and to live the life she wanted. And the new bargain she demanded was one in which she’d keep that life while not needing him to pretend — banishing him to keep his entanglements from within a “50 mile radius” of the house.
The episode’s last indiscretion was a workplace one, with Heinz bean rep Raymond Geiger (John Sloman) bringing in the head of the company’s ketchup account in for a meeting, only to forbid SCDP from following up. The show baldly phrased this in terms of an infidelity — “I’d rather retire than watch that guy screw my girlfriend,” Raymond says, in a more hamhanded parallel than was necessary — though it was Peggy who inadvertently betrayed Stan’s (Jay R. Ferguson) trust to send her boss Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) a-wooing at Heinz. Peggy didn’t require much finessing from Ted to let go of ethical reluctance on her end, still anxious to prove herself in terms of talent (though she’s not much of a manager). Funny enough, despite his personal history of cheating and the years of fooling around, it’s Don who urges fidelity to Raymond when Ken (Aaron Staton) complains: “He’s brought his business here when we were barely standing… Sometimes you’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya.” There’s one world in which Don keeps the faith, though it doesn’t stand to do him any favors.