Appearance Is Everything

BY EMILY VIVIANI

Don handles his affairs more discreetly than Pete, but both men find themselves cut down by episode's end. (Photo Credit: AMC.)
Don handles his affairs more discreetly than Pete, but both men find themselves cut down by episode’s end.           (Photo Credit: AMC.)

A topical synopsis of the this week’s “Mad Men” (titled “The Collaborators”) might match the pitch and pallor of Megan’s soap opera. There was a lot of sex, smoke and blood.

Don and Pete are sleeping with their neighbor’s wives; Megan considers an abortion. Pete’s new fling is beat up by her husband; Trudy issues a verbal restraining order (VRO?) against Pete. Peggy leaks a secret; Joan pours herself a stiff drink. But “Mad Men” is “Mad Men,” so while the hour was chock-full of good, old-fashioned drama, the meat of it was heavily marinated in charade and allusion.

The plot parallels the extramarital dalliances of Don and Pete, highlighting the differences between their respective approaches toward infidelity. And in the end, the episode suggests that while sin is sin, fortunately for Don (and unfortunately for Pete), “it’s all about how it looks.”

With Trudy’s blessing, Pete has purchased an apartment in the city. After some dinner party flirtation, Pete lures his neighbor’s insipid wife, Brenda, to his Manhattan pied-a-terre with the promise of Broadway tickets. He greets her much like he would a client, offering to take her coat, pour her a drink, put on some music and change the temperature. He compliments the color of her lipstick and escorts her to the bedroom. Afterward, as Brenda is gathering herself to leave, she suggests next steps in the relationship, including various clandestine modes of communication and real Barbie dream phone material. These insinuate that she’s been toying with the allure of an affair for quite some time. But Pete seems uninterested, annoyed and eager to hurry her along.

This somewhat choreographed exchange between Pete and Brenda is contrasted by the passionate, opera-inducing romance that unfolds between Don and Sylvia. “Everything [works] out perfectly” for Don and Sylvia when their spouses skip out on dinner plans ((due to illness and emergency), both insisting that the two of them “have fun” together, alone at a candlelit dinner. Sylvia is initially tense and bothered by the trusting innocence of her loving, life-saving husband, but Don swoops in with a solid pitch:

“Now I understand. You want to feel shitty, right up until the point that I take your dress off – because I’m going to do that. You want to skip dinner, fine. But don’t pretend.”

If anyone other than Don Draper had delivered this, Sylvia may have realized that he’s not saying much of anything, and he’s kind of being a dick.  But it’s Don, so Sylvia responds by ordering him the steak diavolo and telling the waiter that they are in a bit of a hurry.

The variations between Pete and Don’s methods of persuasion in many ways mirrors their respective approaches to client interaction. Pete is a salesman, baiting suburban housewives with the promise of Broadway tickets and cosmetic compliments before closing the deal. But Don is an adman. Unlike Pete, his unfaithful tendencies seem to develop from an internal, desirous nostalgia, or as he called it in the Season 1 finale, “pain from an old wound.”

The correlation between Don’s past and his cyclic disloyalty is suggested through this episode’s flashbacks to Dick Whitman’s childhood, which are invoked upon Don’s encounters with Sylvia. We learn Don (aka Dick Whitman) spent his adolescent years in a brothel, run by his Uncle (“The Rooster”) Mac.  Through anecdotes from previous seasons, we know that Don respected Mac, so it makes some sense, given his indiscreet exposure to loose conceptions of marriage that, as an adult, Don has become a master at transforming “the affair” into an art form.

Unfortunately for Pete, his afternoon with Brenda is brutally revealed to his wife Trudy when Brenda’s bloody face arrives knocking and screaming at the Campbell’s backdoor. Brenda and her husband had gotten into a violent fight, presumably about the affair, and she did not know where else to go. Trudy immediately comforts crumpled Brenda, while Pete, alarmed and unprepared to be juggling the presence of his wife and mistress, is his terrible self. Pete’s apparent unease directly contrasts the finesse with which Don navigates an equivalently triangular scene between him, Sylvia and Megan, during which he casually reminds Sylvia of their dinner plans with a “See you tomorrow.”

After Brenda has cleaned and iced her face, Trudy escorts her to an inn for the evening, which is when, we deduce, Brenda tells Trudy about the affair. Trudy, who has tolerated Pete’s reckless tactlessness for a whopping five seasons, finally puts her foot down. The following morning, she tells Pete on his way out the door that their marriage is over (sort of), clarifying that she would have continued to tolerate his indulgent affairs had he possessed the decency to keep them discreet. “ Couldn’t you just pretend?” she asks. “I let you have that apartment […] She lives on our block.”

The episode further illustrates the distinctions between Don and Pete’s approaches by reintroducing Herb, the miserable, paunchy Jaguar dealer whom Joan is asked to sleep with in last season’s “The Other Woman” in order to secure the Jaguar account for the firm (and a partnership for Joan). The arrangement was ironic in that the “sale” of Joan in as many ways undercut (both literally and figuratively) the poetry of the Jaguar campaign, along with the credibility of the agency. “Jaguar: At last, something beautiful you can truly own,” relies not on the guarantee of satisfaction, but the potency of desire. This is similar to the way that Don has no intention of leaving Megan, and his affair with Sylvia is contingent upon its frivolity.

In this episode, Herb insists that Don persuade his superiors at Jaguar that a larger portion of its budget be allocated toward the rudimentary exposure of his dealership and “moving cars” rather than focusing on developing the Jaguar as a luxury brand. “I don’t want another thing with some schmuck on his lawnmower, fantasizing that he’s gonna win the Grand Prix driving a Jaguar,” Herb says. “I need foot traffic. Get em in the door so I can move metal.”

Herb’s boorish greed, reminiscent of his indecent proposal with respect to Joan, disgusts Don and reminded me of his response to Peggy’s shy boldness at the start of Season 2. After her insistence that “Sex sells, ” Don responded:

“Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this. They take all this monkey crap and stick it in a briefcase, completely unaware that their success depends on something more than shoeshine. You are the product. You feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do and they hate us for it.”

The agency’s persistence in placating Herb’s crude demands seems to not only insult Don’s ego by undermining his creative talent, but also appears to affect Don’s ability to tolerate his own selfish sins. Don tells Sylvia he doesn’t feel guilty about the affair because he doesn’t think about it. “This never happened.” But this foolproof method of denial is tested when Don returns from Sylvia’s (maid’s room) and discovers that Megan is awake, waiting up to tell him that she had a miscarriage earlier that week. Her exhaustion over the guilt of considering an abortion and not telling Don is the complete opposite of Draper’s denial. Megan’s confession coupled with Herb’s unvarnished gluttony seems, finally, to have an impact on Don.

In the episode’s final scene, Don stands in the hallway outside his apartment, unable to walk inside. He sits down against the wall, suggesting that while it’s possible to romanticize sin, guilt is an entirely different beast.

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Author: R. Byrnes

Ryan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Yi! News.

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