After a slightly exhausting two-hour premiere, full of table settings and societal angst, “Mad Men’s” third episode of Season Six, “The Collaborators,” wasted no time in shifting the chess pieces around for its characters. It not only shed insight into Don’s affair with Sylvia, his friend’s wife, but provided several fan-service moments of great zingers from women taking slimy men down a notch. Too many players underestimated their partners, professional or personal, and Don and Roger spelled out the theme in the final moments: appeasement can be a dangerous game. Give someone what they want, no matter what it is, just to make them happy, and chances are they will only want more — and then some.
Most satisfying first: Pete Campbell’s arrogance finally caught up with him. His assumptions regarding his extramarital flings in his tacky Manhattan bachelor pad were wrong on many levels, from thinking the women he beds will be happy with a casual affair to believing his wife, Trudy, is ignorant to his fooling around. The doe-eyed blonde he seduces on the prospect of “Hair” tickets, Brenda (Collette Wolfe), isn’t even dressed again before she starts daydreaming how the two will continue a clandestine affair. Pete’s “I really have to get back — can you move it along a little?” doesn’t even deter her, nor does the brutal beating she receives from her husband after her presumably learns of the tryst. She wants to be with him; he can’t believe what he sees as his bad luck (and has the audacity to blame Brenda for the assault); and Trudy can’t believe she has put up with the charade for so long. “Somehow I thought that there was some dignity in granting permission,” she tells him. “All I wanted was for you to be discreet.” If he can’t keep up the pretense, neither can she — and she doesn’t want a divorce. “I refuse to be a failure. I don’t care what you want anymore. This is how it’s going to work: you will be here only when I tell you to be here. I’m drawing a 50-mile radius around this house, and if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you. Do you understand?” “You know,” Pete says, “you’re going to go to bed tonight and you’re going to realize you don’t know anything for sure.” “I’ll live with that,” Trudy replies.She wants him gone, and that’s good enough for now.
Peggy’s mistakes are rookie ones, from assuming her creative team doesn’t need encouragement to not seeing from a mile away her boss, Ted, swooping in to try to steal the Heinz account from SCDP based on her tip. Although her frustrations with her lackluster team are understandable, Peggy hasn’t put enough effort into remembering what it was like to be one of the creatives and to work for a hard-to-please boss. More importantly, she appears to have forgotten the nature of the business — that it is every man out for himself. Stan sharing the story of Heinz baked bean’s Raymond Geiger (John Sloman) warning Don and crew to stay away from Heinz ketchup’s Timmy Jablonksi (Kip Pardue), who may be shopping around for a new agency, was friendly and funny — a laugh between two friends. Stan and Peggy trust each other, but Peggy telling Ted the news as a way to explain her personal phone call wasn’t smooth. Or did she subconsciously know Ted would jump on Heinz? Perhaps she is craving a win more than she realizes, not to mention desiring acceptance and admiration from the peers that play a “joke” on her by leaving feminine hygiene product on her desk. “This is how wars are won,” Ted tells her. “Your friend’s mistake was underestimating you.” This will likely pit her against SCDP — namely Don — to win over Heinz. That’s what she really wants, whether she realizes it or not.
Pete’s other blunder came from thinking his partners, namely Don, are interested in the same game he is when it comes to accounts. Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba) from Jaguar wants the agency at his beck and call, just as it was last year when SCDP landed the account in turn for him landing Joan. She isn’t amused by his presence — Him: “I know there’s a part of you that’s glad to see me.” Her: “And I know there’s a part of you you haven’t seen in years.” — and Don isn’t interested in kowtowing to his demands to advertise locally, not so much nationally, for the brand. In true Don fashion, he blows up the pitch meeting with Jaguar execs by pretending to agree with Herb while pointing out the flaws of his idea. Herb is left out to dry, and so is Pete, as the other executives politely balk at the go-local pitch. “Why do we care what that guy wants?,” Don asks later to Pete and Roger, who answer with “because he’s the client.” “And so we just keep saying yes no matter what, because we didn’t say no to begin with?”
That idea of saying yes because you didn’t first say no perfectly translates to the triangle of Don, Megan and Sylvia, which is growing more complicated. “You don’t mind sitting across the table from your wife and my husband?,” Sylvia asks Don early in the episode. “I don’t think about it,” he says. “They’re both good company.” Sylvia had assumed her affair with Don was spurred in part by his declining relationship with Megan, but guilt has made itself known now that she is spending more time with the couple. Megan confiding in her about a recent miscarriage also unnerves Sylvia, who says she can’t relate to Megan’s feeling of relief, not so much of not having a child but of not having to decide right then if she wants to have one. Stuck at dinner with Don, Megan having stayed home and Arnold called away to work, Sylvia tells him she doesn’t know what they’re doing. “You want to feel sh*tty right up until the point where I take your dress off? Because I’m going to do that. You want to skip dinner? Fine. But don’t pretend,” he says. “… I want you. I want you all the time. If you’ve suddenly decided you want something more than that, well then that’s news, isn’t it?”
Sylvia retreats from confronting Don on their sins, telling him she is sorry and that she has no right to be jealous. “This is just us here,” he tells her, and her only caution is that they shouldn’t fall in love — it wouldn’t be “so French” anymore. Afterward, it is Don’s turn to change tunes once he returns home to Megan. She tells him of the miscarriage and says she is sorry for not telling him sooner. She didn’t know how to talk to him about it because she doesn’t know what he wants in terms of starting a family with her. Where Don was forceful with Sylvia, telling her point-blank that no matter what, they will still sleep together that night because that’s their arrangement is, he is more conciliatory with Megan. “You’d have to know I’d want what you want,” he tells her. “Is that what you want?” “Do you want to have that conversation” about kids, she asks. “Whenever you want,” he replies. The next night, however, he stops by to see Sylvia, but Arnold is home. He ends up outside his own door, slumped against the wall.
The use of flashback created interesting parallels in “The Collaborators,” as we saw a young Dick Whitman move into what is essentially a brothel. His stepmother, Abigail, is pregnant and desperate, turning to her sister Ernestine for a place to stay. Ernestine is quick to give the credit to Mack, the man she is with — “So he’s your uncle,” she tells Don. “All I said was, ‘My sister’s coming with her boy.’ Mack’s the one that brung ya.” “I’d do the same for mine,” Mack says. “And of course Ernestine told you we could always use a little help around here,” he says to Abigail. She knows what it is she is being asked to do, and she is repulsed and resigned to her new situation. Back in 1968, Don echoed his aunt’s words when summarizing the Heinz situation for Ken. Raymond doesn’t want SCDP courting Timmy, and Raymond was loyal to the agency when they were struggling and needed clients. They owe him their allegiance, Don says: “Sometimes, you gotta dance with the one that brung ya.”
So why is Don associating his affair with Sylvia with his time at the brothel? He did give her money after sex one time, responding to an overheard conversation of Sylvia and Arnold’s in which she asked for extra funds. Sylvia took the cash from Don with a smile. His “relationships” with so many women are merely arrangements, as if they are prostitutes. Don wants them, and he’s going to get them. So he has to put up with hurt feelings occasionally? Perhaps he has to shell out extra money? OK. That’s part of the deal. His affair with Sylvia is transactional, while his marriage with Megan is more emotional. But is he translating the idea of sticking with someone no matter what to his marriage? He was prepared to stay with Betty no matter what; she is the one who ended the marriage. His plan appears to be to stay with Megan as well, even if it means more children. He didn’t say no, so he essentially said yes. He wants her to have what she wants, whatever that is. But what he really wants in life remains unclear, although I think Dustin hit the nail on the head in his parsing of the premiere. Don’s main desire just might be to disappear — not to kill himself, but to leave his life as Don Draper behind. That may be his only escape.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.