Monday, April 15, 2013

Mad Men Season Six - The Art of Deception

"It's All About What It Looks Like, Isn't It?" - Pete Campbell

Against the backdrop of a Vietcong sneak attack that we now know as the Tet Offensive, The Collaborators was full of ambushes and subterfuge where blurred lines were crossed and re-crossed and deception to oneself and others destructive to heart and home. Office gossip about Heinz passed from Stan to Peggy, whose boss thought nothing of taking that little nugget of information and leveraging it to his advantage. Megan, six weeks pregnant with Don's child, miscarries, but keeps the secret from him until after she has shared it with Sylvia, who feels guilt over her liaison with Don. Pete, happily ensconced in his pied a tierre in the city has sex with Cos Cob neighbor Brenda but is exposed when the woman's husband beats her. Trudy, whose "don't ask, don't tell" policy dates to Pete's sexual assault on an au pair in their building [1], immediately tosses Pete out on his ear.

But if there is narrative ballast to be found, it is clear that Matt Weiner draws our attention back to Don. Arnie can't seem to make it through a meal without being called away, which makes his wife the perfect target for Don's aging Lothario. He's already fulfilling Dr. Faye Miller's observation that he only likes "the beginnings of things," [2] drifting away from Megan and quite clear in his intentions with Sylvia - and while there may be some bizarre fidelity to Don's edict to live each day like it is his last, to compartmentalize "this" from everything else, he simply tumbles down the same rabbit hole that ejected him from Ossining and his first marriage. Don surely chuckled inside when Sylvia admonished that neither of them "fall in love," for her experience in this type of deception may be new, but his track record is long and he knows how this story ends. When Megan shares the news of her miscarriage with Don, his reaction to the question of whether he wants children is anodyne, "I want what you want." Well, of course he does. Two kids in his first marriage didn't slow him down, why would one? 

For the first time in a long time [3] we flash back to young Dick Whitman's childhood. We pick up his backstory as he and Abigail [4] move in with her sister, who lives in a brothel. [5] Abigail is pregnant with Adam but that does not stop house "rooster" Uncle Mack from having his way with her, or stop Dick from peeping into their liaison. That an adult Dick Whitman would be conflicted and compulsive about his sexual desires and a "whore child" who is then exposed to the very lifestyle that conceived him may have intimacy and commitment issues is unsurprising. Perhaps this is where Don's view of the world as largely transactional stems from, believing that all problems are solved with money. [6]

As a counterpoint to Don's predations, the maintenance of his grudge against Herb, the lecherous car salesman whose vote was secured for the Jaguar account by providing him an evening with Joan [7], has an odd nobility. When Herb hatches a scheme for the SCDP team to foist on the car executives, Don deftly undermines it, maneuvering the other Jaguar members into overruling the agency's recommendation. The hearty "fuck you" handshake he gives Herb as he walks out of the meeting more than makes up for the temper tantrum Pete pulls on him afterwards. 

And Pete has every reason to be hot. His reaction to Don's performance is merely displaced aggression at his own impotence, something that has been his fatal flaw. Pete has stewed in Don's shadow for nearly a decade and his attempts at everything from blackmail to slipping into Don's adulterer's ways have always fallen short. It is no surprise that when given the chance to have his pick of role playing with a prostitute, Pete chose to be her "king," [8] but Pete's is a history of a man without a kingdom. At root, it is unclear what Pete wants in life. Back in Season 2, he professed his love for Peggy, telling her it was she who he should have "chosen" instead of Trudy [9], and lashed out at his father-in-law for pulling his company's advertising because Pete seemed unfocused on starting a family. [10] 

As the years passed, Pete seemed to have found some equilibrium, but domesticity has not suited him whatsoever. He telegraphed his own marriage's demise when he referred to it as a "temporary bandage on a permanent wound," [11] but Pete's is a prison of his own making. Cos Cob may be an emotional cemetery without the aromas or noises of New York City, but Pete's yearning is for more than just a bakery's chocolates or the Botanical Gardens. Addicts are told "when I focus on what I want, I focus on what I do not have" and Pete focuses all of his attention on the things he does not have - the recognition he thinks he deserves, the affection he wants or the have-his-cake-and-eat-it-too dual life that Don pulled off so effortlessly for so long. And like an addict that engages in compulsive behavior that death spirals, Pete's shenanigans finally caught up to him. Trudy, who made vague reference to permitting indiscretions, cannot countenance suburban scandal that affects her ability to plan the Easter egg roll or 4th of July celebration. She kicks Pete out after finding out he had sex with a neighbor and he is left to get bootlicking junior account man Bob Benson to surreptitiously buy him toilet paper, too ashamed to admit he is now on his own. 

Meanwhile, the dark arts of advertising carry on. Peggy and Stan, whose relationship started so tempestuously [12] carry on late night phone chats as each toils away at their job. Except now, Stan has shared what he thinks is harmless office gossip that Peggy passes along to her boss, who is all too happy to use it to try and secure "the Coca-Cola of condiments." Peggy rightly sees the murky morality behind taking advantage of this type of "intelligence," but Ted sees his tactics as proper in the skirmishes that occur between agencies. In this way, Peggy and Ted perceive their jobs much differently. He is obsessed with negative comments, perceived slights and juvenile gags at his competitors' expense [13] and she sees her job not as a game or her role as a soldier in a battle between two mens' egos, but as a career. [14] That these missed signals, and more importantly, these tactics, might come back to haunt Stan and/or Peggy goes without saying. 

And so it goes. At its core, Mad Men is about lying - to others and to yourself - in the service of ensuring that the surface looks shiny and new, which makes the fact that the main characters work in advertising so exquisitely apt. People may do anything to avoid feeling anxious [15], or want to apply calamine lotion that scratches the itch of "newness" [16] but doing so helps them avoid dealing with the more mundane job of figuring out what it is they truly want and who they really are. When Don's identity theft was nearly exposed in Season 4, Dr. Miller, who had done so much to draw Don out, suggested that addressing some of his unresolved feelings might help him. Doing so, she told him, might help him feel more "comfortable" with his life. "And then what?" he asks. "Then you're stuck trying to be a person just like the rest of us." [17] We all know how that worked out. 

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1. Souvenir, Season 3, Episode 8. Though it should be noted, there is no suggestion Trudy knew of Pete's reprehensible attack on poor Gudrun. 

2.  Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13. 

3. Season 3 was bookended with flashbacks to Don's conception and birth (Out of Town, Season 3, Episode 1) and his father's death (Shut the Door, Have A Seat, Season 3, Episode 13).

4.  Archie's wife is not Don's mother, a prostitute who died in childbirth is. While some say that makes Abigail Don's step-mother, I'm not sure that the term is apt. 

5.  Don made reference to his upbringing in a whore house. See, Signal 30, Season 5, Episode 5.

6. Don gives Sylvia money after one of their early morning assignations. He also paid a prostitute for sex (Public Relations, Season 4, Episode 1 and The Good News Season 4, Episode 3) and has made other allusions to money as a substitute for, or definition of, acknowledgement and appreciation ("that's what the money's for" - The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7; "I gave you money and I said thank you" - The Beautiful Girls, Season 4, Episode 9).

7.  The Other Woman, Season 5, Episode 11. 

8.  Signal 30, supra. 

9.  Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13. 

10. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12.

11.  The Phantom, Season 5, Episode 13.  

12. Waldorf Stories, Season 4, Episode 6. 

13. After submitting "the letter" to the New York Times, Don receives a prank phone call from Ted, who pretends to be Senator Kennedy. Blowing Smoke, Season 4, Episode 12.  When recruiting Peggy to CGC, he asks her what terrible things have been said about him. Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12. 

14. Commissions and Fees, supra. 

15. The Doorway, Part 2, Season 6, Episode 2. 

16. The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13. 

17. Tomorrowland, supra. 


  1. Great recap, as usual. What I liked the most is what everybody else is saying: this felt like a"vintage" Mad Men episode. The characters and their complexities, the facades, the little details that connect to previous stories. The list goes on and on.

    Great episode, it seems that the Ketchup just spiced things up!

    1. Too bad Ken never referred to napalm as the "Coca-Cola of thermite devices." Someone pointed out that Pete and Peggy spent this episode trying to be Don - the former in his sordid personal life, the latter in his professional life, and both failed miserably. Having tried to counsel Pete against straying back in Season 5, it seems Don is resigned to his fate (and toggling between reveling and hating it).

    2. "Too bad Ken never referred to napalm as the "Coca-Cola of thermite devices.""

      I loved Aaron's delivery of "It's the Coca-Cola of condiments." Trudy stole the show with "I will destroy you," though.

      <3 <3

    3. Topaz pantyhose are the Coca-Cola of control top undergarments ..oh, the list goes on and on. Ken's shining moment was that dark sci-fi story in Season 5- the robot who pulls the widget out of the bridge and kills everyone. I thought there was deep symbolism in that act of rebellion. I was thinking today that you could literally start watching Mad Men at the beginning of Season 4 and have little lost by not having seen Seasons 1-3 and conversely, Seasons 1-3 formed a neat 3 act play and you could have stopped watching as Don opened the bedroom door in that room at the Pierre and peered out to the nascent SCDP and filled in the rest of the blanks yourself. It's like two entirely different shows.

  2. Tilden, is your last name other than Katz? Did we go to law school together in the "LA Law" era?

    1. Ha ha .. afraid not - I was still in high school when that TV show was on :)

  3. Really great recap, Scary. I myself did not love this episode but I enjoy your perspective.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It was not an all-time classic, but I think there was a lot going on (particularly with Heinz, and obviously, Pete/Trudy) that will have a big impact during the season.

  4. It's clear to me after two viewings that I know precious little about the workings of depression-era brothels.


    It's the oldest profession, sure, but do they all just get VD, have "whore-children" and die? Kids can't hang around a brothel. They spoil the mood.

    One thing that bothered me about the time line is that young Dick Whitman is noticeably older than he was in the flashback of newborn little brother Adam. Actors age, can't be helped.

    So, ok, Dick is supposed to be 10 or 11 when Adam is born (coming up in a few months, flashback-wise). Don said that Mack was nice to him. I guess Abigail's hobo-code-era religion was fake? Is her sister Ernestine is a prostitute or a landlady? Also: Uncle Mack porking Abigail? CAN'T UN-SEE. And why? What does "I'm the rooster, around here" mean, anyway? Worst flashback in the history of Don/Dick flashbacks. I'd give anything for a flashback to Don having fun with Anna, or even something from that tense time leading up to Anna finding Dick/Don selling used cars in the fifties.

    At least they haven't done any hillbilly jokes this season. They must have been pervasive in the first half of the twentieth century. I just find them jarring.

    Aside: really thankful for the Johnny Walker adverts. Not enough Joan this season yet, and they know it.

    Sigh. I'm too obsessed with this show. I guess I need to go to Hawaii and jump off...

    1. Very good point - I think young Dick tumbled down the stairs while the grown ups were cooing over baby Adam. How does that work, anyway? Do they close the brothel for the day so the delivery can happen. I just don't know. That they "turned out" Abigail was disappointing, she seemed so Christian when that poor hobo came to the Whitman family farm a few years prior and now Uncle Mack is having his way with her (to answer your question, I think the idea is that the pimp "claims" the prostitute by means of having sex with her - at least that's what TV has taught me).

      I'm hoping for the flashback where Dick urinates in the trunks of the cars of the "fancy people" whose cars he parked but who would not let him use the toilet at the local roadhouse (referenced in My Old Kentucky Home, Season 3 Episode 3).

      Oh, and the hillbilly says .."howdy neighbor .. we're gonna have a welcome party. There's gonna be a whole lotta dancing, a lotta drinkin' and a whole lotta screwin' neighbor says, "sounds good, what can I bring?" Hillbilly says, "you can bring whatever you want, just gonna be you and me" - LOVE THAT (Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7). Don, high on pills, has a hallucination, Archie's drinking out of his jug and then Don gets robbed. Classic.

      I think Joan's role is going to expand as the season progresses - there was too much given to her last season to suddenly shunt her to the side. She did have that one great line about Herb not seeing something in years too ...

    2. Her zinger to Jagoff Herb was a winner. As was her acting when she announced him to Don and had a drink.

      Arch's hillbilly joke was the only one I thought was legit funny, though.
      Hallucinating Don is pretty much a win +1.

      I'm sure something will happen with Joan. She makes great window-dressing. Maybe she'll fall in love or something.

      (I though it was a little ironic in her S6e3 costume that she's wearing a scarf...S1e1, "Men love scarves.")

      SLG: DO MEN LOVE SCARVES? I need to know. I'm entering the workforce soon-ish.

      (Aside: still not giving in to Get Glue.)

    3. Christina Hendricks will enter the acting hall of fame solely on that blank look she gives something bad has happened - first, with her gay roommate, next, when Greg raped her, then, when Lane kissed her. Poor Joan.

      Suffice to say, I'm probably not representative of "men," however, I will say that I appreciate a woman who is well put together (sartorially speaking that is). So, if a scarf adds to your overall look, I say, by all means.

      I had hopes for Joan and Roger, but after he assented to Operation Indecent Proposal, I think that ended things for them, though, it's clear, as Joyce said, that she is the lid for his pot (and he could stop going to therapy, which would be his gain but the audience's loss).

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Dr. McRapey's scene was such a heartwrencher. And yet she married him anyway. Pride. She could have manifested Betty's myriad darknesses, yet she remains optimistic. I appreciate that about Joan's character.

      Roger better keep going to that therapist. (He's got the bankroll.)

      The bit about it all being doors was spot-on, for all time. Do you agree?

      Stylistically, Pete's quasi-bachelor pad is *still* not as cool as Don's was. The glass panels are neat, though. I love how he can't even tell Bob Benson the truth about Trudy. Pride.

      In other news:

      (Bob Benson's future as Bobby Benson by way of Jim Henson. Has no one else thought of that?!)

      Oh, Mad Men and the obfuscation of honesty!

    6. I feel like we have a Stan & Peggy thing going on - but I don't get high ..or have an epic beard. Le Sigh. Anyway, I think a spin off that is just Roger in therapy would be a ratings winner - some of his boozy meanderings into that dictaphone back in Season 4 demand greater exploration (e.g., Cooper's lost testicles, Ida being the "queen of perversion"). I liked Pete's fuck pad better than Don's, if only because it wasn't as gloomy. Don's crib was SO dark, but of course, Pete couldn't any more be a Casanova than a good Samaritan. He is noxious.

      I do hope they don't write Trudy out - to have waited 5+ seasons to deliver the zinger to end all zingers (open fly to urinate ...) and then disappear would be unjust.

  5. I thought Pete's bachelor pad was awful! The coat rack thing was all crooked and looked like it was about to collapse. It was so sparse...I expected to see some milk crates doubling as a dresser.

    Wondering if Joan's ex (soon-to-be-ex?) will get killed in Vietnam and if so, what effect that will have on Joan/Kevin's storyline.

    Trudy's "I will destroy you" was one of my favorite lines. Love Trudy and love Alison Brie!

    Will we ever see an ackowledgment from Ken about Peggy breaking their stay-together pact? And I was starting to get lulled into false sense of security with Ted Chaugh's supportive attitude towards Peggy, but was jerked back to reality with the ketchup. In his defense however, of course he needs to jump on that. Stan was stupid to tell Peggy, and Peggy was stupid to tell Ted. But Ted would be stupid not to act on it. For god's sake, that's kind of how SCDP got the bean's account.

    1. I think the key takeaway is "do not get high and then share office gossip with former co-workers." "Le Duh" as the Twitter says.

      Pete's shag pad was kind of awful, but he was even awful-er ..I think I have some peanuts and crackers. Oh Pete, you charmer. And nevermind with the toiletries or post-coital conversation ...move it along, Brenda, I have clients to suck up to ... tick tock tick tock.

      Trudy's mic drop is an insta-classic. Pete seems to be on the receiving end of many signature moments - Peggy dropping the pregnancy bomb, Lane kicking his ass, now Trudy inserting his balls in a jar to keep under the sink.