Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mad Men: Collaborators (6.3)

Mad Men is, at its heart, a soap opera. It's heavily serialized, is primarily driven by relationships and the emotions of its protagonists, and generally restricts its characters to three or four prime locations. What it's never truly done, however, is become "soapy" -- its writing static or strained, or overly reliant on contrivance. Its something that sets Collaborators apart from so much ordinary Mad Men, since it sometimes descends into ham-fisted plotting in order to push the narrative forward. Annoying as it is to preface 'average' episodes of this show with an elaborate 'in defense of Mad Men' thing, it's only because of the show's natural finesse that an episode like this one feels off-key in comparison. And so forth.

Most of the tone-deaf stuff this week seemed like a result of major stories being set in motion, only painted more broadly than usual if only to speed up the narrative. Which in itself feels anti-show, but I digress. It's like the writers wanted Pete and Trudy to split, and major guilt to infect Don and Sylvia's affair, but quicker than normal. So we have anvils dropping left and right, some a little regressive in their after-school special quality (the spousal abuse), or sitcom-ish (oh noes, sickness and an unexpected call interrupting dinner plans!). Judged on its own, Collaborators isn't particularly strong. But it does have areas that feel promising.

The journey there was rocky, but Pete and Trudy's break-up was a real moment of dramatic urgency. As sweet and accommodating as Trudy has always been, she's also been something of a pushover -- a traditional '60s housewife, happy homemaker and caring mom. What she hasn't been is hugely pro-active. But an interesting side effect of Alison Brie's limited availability grants her big moment here significant pathos. Here's a woman we only ever see as an accessory of Pete Campbell, the dutiful, supporting wife character. But in one swoop she reveals hidden levels, a sense of long-standing trauma at the knowledge that her husband is unfaithful and cruel, made fatal by the fact that he's suddenly become less considerate in his infidelity. He's now betraying her right on her doorstep, and she's over it.

Before that closer, there wasn't a ton of freshness to Pete's story. We've seen him do this kind of thing in the past, treating women like trophies and being almost comically callous in his seduction technique. Note the line about peanuts and cheese crackers. But I guess the banality of it was intentional, the feeling of Pete being in a rut sort of working as a character point. It should at least open things up for the future.

In other couple news, I was less moved by Don and Sylvia's continued affair. There's certainly an interesting angle being exploited here, an affair being conducted in the middle of a group of friends being obviously different to the geographically detached Draper women of the past, but Sylvia herself isn't strong as a character at this point. That's in spite of the importance she seems to hold within the Mad Men universe. She's the closest thing that Megan has to a friend, and Don is arguably taking a greater risk here than in any of his other infidelities by her mere proximity to his 'normal life', but she still represents an idea right now, and not a woman with tangible feelings or a drive that is particularly understandable.

It's a significant part of this subplot struggling to be definable right now. Megan is being painted as a fragile woman in perpetual crisis, Sylvia is alternately dreamy and cold depending on the scene, and the Don flashbacks seemed to be crying out for a purpose. We knew he was partly raised in a whorehouse, and there was a surprising darkness to the 'peeping tom' closer, but this is still a series of subplots struggling to make its end goal clear.

Collaborators is Mad Men in transition, an episode that doesn't work so well on its own, but will likely appear more focused and revelatory in hindsight. There are numerous problems with the dialogue and the narrative anvils dropped here and there, which is unusual for this show, and something I hope is going to be short-lived. B


- Is Jon Hamm to blame? I didn't particularly like his last directorial effort, last season's Tea Leaves, either. Does he struggle with pacing? Or is that more the fault of the show's editors?

- Good, if emotionally uninteresting, SCDP story this week. It should create an interesting moral dilemma for Peggy, this season seeming to be playing around with how far she's willing to go to make something of herself, as well as how that creates shockwaves at her old job.

- I've never particularly been part of the Megan hate brigade, but Jessica Paré was a little off throughout this episode. I don't know if it's the clunky dialogue she was given (in the maid scene, or during the miscarriage reveal), but there was an artifice there this week more noticeable than normal.

- Good to see strands from The Other Woman are still in play. Herb is grotesque, but Joan seems to be handling the situation as best she can. It's still a horrible position to be in, though.


Sherry: You must see Hair!
Pete: Oh, you liked that?
Sherry: Who doesn't?
Brenda: What it is?
Pete: Oh it's just filled with profanity, marijuana smoking and simulated sexual acts.
Sherry: Simulated?
Pete: And a few songs.

Herb: I know there's a part of you that's glad to see me.
Joan: And I know there's a part of you you haven't seen in years.

Pete: You're going to go to bed alone tonight and you're going to realize you don't know anything for sure.
Trudy: I'll live with that.

Don: Something about that guy makes me sick.
Pete: Don't be cute, I still have his spit in my hair!

Bob: It can't be that bad when you're doing something that you love.
Pete: I'm glad it looks like that to you.

Guest stars
Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell)
Writers Jonathan Igla, Matthew Weiner Director Jon Hamm

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