Remember when Don casually remarked, "I grew up in a place like this," to that high-class madam last season? At the time I tossed it off as a possible white lie – or slight exaggeration, he was born in a whorehouse after all – just to make his refusal of the merchandise more credible. Well, turns out there was nothing false about that statement, because after a two-season absence, the Depression-era flashbacks have returned to Mad Men, revealing yet another piece of the puzzle that is Don Draper's anguished existence.
Shortly after Archibald Whitman met his maker at the hoof of a spooked horse, his pregnant (allegedly with Adam Whitman) wife, Abigail, moved herself and adolescent Dick to her sister Ernestine's home. And that home just happened to be a brothel, run by Ernestine and her gentleman friend, Uncle Mack (you don't need to wait until the second-to-last scene to figure out that Mack, making his first appearance since Season One, is into sisters). So it's no surprise that Dick, who was bereft of any pals like Boardwalk Empire's Richard Harrow, was ingrained with such a depraved view of sex from a young age. This episode, "The Collaborators," examined the dichotomy of Don's natural sleeping-around tendencies, as well as his recurring guilt not so much toward Megan, but Joan, whose SCDP partnership came at such a high price. Jon Hamm directed for the second time around, but other than eliciting a couple of knockout scenes from Alison Brie and Jessica Paré the episode fell a little flat. But that was because the material was far less meaty than last season's "Tea Leaves."
Running With Scissors
Apologies for the sophomoric analogy, but Don and Sylvia Rosen's sloppy affair reminds me of that Sex and the City episode in which Natasha catches a pink-bra-ed Carrie in the apartment she shares with Big. Between Don sneaking into the Rosens' on his way to work and remaining with Sylvia at a restaurant after Megan and Sylvia's husband, Arnold, bailed on their double date, I have to wonder (yes, I'm doing this in Carrie Bradshaw-speak), "Are they trying to get caught?" The jury is still out on Sylvia, who's wrestling with plenty of her own guilt, but maybe that's how Don figures he can be released from the shackles of his current marriage. He's certainly addicted to the sex with her all right, but to Don, Sylvia is, quite literally, a whore. When she opens the door, dressed in a negligee and robe, her hand on her hip, the memory of his arrival at Ernestine's brothel is instantly triggered.
Side note: We're on our fourth Bobby Draper, so I don't see the harm in recasting a new Dick Whitman. According to IMDB, the same child actor has played the role since 2007, which would make him in his teens at this point. If we're keeping with the correct timeline, Dick's arrival at the brothel would be, at most, a few months after his father's death. Trouble is, 10-year-old Dick's gotten taller, has a deeper voice and even Uncle Mack warns him against getting too close to the staff: "I'm the rooster around here."
It's only the third episode of the season, but remorse is slowly encroaching upon the sinners, even those who have been taught from an early age that it's OK for your stepmother to sleep with her sister's lover, which Dick watched, Psycho-style, through a keyhole. In Don's case, he's still got a score to settle with Herb Rennet, the smarmy Jaguar rep who awarded SCDP the automobile account at the expense of Joan's virtue. Not only does Don refuse to shake Herb's hand, but he goes out of his way to sabotage a meeting with Jaguar, rebelling against SCDP's Nazi collaborator-like behavior (hence the episode title) of blindly giving clients whatever they want.
But Sylvia is the one who experiences more direct, sharp guilt over the affair when Megan, continuing the ever-present death theme that Matthew Weiner beat us over the head with last week, spills that she recently suffered a miscarriage, hasn't told Don and that she didn't want the child in the first place. This is a fantastically acted scene, with Linda Cardellini conveying just the right amount of regret and uneasiness that the audience notices it, but Megan, deep in her own sorrow, doesn't. It also demonstrates the generational difference between these two wives: There's Megan, the younger, lapsed Catholic in plaid slacks, sweater and wide collar open to the idea of abortion, and the more devout Sylvia, doing laundry in pearls and a form-fitting blue dress, unable to even fathom terminating a pregnancy. When Megan plucks up the courage to break the news to Don, he perfunctorily comforts her, but her devastating loss looks more like the death knell of their marriage. Instead of engaging his wife in a dialogue about starting a family, Don merely placates Megan with declarations of "I want what you want."
In an almost direct parallel to the Don-Megan-Sylvia story line, Pete found himself mismanaging his latest extramarital affair as well. Even though he engaged in sexual relations with his down-the-street neighbor, Brenda, in his Manhattan pied à terre, his ambivalence (she's no Beth Dawes!) and her intensity were a dangerous combination – resulting in a bloodied and bruised Brenda knocking on the Campbells' door in need of a safe haven from her cuckolded husband. Trudy, willing to accept Pete's infidelity but not his indiscretion (upsetting, yet not surprising), unleashes years of pent-up fury the next morning, her steely voice matching her new set of balls (The Game of Thrones-esque "If you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you" is one for the vengeance saddle bag). But it was all for naught as Pete retained the upper hand: He smugly informed Trudy she would be sleeping alone that night before he marched out the door.
We were treated to a second helping of those convivial late-night phone chats between Peggy and Stan this episode, complete with cute client shorthand like, "Beans brought Ketchup in for a meeting." But even those precious moments are inserted into the story line for a reason, and it looks like a friendly call between colleagues is the device that will bring Peggy and the rest of the SCDP crew together again. Now that Peggy knows SCDP's relationship with Heinz is shaky, Ted Chaough is prepared to go in for the kill. Get ready for Draper vs. Olson, Round One.
Previously: The Jumping Off Point