In the week following Mad Men‘s double-episode premiere of its sixth season, I haven’t been able to get one image out of my head. It was a quick moment, quick enough to miss, but it hit me as one of the most uncomfortable moments of the entire series. The moment follows the reveal of Don’s new affair with his neighbor’s wife, Sylvia (Linda Cardellini), as they talk to each other in bed. Don tells her he doesn’t want to sleep with her anymore before giving her another kiss, and she leans over to grab a cigarette. In that moment, Don seems to become fully aware of himself and his actions. There is a look of horror on his face that exposes the very core of his isolation. What is so frightening and uncomfortable about the moment is that it doesn’t change Don’s actions. He lies back down in the bed and embraces Sylvia once again.
Matthew Weiner has mentioned that loneliness plays a big part in this season of the show, but I wasn’t expecting things to get so tragic so fast. “The Collaborators” is a very cynical, hostile piece of television that attacks its characters from every possible angle. But that doesn’t mean the characters are innocent.
Like The Sopranos (a show Matthew Weiner wrote for in its last few seasons) before it, Mad Men treats its characters with waves of comedy and tragedy, always ending up on a shore somewhere in the middle, watching the audience sit uncomfortably at the prospect of being surprised. In season five’s episode “The Other Woman,” Don’s moment of triumph was cut down the moment it began, realizing that honest work had nothing to do with his victory over Jaguar. It was the perfect tonal shift for Weiner to make in his increasingly methodical structuring of story and character, and his successes in last season’s audience gut-punches appear to have given him and the writers the confidence to continue down this road of uncanny emotions.
“The Collaborators” begins with Don not-so-reluctantly meeting Sylvia in her apartment before work, and it ends with Don collapsing in the doorway of his own apartment, unable to find the strength to enter and face the reality on the other side. Don is a dreamer. He’s an artist, a salesman, a man obsessed with, as he puts it, “the moment before he needs more happiness.” When Megan decided to follow her dreams as an actor, Don gave up on his dreams of being a loyal husband. He decided to, once again, see what other kinds of happiness are available to him.
But just because Don avoids the problems he doesn’t want to fix, that doesn’t mean they aren’t waiting around for him to come home. As Sylvia takes her clothes to the building’s laundry room, she catches Megan firing her maid for incompetence. It’s an awkward scene that offers no comic relief or merciful cutting. The maid walks away, and Megan begins to cry.
She and Sylvia decide to go up to Megan’s apartment and talk, where Megan delivers the news that she’s just had a miscarriage. Sylvia is the first and only person Megan has told. As Megan breaks down into sobs, Don comes home.
“The Collaborators” could describe anybody, but like everything else in Mad Men, it most likely means everybody. As the characters find themselves drifting apart from one another, they’re forced to latch on to whomever is nearest. They’re forced to make a connection, even if the connection doesn’t make sense.
When Pete takes one of his neighbors (played by the infinitely underrated Collette Wolfe, who stole Young Adult straight from underneath Charlize Theron a year ago) to his apartment in the city, he’s obviously living out whatever fantasy he has of Don Draper’s life, but when the same neighbor screams to be let into his house late one night, her face bloodied and lacerated from her husband’s fists, all he can think about is how he fits into the fight.
“What did you tell him?” he sneers to her as he pretends to call the police. He has no pity for the young woman who is devastated by her husband’s attack, nor does he sympathize for Trudy, who is forced to drive the neighbor to the hospital with the full knowledge that Pete slept with her.
Any of these relationships could be the collaboration in question, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because everybody is alone, and they’re all starting to realize it at the same time. Heinz beans and Heinz Ketchup attend the same meeting, but their partnership is only a facade. Herb, the Jaguar VP who demanded Joan’s company for the account, forced SCDP to railroad their own ad campaign to help boost his sales, only for the suggestion to backfire for everybody but Don. Peggy and Simon’s innocent conversation on the phone becomes a nasty stab in the back. Nobody can trust anybody, and that’s the way it’s always been. But it looks like the consequences are starting to fall in the wrong direction.
Or maybe it’s just a different direction.