Compared to last week’s double-header, last night’s episode of Mad Men, “The Collaborators” was relatively straightforward in its themes. Which isn’t saying that it was a simple episode by any stretch; it’s just that the premiere was so stylistically and thematically dense that everything else feels lighter by comparison. But there’s still so much going on in this episode. Upon first viewing, it seems like a straightforward character development type of episode, but upon reflection, I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here with the themes of betrayal, guilt, and secrecy. We cover those themes in the Orange Couch video above.
A note: Last year’s episode directed by Jon Hamm, widely known as the “Fat Betty” episode, is easily most people’s least favorite of the series. Last night’s was also directed by Hamm, and his goofy sense of humor was much more suited to a tale of sex, guilt, and secrets coming back to haunt you. I really enjoyed the shit out of that episode and look forward to rewatching it this week.
As you’ll see if you watch the video, I felt that “Hair” was used as an ironic pop culture reference here. This isn’t because “Hair” is actually the simplistic bit of feel-good nonsense that it’s often portrayed as—it isn’t, and exhibits a lot of skepticism of hippie idealism—but because of what it would represent to the characters who are talking about it. Tom and Lorenzo’s recaps of the costuming on Mad Men are helpful here. In the two they did for “The Doorway”, they explain how the costume designer captured the way that fashions favored by the hip, with-it crowd of the time percolated quickly up to the squares, who tweaked those fashions to suit their own sensibilities. They offer a ton of examples, from the bright colors and patterns to the big hair to the Edwardian-inspired ruffles; I recommend reading them.
I think, in this episode, we’re seeing another aspect of this, which is how hippie arguments about free love and liberation are being understood by the squares—a process that will eventually lead to key parties and leisure suits in a few short years. (Arguably, Playboy is more of an influence, because Hugh Hefner was way more into the idea of NSA sex than the hippies that it’s subtly getting pinned on here.) They like the screwing around part, but they haven’t really groked on to the part where you’re supposed to be open, accepting, and, well, free in order to avoid hurt feelings. But honestly, this episode even questions whether it’s ever really possible to separate sex from feelings indefinitely.
As for the divorce thing: It seems like, with Pete and Trudy making the leap, that there’s an excessive amount of divorce on the show. But it’s actually a really good choice that reflects the times really well. The reality is the divorce rates started to climb rapidly in the 60s, creating political momentum behind liberalizing divorce laws, which created another rapid climb in the divorce rate before it started to fall again, to the relatively low levels we have today. So while they divorce rate on Mad Men is higher than it was in reality, it’s an artistic choice that I think properly conveys how people at the time must have felt divorce was suddenly everywhere.
I also liked the bit in the show about the Tet Offensive, which was used to further drive home the larger theme about how hard it is to stop the escalation of hostilities once the ball has started rolling.
Once last thought, before I turn it over to you guys: The show has been slowly escalating hints of male violence against women, but mostly it’s just been intimitations and a couple episodes of shoving or grabbing. Last night we first saw an example of the kind of overt violence that was fairly common in a time before feminists started to really speak out against it. I appreciate that they didn’t hold back from portraying it exactly how it was treated at the time, like an unpleasant fact of life that was often blamed on the victim. However, they don’t insult the audience by reducing this to a historical factoid kind of thing. The ugly violence last night was the culmination of all these hints. The show writers are definitely building an atmosphere of men’s increasing frustration at the loss of control over women, suggesting that escalation by escalating the fear that men in this world are going to lash out violently because they’re sick of not getting their way as easily as they used to.