Mad World on Kritik: Mad Men Season 6.3
"Pete and Repeat"
Guest Writer: Lilya Kaganovsky

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism
[The second in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on Season 6 of AMC's Mad Men, posted in collaboration with the publication of MAD MEN, MAD WORLD: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s (Duke University Press, March 2013) Eds. Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky and Robert A. Rushing]

“Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonour. They chose dishonour. They will have war.”
Winston Churchill to Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons, after the Munich accords (1938)

"Pete and Repeat"

Written by: Lilya Kagonovsky (Slavic/Comparative Literature)

Episode 3 of the sixth season of Mad Men takes place at the end of January 1968, roughly between the capture of USS Pueblo by the North Koreans and the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive. War (secret, undeclared) is the obvious subtext: between the news about North Korea and the Viet Cong on Pete’s TV and Sylvia’s radio, Roger’s references to “Munich” and the quote from Churchill that he misattributes to his late mother, there is a sense that many of the characters are poised on the brink of violence, hovering somewhere between “war and dishonour.”

As Uncle Mack explains to young Don, he’s the cock in the hen house, which means he gets to sleep with all the hens, including, as we learn at the end, Don’s very pregnant stepmother, Abigail. We already know that Don is sleeping with his neighbor’s wife (but we don’t know that he sneaks in every time the good Dr. Rosen is out of the building), and we’re not surprised that Pete is sleeping with everything he can, including his rather na├»ve neighbor, Brenda, who—not unlike Sylvia—imagines their affair to be something slightly more than it is (after the first time, she immediately proposes calling Pete at home and hanging up, and leaving small signs of affection, like parking her car on the street, to let him know she’s thinking of him. She cannot even begin to compare to the beauty of Beth from Season 5, drawing a heart on the car window.) Indeed, the moment of violence arrives when Pete’s enjoyment of Johnny Carson (itself about to be interrupted by news from Vietnam) is interrupted by screams and shouting outside the house. Brenda, complete with nightgown, bathrobe, and a bloody face and nose, shows up on the Campbells' doorstep after her husband discovers her dalliance with Pete.

It took me a minute to understand the title of the episode, “The Collaborators.” It wasn’t until Sylvia’s strange statement, “We can’t fall in love. It won’t be so French anymore,” that the episode title came into focus: betrayal, yes, but more than that—a cowardly, dishonorable betrayal. Indeed, the entire episode is about different forms of cowardice: Don’s affair with Sylvia, Pete’s affair with Brenda, SCDP’s relations with Jaguar, Uncle Mack’s relations with Don’s stepmother Abigail. The word “guilt” used over and over in the episode was really a stand in for something else: Megan is too cowardly to tell Don about the miscarriage, let alone to bring up the subject of babies. The conversation about having the conversation (which is the closest Megan and Don come to actually having “the conversation”) was punctuated by Don’s tautological “I want what you want… is this what you want?” Sylvia’s discomfort at being left alone with Don in the restaurant and feelings of guilt about the affair—after all, Arnold and Megan are both “good company”—was another form of cowardice: a way of having the affair and the regret simultaneously. (To this, Don’s by now standard come back of “this never happened,” was repetitive but to the point. “You want to feel shitty till the point I take your dress off,” he tells her. Or, as Roger says to Megan’s mother Marie in “The Phantom,” “stop being demure, you’re already on the bed.”) Even Peggy’s half-hearted refusal to go after Heinz ketchup is a form of cowardice: during the entire episode she has been dealing with the fact that “everyone hates her” and is now afraid to lose the only “friend” she has left—Stan, who, as Ted Chaough reminds her, is actually “the enemy.”

Keeping with the theme of war and betrayal, the two ad campaigns for SCDP are about men trying to score points against other men: in both cases, we see weak men try their best to manipulate Don and Co. into doing what they want (Heinz beans standing in the way of the agency taking on the much more lucrative Heinz ketchup; Herb Rennet, the Jaguar salesman trying to shift the emphasis of the campaign in order to line his own pockets). In both cases, Don does “the right thing.” He argues for loyalty to Heinz beans over the prospect of a better catch (we’ve seen this before with his refusal to throw over Mohawk Airlines—Don, disloyal at home, is always quite loyal at work). And he makes both Pete and Herb look like fools simply by taking their suggestion to its logical extreme: in this case, producing a portrait of an “average” guy in New Jersey, possibly even a truck driver, suddenly able to afford this very exclusive luxury car. Roger calls this “the deftest self-immolation I’ve ever seen” (another direct reference to Vietnam), a form of protest meant to underscore an earlier dishonor—the agency prostituting Joan to Herb to get the Jaguar account. And then of course, there’s Pete, too cowardly to resist temptation and too cowardly to man up to it, even at the cost of ending up alone in a run down apartment with no toilet paper. Of all the characters in the episode, only Trudy comes off as someone who will not “collaborate,” will not continue to appease the other, or to dishonor herself in the hopes of avoiding a war.

The episode closes with a by-now familiar sight (though we perhaps did not expect to find it again so soon)—Don collapsed in the hallway, outside his front door. This was a staple mise-en-scene of Season 4, with Don repeatedly coming home too drunk to manage the lock on his door. Indeed, we have already had a hint of this darker “season 4” side of Don from his unconscious association of Sylvia with the prostitutes at his uncle’s whorehouse, to the point where he actually seems to once again be paying for sex (by giving Sylvia the money her husband didn’t). Yet, it is Don himself who is clearly the prostitute here, the one whose role throughout this episode has been to appease, to collaborate, and to give everyone what they “want.” The closing musical number, Bing Crosby’s 1931 “Just a Gigolo” neatly ties together the themes of war, collaboration, the problem of being an “average guy,” and prostitution, while at the same time, serving as a kind of sonic flashback that takes us back to Don’s childhood memories. The original version of the song was a poetic vision of the social collapse experienced in Austria after World War I, represented by the figure of a former Hussar who remembers himself parading in his uniform, while now he has to get by as a lonely hired dancer. In the English version, Irving Caesar eliminated the specific Austrian references and, in the often-omitted verse (but included in the 1931 recording by Bing Crosby), set the action in a Paris cafe, where a local character tells his sad story.

But Don’s inability to walk through his apartment door in the last shot may be more symbolic than at first appears. The first episode of Season 6 (discussed by Bruce Robbins last week) was called “The Doorway,” its meaning seemingly encapsulated by Roger Sterling’s monologue to his therapist: “What are the events in life? It’s like you see a door… the first time you come to it you say, oh, what’s on the other side of the door? Then you open a few doors, then you say, I think I want to go over that bridge this time, I’m tired of doors. Finally, you go through one of these things and you come out the other side and you realize, that’s all there are—doors and windows and bridges and gates and… they all open the same way. And they all close behind you.” But while the doorways in “The Doorway” were largely metaphorical (while the main visual metaphor was cinematic, or in any case, photographic*), in “The Collaborators” doorways become the main visual structuring element of the episode: from the opening shot, elevator doors, front doors, back doors, doors opened and closed, thresholds and keyholes play a major role. As Joan says to the unpalatable Herb, “I had no idea you’d be darkening my doorway.”

Writing about Crime and Punishment in his The Problem of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Russian Formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out the ways Dostoevsky relied on the image of the threshold to structure his novel:

In Raskolnikov’s dream, space assumes additional significance in the overall symbol-system of carnival. Up, down, the stairway, the threshold, the foyer, the landing take on the meaning of a “point” where crisis, radical change, an unexpected turn of fate takes place, where decisions are made, where the forbidden line is overstepped, where one is renewed or perishes.
In his works, Dostoevsky, according to Bakhtin,

makes almost no use of relatively uninterrupted historical or biographical time, that is, of strictly epic time; he “leaps over” it, he concentrates action at points of crisis, at turning points and catastrophes, when the inner significance of a moment is equal to a “billion years,” that is, when the moment loses its temporal restrictiveness. In essence he leaps over space as well, and concentrates action in two “points” only: on the threshold (in doorways, entrance ways, on staircases, in corridors, and so forth), where the crisis and the turning points occur, or on the public square, whose substitute is usually the drawing room (the hall, the dining room), where the catastrophe, the scandal take place.
If Bakhtin is any guide to Mad Men, then what we have just witnessed in the end to “The Collaborators” is a turning point of sorts. It is not just the Vietnam War that is coming to a crisis point, but the characters, too are on the brink of catastrophe. In choosing dishonor over war, they will still get war. And soon.

*I am grateful to Joan Neuberger for this observation.


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Caroline Levine said...

Great post, Lilya! Elegant and illuminating.

Jeremy V. said...

Lilya - brilliant post, that nails the wars/doors theme with attention to detail that meremortals miss. I have long thought that the entire Mad Men crew, with occasional exception, essentially collaborates to preserve each other's perfidy and corruption. It's a world with nearly zero accountability, in which they constantly stew in a guilt never quite strong enough to force them to change, fess up, man up, etc. You captured that, like no other post before.

I'd love to believe that they and the show are at a threshold -- that the crisis that is their lives is not sustainable and will crack up into something genuinely new. But as your own "Pete and Repeat" title suggests, repetition seems the dominant principle, such that we may simply get more variations on the same sad themes, more Don wasted (literally, symbolically) at doorways.

One brief pushback to your take: Don does provide some "resistance" in the show to what others want. He clearly blows the local radio pitch to Jaguar by grossly overplaying it. I read that as spite against the slimy car dealer, for whom Joan (and the firm) essentially prostituted last season. A small, but significant, defense of Joan's honor, and indication that Don himself still has some. That's the beauty of the show; if the characters were always only one way, it would be downright boring, once we ask for more than glamour and technical mastery of the medium.

That said, and speaking of Doors, I invite/beg the show: "Break on Through to the Other Side."

Eleanor said...

I keep wondering whether this show is in an aesthetic impasse, and this episode didn't resolve that question, though Lilya's acute analysis of the theme of cowardice does help give that irresolution a moral shape.

At the beginning of the series, it's easy to read the glacial, mannered stagnation as both a reference to the stereotype of the 1950s (as being the decade of repression, ignorant of the change to come) and a diagnosis of our own sense of unease at an unsustainable social order in the 2000s. It's definitely an aesthetic choice to maintain that sense of stagnation PAST the time when things were SUPPOSED to have changed (last season, with its psychedelic themes). Maybe it's realism, in the sense that we all know that OBVIOUSLY not EVERY aspect of human nature changed in 1967, and of course most people just kept muddling along. I hope it isn't just mannerism - the series having fallen in love with its own beautiful, stagnant, empty, and ambiguous surfaces.

Helena said...

Last week, Peggy accused her staff of cowardice which felt like one of many non-sequiturs. Now we see what it foreshadowed.

Trudy has always had a strong decisive side which she has chosen to hide in order to give Pete what he wants. Her transformation into a vengeful demon was tremendous. Her statement, 'I will destroy you' is another foreshadowing of the war to come for MM and in Vietnam.

Rob R. said...

Jeremy V.'s point about how the crew collaborates to sustain their guilt without changing their actions is actually diagnosedin the episode by Don, who complicates its logic. By saying that Sylvia will feel guilty "until he takes her dress off," Don seems to suggest that she could just eschew the guilt and go straight to the pleasure--free love, in other words. But the rest of the episode makes clear--especially the flashbacks to Don in the bordello as a young man--that this is not an option. Indeed, the pleasure comes from the violation of social norms. It is essentially a guilty pleasure. Hence the young Don squatting to peer through a hole in the wall at the sexual act. The pleasure is as much in the guilt as it is in the removal of the dress.

Lauren said...

You know, I think that after the end of Season 4 (a season I had problems with all along but which did the tough job of rebooting Don's character after the 3-decker arc of S1-3) I realized that since economic factors dictated that Don must stay the leading man, the point was that the leopard does not and cannot change his spots. And while there was a certain integrity in that decision, it also meant that the show would have a very hard time moving into the later 60s with a character whose whole raison d'etre was having already burnt out the counterculture before it began. (We see that back in Season 1 when he smokes pot with Midge's beatnik friends and while they fear arrest from some visiting policemen, he knows that with hat and tie firmly in place the cops will him his full due as the Man.)

The brilliance of Season 5 for me was how Megan's story gave Don a believably new dimension as he started to groove on being married to a fellow adman (hot in boardroom and bedroom alike). But then Megan decided she was too good for advertising and, even worse, turned herself into Betty (in Don's mind) by becoming, in effect, his pawn.

I don't claim to have any hunches about how this season will turn out and I think I may be enjoying this season more than some others (more by far the weakest episodes in S4). But what was tricky about "The Collaborators" was how abruptly Don has slid back (even from last week's Dantesque paradise lost) into the *guise* of his own S1-S2 Nietzschean persona, repeating his old lines, and living life like there's no tomorrow because there isn't one.

I think we all sense that tomorrow's gonna bite him and it won't be pretty.

I think Lilya is exactly right that the refusal to shill for Herb was a refusal to whore himself. Far worse than Joan, who sold herself for a seat at the table that she badly wanted, (or even Megan who sold herself to Don for her "dream"), Don is just a gigolo who *doesn't know the part he's playing*.

I don't honestly know what this bodes. Don's tendency to think he is better than and able to transcend the sordidness that surrounds him has always been key to his success. He falls and falls but always lands on his feet. But even a cat only has nine lives. It's hard not to think that something tragic is in store for someone.

One thing that seems clear is that Roger is better able to adapt because unlike Dick Whitman he had a mother who loves him.

Lauren said...

PS Hi Helena! Welcome back to Kritik.

Jez B. said...

Good post and pretty good episode I thought. I liked the continuing doorway theme which Lilya showed very well.

Sandy said...

Wonderful post, Lilya. The formal elegance of this episode was striking after the looseness of the premiere episode. I notice that ratings are down. I wonder if viewers are losing patience with Don.

Helena said...

Hi Lauren - great to have these excellent articles back.

I really like your comparison between Don and Roger and their relationships with their mothers - could not be more stark. Being brought up knowing he is a ‘whore-child’ perhaps Dick feels he has, in some ghastly deserved punishment, ended up where he belongs in the whore house of Uncle Mack. It’s no wonder that the adult Don has such toxic relationships with women: a whore-child who killed his whore-mother by his birth, raised by a step-mother who lies back for her brother-in-law and brings him to live in a whore-house. It’s unbearable, really, to imagine what sort of trauma that would leave him with.

You also make a great point about the fact that Don has done the 60s before they even started. He seems to be the character least changed since S1 apart from some clothing updates.

Lauren said...

Thanks Helena!