Mad Men: Don Can't Escape the Brothel

Our roundtable discusses the second episode of the sixth season.
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AMC

Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.


Sullivan: Tru-dy! Tru-dy! Tru-dy! I can't be the only one who stood up and cheered when Trudy Campbell laid into Pete after discovering he had slept with their neighbor. We haven't seen anything that satisfying on this show since Lane Pryce (may he rest in peace) decked Pete in the conference room last season.

Let's pause just a moment to watch that once again.

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Trudy's rage was satisfying because: a) This is Pete, who has always been in a close contest with Betty for Mad Men character with the fewest redeeming qualities; b) With the amount of cheating and other bad behavior we've seen on this show over five seasons, it's about time a spouse gave one of these jerks what-for.

Confirming that she's just as smart as we thought, Trudy let Pete know she always understood the real reason he wanted a bachelor pad in the city. "Somehow I thought there was dignity in granting you permission," she fumed. "All I wanted was for you to be discreet." But Pete, who got caught essentially because of his own jerkitude, couldn't even respect Trudy enough to be discreet. (What was worse? Pete's look of pure disgust when his lover, beaten bloody by her husband, flees to their house for help? Or his post-tryst sweet-talk: "That's sweet. I really have to get back. Can you move it along a little?")

I love that Pete thinks Trudy is asking for a divorce and is starting to sneer back at her when she sets him straight. "I will not fail at something. This is how it's going to work. You will be here only when I tell you to be here," she says, before going off about Pete staying 50 miles away or something I didn't catch because I was too busy cheering. And if Pete doesn't abide by her demands? "I will destroy you."

Tru-dy! Tru-dy! Tru-dy!

Pete can't catch a break at work, either, where Don completely undermines Herb's attempt to use Jaguar's ad dollars to drive customers to his dealerships. "Why can't you play by the rules?" Pete sputters to Don after the meeting. (Roger's reaction—"That was the deftest self-immolation I've ever seen"—was one of the episode's many references to the escalating war in Vietnam.) Pete isn't playing by the rules either, but even when he tries to be bad like Don, he can't pull it off with anything close to Don's smooth style. That's one of the reasons we cheer Pete's comeuppances but don't yearn to see Don punched in the face.

And yet the window we got Sunday night into Don's compartmentalized soul and mind gave me chills. We've seen him move from mistress to wife with ease in the past, but the fact that he can do so in just one flight of stairs verges on sociopathic. When Sylvia asks how Don can be comfortable sitting at dinner with her husband and his wife, he shrugs like it's the easiest thing in the world. "This didn't happen," says Don. "It's just in here," pointing to his head. Yikes.

Sylvia isn't nearly as serene about the whole situation, especially when she ends up in their apartment, listening to Megan cry about being "a horrible person." When Don comes home from work to find his wife and mistress together, and his wife obviously wiping away tears, for a moment he must have thought Sylvia had unburdened herself. She's clearly shaken by their intersecting lives. Meanwhile, Don is careless as we've seen him—even knocking on the maid's entrance when the good doctor is already home—but it's hard to know if he even thinks about it. Or if he's hoping to get caught.

Perhaps the only emotion we see from Don in this episode is in the initial meeting with Herb. Joan walks into his office, goes directly to pour herself a drink, and says, "He's here." Clearly, this has happened before and Don provides something of a safe space for Joan. Don says nothing as Joan stares out the window and looks about to cry. But he walks into the meeting ready to do battle, and that's before he hears Herb's stupid idea about local radio spots.

I'll let you two tell me what the heck those flashbacks to Dick Whitman's adolescence in a whorehouse meant. But it was hard to miss the utter sadness in the final scene, with Don unable to make himself enter the Draper apartment, instead slumping down against the wall as Louis Prima sings, "I'm just a gigolo..."


Fetters: Trudy Trudy Trudy Trudy, rockin' everywhere. Couldn't agree more with your assessment of the fabulous Mrs. Campbell, Amy. This is the necessary verbal thrashing that, in the early seasons, I always hoped Betty would one day dole out to Don. Alas. But still: Trudy Campbell, everybody. What a champ.

In a broader sense, this episode felt like it found many of its characters playing the dirtiest card in their hand—ditching each other, shaming each other, and generally making one another "feel shitty," as Megan and Don put it (in separate scenes). In the most metaphorical of terms, Trudy pulled the rug out from under Pete; a client from one division of Heinz threw another client from another division under the bus in Don's office; Don, in turn, sabotaged Herb from Jaguar under the bus by making his idea backfire in a pitch meeting, and the episode ended with Peggy contemplating whether to throw Stan under the bus by snatching an account that he mentioned Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was pursuing.

And then there's Sylvia, who I'm finding myself more and more intrigued by. Tart little Sylvia finds herself in a delicate position right in the middle of the Drapers' crumbling marriage, as she's Megan's confidante and Don's lover. But though she does seem "shaken" by Don's brashness and Megan's revelations, I see her less as the unlucky, unintended victim of a sad circumstance than as a double agent: She knows each one's secret doubts about their marriage, and she maintains the audacity to primly shame Megan for thinking about not having Don's baby and string Don himself along with dazzlers like "We can't fall in love; it won't be so French anymore." I'm actually kind of impressed at how subtly and effectively she keeps screwing things up between the Drapers, and given all the knowledge she's privy to, I can't wait to see what sorts of disaster schemes she'll set in motion if she ever goes rogue.

That final scene you mentioned, Amy, reminded me a little of a shot in one of the earliest episodes of the show, in which Don is slumped on the floor outside of Midge's apartment, same side of the hallway, waiting for her to open the door. Is there a connection? Maybe. Likely not. But my takeaway from it was that there's a door between himself and Megan that's closed, and he's not all that eager to open it. As Amy put it, there's some compartmentalization going on: On one side of the door is one "compartment," and there's another "compartment" on the other side. The fact that he'd rather leave that door closed and leave that barrier intact is, in both a literal and a figurative sense, a bad sign for their marriage.

As much as Don's life has changed since he was a little boy, he's still in the same place.

As for those throwbacks to Don's childhood, I'm of little to no help either. My best out-on-a-limb effort at interpretation: Could it be a glimpse at the origins of Don's warped ideas about women? If your first introduction to adult women is in a house of ill repute, your foundational ideas about valuing women may likely be a little skewed. And, uh, Don's are.

That's just my guess, though. In the absence of a Betty Francis appearance, those whorehouse scenes were my weekly WTF.

Eleanor, any enlightenment for us on those brothel flashbacks? What's with all the foul play in this episode? And are Megan and Don going to actually have that conversation they mentioned, or will things implode before kids even become an option?


Barkhorn: To me the flashbacks to Don/Dick's past in a brothel seemed pretty straightforward, thematically. They paralleled the episode's other references to prostitution: The return of Herb and the implicit reminder of how Joan became a partner; Don's comment to Ken, after the meeting with Heinz, that "sometimes you gotta dance with the one that brought you" (yes, that's more a reference to dating than to outright prostitution, but it implies a man can buy a woman's exclusive attention, at least for one evening); the scene where Don gives Sylvia money after they have sex, and she accepts it without a moment's hesitation or look of uneasiness.

Even the setup Don and Sylvia have, where he can come downstairs for sex when he feels like it, resembles the structure of the brothel. Sure, Don lives in a swanky apartment now and not a rickety brothel, but it's still building filled with rooms where men can pay to have their way with women. The resemblance between the apartment building and the brothel seemed particularly strong when Don suddenly came upon Sylvia and the good doctor arguing in the elevator landing. That experience of peering into someone else's private life is echoed in a flashback later in the episode, where young Dick watches through the peephole his pregnant stepmother and Mac having sex. So perhaps the message is, as much as Don's life has changed since he was a little boy—he changed his name, lives in a new city, is no longer on the farm, etc.—he's still in the same place. Yet more proof of Mad Men's apparent thesis that people don't, or maybe can't, change.

What puzzled me more was Don's sudden bravado about the affair. Wasn't he looking tortured about it last week and saying things like, "I want to stop doing this"? This week he showed no signs of guilt, telling Sylvia, "I want you all the time" and mocking her for feeling uncomfortable about having dinner with him alone in public. Was his guilt last week just a passing moment of weakness? It didn't seem like it, as Sylvia responded to him by saying, "I know," which implied that he'd expressed regret before. Perhaps Sylvia's hesitation at the restaurant scared Don and forced him to dust off his infamous persuasion skills to get her to stay.

As for Trudy, I wish I shared your untainted enthusiasm for her tirade against Pete. I am eager as anyone to see Pete get punched in the face, literally or metaphorically, but I can't help but think that ultimately Pete's the winner in this altercation. Yes, he had to bear the wrath of his wife, but he now has more of a license to behave badly and less responsibility to be present as a husband and father. Trudy says that she refuses to be a failure, but I can't see how kicking your husband out of the house while insisting on staying married to him is a victory. Kinda reminds me of the United States' strategy toward Vietnam: continuing to fight a war that obviously can't be won, just because you can't admit you lost.

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