Oh dear. It seems we’ve left Limbo, the first circle of hell in “Dante’s Inferno,” and we’ve landed in the second circle, Lust, where souls ruled by sexual desire are tortured. Truly, there’s more than enough lust, betrayal and guilt in this episode to keep those hell fires burning indefinitely.
A tone of shameless betrayal holds true throughout the whole episode. We’ll start with the most expected betrayer, Don, who rides the elevator past the Rosens’ floor, only to see Sylvia and Arnold arguing about money. Sylvia looks vaguely absurd in her hat and housecoat, but she still shamelessly locks eyes with Don while she’s kissing her husband goodbye. Minutes later, Don boldly pretends to have forgotten his cigarettes so he can return to the Rosens’ apartment for some early-morning action. (Remember how Don’s “uncle” Mac later tells Don he’s the rooster who runs the hen house and “brings on the day”?)
“You’ve got to stop that nonsense,” Arnold tells Don in the elevator, referring to Don’s smoking, but he might as well be talking about Don’s affair with his wife. And in his post-coital state a few minutes later, Don does look like he’s about to keel over. (Are we supposed to feel that this affair is making him as sick as his cigarettes?) Sylvia says, “I feel bad,” but of course she’s talking about dinner, not about guilt over cheating on her husband. Don is similarly shameless. “You don’t mind sitting across the table from your wife and my husband?” Sylvia asks. “I don’t think about it. They’re both good company,” Don responds.”This didn’t happen,” he tells her, demonstrating his well-honed ability to make believe that he’s still the hero. “Just in here,” he says, pointing to his head. This scene also tells us that Sylvia, despite her pretty obvious ethical lapses, is going to pretend to take the moral high ground in this corrupt relationship.
More chances for self-righteousness and guilt come up soon after, when Megan fires her maid, then breaks down crying in the laundry room while Sylvia watches. Megan confesses to Sylvia that she’s had a miscarriage, which she feels guilty about because she was thinking she’d have to terminate the pregnancy regardless. Hilariously, Sylvia becomes stiff and primly states that she would “never even consider” having an abortion. “I feel so shitty,” Megan replies. “I’m sorry I brought it up.”
The same language around guilt and make-believe is echoed throughout the episode. Although Sylvia claims she “didn’t want to pretend” not to see Megan when she discovers her firing the maid, later, when Megan can’t make dinner and Arnold gets called to the hospital, Don tells Sylvia, “Now I understand. You want to feel shitty, right up until the point where I take your dress off. Because I’m going to do that. You want to skip dinner, fine, but don’t pretend.” Don isn’t always right about people, but when it comes to pulling off a toxic blend of self-righteousness, action motivated out of guilt, and dishonesty, Sylvia seems to take the prize, despite some pretty stiff competition from Don himself. She even apologizes, pretends she’s not already in love, and pretends that she doesn’t mind their arrangement.
Then Don goes home and pretends that he’ll give Megan anything she wants. The conversation between them is the sound of two human ciphers, echoing words back at each other without meaning any of them. Megan may rival Don in her ability to pretend endlessly, not only confusing herself with her soap opera character (the way her fans do) but confusing Don’s wishes with her own.
Don: I wish you would’ve told me.
Megan: I didn’t know how you’d feel, I didn’t know what you’d want.
Don: You have to know I want what you want.
Megan: I don’t know if it’s even the right time to have a conversation about it.
Don: Do you want to have that conversation?
Megan: Whatever you want. Now I can go to sleep.
Well, you can hardly blame Megan. Sleeping through this vacuum of a marriage is probably the only way to survive it. Still, her mom’s description of her as a “non-artist with an artistic temperament” really does hold true here.
In an echo of the marital betrayal shaking down elsewhere, Stan asks Peggy, “How was your day, honey?” over the phone. And sure enough, Peggy is soon betraying Stan by telling his story about Heinz to her boss, Ted Chaough. In the premiere, it became clear that Peggy is attracted to Ted; now we’re reminded that Ted isn’t trustworthy. When Peggy’s underlings leave a fake product as a practical joke on her desk (“Quest feminine hygiene powder. Kills overly critical bacteria. Target: Professional women and other Olsons”), Ted laughs at the joke instead of reprimanding the men the way the (mostly) more protective Don might’ve.
Later, Ted wants to use the information Stan gave Peggy to court Heinz. We know that Don wouldn’t have stooped to this because he just told Ken, of Raymond from Heinz, “Sometimes you gotta dance with the one that brung ya.” (Strange parallel: In Don’s flashback, his aunt Ernestine tells him, “Mac’s the one that brung ya.” Will Don be loyal to his “uncle” Mac somehow in future episode flashbacks?) But Ted’s message is the opposite of Don’s. Of Stan, he says, “He’s not your friend. He’s the enemy.” Then he appeals to Peggy’s vanity (and ends up sounding about as evil as the Emperor in “Return of the Jedi”): “Your friend’s mistake was underestimating you. I hope ketchup makes the same mistake so you can blow their mind.”
More lies and betrayal are unearthed in the home of Pete Campbell, who shamelessly flirts with not one but two wives from the neighborhood, one of whom tells him, somewhat ominously, “I have to warn you, I’m from a small town, and all of my forays into Manhattan have been a disaster.” This foray follows suit when the two meet for a tryst in the city, and Pete shuffles her quickly out of the hallway and then kicks her out again as soon as they’re done. “I really have to get back,” he says, indelicately. “Can you move along a little?” Speaking of the Emperor, Vincent Kartheiser might just deliver the world’s slipperiest, most condescending line readings. When he makes that “you pathetic little girl” grimace, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
And speaking of indelicate: Why are the cuts to commercial break so awkward at least once per episode on this show? Isn’t it possible to end a scene with a few beats of dead air, then cut to the ad? I’ve never understood why AMC and “Mad Men” tolerate such jarring cuts to commercials.
Speaking of abrupt cuts, though, Pete’s affair seems to have immediate consequences when his lover shows up at his doorstep, bloodied and beaten by her husband. “Hey, Campbell. She’s your problem now,” the husband shouts. Trudy drives the woman to a hotel, and confronts Pete the next morning. Instead of coming clean, Pete tries to slip out of the house. The angry but tear-free conversation that follows demonstrates how little love there is left in their marriage. This fight has been a long time coming, and there’s really something gratifying about Trudy’s rage and her poise under pressure, even if her pride and her ego are mostly what’s at stake.
Trudy: We’re done, Peter. This is over. I refuse to be a failure. I don’t care what you want anymore. This is how it’s going to work. You will be here only when I tell you to be here. I’m drawing a 50-mile radius around this house, and if you so much as open your fly to urinate I will destroy you. Do you understand?
Pete: You know what? You’re going to go to bed alone tonight, and you’re going to realize, you don’t know anything for sure.
Trudy: I’ll live with that.
Trudy may not be as sure of herself once Pete leaves, but she doesn’t break down and cry. She might handle her new reality reasonably well, but Pete won’t. But then, Pete has always been the sniveling child in this picture.
“If you admire me, hire me,” we hear as the credits roll. And truly, there are so many prostitutes in this episode, from Don’s stepmother (who sleeps with Mac) to Sylvia (who happily accepts money from Don after they sleep together) to Joan (who is haunted by Herb from Jaguar, her john from last season) to Don himself (who’s pretty much the champion of giving it up for a price). Even so, in an echo of Sylvia’s weak protests earlier, it’s Don who pretends at higher moral ground after the Jaguar reps leave.
Don: So we just keep saying yes, no matter what? Because we didn’t say no to begin with. You know that this is? It’s Munich.
Pete: You guys are always talking about Munich. What the hell does that mean, anyway?
Roger: It means we gave the Germans whatever they wanted to make them happy, but it just made them want more.
Pete: Well, who the hell won the war?
Everyone is giving everyone else whatever they want to make them happy in this episode, but all it does is stir up more trouble. Or, as the damned tell Dante in the second circle of hell, “Whatever pleases you to hear and speak will please us too, to hear and speak with you.” But these carnal malefactors know no peace; they’re blown by a violent storm for all eternity. Likewise, in “Collaborators,” every character’s act of make-believe is falling apart: Pete’s city apartment, which allowed him to make-believe his marriage was still intact (“Couldn’t we just pretend?” Trudy asked him), the lies Don tells himself (“It’s all in here”), the way Don and Megan pretend with each other (“You have to know I want what you want”), the way Peggy is pretending that she’s respected, that her boss isn’t cut from a worse cloth than even slick, untrustworthy Don. Many acts of make-believe are laid bare.
And Roger foreshadows a bad outcome to all of this lying when he tells Don: “[M]y mother used to say, your options were dishonor or war. You chose dishonor, you might still get war.” Don often chooses dishonor, but it’s pretty clear that, thanks to his affair with Sylvia, he’s going to end up in a war as well. And as the credits roll, we’re reminded what happens to those who sell out or betray everything they care about:
“There will come a day, youth will pass away, then what will they say about me?/When the end comes I know they’ll say ‘Just a gigolo,’ as life goes on without me.”