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Dear TV: 'Mad Men' Season Six: Episode 3

The Rules of Engagement


Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.

Dear Television,

They say that all’s fair in love and war, but in fact there are rules to both, though they change quickly. This is apparent from the very first scene of “The Collaborators,” in which Pete and Trudy’s swinging cocktail party is troubled by ominous references to “the Pueblo situation” (the capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo by North Korean troops on January 23, 1968). Later, we hear, beneath Don and Sylvia’s pillow talk, the radio announcing the beginning of the Tet Offensive.

Conditions on the ground in Vietnam are changing quickly, then, but Don is still largely up to old tricks. The other recurring theme of the episode, besides war, was prostitution. We get two brief flashbacks to young Dick Whitman’s formative years as a resident of a bordello, and everyone in the episode is compared, at least in passing, to a whore. “You’re lucky your wife works,” Arnold Rosen tells Don, putting an odd kind of insinuation into the words. Elsewhere, it’s the non-working Sylvia who’s likened to a prostitute: “I have money, I just never have money,” she explains to Don after he gives her some cash following one of their trysts. That would make Don the john, of course, but the canny use of Irving Caesar’s “Just A Gigolo” over the final scene and credits prompts us to see him as a kind of “gigolo who knew a better day” himself.

Arguably the most interesting scene in the episode takes place between Don and Sylvia in the restaurant. The two couples have agreed to have dinner together, but Megan, still racked with guilt over her miscarriage, begs off. After Arnold is called away on a medical emergency, leaving Don and Sylvia unexpectedly alone together in public, they’re not sure how to play it. Should they pretend to be friends? Should they admit that they’re lovers? What are the rules of engagement? The few seconds of uncertainty over how exactly to perform their respective roles—the kind of anxious interaction the sociologist Erving Goffman specialized in analyzing—are excitingly strange: “I don’t know what we’re doing,” Sylvia says, clearly angry and frustrated. Soon enough, of course, Don defines the situation by sexualizing it: “You want to feel shitty, right up to the point where I take your dress off” (a monologue that is intercut with footage of him doing exactly that).

What’s fascinating about the scene is the spectacle of Don, briefly, not knowing how to be Don. No one else in this episode knows how either, as both Peggy and Pete try and fail, in different ways, to take a page from the Draper playbook: Peggy by unsuccessfully adopting his terse management style, and Pete by sleeping with his neighbor. The seduction scene in Pete’s tacky Manhattan pied-à-terre (“It’s been known to get hot”) is like a parody of every suave move Don’s executed over the course of the series thus far, and the fallout from the dalliance with Brenda, which Pete sees as trivial, proves to be far worse than that from his extended affair with Beth Dawes last season. This sets the stage for another surprising reversal, as Trudy, who’s been tipped off by the spurned Brenda, ends their marriage with about as much apparent sentiment as a lawyer voiding a contract.

As usual on Mad Men, everything going on outside the office was reflected within it as well: The show likes to play with the kind of double plots the Elizabethans loved. The push-pull client dynamics that structure the adulteries of Don, Sylvia, Pete, and the rest are mirrored in two ad-agency subplots: the Heinz baked beans representative’s envy of the ketchup representative, and the return of the repulsive mid-level Jaguar executive Herb Rennet. The first story involves jealousy and indiscretion (when Peggy, as it were, spills the beans to Ted Chaough); the second, manipulation and resentment. Following Don’s half-hearted pitch to the Jaguar execs, which Roger calls “the deftest self-immolation I’ve ever seen,” he stands up to Pete, who is furious at him for going against Herb’s wish to focus on local retail radio:

Don: “Why do we care what that guy wants?”

Roger: “Because he’s a client.”

Pete: “Our client.”

Don: “And so we just keep saying yes? No matter what? Because we didn’t say no to begin with? You know what this is? It’s Munich.”

“Munich” is an allusion Roger has to gloss for the bewildered Pete: “We gave the Germans everything they wanted and they still wanted more.” Pete, nonplussed by the history lesson, shoots back: “Who won the war?”

Appeasement, of course, didn’t work for Trudy with Pete (“I have never told you no,” she reminds him, shortly before getting aggressive: “If you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you”) any better than it worked for the United States against Germany, and Don’s point is that Sterling Cooper has to slap Herb around a little if they want to retain some power over him. The theater of war is the whorehouse is the boardroom: All are dominated by the logic of domination.

The “Munich” line also shows that Don and Roger reflexively view their current business dealings in terms of World War II-era military history—an ironic comment on the worsening situation in Vietnam, a war that famously failed to conform to the Pentagon’s previous experience. The rules of war have changed. (Roger, for his part, confuses his mother with Winston Churchill; I don’t even know where to start with that.) And the untimely Munich reference—the past event that, supposedly, explains everything—also mirrors the episode’s flashbacks to Don’s childhood in the whorehouse, a gambit that some have already criticized as heavy-handed. James Wolcott, for instance, tweeted last night that the bordello flashbacks were “what Sidney Lumet called a ‘rubber ducky.’” “In the early days of television,” Lumet writes in Making Movies,

…we always reached a point where we “explained” the character. Around two-thirds of the way through, someone articulated the psychological truth that made the character the person he was. [Paddy] Chayefsky and I used to call this the “rubber-ducky” school of drama: “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.”

Don’s rubber ducky is his childhood proximity to prostitution: It’s no wonder, we are apparently meant to think, that he’s so sex-obsessed, that he avoids real intimacy, that he is most comfortable with the crude transactions and power struggles inherent in the client-vendor relationship. But could this too-neat explanation perhaps be intentionally too neat? Are we supposed to be as skeptical about the bordello rubber ducky as Pete is about the relevance of Munich to Jaguar? Is the constant specter of Vietnam—which no one in the world of Mad Men seems to be able to react to or properly process—meant to signal that the rules of engagement in business and “love” as well as war are changing?

In any case, I think we’d better watch  Sylvia very closely this season. There are already intimations that she will end up being more important, and perhaps more dangerous, to Don than his previous love interests have been; Pete’s catastrophe may prove to be less a parody of Don’s charmed love life than an indication of what’s to come.

 “What can we do for ketchup?”