With each season of Mad Men more plotless than the last, Don’s season-two entreaty to Peggy—“This didn’t happen”—seems increasingly to apply to the show itself. Critics have taken to reading this inversely: Everything happened (also spoken by Don, in season four), or at least, everything is happening, right now, this minute. No one knows better than Matthew Weiner the power of instilling every moment and object with potential meaning. The less things happen, the more we want, and expect, Mad Men to surprise us with the emotional—and often, physical—fallout of its vexing plotlessness. A face punched, an eye bruised, a foot severed. In this week’s episode, though, the biggest action took place in the background. And while I agree that the melodramatic flashbacks to Don’s past were a bit much, the scenes of the present seemed intent on telling us that no one, not even Our Hero Don, will escape the reach of history.
It seems appropriate that a show that guards coveted screeners like information bombs would be set during the long, paranoid Cold War, and my favorite moments are when the show tunes into explicitly political media events. Literally so, near the start of this episode, called “The Collaborators” (that title! How much more Cold War can you get?), when a radio announcement anticipates the Tet Offensive while Don and Sylvia discuss their affair in her maid’s room.
To have the critical facts of Cold War politics play underneath the post-coital conversation of morning adultery feels like something new, if not a challenge, in Mad Men. The show usually has history function as thematic markers (Bay of Pigs, Kennedy assassination), rather than ambient noise. And for once, we don’t see foreplay or the act of sex, just Sylvia’s brewing guilt and Don’s pithy attempt to suppress it. (“This didn't happen,” he tells her. “Just in here.” *points to his head*). Compare this to Midge, Don’s first mistress from season one, who tells him not to bring any guilt-ridden baggage about Betty into their affair (“It makes me feel cruel,” she says). In 1968, the outside world finally begins to shove itself in, maid’s room and all. Yet consequences are so unfamiliar for him that, when Don comes home to a teary Megan and a stunned Sylvia, he doesn’t even stop to consider that something might be amiss that pertains to him. “See you tomorrow,” says Don as Sylvia exits the apartment. Her reaction should be an alert to Don that some are less able to keep their actions “just in here.”
But outside media are intruding on all forms of private life, and guilt over daytime fun plagues Sylvia in more than one form. “I just wish watching TV during the day didn’t make me feel so guilty,” she says, after Megan explains the upcoming plot of her soap opera. Weiner may strenuously guard Mad Men details from viewers, but spoiling within the world of Mad Men seems to be OK; so OK that Megan’s next line—“I had a miscarriage”—is taken by Sylvia to be an actual plot-point in her soap. Sylvia confuses Mad Men’s plot developments with a soap opera, and perhaps Weiner is inviting us to do the same with the episode’s operatic sex-scene between Sylvia and Don—that is, to watch it as an overplayed fantasy that belongs on daytime TV. (Sylvia’s last words before orgasm? “I have to be careful. I can't fall in love. It won't be so French anymore.”) The opera aria, paired with some strange soundtrack choices from last week (Don’s imagined ocean waves, plus hypnotic violin drones whenever he stared at Dinkin’s lighter) might suggest a general shift in direction. Maybe this season is planning on amplifying the melodrama? I would be okay with that, if it also meant an amplification in camp, which that sex scene was not. (Though the silhouetted cross on the wall was a nice touch.)
Back at the Campbell household, the soundtrack of Pete’s life lies more or less out of his control. After his guests depart at the start of the episode, Pete loosens his tie, plops down on the couch, and switches on the television, only to be told by an exasperated Trudy, to turn it off. Later at his Manhattan apartment, Pete’s attempt to put on some mood music is shut down by his mistress. Then Pete’s evening of watching a sports game is interrupted by both women: “Go away; somebody help me!” shouts Brenda from outside, to which Trudy asks, “What on earth is that?”
While Trudy drives Brenda to a hotel, Pete sits at home watching television, as Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show begins airing:
Alright, this is Johnny Carson. As you know, this is usual starting time for The Tonight Show, and tonight my guest is the New Orleans District Attorney Mr. Jim Garrison, who is with us to discuss, as he puts it, “the new and vital information concerning the Kennedy assassination.” But because of the critical war situation in Vietnam, especially around Saigon, NBC for the next fifteen minutes is going to bring the special news program via satellite. So stay with us, we’ll return in fifteen minutes with our guest, Mr. Garrison.
It’s Wednesday night, January 31, 1968, and Carson’s regular programming has been interrupted by the more urgent news: The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had launched a surprise attack on the U.S. embassy in Saigon earlier that day. Pete’s attempt to watch TV keeps getting interrupted: by the consequences of his own indiscretions and, finally, by actual war. As Carson mentions “the next fifteen minutes” of special news, the camera jumps between the television screen and Pete’s pale face, eying the telephone nervously. Adultery with neighbors, sex with car execs, unofficial backroom meetings—lines are being drawn closer and closer, and the one between private life and political events might have finally grown irreversibly tangled. The war and mistress metaphors throughout the episode (“I’d rather retire than watch that guy screw my girlfriend”) at least suggest so. “He’s not your friend, he’s the enemy!” says Ted, when Peggy balks at the idea of scooping Stan, “This is how wars are won.” Sure, but Stan’s also part of the company that brung her.
“You’re a dirty little spy,” a young Don is told when caught spying on Uncle Mac having sex with the boy’s stepmother—though this kind of voyeurism is one the viewer of Mad Men rarely experiences anymore. Sex—lurid, operatic, awkward, or abject—no longer surprises on Weiner’s show (remember Don and Megan’s angry post-birthday party sex?), and when it comes to character allegiances, there is rarely ambiguity as to whose side Weiner wants us to spy on, to watch with. And as much as we should watch for Sylvia, the amount of Arnold we’re getting (remember last episode when he surprises Don’s secretary by dropping by at work, as a friend?) might be a warning sign too. While discussing Vietnam at dinner, Arnold speaks for the underdog: “Reminds me of Cuba. No one took Fidel Castro seriously. … You know we’re losing the war.” To which Don responds: “Wouldn’t know it from looking around here.” It always depends where you’re looking.
“Just because they cleared their place settings doesn't mean we're alone.”
Jane Hu is a cultural critic, mostly at The Awl.