Early on in season 5, Mad Men aired the first episode to be directed by Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm. It was called 'Tea Leaves' and it was something of a softball episode for the nascent director to undertake – thematically speaking, of course. Season 6, however, hands Jon Hamm the directorial reins once again and he delivers a far meatier effort in 'The Collaborators' – which is written by Jonathan Igla, who delivered last season's stunning finale 'The Phantom,' as well as the unforgettable 'At the Codfish Ball' and 'Tomorrowland,' which concluded season 4.
'The Collaborators' is (like 'Mad Men' as a whole) an examination of why individuals continue to do what they do, even though it's caustic to their established relationships and the connections that define them. It's a destructive hour of television that's certainly filled with its fair share of overwrought moments, but it also brings what must be some of the recurring themes of the season to the forefront for future examinations.
But the episode isn't just a retread of themes of 'Mad Men' season's past; it's far more than that. As 'The Doorway, Part I & II' was 'Mad Men' looking to the future by (in part) gracefully examining where it has been, 'The Collaborators' offers a far less delicate assessment of the past, by trudging up Don's history in both his horrendous upbringing and his inability to maintain a committed relationship any woman – although, as season 5 showed us, he desperately wants to. Adding fuel to the fire, the episode offers a momentary glimpse of the Don we saw in season 4: slumped in the hall outside his apartment door, and at his lowest point.
This moment stands in direct contrast to Don's statement to Ken, after Raymond J. Beans (a.k.a. Raymond Geiger) tells Don and Cosgrove not to pursue Heinz ketchup: "Sometimes, you gotta dance with the one that brung ya." Don, of course, was referencing Heinz's (and Raymond's) decision to stick with SCDP in their lowest moment – a decision, which, coincidentally, was helped along almost entirely by Megan Draper.
Don's mention of loyalty to a client when the fidelity of his marriage is essentially up for grabs because, as he mentioned to Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) – presumably prior to their first sleeping together – he and Megan were "drifting apart," is part and parcel to who Don Draper is. Don is Dick Whitman, raised in a brothel after the untimely death of his father (as we see evidence of in this episode). But Don is also the Man of Infinite Appetite, as his pitch to Ed Baxter and Dow Chemical – and also, his conversation with Joan Holloway (during 'Christmas Waltz') – so firmly illustrated. While we saw in 'The Doorway, Part I & II' that Don's insatiable hunger eventually won the agency a coveted prize in Dow, that same need for more has clearly had the opposite effect on both of his marriages.
For now, anyway, Megan remains none the wiser about her husband's transgressions with their downstairs neighbor – but like Megan's inability to keep her miscarriage from Don, things that are that close have a way of coming out. Hence why Pete Campbell's marriage essentially dissolves in 'The Collaborators.'
After Pete brings the freewheeling bachelor life of his Manhattan dwelling too close to their Cos Cob home, when the woman with whom he begins an affair (Collette Wolfe of Hot Tub Time Machine) appears at Campbells' door – after being the victim of a brutal domestic assault – Trudy can no longer remain silent. The only thing she asked for was some discretion and, in his haste to consume everything (continuing his journey down Don's path) Pete simply couldn't help himself from bringing his indiscretion too close to home.
'The Collaborators' is rife with mentions of infidelity, insatiability and illicit dealings. Ted Chaough essentially tells Peggy to abuse her friendship with Stan to allow CGC the opportunity to pitch Henz's ketchup division, while Herb, the repugnant Jaguar dealer from 'The Other Woman,' demands SCDP cut their national ad campaign to focus more on local media and the "average Joe" who's looking to buy a car and might decide that Jag is for him.
Don performs the "deftest self-immolation ever," in quashing Herb's aspirations but fails to see the association to himself when invoking Munich to an irate Pete Campbell. But in his impressive lack of self-awareness, Pete fails to make the connection between Bob Benson's perpetual brownnose and his sycophantic task of picking Pete up some toilet paper.
In the end, 'The Collaborators' illustrates how all relationships, whether business related or personal are, in some way, self-serving. Some people want to be wanted, while others simply can't help but to want.
Mad Men continues next Sunday with 'To Have and to Hold' @10pm on AMC. Check out a preview of the episode below: