Readers Write In #270: Reading between the lines: When a Man Leaves a Room…

Posted on September 16, 2020

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(by Karthik Amarnath)

In a setting that’s almost surely an homage to The Apartment (1961), New York executive Pete Campbell engages in an extramarital liaison with a neighbor at his Manhattan love nest. As the two of them get ready to leave, the woman throws one idea after another from missed calls to mixed parking places in the hope of taking their dalliance outside Pete’s bachelor pad. Pete of course wants none of that. He preferred things be where they are and asks her to “move it along.”

Elsewhere, the marvelous Miss Olson (Peggy) walks into a brightly lit office to find her employer, the tenacious Ted Chaough, handing her what he knew to be a golden opportunity for his small agency. He fully expected Peggy to be blown away and grab it with both hands. She refuses. The opportunity wouldn’t have come about had Ted not overheard a private conversation between Peggy and a coworker from her former agency. Unwilling to betray the confidence of a friend, she pushes back. Ted of course would have none of that. As far as he was concerned, the moment Peggy left her old workplace the coworker was “not a friend. He’s the enemy!”

In a third scenario, a doctor is called away from a dimly lit restaurant, unaware that his wife, Sylvia, is seated next to the man she is having an affair with. The man, the always dapper Don Draper, had turned up without his own wife, and this opportune turn of events brings a gleam to his eye. Sylvia, though, can barely hide her displeasure. Till that evening, all their trysts had been confined to her maid’s room where she could keep her guilt closeted. Out there in public view, it weighed her down so much that she tries her best to thrust it onto Don. “You enjoy how foolish they look!” she scorns. Don, of course, would have none of that. As far as he was concerned, the guilt “was all just in her head.”

All these events unfold in one sixth season episode of the TV Show, Mad Men. The episode first aired in 2013, the same year that Alice Munro won her Nobel Prize in Literature. In her short story Too Much Happiness, Munro observed, with uncomplicated eloquence, “Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind… When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.”

That conscience is a scarce commodity among the eponymous mad men is a recurring theme of the show and the events described shine a particular light on that. Some of the other threads in this episode also deal with conscience and guilt, albeit in different shades.  In a total about-face of Munro’s observation, we find Don caught up with his conscience over a past event that, oddly enough, transpired after he had left a room. The theatrics he displays in dealing with his guilt leads to an irresistible Roger Sterling quoting Churchill “You were given a choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, you might still get war.”

Catholic guilt is referenced explicitly in this episode when a character discusses her mixed feelings over a miscarriage. There’s also an allusion to Freudian guilt if you read between the lines.  In a slice of Don’s past, we see him as a teenager moving into a brothel with his stern, unloving step mother who becomes one of the “hens” under her brother-in-law, the “rooster”. Viewed through a Freudian lens, the roots of Don’s lack of guilt over his adultery can be traced right there.

Conscience and guilt aren’t the only themes that arise from the episode. An overarching theme in the sixth season is Christianity, and this is one of several episodes that traverse Don’s downward spiral, as Man’s descent through the Nine Circles of Hell. The season opens with Don reading Dante’s Inferno, and the opening episodes have repeated references to the state between life and death, and an Ad is even created around the idea of “Limbo”. This episode deals with the second circle, “Lust” in various forms, lust for women, lust for clients, lust for control.

The episode is titled “The Collaborators” and another recurring theme is loyalty. On two different occasions, the value of loyalty is underscored with the same refrain “You gotta dance with the one that brung ya.”  In another context, Don’s loyalty to a client is questioned after a tense meeting. Loyalty is also casually tossed away in recurring instances of infidelity.

A lot of different themes can be mined from any episode of Mad Men, but the show is, for the most part, focused on its central character, Don Draper, and his journey as a window into the advertising world of 60s America. The sixth season juxtaposes Don with an alter ego in the form of Ted Chaough, both hotshot creative directors in competing ad agencies. In this particular episode, Ted and Don channel their powers of persuasion in contrasting ways. When Ted is faced with Peggy’s conscience, he plays up her ego (“you can blow their mind”) and entices her with a rousing battle cry (“This is how wars are won!”). When Don faces Sylvia’s conscience, he knocks down her hypocrisy and insults her self righteousness (“You want to feel shitty up until the point that I take your dress off!”).

Masters of persuasion that Don and Ted are, they end up getting what they desire. The same however couldn’t be said of Pete. Pete, interestingly, was Don’s nemesis in the opening season of the show, where he was portrayed as a pale shadow to a shining Don. In this episode, Pete’s attempt at containing his neighbor’s overtures turns out to be feeble. She eventually leads him to be discovered, ending in the best line of the episode delivered by the always radiant Trudy Campbell.