The Three Faces of Betrayal: Sliding Down a Slippery Slope in Mad Men, Season Six, Episode Three

by sweatermanifesto


Editor’s Note: Our “Mad Men” critic, Harlan R. Teller, ventures further into the heart of a darkening Midtown Manhattan, circa 1968, in his musings about the third episode of the series’ sixth season.

Pete Campbell is the “mad man” we love to hate- a formerly upper-crust street hustler who takes amorality and unscrupulousness in both his professional and personal life to rarified heights.  We’ve always held out hope that Pete would find his kinder, gentler nature, and while he has had his moments, he always seems to revert to into the slippery persona that has marked most of his time at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Pete has spent virtually his entire marriage in betrayal of his wife Trudy, starting with his impulsive and consequential liaison with the impressionable Peggy Olsen in the series’ first episode.  After tempting fate for years, Pete’s penchant for having affairs with his suburban neighbors results in the break-up of his marriage in this episode, as Trudy, reconciled to Pete’s infidelities as long as he kept his straying limited to Manhattan, finally gives him what he richly deserves (and has probably secretly craved all these years)—his walking papers.

Betrayals large and small are in the DNA of “Mad Men”, but in this episode Pete demonstrates his mastery of the practice, not only leaving Trudy with the indignity of comforting his latest conquest after the lovelorn woman has been beaten up by her cuckolded husband, but also happily betraying whatever business scruples he may have left in a desperate effort to yet again satisfy Herb, the smarmy, overstuffed New Jersey Jaguar dealer whose agency-sanctioned tryst with Joan last season led to the firm’s landing its coveted car account.

Meanwhile, Don continues his remarkable ability to compartmentalize, spending his evenings with Megan and his mornings with Dr. Rosen’s comely wife Sylvia, with both the good doctor and Megan continuing in blissful ignorance of their spouses’ infidelity.   The wife (37-year old Linda Cardellini, in a revelatory and career-defining performance, light years away from her work in  “ER” and “Freaks and Geeks”) seems to demonstrate some lingering amount of scruples when left alone with Don at an Italian restaurant, although Don very easily- perhaps too easily- breaks down her willpower and ends up the night in her bed once again.  Meanwhile, Megan lays distraught upstairs, wracked by guilt over a miscarriage that she secretly hoped would happen, so as not to interfere with her burgeoning soap opera career.

Don’s betrayals are so casual and numerous, it is surprising how this last one feels so sad and tragic.   He and Megan continue to drift apart, his ardor burned away and redirected to the cardiologist’s wife, while Megan struggles vainly to keep him interested and engaged (while becoming paler and more vampiric-looking as the episode wears on).   Don has already moved on- moving forward, as he always calls it- and while he and Megan are still together, they are moving further apart with each assignation that takes place in the apartment one floor down.

Herb’s manipulation of the SCDP team is inevitable- the team’s decision (with Joan’s consent) to essentially turn Joan into a “loaner” for a night in return for the car dealer’s deciding vote in the Jaguar pitch is the beginning of a slippery slope heading right toward the firm’s “Munich”, as Don calls it- a reference that essentially brands the episode (entitled “Collaborators”).  Once principles are betrayed, it’s a pretty good chance that they’ll be betrayed once again, and again, with feeling (see Neville Chamberlain, Don’s lodestar on the subject).

Interestingly, the only partner not scathed by moral compromise in this particular instance, is the man who eats moral compromise for breakfast, Don Draper.    He uses his moral authority in this instance to essentially to torpedo Herb’s plans for more “traffic building” radio spots, in the process preserving Don’s vision for a major corporate image campaign.   A hysterical Pete, his prerogatives overridden by the older man’s rhetorical jujitsu in an exercise in reverse psychology that results in the Jaguar clients reaffirming Don’s original vision for the campaign, is outraged at being outmaneuvered.  But it’s the rage of a hollow man, his own plans for betrayal thwarted by someone else’s better judgment.    As someone who has dealt with clients for more than 35 years, I can say there is no greater betrayal in this business than advising a client on a course of action that is antithetical to their best interests in the name of your own self-interest.   Advisors who engage in this form of betrayal tend to have brief careers.

Finally, there’s Peggy, who as the episode wraps up, is about to betray perhaps the one real friend she has left in the business, the guileless Stan, with whom she has engaged in a series of nocturnal calls that are helping to reconcile herself to her life at the new agency.   Stan, in a bit of idle gossip, lets Peggy in on the dissatisfaction of the manager running the Heinz catsup ad business- which could only have been gleaned from knowing about the ad manager’s clandestine visit to SCDP.   All is fair in love and advertising, as she finds out when her boss announces the next day that she’ll be going after Heinz catsup, all because of his overhearing a stray conversation between two confidants.   Peggy clearly is tortured over the decision, but as she takes the file from her boss’ hand, it’s clear that her ambition will win out over her scruples.

Perhaps the collective weight of all his betrayals is catching up to our antihero, as the episode closes with him approaching the door to his apartment after yet another assignation downstairs with Sylvia, and literally crumpling onto the floor, unable to bring himself to unlock the key that would bring him face to face with the contours of his betrayed life.   It is a haunting image, and perhaps one that best encapsulates the sheer physical exhaustion that moral decay can cause.    While the episode’s flashbacks showing Dick Whitman’s young life in a bordello with his own morally compromised stepmother as perhaps the predicate for his life of philandering, it is the choices that Draper himself has made in adulthood that has brought him to this dark corner on the polished floor of a New York high rise.  That final, lingering shot is very much true to form for this dark, troubling episode that continues the noir-esque strain established last week.

Author’s Note: While I called Dr. Rosen last week perhaps the noblest character in the show’s history, one friend of mine is not so sure.   He claims that it’s entirely possible that the good doctor is making his own house calls, and not at the hospital, but in fact involving an amour of his own.   It does seem to the casual viewer that even with the millions of people living in New York City, there is a lot of heart disease going on in the cardiologist’s neighborhood.   I’d really like to think better of the good doctor, but perhaps my friend is right.  We shall see.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller