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Mad Men, Episode 2: The Medium Is the Message (and the Message Is Cheating on His Wife)

Mad Men

“Someday someone who loves you / Will make you cry / Though he loves you he’ll hurt you / Till you feel you could die / But if he says forgive me / Forgive if you can / For you are his woman / And he is your man” — Vicki Carr (“The Lesson,” 1968)

In his 1964 book Understanding Media, Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” — theorizing, roughly, that the way an idea is presented is almost as important as the idea itself. By 1967, McLuhan had incorporated his own theory into the work and released The Medium Is the Massage, a slim, 160-page volume that restated his major points about the effects of mixing media formats by pairing them with attention-grabbing artwork from graphic designer Quentin Fiore. Fiore’s style incorporated text and visually arresting images with collage, turning McLuhan’s conjectures into slogans, helping the writer along as he suggests that mass media can be used to disperse profound ideas. The book — which practiced what it preached down to the title pun — was a bestseller and became influential in the developing field of media theory. While McLuhan’s work briefly fell out of favor in the ’70s, it was critically revived with the arrival of in-home Internet.

“The Collaborators,” the second episode of Mad Men’s sixth season, is all about the ambient media that is seeping in everywhere. Trudy chides Pete for watching TV after their welcoming party. A Vietnam news report plays underneath Sylvia and Don’s pillow talk. Sylvia complains to Megan that she feels guilty when she watches soap operas during the day. Televisions, once the most prestigious electronic device, are now common. Sally Draper will grow up with the natural ability to tolerate and process multiple forms of media at once. Her fondest memories of her childhood will mostly be of watching TV, which is still much better than Don’s memories about watching his pregnant mom get bangaranged.

A page from Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage

Back in the day, when your friend went to the powder room and left you alone at the restaurant table, instead of flipping through your phone, you smoked a cigarette. Instead of posting to Instagram, people simply lugged Kodak Carousels with them everywhere for impromptu slide shows/rounds of validation. Generational divides occur along lines of media ingestion tolerance. Television, the Internet, video games, and smartphones have all played the villain culturally in their eras. The ante on media multitasking is always being upped. Those who can’t (or won’t) adapt are left behind or consigned to the no-action pile with vinegars, sauces, and baked beans.

No matter how bad the wig Linda Cardellini wears to play Sylvia is (and it’s pretty bad), it’s still better than her Velma wig from Scooby Doo. (Zoinks!) Stan’s joke to Peggy about Peg’s wig being ready also worked as a meta-LOL about late ’60s bouffants. Don is so into Sylvia that the mere sight of her in a full robe, nightgown, and headscarf makes his straggling member palpitate in anticipation. Don Draper’s wandering dong has strayed into many exquisite estates, but never for longer than a fairly brief dip in the shallower end of the emotional pool, and always leaving the car running out front for when he needs to escape. Now Sylvia’s pressing Don to define the relationship like they’re present-day twentysomething Brooklynite hipsters on Girls and not sophisticated late-’60s married people doing the grown-up in secret.

(Left, Don Draper, a.k.a. Dick Whitman; right, Brian Warner a.k.a. Marilyn Manson)

Here’s Don Draper’s real secret: Dick Whitman was not a good-looking teenager. (It might have just been his Dust Bowl haircut, styled using an actual dusty bowl.) The flashbacks to Dick Whitman’s childhood are always less believable than the ’60s somehow, possibly owing to their old-timey impoverished milieu. They feel more blatantly theatrical than the rest of the show and have fewer jokes. While Jon Hamm was a handsome football player, as Dick/Don, he channels the spirit of someone who suffered enough rejection that he would want to discard his real self in favor of a semi-invented ideal one.

Young Dick Whitman was not only a nerdlinger, he had absolutely no sexual power over women. Dick’s queasy relationship with his hooker mom is sort of an easy excuse for Don’s issues with women. It’s why he wants to protect Joan from Herb from Jaguar, but doesn’t judge her for using her body to advance. Don either wants to save women or exploit them sexually, often simultaneously. He’s learned that there’s a different way he could interact with women from his relationships with Anna Draper and Peggy Olson, but he never puts it to work. He gives Sylvia money right after sesso. I’m not saying that’s not sound reasoning for explaining Don’s psyche, just that maybe I don’t want his psyche so fully explained. In real life, the dots rarely connect so fully.

Jon Hamm in high school

Sure, Tony Soprano had mother issues, and Boardwalk Empire is all about mommy issues, and Walter White’s mom is probably a trip. So maybe this is all an issue with Freudian psychology, but why are antiheroes’ weaknesses always so directly linked to their backstories? Is it because that’s the superhero origin clich√©, or is that really how developmental psychology works? Wondering about a mystery like Don’s life story, Room 237, or the island on Lost can be more enjoyable than actually finding out a definitive answer. It’s fun to keep all the doors open in your mind, even if you intend to close all but one eventually. Don has no intention of transitioning Sylvia from trombamica to wifey. I’d be shocked if any of his long-term plans extend beyond the next week. Don is a master of spontaneity and the absolute worst at sticking around to deal with the fallout from being so impulsive.

Don and Sylvia are forced to eat a meal together in public, which is erotic but frightening. While Sylvia is more afraid of being seen, she’s also fantasizing about what it would be like if she and Don were a real couple. The dinner is nothing like it would be if they really were a mundane non-adulterous pair. The deception is what heightens it up to the level of a Bachelor fantasy-suite date. Also elevating the soap tension is the actual opera played, “Casta Diva” from Norma. The affair is like a murder that Don and Sylvia have committed together, requiring absurd levels of trust that neither will become so overwhelmed by guilt they reveal where the bodies are buried. The bodies are buried in your mind, man. And under the Rosens’ maid’s bed.

Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell) in Teen Beat magazine

What if you came from a stable background and still turned out a selfish sexual sociopath? You’d be Pete Campbell! Trudy is such a prude that she’ll barely flirt with her neighbors’ husbands for even a moment, lest anyone derive some accidental pleasure from it. Last time we saw Trudy, she was trying to alleviate her husband’s depression by letting him rent an apartment in Manhattan, while we shook our heads at her innocence. In Season 5, Pete realized that he’d already achieved everything he once wanted from life, that it was not satisfying at all, and that it meant that no accomplishment would ever be enough to make him happy. The only thing that cheered him up was his affair with Beth Dawes, whose extreme highs were matched by lows lower than he’d ever imagined possible.

Now we know that Trudy wasn’t as clueless about the point of the urban pied-√†-terre as she seemed. It was her square suburban way of sanctioning an open marriage intended to only be open on Pete’s end. Pete scoffs at the faux-hippies of Hair and their ridiculous ideas about free love, unaware that a full-fledged Ice Storm of key parties and hot tubs is scheduled to hit the manicured green lawns of Greenwich, Connecticut, very soon. While Pete was once the young buck at the agency, he is aging conservatively into the scariest thing of all: the silent majority. How come Brenda’s husband took it out on his wife and not Pete? How long into this season until Pete gets punched?

Jay R. Ferguson (Stan Rizzo) in BOP magazine

Pete’s love interest Brenda was played by Collette Wolfe, from Young Adult and The Foot Fist Way. (She’s married to Eastbound & Down director Jody Hill.) Mad Men always casts my favorite comedic actresses in bit parts. Wolfe was great as the naive chippie who thought she could wring affection out of Peter Dyckman Campbell. While Don’s seduction dialogue with Sylvia might have been a bit silly, it was incandescent compared to the piddling desire generated by Pete’s bad lines. In classic Campbell fashion, Pete’s rote attempt at conducting an affair immediately blew up in his face. Unfortunately, the damage was to Brenda’s mug, and Pete’s total lack of sympathy for the woman whose face he got bashed in were a pertinent reminder that Pete’s really not a good guy, at all. He was preoccupied with saving his own ass, hoping he’d overestimated Trudy’s astute powers of perception.

Now that Trudy has caught on, the most cuckolded award goes to Megan, whose husband is getting so sloppy, he must want to get caught Zou Bisou Bisouing the neighbor’s wife. Sylvia accuses Don of having an affair with her out of convenience rather than pure naked urge, but it’s probably a mixture of both. They like sneaking around the dorms and keeping it secret. Megan is consumed by guilt about her miscarriage, which she converts into misplaced rage toward her maid. In firing the maid, Megan seemed a lot like Betty Draper, although Betty is colder and wouldn’t have cried. Sylvia is icy to Megan after getting jealous thinking about Don and Megan’s vacation sex. Megan treats Sylvia like a maternal figure, never even suspecting the older woman is a sexual threat.

For her part, Joan doesn’t need Don’s help, at least not with good comebacks. Don gives contradictory, sometimes terrible advice. It’s just that he does it in his Don Draper voice, so most people listen to him and consider it. Here’s some advice for you, Don: Don’t let your mistress subtweet your wife. Don is so relieved that Megan hasn’t figured out he’s fucking Sylvia Rosen that he’s able to convincingly comfort her about her miscarriage. Her secret admission to Sylvia that she was happy it wouldn’t interfere with her career is perfect ammunition to help Sylvia turn Don against Megan, unless it backfires. Doesn’t this sound like Megan describing the plot of her soap to Sylvia? Our advice to Megan would be as follows: Get out now! While you still can! Do it!!!

Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson) in a Lifetime movie

It’s not that Peggy treats her underlings with condescension; she just treats everyone that way. It’s the problem with being the smartest person in the room. Without offending her, Peggy’s assistant, Phyllis, tries to tell her that she needs to shut up and smile sometimes, but Peggy’s as stubborn as Phyllis’s lipstick is frosted. Peggy has already been a secretary and a junior colleague. She didn’t put in all that time and emotion work to be told now that she needs to be more gentle and warm. Peggy doesn’t even understand how she could seem intimidating, because she knows how vulnerable and sensitive she actually is. Meanwhile, Pete Campbell’s snotty attitude lands him the respect of a new Pete Campbell named Bob Benson, who Pete agrees to let be his weed carrier, probably just because he needs a Stevie Janowski to accompany him places and do stuff for him now that he’s going to be single.

Peggy is just being Don, but she comes across like an uptight schoolmarm. She boozes while Stan smokes a joint, which aligns her with the older generation. She’s only pretending to be business-savvy, as gossiping about her old company with her new boss is a total rookie mistake. Caring too much about her old friends from her former job is also a rookie mistake, but it might be the one that really screws Peggy. She simply might not be enough of a shark to succeed in business. Peggy’s coworkers at SCDP saw her humbled time after time, often thrown over Don’s knee and publicly spanked in very humiliating fashion. They mostly accepted her success begrudgingly, and then as inevitable. Her new coworkers have no such context, and while that serves her as a boss, it undermines her chances of ever being liked. Peggy’s problem is that she’s too invested in her work. She has too much at stake with every single pitch, and she’s too much of a control freak to let anyone else drive. She lacks Don’s ability to mentally check out. They both started from the bottom, but when Peggy tries to follow Don’s blueprints exactly, she finds that it’s different for girls. There are no existing blueprints for lady bosses that she can seem to locate.

What seemed fresh in the early ’60s has become mealy by 1968. Joan’s jewel-toned outfits are now horribly garish, and Don’s clean-shaven Brylcreem look is suddenly suited to grandpas. When Don was bombing the Jaguar pitch, he sounded like his old (and possibly future) used-car salesman self. Roger tries to pass off a Churchill quote as his mother’s. According to Stephen King, Stephen King’s mother once told Stephen King, “Stephen, if you were a girl, you’d always be pregnant.” If Don Draper weren’t an ad exec, he’d just be an incredibly handsome guy who’s really good in bed, nonprofessionally. If Dick Whitman had never seen Uncle Mac spread his mother’s legs through a keyhole, he might be able to have real relationships. We’ll never know! Don ends up spreading out in the hallway to the strains of “Just a Gigolo.” It’s not the Diamond Dave Draper Lee Roth rendition, but I put that on right after. Bop! Bozdee bozdee bop, ziddy bop.