Mad Men Review: “The Collaborators” (Season 6, Episode 3)

You guys, it finally happened: we now have a reason to take pity on Jon Hamm. I know, I know, it didn’t seem like this day would ever come. The guy’s not only charming, funny, and a talented actor (in addition to being just stupid handsome), but even his problems sound pretty enviable to your average guy. Part of you has to rationalize that anyone as all-around awesome as Hamm has to have some horrible, preferably ironic baggage that balances the fairness scales of life, but it wasn’t until tonight that Jon Hamm’s terrible secret came to be known: he directs bad episodes of Mad Men.

Okay, let me dial it back a bit, because that’s a loaded statement, and God forbid Matthew Weiner hear the words “bad,” and “Mad Men” within spitting distance of each other if the word “breaking” isn’t also in the mix. What I mean to say is that, “The Collaborators,” the second episode of the show with Hamm as director, and essentially the second episode of Mad Men this season, is setting a precedent for Hamm as the go-to guy for season opener follow-ups that don’t quite come together. Seeing as the show probably only has one more year in it, he’s setting himself up for an inauspicious hattrick, one that started last year, with the similarly scattered “Tea Leaves.”

So what exactly is wrong with “The Collaborators?” Nothing that’ll set the fanbase aflame, like when Joan had to make a fateful choice in “The Other Woman” last season, though the always creepy Herb from Jaguar rears his flabby, sweaty head again. Any week that limits Roger to a scant few scenes, and only a handful of incendiary bon mots is going to be firing with a half-loaded pistol no matter what, but he’s not absolutely essential to the makings of a great episode. Part of what makes a not entirely satisfying Mad Men experience so damned frustrating is that you’re rarely given a single obvious thing to point to as the problem.

The hiccups and stutters this week are hardly Hamm’s fault, as TV has always been more of a writer’s medium than a director’s. Television has long been an accepted safezone for actor’s looking to cut their teeth on the challenges faced from the other side of the camera, and Hamm would have to be the Stanley Kubrick of awfulness to ever make a Mad Men episode that looks anything less than gorgeous. The onus for this early misfire lays squarely at the feet of Matt Weiner, and co-writer Jonathan Igla, who last collaborated on Season 5’s finale, “The Phantom,” in which Don lost a tooth before getting smacked in the face with the metaphor that, hey, maybe his tooth isn’t the only thing inside him that’s rotten?!

Someone on TVTropes will probably gin up a better nickname for this, but Showing the Tooth is becoming one of the most concerning trends on Mad Men. As I wrote last week, Season 6 has so far shown no signs of trying to better hide the show’s symbols and metaphors, which now get more attention and spotlighting than Christina Hendrick’s neckline. It’s arguable that the ebbing of subtlety over the years is a result of the show better knowing now what it really is, than it did four or five seasons ago, and perhaps we’re just as much at fault for thinking Mad Men isn’t being mysterious enough, even though we put every single aspect of it under a microscope each week. I mean, I love that some of the best analysis of Mad Men is based solely on the show’s costuming, but what does it say about me as a viewer when I’m looking for the thematic significance evoked by the difference between Megan and Silvia’s laundry baskets?

Unfortunately, this was a week where I could make a case for the difference in hamper colour being on the nose, because “The Collaborators” is one big subtext salad (for the record: pink=Sylvia’s naiveté regarding her fling with Don! Red=Megan’s miscarriage!). While Dr. Rosen is fretting over the unexpected success the Vietcong guerillas have had against the 800-lb American military gorilla, Peggy’s small pond of a new office is looking to add to its volume with vinegar, after Peggy accidently spills the beans on Heinz potentially leaving SCDP. “This is how wars are won, this is what your friend gets for underestimating you,” her boss, Ted, tells her, which alone is underlining a bit of writerly symmetry in neon pink highlighter. But when Trudy stares at her crusted red dishrag after first blood is drawn in her marriage with Pete, we’re hitting levels of laying it on thick as viscous as a KFC gravy bowl.

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