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Wednesday, 22 of September of 2021

Mad Men – “The Collaborators”

“You want to feel shitty right up until I take your dress off.”

Sylvia and Megan have a talk.

Oh, wait. You were? When did you stop smoking/boozing/having a settled stomach? How else was I as a TV character supposed to know?

I didn’t think about Don’s season of contrition actually following the Inferno closely, particularly since it’s the longest canticle of the Comedy, “The Doorway” didn’t really do much in the way of ferrying Don across any hellish rivers, and Dante spends several cantos in the Malebolge (Circle 8: Simple Fraud) but the show made it easy to view “The Collaborators” in light of the whirlwind second circle.

Lust is a constant on the show as Don tries to fill that hole of validation in his life and everyone else is either trying to mimic Don’s example of success or is uncontrollable when descending from an era of unabashed patriarchal dominance, especially when sick with money and power. Mad Men is almost synonymous with adultery, more so than advertising and Don’s continuous identity crisis.

And while I think the analogy falls apart if you try to compare the first couple of episodes to the first five cantos of Inferno, the depiction of lust here is different than the pedestrian brand we’re used to seeing on the show and has a feeling of intentionally connecting to the second circle. It’s particularly evident at the end of the episode, there’s a key moment that seals the inspiration from the whirlwind punishment of Paolo and Francesca. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Lust isn’t limited to Don the Pilgrim. Pete has always had an interest in living Don’s life while never being very good at it. While Don seems to seamlessly transition between sex partners, or at least safely abandon the tornadoes of crazy before getting sucked in, Pete hasn’t had that fortune. He made a baby with Peggy (though I suppose he doesn’t know about it), he crushed the spirit of a neighbor’s au pair, and got a second satisfying punch to the face after defiling Rory Gilmore.

So it wasn’t surprising to watch Pete’s latest tryst blow up in his stupid bitchface. It seemed to easy last year that Trudy caved on giving Pete his own apartment in the city and you knew it was a matter of time before we saw him court a young lady. Don and Pete parallel here by, for the first time, taking a neighbor as a lover. Don’s paramours have mostly been in the city with few exceptions (like the teacher) but now he’s all up in Velma’s stuff, Linda Cardellini’s Sylvia being friends with Megan. Pete transitions something that felt like it could turn into a neighborly swinger’s party into a daytime romp to break in the new pad. But it goes terribly awry.

Why? My best guess is that Pete isn’t commanding enough and that is the moral to his entire existence. Where Pete gets ahead by being a back-stabbing sycophant, but is ultimately weak-willed, Don commands respect. It’s an explanation that limits the agency of the women they take to bed but you get the feeling that Pete’s insistence he and she never speak of the tryst and not nipping the teenage-girly feelings immediately that it might not have come to blows, might’ve blown over, might’ve ended up with him continuing to get blown.

It might also be how carefully Don selects the women he’s able to start a tryst with while Pete is just constantly trying to, in a phrase, get his dick wet. While Don is obviously trying to fill in the giant pit of self-esteem with constant validation, Pete is trying to exert power. “I can do this,” he seems to say to himself, “because I am a man of such means and stature that I deserve this.” If the big dogs can get away with it, why can’t he?

But the big pile of crazy isn’t nipped, he isn’t commanding enough to convince her of the adult quality of their relationship, and it roars into his house like a hurricane. The turnaround is that Trudy always knew and tried to accommodate his needs by turning a blind eye and providing him with all the means necessary to help her ignorance. But Pete couldn’t keep it in the city. He couldn’t just let Trudy ignore it. He had to make it obvious. He had to bring it in to their home. And it forces Trudy to take action.

It’s an interesting side of Trudy to see. The “whip Pete into shape” aspects of her personality have always been present under the surface but her stand against him in the kitchen showed just how weak-willed and petulant Pete actually is. After climbing a mountain of consequences for all his indiscretions (as opposed to Don receiving no retribution for the terrible things he’s done) this is one feels like actual punishment because it is the dismantling of his perfect-seeming life. He is under the thumb of his wife. And now he knows it.

It’s another example of how Don and Pete diverge in their extramarital affairs. While Pete is very directly being punished of his sins, Don’s is more internal. Dr Rosen isn’t catching on and I feel like Megan is so wrapped up in her own activities that she doesn’t notice Don and Sylvia sleeping together. No consequences thus far are coming. But the entire episode boils down to one moment at the end that helps us extract the rest.

Canto V of Inferno is one of the most heavily structured of the entire Comedy. It mentions the word “love” nine times (Dante’s number that represents Beatrice, the unrequited love of his life) spread out evenly through the canto. Though the journey through each circle is marked with a certain formula of Virgil telling Dante what is being punished in this part and Dante interacting with those that are being punished, it’s important how the canto ends: he faints. A swoon is how it’s normally translated. He does this once as he enters Hell, his mortal body overwhelmed by what he’s approaching. But, in the span of a canto or so, he swoons again, this time overwhelmed by the stories of lust.

It’s important to note (again) that Inferno is a book of contrition where Dante the Pilgrim (and Dante the Poet) work out their feelings of sin by recognizing it in others and feeling that celestial guilt within them. Dante’s swoon can be read as that feeling of contrition, overwhelmed by what he might think of as his greatest sin. This is a man who started is career as a love poet and solidified his place in the world even before writing one of the defining pieces of literature by helping to create the stil dolce novo, a poetry movement descended from the Provencal troubadours of France that expanded the concept of courtly love to every beautiful woman to capture a poet’s heart. He loved Beatrice, even while married to Gemma Donati, and, after Beatrice’s death, wrote about la donna petra, who may or may not have been Gemma (probably not). Seeing the sin of Lust in others caught in a forever whirlwind may have been enough to put the man down.

Don sliding against the wall outside his apartment feels like the same kind of swoon. Though he continues to pursue Sylvia sexually, Megan’s miscarriage and her desire to build a family makes it difficult for him to reconcile the honorable life behind those doors and the dastardly one he’s leading with another man’s wife. Don is overwhelmed by the terrible feeling of guilt as he can’t seem to stop himself. He wants to be present for his wife but he also wants to be the Rooster.

Don’s two major scenes are so disconnected. The Out of Sight reminiscent sex scene cutting between the restaurant and the hotel room, where Don is virile and boiling over with unabashed sin is powerful but completely different from the weakened man who struggles to head inside to face his wife. He wants to be better. He’s said that much. But can he be? Does he have the willpower to? Is it what he actually wants?

The point is that he seems much more troubled by the present than he has been. Much of what we know about Don’s anxieties are rooted in his checkered past. Here, it’s only about reconciling his current affairs. This, of course, being unique to a Pilgrim as he journeys through Hell and comes across people that are able to see the distant past and the near future but are blind to the present. For right now, it’s all Don can manage to see.

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