For a show that prides itself on realism, understatement, and period recreation, Mad Men spawns some crazy fan theories. Megan is Sharon Tate! Don is D. B. Cooper! Cutler is a CIA mole! Bob doesn’t actually exist! Despite the fact that none of these things happen (or are likely to happen), fans keep churning them out and discussing them, trying to slide the puzzle-box of mood and plot into the right configuration.
This is a reaction to the themes of conspiracy and mystery shot through the series. “Something huge has to happen! There’s has to a story that ties it all together!” the fans shout and wail, and they’re not wrong. There is something rotten in the state of New York, but it’s not the state of Don Draper’s soul.
Mad Men is a macabre show that refuses to show us the goods. Fear and dread lurk around every happy moment, we hear it in the water, we feel it in the earth. At one point there is a literal death fog trapping the characters inside. Every season fans predict a major character will get brutally murdered and every year it doesn’t happen. Why does this feeling of foreboding never pay-off? Why does it persist despite the home invasions and suicides and Ken’s-face- shootings that occur? Because the real mystery of the show is still at large and undiscovered. It hides in plain sight, tucked away like a black widow in a rosebush.
The very first thing said about her is that she always gets what she wants.
We know she grew up wealthy and privileged. In “My Old Kentucky Home” she says she “grew up in a club just like this.” What does Trudy do all day? Lunch with the “docents committee” of the Met? Shopping? Trudy knows simply everybody, possessing a social network that creeps into the very top levels of culture production, The Metropolitan Museum, publishing houses, The Vick Chemical Company, etc.
She has an uncanny, finely-tuned emotional control, insulting her husband’s short story while appearing to compliment it. Later she reacts to his “putting his foot down” speech by pivoting on a dime and turning the entire dynamic around before Pete realizes what’s happening.
At Don’s apartment party, Trudy manages to answer a friendly conversation starter about police and rioters by saying nothing at all. She constructs a lacuna non-response that gives the appearance of an answer.
The few times Trudy’s face lights up are when she’s scheming. In “The Rejected” she says (on telling her father bad news at the right time) “He’s already so guilty he’ll never feel the knife go in.” Who talks like that? In a previous episode Pete compares her to Ellery Queen, noted mid-century paperback detective. Trudy’s not dumb, she’s calculating and shrewd. Careful about appearances and fronts. Her desire for a baby is rooted in a need to fit in with all the other young moms. To blend in.
Look at their first apartment. This is an expensive apartment, even given the standards of mid-’60s Manhattan. This is chic. This is stylish. This is every inch the carefree, worldly Young Married In The City. So it’s strange when she moves to Cos Cob and the design becomes the opposite overnight. Her Cos Cob house is a smothering onslaught of clashing floral patterns and colonial knick-knacks. She dresses like a tissue box cozy.
Nobody could be that oppressively maternal and dainty. Nobody except someone trying very hard to convince the world they’re as delicate and innocent as a daisy. A riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a housecoat. Once you look at all the threads carefully you can see the truth behind the poofy WASPy facade.
Trudy Campbell is a KGB spy.
She fits the profile. Monied, leisured, not suspicious-seeming, with access to the upper reaches of society and the power that implies. You know her Rolodex has a few diplomats and senators scattered about. Guy Burgess, member of the infamous Cambridge Five UK spy ring came from a similar background. We know Trudy shares her husband’s leftish political leanings, and everybody who watches The Americans knows the KGB tried to infiltrate activist groups.
In “The Wheel,” Trudy mother warns that “loose lips sink ships,” coming soon after Trudy tells Pete she “doesn’t want secrets.” Translating it from the typically Trudy doublespeak reveals: “I don’t want you to have any secrets.” She’s got enough of her own.
“Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition.”
Trudy and Pete’s closest moments are during political assassinations. While watching the Jack Ruby footage they’re not dressed at all like how we’ve seen them before. Pete’s in a black tactical turtleneck and Trudy in decidedly Soviet-winter fur fringe. They look for all the world like they’re behind enemy lines. Immediately afterward Trudy comes up with a plan for Pete to save his hide. In the next episode we see her skill in deception, quickly going along with Pete’s “home sick” routine and even advising him from the next room. Trudy has done this before.
Earlier, a stoned Paul Kinsey says he can’t stop thinking about nuclear war and Cuba, reciting “This is the way the world ends” before cutting to Trudy, linking the treat of M.A.D. with a supposed stay-at-home wife. With the Cuban Missile Crisis in full swing, she’s fleeing to “her parent’s house” carrying a box of “silver.” Pete points out how ridiculous it is but misses the point entirely when she says it’s “just 90 miles from DC.” Trudy isn’t trying to escape the bombs, everyone knows that’s futile, she’s trying to get closer to her handlers and bosses in Washington.
Need I remind you this episode is titled “The Collaborators?”
I’m not even going to talk about what that choreographed Charleston routine says about Trudy’s training experience.
So where is she getting her information? Consider this: Pete has a close friend we never see, Russ. Russ works at the State Department. Russ is a goddamned blabbermouth, telling all sorts of secrets about Don’s life to Pete. Who knows what else he’s been telling him, or his pretty, flirty young wife? The fact that Pete sometimes deals with defense contractors is even juicier.
“I know your debutante maneuvers.”
In “The Suitcase,” watch Trudy’s face harden into a cold mask when Pete says: “How is it that some people just walk through life dragging their lies with them? Destroying everything they touch.” That’s not a “Oh, my husband is in pain” look. That’s a “Shit I’m about to get made.” look. Tellingly, she continues to fish for details.
In one episode, Trudy is drawing up plans for a below-ground backyard pool. Fresh foundation cement is the ideal place to hide evidence.
Trudy gives Pete an apartment after his “accident.” She suggests it right away. Is she just trying to keep up appearances with a receding hairline of a man who will never change, or does she relish this opportunity to have fewer eyes on her while she works to undermine the West?
Trudy tears into Pete for sleeping around. Not because he was sleeping around, but because he was doing it so close to home. Close to her operations. Trudy can’t afford more scrutiny. She yells at him, thinking it would be “more civilized” to give him an apartment for his affairs. She’s angry, but angry about what? Tiresome infidelity or the potential danger to her cover? Or is she finally fed-up with a man who nearly had a major defense contract contact and blew it?
The facts speak for themselves.
“I will not be a failure. I don’t care what you want anymore. This is how it’s going to work. You will be here only when I tell you to be here. I’m drawing a fifty mile radius around this house and if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you.”
This is a show built around stolen identity, false fronts, and secret lives. Dick Whitman became Don Draper. Bob Benson’s past is murky and possibly murderous. Salvatore hides his true desires from himself, Margaret becomes Marigold, even Joan fictionalizes her child’s parentage. Cover stories. Covert operations. Lies within lies. Trudy is just the best liar we’ve seen so far.
And then we get to the biggest, longest-running fan question: when is Pete’s rifle going to go off in someone’s face? Pete’s lips are going to wrap around that barrel, but it won’t be his weaselly rodent hands pulling the trigger. Trudy will set the scene, giving him the dignity of making it look like a suicide. Trudy cares about appearances. “Widow” looks better than “divorcée.” She will do this because Pete will somehow come across her network of spies and informants. He will have to be dealt with.
It’s all there if you take the time to look.
John Leavitt is a cartoonist, writer, director, and illustrator, His cartoons and illustrations have appeared in: The New Yorker, The Chronicle Review, The New York Press, The Common Review, The Journal Of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Narrative Magazine and elsewhere. He has worked with Molly Crabapple to produce posters for The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others.