OK, “Mad Men” fans, settle down. Sunday’s episode, “The Crash,” had a hallucinatory air to it, but it was hardly as confusing as many people thought. I was following the Twitter commentary during the commercial breaks and you’d have thought Matt Weiner had sold Sally into the white slave trade.
The story itself is one of the simplest plots of the year: The agency team takes speed to improve their pep and creativity, but are so over-energized they start doing crazy things. Don has flashbacks to his youth. An intruder walks into the Draper household while Sally and Bobby are home alone, claiming to be an old friend of Don’s. Don gets over his fixation on Sylvia, emotionally shutting down and says he won’t work on the Chevy account any longer.
It’s not the story that’s confused, it’s the strangeness of the story-telling format itself. We are so accustomed to the series’ realism that we are thrown off balance by the slightest deviation. Last year “Mad Men” toyed with several different genres of film-making, including film noir and French experimentalism. “The Crash” is in the realm of magical realism, which is defined (by Wilkipedia) as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”
Weiner achieves this effect with several simple techniques. We are immediately disoriented by the opening scene in which Ken is frantically driving a car full of dangerous men, who are brandishing a gun and putting their hands over his eyes until he crashes. We are also thrown off stride by Don’s plaintive call with Sylvia in which he says “I’m feeling a lot of emotions too.” Don’s feeling emotions – no wonder the room starts to spin.
But the real weirdness starts when Jim Cutler arranges for the team to get injected with some speed-like concoction that overstimulates everyone and causes them to move at double-time and lose all constraints. We get a brief sense from Don’s perspective of what it’s like to be on this drug, with distorted vision and hearing, but otherwise there are no camera tricks. Instead, people are just acting crazy: Stan is the target in a William Tell-type game where Ginsburg attempts to throw an Exacto at an apple target above his head; a strange hippie girl is wandering about doing I Ching readings and hitting on Don; there are some jumps in time (indicating periods when Don is presumably blacked out);and Don is in a fever to come up with a pitch inspired by the prostitute who fed him soup when he was sick and then took his virginity. This is a show where the whores are doctors and the doctors are whores and nothing is quite what it seems.
Meanwhile, Sally (who’s home alone with her brothers and reading Rosemary’s Baby in bed) comes upon an older black woman prowlingin the Draper apartment. The strangeness of the scene is accentuated by the woman’s claims – that she’s Sally’s grandmother, that she “practically raised” her father, that Don gave her a key and is expecting her. Since we’ve just seen flashbacks of Don’s childhood, when he was raised in a whorehouse by a motley assortment of prostitutes, it’s not so far-fetched to think “Grandma Ida” could be one of them. But coming in the context of the crazy office scenes, this sequence also seems more bizarre than usual.
And yet there’s a simple explanation for everything. The car crash at the beginning of the show was caused by the drunken, careless assholes at Chevy who took Ken on a joyride. “Grandma Ida” is an ordinary burglar, who entered the apartment through the back door that Don had left open. The hippie girl is Wendy, Frank Gleason’s daughter, who is brought back to the agency by Cutler after Gleason’s funeral. And of course the various hijinks in the office are all chalked up to all the drugs and alcohol they ingested. By Monday morning, when everyone is sober, the weekend is just a memory of a bad trip.
Almost all the other episodes this season can be attributed through various timing and dating hints to specific dates in 1968, but “The Crash” is more generally set during weekend in June 1968, three months after Stan’s cousin was killed (On March 4). Even so, the episode feels more like the Sixties than anything we’ve seen before. The drug use, casual sex, loss of personal safety, and confusion create a picture of society losing control. The office lost its moorings during this crazy weekend, just like America itself did in 1968.
At the heart of this was the Vietnam War and this episode feels like a domestic version of the war. Chevy is turning into a quagmire and Ken is literally injured in the conflict. The firm’s top brass – Sterling and Gleason – could not care less about what’s happening in the trenches, as long as Chevy keeps paying the bills (and so what if everyone has to work the weekend? It’s Chevy’s “clock.’ They are the ones paying for the extra hours billed.)
The reference to the dead cousin makes the Vietnam connection most explicitly, but the picture of an exhausted Stan wearing a headband as he stands in the William Tell pose is a clear call-back to one of the most iconic images of the war — Christopher Walken playing Russian Roulette in “The Deer Hunter” (see: http://bit.ly/16LSiyC.) This scene is so vivid, right down to the Exacto knife in the forearm, that it colors the rest of the show and reminds us that Vietnam, with its unseen enemy, lack of a “front” and drugged out grunts was itself a hallucinatory experience.
But as usual, the real center of the story is Don’s inner turmoil. He is more upset by being dumped by Sylvia than he’s been about any other woman, virtually stalking her and listening in on her life from the backdoor of the apartment. It’s hard to understand the hold she has on him, except that she’s the one who’s there when life has finally begun to wear him down. The marriage that made him so happy last season is no longer working, so he’s clinging to whatever thrill the illicitness of the affair offered. But for Sylvia, this affair is a just a temporary fantasy and she tells him that “I want you to try to be happy.” Unfortunately, as we know from last year, he believes that “happiness is a moment before you need more happiness.” The question for the rest of the season is whether he can pull himself together and find a path to normal happiness or spend the rest of his middle age careening from experience to experience.
The flashbacks suggest what a tough road he has ahead of him. A motherless boy in a bordello, he is shown kindness by a prostitute who mothers and feeds him soup when he’s sick and then betrays him twice: first by seducing him before he’s emotionally ready for sex and then by revealing this to the rest of the house, which causes his step-mother to beat him with a wooden spoon. We get a picture of sex connected to mothering and nurturing , but also to disgrace and disgust.
At the end of the episode, Don has an emotional crash that’s almost as bad as Ken’s car crash in the first scene. He collapses in front of his family after the speed finally wears off. Physically he’s back to normal on Monday but he’s emotionally closed down. After spending days trying desperately to talk to Sylvia and hoping to make that one perfect pitch that will win her back, he finally gets her alone in the elevator and coldly doesn’t speak to her, not even giving her the courtesy of letting her proceed first when they reach the lobby.
The show closes with Momma Cass singing “Words of Love,” one of the many brilliant show-closing songs Matt Weiner has selected over the years. The lyrics could not be more perfect for Don’s now defunct relationship with Sylvia:
Words of love, so soft and tender,
Won’t win a girl’s heart anymore.
If you love her, then you must send her
Somewhere where she’s never been before.
Words alone can’t do it for Don anymore, which will be a problem since he’s gotten where he is today by his silver tongue and the timbre of his voice. My guess is that we haven’t seen the last crash. But there is one grace note. Don does have the decency to call Sally to assure her that he didn’t have a heart attack and to take responsibility for the break-in so she knows it’s not her fault. In other words, he does still struggle with his humility and tries to do the right thing.
Some other thoughts on “The Crash”:
- We’re getting a deeper look into what a hellhole it must be working for this agency. The bosses are unsympathetic if you’ve been injured in the line of duty; you’re expected to work around the clock at the drop of a hat; the clients are mercurial and capricious, and jerk you around just because they can. Ken Cosgrove’s tap dance routine as he sings “It’s My Job” is amazing not only for the dance itself (see GIF at http://tinyurl.com/qh9dmkl) but for the lament he makes about how the Chevy clients treat him. But nothing’s quite as devastating as Don observing that “every time we get a car this place turns into a whorehouse.” The line between prostitution and advertising has been blurred for sometime on this show, but never quite as explicitly as this.
- Jim Cutler is slowly being revealed as an amoral monster. In addition to rubbing his hands in glee at the extra billable hours for the weekend work and dismissing Ted’s grief at Frank Gleason’s death, he gets the office hooked on speed and brings Gleason’s daughter into the office after the funeral where she has meaningless sex with Stan – while he watches from an open door! We haven’t seen the last of the evil Jim Cutler.
- Dr. Hecht, who administers the speed-laced injections is based on a real person, Dr. Max Jacobson, aka Dr. Feelgood, who shot up JFK and Jackie as well as hundreds of other clients in the Sixties. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Jacobson
- Betty’s blonde and thinner again, but bitchier than ever. When Sally says she earned the money to buy her miniskirt, Betty asks “On what street corner?” showing that Don’s not the only one with prostitution on his mind. Later, in the Draper apartment, after the intruder has been caught, she blames Megan for not being there when it happened, saying – right in front of her – that she’d been “off on the casting couch.” And then there’s this line: “Do you know that Henry is running for office?” It might seem like a non sequitur under the circumstances, but Betty is always worried about appearances, and the danger that this break-in might turn into a public scandal seems to be what’s really bothering her.
- Funniest line: Bobby Draper asking “Are we Negroes?” after meeting Grandma Ida.
- Most obvious bit of dialogue: Wendy, with stethoscope: “I want to hear your heart…. Oh, I think it’s broken.” Don: “You can hear that?” Wendy: “This (the stethoscope) is broken.”
- Best advice: From Peggy to Stan, after he tells her that his cousin has died, in an apparent attempt to seduce her (hey, it worked for Roger Sterling and his mother). “You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs or sex. That won’t get you through.” This is the opposite advice that Don offered when she was in the hospital after the birth of her baby (“Pretend this never happened”). Stan is “Thanks but no thanks” and is next seen having sex with Wendy. No wonder Peggy goes home in disgust. Was that really a tender moment between Peggy and Stan or was he manipulating her? Peggy’s wondering the same thing.
- I am not a big fan of the flashbacks to Dick Whitman in the whorehouse, which have taken on an “Oliver Twist” aspect. The Dick/Don story is so extreme and out-of-the-ordinary that it has no relevance to us. Of course he’s screwed up. Who wouldn’t be? Also, it’s increasingly difficult to believe that the meek Alfalfa-like Dick will grow into the uber-confident Don. People’s personalities don’t change that much.
- I’ve said more than once that someone could write a Ph.D thesis on the elevator scenes in Mad Men and now that Don lives in a high rise, they’ve multiplied. Last night’s scene with Don and Sylvia riding down together in silence was one of the great ones, even if there was no dialogue. By the way, Matt Weiner said on “Fresh Air” that the reason they use the elevator so much is that it’s a cheap scene. In other words, budgetary considerations, not artistic choices, drive these scenes. I still think someone will spin the symbolism of the closed space into an academic monograph, however.
- Matt Weiner is really playing with fire with the race issue. Making the intruder a black woman after having Roger and Joan get robbed by a black man last year, combined with the lack of serious black characters, is asking for trouble. Of course it makes sense to have the intruder be a nanny-like character, someone that Sally would be apt to trust (her previous mother-figure was Carla the maid). But still, I don’t know how much more patience the political correctness police will have with him.
- Finally, I note that Frank Gleason died of pancreatic cancer. There were a lot of knowing smirks earlier this season when the Peggy’s real estate agent said a condo would increase in value when the Second Avenue subway was finished, since everyone knew that subway is still not finished today. But there was little reaction when Ted Chaough told Gleason they would fight and beat his disease, even though pancreatic cancer is as much of a death sentence now as it was in 1968. The major organization trying to find a cure for the disease is the Lustgarten Foundation http://www.lustgarten.org/ named after Marc Lustgarten, a beloved executive at Cablevision who died in 1999. Cablevision, which continues to be the driving force behind the Foundation, used to own AMC. Is it a coincidence that Weiner gave Frank Gleason Lustgarten’s disease? Probably, but it’s also likely that the reason he knows that this is a deadly ailment is because of Lustgarten.
“Your face looks like a bag of walnuts.”