What the ever-loving merciful fuck?
Look: Here’s how I review an episode of Mad Men. I watch the episode. I take a half-hour or so to turn it over in my head. Usually, I find a couple of stray strings around the edges, and I start to pull on one of those. If it starts to lead somewhere, great. If it doesn’t, I pull on another. Eventually, I get to something that sounds vaguely review-like, and then I vomit out 2,000-some words on paper, because the people demand their Mad Men reviews in a timely manner. Sometimes, I think I get to what makes the episode special. Sometimes, I miss the mark entirely. But that’s just the game. That’s how it works, and I’m more or less used to that.
“The Crash,” however, doesn’t have strings I can start tugging on to unravel the knot. The whole thing is like a bunch of strands of yarn, lying parallel to each other, and then a cat comes through and starts knocking them around, because it was promised a ball of yarn, and it’s not going to go home without it. I think I liked it? An equal part of me hated it. And the largest part of me is sort of blown away by the show’s willingness to just go there and commit. It’s an episode that’s sort of a dream episode, except not really, because it’s all happening while the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce/Cutler Gleason Chaough (and that really is a mouthful) are high on the unspecified drug of Cutler’s special doctor. Except that’s not even true, because there has to have been some of this that was raw hallucination or Don’s brain synapses firing at random or something, because hell if I can believe for a second that Kenny Cosgrove can tap dance like that on a busted foot.
I’ve said a couple of times that Mad Men usually reserves its seventh or eighth episode (depending on if there’s a two-hour première) to try something weird and out of the box and experimental. “The Crash” takes that principle to its logical extreme, with an episode where nothing feels real, except all of it is probably real (again, I’m feeling shifty about that tap-dancing Cosgrove). These episodes are very often about the connections between Don and Peggy, whether implicit (“Seven Twenty Three”) or explicit (“The Suitcase”), so let’s start there. Toward the episode’s end, when she’s gently letting Stan down without succumbing to his obvious sexual charisma, Peggy tells him that he can’t medicate his sadness over the loss of his cousin in Vietnam (the one we met back in “A Little Kiss,” I assume) with drugs and sex. Stan says maybe he’s different from her. Maybe he can process his loss through ignoring it and devoting his life to hedonism, but Peggy gives him a look that says everything, and in that instant, it becomes clear that this is All About Don.
Here’s the thing about weird, crazy bullshit episodes: They need to have a core, or else they’re just weird, crazy bullshit. There’s nothing wrong with weird, crazy bullshit. It’s certainly an approach you can bring to your art, but it also becomes very quickly an end unto itself and sort of exhausting for the audience. I’ve talked to more than a few people who thought “The Crash” was pretentious, self-indulgent, and ultimately lacking in meaning, Matt Weiner’s ultimate bird flip to audience expectations. And I can’t really say anything to those criticisms, because maybe? This is sort of the ultimate Rorschach test episode, where literally anything you detect going on in it is probably there, because that’s what you were thinking about while watching it. It gives the audience any number of possibilities and invites said audience to start dissecting. Yet I keep coming back to Peggy’s wisdom about loss, to her bruised connection with Don, and the more I look at this episode, the more I find an aching core of loss, love, sadness, and regret. So, in other words, this is just another Mad Men episode.
It’s also, to a real degree, an episode of Mad Men that’s about writing Mad Men, about locking yourself in a room and driving yourself crazy to come up with that one perfect idea, about wasting a weekend on that process, about trying to top yourself and feeling like you’re losing your mind. A lot of the core conflicts on this show are the sorts of core conflicts one might find in a TV writers’ room, and to a degree, for the people who follow this show obsessively, its true protagonist is Matt Weiner. The question for many of us obsessive fans isn’t what Don Draper will get up to next but what Matt Weiner will get up to next. At its best and at its worst, Mad Men is one of the hardest to predict shows on television, rarely content to do straightforward story beats and character arcs when it could be wandering off into other territory. This is what I love so much about the show, but I can also understand the sense that some get this late in the run that it would be great if Weiner and company would just shut up about their own cleverness and tell a straightforward story for once.
Yet, almost blissfully, nobody on staff at the show seems to care. What’s interesting about “The Crash” is that it seems almost a dare to the weekly review culture, an attempt to get those of us who write about the show to parse a bunch of stuff that doesn’t seem, immediately, to make any sense. There’s a woman who breaks into the Draper apartment and proves a thief, just as there’s a young woman who wanders around the SCDP/CGC offices as if a figment of a dream, tossing the I Ching and ruminating on how what everybody wants to know is if somebody loves them (well, everybody on this show, at least). There’s a marvelously lit scene with Megan looming over Don’s shoulder in the dark, the ghoul dragging him back to a life he no longer wants. There are lovely little shots that indicate exactly where Don’s mind is—a series of stubbed out cigarettes on the floor of the hallway behind the Rosens’ apartment, an old ad for soup where the woman in the drawing has a mole for some reason, his haunted, exhausted eyes.
And yet I think all of these are distractions. They’re important, sure, but only insofar as they tie back in to loss. We’ve seen in previous episodes and seasons just how much Don Draper hates to lose, and now, we’ve seen what a scary asshole he can be when he actually does lose, and now, the show is attempting to show us what happens when he has a drug trip (along with everybody else) at exactly the wrong time. Most serialized dramas expand further and further outward the longer they run, the main character becoming of less and less importance relative to where they were in season one. (For a readily available example of this, consider how thoroughly Breaking Bad’s fourth season sidelined Walter White before bringing him roaring back to the show’s center in the final few episodes.) Yet the longer Mad Men goes on, the more it situates us in Donald Draper’s twisted up head, to the point where this is now the second episode we’ve had with extensive flashbacks to the life of Lil’ Don in Whorehouse Follies.
The flashbacks are my least favorite part of the episode—in an episode that’s already trending toward over-obvious, these flashbacks take the episode’s symbolism and hit us over the head with it repeatedly—but they’re also necessary to facilitate Don’s next step on his professional journey: He’s decided he doesn’t give two shits about Chevy anymore. He’ll keep reviewing work that’s brought to him because that’s his job, but he’s not going to pursue them actively anymore, because whenever a car company comes into the office, the whole place turns into a whorehouse. (How subtle!) Notice, then, how Don turns to walk away from Cutler and Ted toward his office door, Michael Uppendahl’s camera staying put in the corner of the office, so that he recedes from us. Rather than gaining in power, Don keeps giving power away. And why? Because Sylvia Rosen broke his heart? Or because he’s a fundamentally self-destructive being who tears down everything in his life, rather than actually deal with all of the loss hanging over him like a cloud?
Sylvia returns to the center of the story again, and I have to say I’m finding her far more appealing as Don’s ex-lover than as his lover. The story of their affair was one we’ve seen millions of times before on Mad Men, but the story of the end of their affair is largely unique. Yes, Betty chose to end the first Draper marriage on her own terms—and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she makes her first appearance in a while in this episode, there to judge Don—but that was a situation where Don still had some leverage, some room to try to gain the upper hand. With Sylvia, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He turns into a creepy stalker. He stays up for days on end to try to find the pitch that will win her over. He loses himself in the search, because it’s all he knows how to do. Don Draper doesn’t really know how to lose or even how to process loss. Peggy provided a kind of ballast for him, but he’s isolated her. (Notice the disappointment in her eyes when his big idea turns out to be about anything but Chevy.)
You try to grab hold of the big idea, but it spins out of your grasp as quickly as it lands on your plate. Don comes close—something about history, and how we keep finding people to slot into the same roles we’ve always had, just asking other human beings to fill the archetypes that need filling—but he’s also part of a department that necessarily requires that any major philosophical insights come attached to a message of “Buy Chevy!” The Don we see in this episode seems unhinged, reckless. The experience of being on drugs makes him almost dangerous, and he actually leaves the back door to his apartment open, endangering his own children. (Fortunately, the thief, Ida, doesn’t harm the three kids in any way.) Don is in pursuit of the big idea, the perfect pitch, the single thing that will bring Chevy happiness and sweep Sylvia back into his arms, but he’ll never find it because he’s looking in all the wrong places.
Look, again, at Ted Chaough, who exits the episode early on to mourn the loss of his friend, Frank Gleason. When Peggy tells Stan he needs to mourn, needs to feel his loss, it’s evident that some of this is from her own personal experience of mourning the child she had to give up and the people she lost, but it also stems from her time with Ted, who may be the most emotionally well-adjusted person the show has ever had in its character roster. He might be a goober, but he owns being a goober, and it’s telling that Don’s experience really starts to go off the rails once he sees Peggy and Ted talking quietly in his office in a way that suggests they may be intimates. Don, to a real degree, doesn’t have any clue what to do with Ted, a man who feels all his feelings and doesn’t just bark over the phone to the lover he misses that he’s feeling a lot of emotions, too.
The journey of America in the ‘60s was from a world of carefully repressed emotions and psychological states to one with more openness. Society went from a cultivated world where certain people had power and certain people did not to a cracked shell, with all of that power leaking out around the sides, that those who had been traditionally powerless might scoop some of it up. It’s tempting to say that Mad Men is about how people don’t change, but all one needs to do is look at Peggy Olson to see that’s not true. She’s a massively different person from who she was eight years ago, and she has her former mentor, the man who saw her potential, to thank for much of that. But just as much of that has come from herself and her ability to discern what’s real and what’s bullshit, to deal with the tough emotional problems in her life and face down her existential doubt and dread head-on. You hear the title “The Crash,” and you think that might mean the car crash Ken gets in to open the episode, or it might mean the inevitable comedown from the heady high, or it might even mean the way that everybody’s moods seem to head for the basement. But “The Crash” isn’t even in this episode. It’s a thing that’s coming, an event on the horizon, an inevitability that, try as he might, Don Draper can run from no longer.
- Another key to the episode may come in Don’s belligerence toward Ken when he’s talking about how he needs to be in the room with Chevy’s executives: “The timbre of my voice is as important as the content! I don’t know whether I’ll be forceful or submissive, but I must be there in the flesh.” Don can keep hurling himself at brick walls all he likes, trying different techniques, but he can’t always rely on the perfect pitch to get the job done. Sometimes, it just takes back-breaking work.
- We don’t get a lot of Betty Francis in this episode, but I love the way that she really digs into her indignation when it’s clear she has good reason to be indignant. Megan’s off on the “casting couch,” and Don’s off doing whatever it is he does. Henry calms her somewhat, but it’s clear she wanted to get her licks in while she could.
- Bobby Draper wants to know if the Draper kids are Negroes. Ah, Bobby. A bright lad.
- I do sort of love how the Ida storyline seems to arrive from out of nowhere, and then you start to wonder if maybe Sally took some drugs, or if this is finally when it will be revealed that Don is having a lengthy hallucination with a B-story about his daughter, but, no, it all really happened.
- A part of me thinks that if Joan had just stuck around the office, none of this would have happened. Also: What’s up with Pete being in at least one episode every season for, like, 30 seconds?
- I’m loving the relationship between Cutler and Roger. Their checkers playing is a fantastic way to open the episode.
- Is it too early to declare Stan the season’s MVP? His work in the “everybody throws things at Stan” scene was magnificent.
- Sylvia chewing out Don is really a thing to behold. Her belief that she thought she’d chosen someone who could keep everything quiet when the affair ended has obviously blown up in her face, and Don obviously has no answer for her.
- Another thing lost in this episode: Don Draper’s virginity! (Were any of you really excited to see that happen?)
- Final grade: Fuck it. This entertained me and made me think more than just about anything I’ve seen on TV this season. That’s worth an A, even with some rough patches, right?
- Next week on Mad Men: Peggy stares in horror, because she’s had enough of all this bullshit.