I feel comfortable writing down some thoughts about this week’s Mad Men. This stands in sharp contrast to the last few episodes, which so bowled me over with their surrealism and mystery that I’d started to worry the show was over my head.
Yeah, “The Crash” was more accessible. It was a bad episode. A bad idea. Everyone’s on speed, the Draper kids are held hostage, and Rizzo gets impaled by a dart? What kind of fuckery was this?
Yet still, it satisfied. Like biting into a cupcake that’s all moldy on the outside until you reach the still-delicious dark chocolate ganache.
We had two plot lines this week, equally shocking and confusing. The first involved a sketchy witch doctor and the ever-hardening nut that is the Chevy ad campaign.
In preparation for Jim Cutler, the possibly-gay gadabout partner at CGC, brings in a guy with a white coat and a giant needle to stick every employee with a big ol’ dose of speed. Seriously. Every employee at SCDP gets a dose of “vitamins” in the rump, save wet blanket Pete Campbell and also Ginsberg, who seems to operate on natural brain meth.
This precipitates maybe the weirdest, most horrifying episode in Mad Men history. It’s kind of the freaky counterpart to season 5’s “Far Away Places,” which involved Roger Sterling’s famous acid trip. That was an alternately amusing and poignant episode, one of the best illustrations of altered consciousness I’ve ever seen on television. But where “Far Away Places” was a dream, “The Crash” is a nightmare. The action is frenetic, the dialogue aggressive and unstructured. The office lights burn and sweat streams down every face into expensive starched collars. In many ways, it’s more 1988 than 1968.
Armed with suspicious corporate Ritalin, everyone bursts into creative superdrive. Stan Rizzo writes down 666 ideas for Chevy, and then begs for the William Tell treatment, chainsmoking beneath a drawing of an apple while Ginsberg tosses darts into his arms. Kenny reveals some painful truths about being an account man, performing an original spoken-word piece entitled “It’s My Job” accompanied by The Kenneth Cosgrove Dance of Eternal Whimsy. And Don rummages through the archives, reminiscing about his teenhood in a whorehouse and loudly lecturing people about the importance of his sexy pitch voice.
I actually really enjoyed the short flashbacks to young Dick Whitman being nursed (in more ways than one) by a prostitute in his stepfather’s house. That actor (Brandon Millford) has really improved with age, and evokes Don Draper in some really brilliant/subtle ways. There’s a moment when the whore asks if Dick likes her beauty mark, and he answers with a soft-but-manly “I do.” And then loses his virginity. This is where it all started, folks. Don’s been seeing women as empty, beautiful Mary Magdalenes since the first one touched his Dick Jr.
While all this is happening, the Draper kids are barricaded in Don’s swanky Manhattan pad with a crazy homeless woman. She’s broken into the place and manages to convince Sally and Bobby that she’s their long-lost grandmother (who just needs to replace the band on their father’s gold watch). Even though she’s black. She’s able to do this because, as Sally later notes, “We don’t know anything about our father.” This is a really weird storyline, but just plausible enough to make us fear for the little white Draper angels. Bobby absolutely gets the best throwaway line: “Are we Negroes?”
The point of having the children fall victim to a home invasion is twofold. First, it’s a sharp comeuppance for Don and Megan, whose parenting skills are lax at best. A thinner Fat Betty has her moment in the sun when she finally gets to correctly pin some trauma on Don. And I love me some smug Fat Betty.
And secondly, we get even more insight into Sally, who mirrors and understands Don better than he thinks she does. Her incredible poise and maturity are a bragging point for Megan, but as viewers we can see the sad roots. Just as Dick Whitman kept his chin up for far too long, Sally’s learned to bury her emotions and present a stoic face. She’s not a flighty little girl like her mother. She even laments how scared she became, and how gullible she was to the intruder’s story. She thinks her childhood is completely over. Don’s deep depression and her mother’s neglect have robbed her of hope. Don’t forget that Sally was compulsively masturbating at sleepovers just two seasons ago. Girl’s got deep issues, and as she gets older they become both more subtle, and more insidious.
So yeah. A fucked up episode. Very strange, very tense. So continues season 6’s slow descent into dark chaos. I miss the old days but I can’t tear my eyes away. The show is so off-putting these days but still brilliant. Mad Men used to be an ode to nostalgia, because life is long. Now it’s a requiem for nostalgia. Because death is near.