Welcome back to another week in the wonderful world of Mad Men. One of the strangest episodes on record, “The Crash” was all about altered states, false identities, and hidden talents (we see you tap dancing, Ken Cosgrove!). Load up a “vitamin shot” and join us, won’t you?
This picture is worth a thousand words about how nuts this episode was.
A piece that cannot be replaced
RIP Frank Gleason. With all of Pete and Don’s collective ennui (in addition to the dangerous behavior Kenny was subjected to in the opening of this episode), my Mad Men death-dar was completely distracted from Weiner’s most obvious next victim. In memorializing his friend and colleague, Ted Chaough says of Gleason, “He made our company whole… he’s a piece that cannot be replaced.” However, being a new business struggling to hang on to their accounts, SCDPCGC (no new name yet?) will have to do just that. The ease and immediate comfort of replacement was one of the most prominent themes in last night’s episode (with the #1 theme being WTF?!?!?!).
In a Chevy-induced panic, most of the gang is subbing in a “complex vitamin super dose” for energy, creativity, and health. Peggy, while standing in as Stan’s office mom/sister/nurse/object of affection, busted Beardy for replacing his emotional response to the death of his 20-year-old cousin Robbie with drugs and sex. Her caregiving role did not end there, as we see her tend to a distraught Ted and check in on an absent and bananas Don. While all women in the SCDPCGC office end up tending to one man or another, Peggy is left taking care of three. There’s a value in not letting yourself become a complete mess at work, but one is left wondering if the tables were turned and Peggy was the one needing help whether her coworkers would view her as any less capable in or deserving of her position of authority.
Speaking of positions of authority, there’s big sister/substitute mother Sally. Sally! It’s been too long! As much as I was hoping for an episode centered on her, wearing miniskirts while questioning an intruder are not exactly the sort of madcap adventure I was hoping to see our favorite 14-year-old in. Given the parenting failures of Betty and Don (emphasis on the latter this week), it should be no surprise that the adults lean on Sally to take care of her two younger brothers. However, we quickly see that she is no replacement for a full-fledged adult, as she unsuccessfully attempts to handle Ida the Intruder (the discovery of whom interrupted her bedtime reading, Rosemary’s Baby, another story of significant replacements). Most of “Grandma” Ida’s success in deluding Sally has to do with her own self-admitted lack of knowledge of her dad (welcome to the club, Sally Whitman). Ida could replace Sally’s void of Don-formation with just about anything without being tripped up in a lie. After all, as Don admits to Sally, he left the back door open in more ways than one. I guess it helps if the apartment you’re ransacking is owned by someone with a replacement identity and past.
And man, what a past! Dick Whitman flashbacks are the bummerest, right? We see the young guy come down with something and be sent to sleep in the cellar for fear of infecting the working ladies of the whorehouse. As he is hacking up a lung in the hallway, the kindly blonde invites him into her room. Ms. Swensen serves Dick soup, diagnoses him with a cold, and lets him rest up in her bed, like a proper substitute mom would. All is looking rosy, until she recognizes that he’s recovered enough to make quasi-flirty comments about her name and makeup—one thing leads to another and Dick is devirginized by his pseudo-mom. When Aimeé is thrown out of the whorehouse, she reveals that she slept with young Whitman, leading him to be beaten by his aunt with a wooden spoon. Makes a recapper wonder where Don’s effed ideas about women come from (not to mention his thoughts on blondes and brunettes).
Oh, Don. We later see him tailspin into a creativity and Sylvia desperation-fest. While Don’s repurposing of a previous soup ad obviously has more to do with his mommy issues than Chevy, his pitch contained some truths amongst all the out-there ramblings. History: that thing that holds people together. It’s a concept that might not sell a car but definitely sheds light on the maddest man in town. Don’s problems with holding his life together are twofold. He’s living a fake identity, DIDN’T YOU KNOW, and while the show no longer emphasizes his ongoing struggles to hide his past, it’s pretty hard to form genuine connections when your whole life is a calculation. False identities aside, Dick Whitman seemed destined to a life of maladjustment anyway. Without a history connecting him positively to others, Don is left groping for whatever replacement is closest. However, without Sylvia and increasingly without work motivation, what can Don turn to for distraction? Drugs and drinking seem the most likely answer, lending credence to the theory that Don’s heart attack is looming closer with each roll of the credits.
Furthermore, as much as Don needs to feel whole, he appears to have an equal desire to be needed. Ted’s words about Gleason are something you can imagine Don wanting, but not expecting, to be said about him when he does go. However, his dispensability is increasing by the second, and telling others that you’ll only supervise future campaigns rather than write them isn’t showing yourself as a piece that cannot be replaced. SCDPCGC is swimming in almost double the number of supervisors, Don, so what makes you think you’re so special?
Cutler is kind of a creep, right? When we saw him looking in on Stan and Wendy going at it, it seemed like typical SCDPCGC behavior. However, we later learn that Wendy isn’t just any random girl but is Frank Gleason’s daughter! Cutler probably watched her grow up!
I can’t even with this episode. What do we make of Betty going back to blonde in the same episode as Dick Whitman’s sexual awakening? And who knew that the Chevy clients were such a risk-taking group of yahoos? What does the future hold for Stan and Peggy (or Ted and Peggy? or Don and Peggy?)? Also, where was Joan during this bonkers series of events???
I call this look “Bag of Walnuts.”
I think I’m goin’ out of my head.
Though Mad Men has never shied away from depictions of alcohol or drugs, I can’t remember another episode that left me feeling this hungover. From that first scene of Ken driving the wild & crazy Chevy execs off the road to Don’s collapse and speed-fueled revelations at its close, “The Crash” was a disorienting hour full of disoriented people.
The team at SCDPCGC (I’m with Annalee—pick a name already!) is exhausted trying to please Chevy, so Jim Cutler gets his doctor to “fix everyone up” with a shot of what appears to be neo bath salts in the hopes of a second wind. Once Don gets a hit, things start to get weird. DD’s already been on edge at work and at home, and we learn that he’s been creeping outside Sylvia’s back door hoping to get his foot in and convince her to take him back (more on that in a minute). Now that his anxiety is heightened by whatever was in that syringe, Don runs around like a mad man (ha) sweating profusely and talking to anyone who will listen about “an answer that will open the door.” In his fervent brainstorming, he flashes back again and again to a time when he was sick at The Worst Little Whorehouse in Pennsylvania, losing his virginity to his caregiver and being beaten for it (Don’s issues with women: check).
It wasn’t just the flashbacks and the drugged-out weekend office scenes that made “The Crash” so confusing. We as viewers were yanked from Detroit to New York to Pennsylvania, in and out of decades, without warning or explanation. The camera moved in close on gestures and objects, removing all context. In several scenes—Don listening outside of Sylvia’s apartment, Jim standing in the hall while Stan has sex with Wendy—we only glimpsed the action through a crack in the door. When Don is struggling to come up with a pitch we don’t know what he’s talking about or where his ideas are coming from. And if that wasn’t enough to throw us off, weird-ass shit was going on everywhere! A tour around the office delivers a tap-dancing Kenny Cosgrove, complete with a cane and a shiner, and Don weeping openly at his desk. Then Stan “William Tell” Rizzo gets an exacto knife thrown into his arm and tries to make out with Peggy (!!!) while she bandages the wound. Peggy references the Cheshire Cat while Jim Cutler embodies him, sidling up with a smile and those drugs everyone’s talking about. Meanwhile, on Park Avenue, a strange woman lets herself into Don and Megan’s apartment and cooks eggs for Sally as “Grandma Ida” before robbing the place. Betty is a blonde once more, Don collapses, and a young bohemian named Wendy Gleason tells fortunes. And that isn’t even counting the flashbacks! Not even Roger on LSD could handle all that weirdness.
IT’S HIS JOB.
But what does it all mean? This being Mad Men, we won’t get any easy answers. Yes, Dick Whitman was raised in a whorehouse and has grown up to be Don Draper, a slut-shaming hypocrite who uses sex to get what he wants and walks away in disgust when those around him do the same. After all these flashbacks, we’ve certainly gotten that memo. And clearly, the big pitch he’s working on is for Sylvia, not Chevy—it’s her door he wants to get a foot in, her imagination he’s desperate to capture with the timbre of his voice. But why Sylvia? Don is bored with Megan now that she doesn’t need him, but Sylvia doesn’t seem to need him either. Does she remind of him Aimeé, the kind-hearted taker of his virginity? And what will he do now? Because if that painfully awkward real-time elevator scene is any indicator, Sylvia isn’t letting any part of Don through her door, foot or otherwise.
Of course, no discussion of disorientation and weirdness in “The Crash” would be complete without GRANDMA IDA. The scenes where she conned Sally were mesmerizing, in large part because we, along with Sally, started to wonder if she might be telling the truth. We may know more about Dick Whitman/Don Draper than Sally does, but he’s spun such a complicated web of lies that maybe he really does have a black grandmother who makes delicious chicken and we’re only seeing her now. Stranger things have happened in this universe—and in last night’s episode.
A whorehouse flashback here and there is one thing, but after the last few episodes I’m getting tired of young Dick Whitman. There’s enough going on in 1968—we don’t need to go back in time! The only upside has been learning that the actor who plays Dick has also played younger versions of Michael Bluth and the Ice Truck Killer.
What do we make of Grandma Ida’s race? I took it as a plot device meant to underscore Don’s nonexistent family history (if his own daughter could believe he was raised by a black grandmother she doesn’t know him, and neither do we), but as Paul Ford points out, just about every time we encounter a person of color on Mad Men they’re up to no good. Wouldn’t a white Grandma Ida have been less problematic but just as creepy?
Will whatever’s in that syringe help me make sense of this episode? Okay then, I’ll take it.
Cultural references: Rosemary’s Baby, Laugh In
Inappropriate office behavior: Paging Dr. Cutler!
Andi’s on the road this week but she’ll be back in time to see what happens during Ken’s next trip to Detroit. Until then, what did you think of “The Crash”?