Monday, May 20, 2013

Mad Men Season 6, Episode 8, “The Crash”

Given how invested Don was in his affair with Sylvia, I suppose some emotional fallout was inevitable. And given my relative disinterest in Don's affair with Sylvia, I found this to be the most lackluster episode of the season thus far, despite all of the whacked out, druggy behavior from Don and others at SCDP. We’ve never seen Don flail about this much after the end of an affair. He’s like a teenage lover who can’t figure out how to get over his first heartbreak, and who thinks that his ex can somehow be talked back into their relationship, if only he could figure out the right combination of words. And that’s precisely what he spends nearly the entire episode attempting to do, as he descends into a speed-induced frenzy. Don has made his way in the world based on the power of his ability to convince people of what he wants them to think – that he’s Don Draper, that his ad campaigns are brilliant, that he’s a devoted husband – thus Don is extra-frustrated that Sylvia has stopped buying what he’s selling, especially considering the importance he places on this particular sale.

It is somewhat surprising just how much Sylvia’s rejection has crushed Don. Earlier in the season, I expected the negative repercussions to stem from any of the other three parties to which this affair pertains, rather than from Don’s heartbreak. And as the episode made abundantly clear, heartbreak is certainly what Don is suffering from. The idea is drilled into the episode with a leaden, heavy-handedness: not only does Don spend nearly the entire time in a manic state, trying to think of a way to win Sylvia back, but the idea is crammed into the margins as well. Frank Gleason’s daughter Wendy puts a stethoscope to Don’s chest and says “I think it’s broken.” (She’s referring to the stethoscope, but Don takes her to mean his heart, and replies: “You can hear that?”) Even the song Don overhears playing on Sylvia’s kitchen radio, "Dream a Little Dream," speaks to his heartbreak (he hears it as he creepily stands outside with his head pressed against the door): “I must think of a way into your heart./Oh there’s no reason why/my being shy/should keep us apart.”

The heavy-handedness of the episode is also evident in the flashbacks, which explicitly parallel Don’s lovesickness in the present with an illness he suffered as a teenager in the brothel. After Sylvia hangs up on him early in the episode, Don has a coughing fit, and the episode cuts to young Dick Whitman coughing in the brothel. Repeated flashbacks to this setting relate the story of Don’s formative sexual experience with Aimee the prostitute, connecting dots that don’t really need to be connected: Don is turned on by situations that allude to this first experience, including secretiveness, illicitness, and imbalanced power relations. Don wants a whore, a caretaker/mother, and a secret lover all at once, thus his dissatisfaction with both of his wives when neither could live up to these impossible standards. Most of the romances he has been invested in have contained some or all of these things, even his relationship with Megan last season.

Late in the episode, Don thinks he’s hit upon a drug-induced solution to winning back Sylvia, one he shares with Peggy and Ginsberg: “I’ve got this great message, and it has to do with what holds people together. What is that thing that draws them? It’s a history. And it may not even be with that person.” Don’s heartbreak has turned into pathetic, selfish delusion, where he thinks that his own personal history – his experiences in the brothel – will be what convinces Sylvia to get back together with him. His message really boils down to, “Don’t reject me for your reasons; love me for mine.” And what are his reasons to be loved? They are contained in the copy of an old Sterling Cooper soup ad, where a mother feeds her son soup next to the words: “Because you know what he needs.” In other words, drug-addled Don thinks the key to winning back Sylvia is to tell her that she’s the only one knows what he needs: “You’ll love taking care of my needs!” I never thought I would see an episode that had Don behaving more like a petulant child than Pete, but here we are.

Thankfully, the well-deserved comeuppance Don receives from Betty for his negligent parenting throughout the episode also parallels Don’s previous brothel experience. After Betty yells at him for inadvertently allowing a thief into his apartment (more on this below), the episode flashes back to the punitive resolution of his affair with Aimee the prostitute, where she's ejected from the brothel and he's beaten by his (hypocritical) step-mother. This memory seems to make him think twice about his course of action with Sylvia. Presented with an opportunity to talk to her in the elevator the next morning, he thinks the better of it, remains nearly silent during their ride together, and then doesn’t even wait for her to leave the elevator when they arrive on the ground floor. Just like in season 4, when Don embarked upon a long weekend after his divorce from Betty but reformed halfway through the season, perhaps Don's behavior here in the elevator indicates that he is finally ready to right the ship and leave Sylvia behind. I certainly hope so, as I’m eager for the show to find more interesting ways to develop its most fascinating character.

In other, more interesting developments, a lot of other characters flail about in this episode aside from Don, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, or both. For instance, the quack doctor’s “vitamins and stimulant” injection gives Stan the boost he needed to finally act on his long-simmering feelings for Peggy. He makes a move, and she gently rejects him. His response is to tell her about his cousin Robby, who was killed in action in the navy. He seems genuinely upset about it, but it’s also sad and pathetic, because he uses it to try to win some sympathy (or pity) sex from Peggy. However, the scene ended on a nice note. Stan: “You’ve got a great ass.” Peggy: “Thank you.”

More flailing: the episode opens with a terrifying scene of Ken driving around a bunch of hard-partying lunatics from Chevy. Later, Aaron Stanton reveals that he’s at least a double threat when Ken tap dances as he complains about Chevy's insanity. Doubtless many people found Don and Ken’s exchange hilarious, and I count myself among them. However, I also found it rather disturbing to see both of them so clearly out of control (as we saw so much throughout the hour, like with Stan racing Jim). But then again, perhaps that’s just another theme that can be read out of this episode: no one can control themselves, either because they’re on speed, because they’re heartbroken, or both, as with Don.

Don’s impassioned speeches would be funnier if they weren’t so sad, including the one he gives to Ken, where he’s adamant that he must be in the room so the timbre of his voice can have its effect, as well as his pep-talk to the writing staff, both of which (of course) are actually about Sylvia, rather than Chevy. His second speech: “I know you’re all feeling the darkness here today. But there’s no reason to give in. No matter what you’ve heard, this process will not take years. In my heart I know we cannot be defeated, because there is an answer that will open the door [Sylvia’s back door]. There is a way around this system. This is a test of our patience and commitment. One great idea can win someone over.”

Finally, there was also some marginal development between Peggy and Don in this episode. Peggy is growing rather tired of Don’s (empty) blustery swagger, and after the above speech, she replies in deadpan fashion, “That was very inspiring. Do you have any idea what that idea is?” Peggy is quickly losing any faith or respect she might still have for Don. In addition to her deflating question in here, also interesting to note were the changes in her reaction to Don when he calls her and Ginsberg into his office late in the episode to show them the soup advertisement. At first, she’s eager to hear the solution Don claims to have hit upon, and she even picks up pen and paper, ready to write down Don’s ideas. However, her eagerness quickly turns to shocked disappointment when Don himself starts to take notes from Ginsberg as he responds to Don’s ideas. Don has never before called her into his office with a “genius” concept when he hadn’t fully worked out the idea for himself, and in this scene, she realizes both the extent of Don’s creative bankruptcy, as well as his distraction – to her horror, she figures out that he hasn’t been working on Chevy all weekend. Last year, Don was able to mask from Peggy his creative absenteeism: she was simply pleased that he was giving her more and more responsibility at SCDP (Heinz beans, hiring Ginsberg as the new copywriter, etc.). Now, however, the curtain has been drawn back, and the powerful wizard has been revealed as nothing but an old man's smoke and mirrors. I strongly suspect this will throw her even further into Ted’s camp.

Other thoughts:

- Don spies Peggy consoling Ted in Ted’s office, but the drugs are already taking effect, so the significance doesn’t register for him as much as it might have otherwise.

- Once again, a car company turns out to be more trouble than it is worth – Chevy’s demand for new pitches is exhausting both Don and Ted. Don recognizes it in the first scene of the episode, and his experiences over the course of the weekend lead to his decision in the final scene of the episode, where he tells Ted he’s done until Chevy wants to get serious about an ad.

- There is some very nice editing at some points in this episode, like the transition in and out of flashback midway through. Don stops in the hallway on the way to his office and thinks of when Aimee the prostitute fed him soup in bed. Upon returning from the flashback, Don is in the same position in the hallway, and it seems only a few moments have passed, but it’s the next day, which Don realizes when he returns to the creative lounge and discovers Peggy and Jim have just returned from Gleason’s funeral (and have brought Wendy, Gleason’s I Ching-reading daughter with them). Don lost an entire evening the space of a 45 second flashback. Then, upon returning to his office, Wendy is inside waiting for him, and it is sunset. He’s lost the rest of the day in the space of time it took him to return to his office.

- Ugh. Grandma Ida. Like the loopy behavior of the SCDP team, this scene was also disturbing, but for different reasons, namely the buzzing threat “Grandma Ida” represented to Sally and the kids. This plot seemed to function solely to drive home the point Sally makes to Don near the episode’s end: Sally had no means of testing Ida’s authenticity because she knows next to nothing about her own father. Sad, but this is nothing new.

- Bobby’s reaction to grandma Ida: he tells her where Don’s watches are; shrugs off the encounter and asks Sally if they can watch television, and then asks Sally if they’re “negroes.” Bobby’s kind of an idiot.

- No Joan this week. Damn.

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