Mad Men: Season Six, Episode 7
We've spoken before about the way that television shows tend to get broader as they age, underlining their themes more explicitly and using symbols more likely to feel overly obvious. This is certainly true of Mad Men, but the show makes this work by making that broadening part of its larger thematic considerations. This has always been a show about a man who thinks of himself as pure existentialist, who believes he is capable of completely reinventing himself and leaving his past behind. This has always been a story about the way that man did just that, how he transformed himself into the ideal for his time, and then how he slowly realized that while he may be through with the past, the past ain't through with him. Don Draper has spent his entire life fleeing from his childhood, from his past mistakes, from his entire life as Dick Whitman. But what the show has always known, and what this season is most explicitly about, is that Don Draper is still Dick Whitman, and try as he might, he always will be. He can't solve problems by just closing the door on them, and he can't fill the hole at his core by pretending it doesn't exist or moving, shark-like through his life and hoping his demons never catch up.
If you found "The Crash" to be needlessly pretentious, I can totally see that perspective, but for me, the episode is saved by its meaningful core. Over in my reviews of Community I have spoken often about the way that show's high concept episodes live and die based on whether there is an actual, relatable story underneath about the characters we know and love and the journey they are on. And "The Crash" certainly has that core. Its an episode that, both explicitly and implicitly, is about loss, and the way that various characters try to deal with their losses by not dealing with them at all. Similarly, the episode around the characters throws up a million distractions to obfuscate the simple truth at its core. There's the woman who breaks into the Draper's apartment, in one of the most terrifying sequences I've seen on television recently, there's Gleason's daughter haunting the office like a ghost made flesh, and there are various flashback sequences revealing more of Dick Whitman's childhood in a whorehouse and trying to add a whole lot of significance to a mole he drew (or presumably had drawn) on a woman in a soup ad from 1959. Each of these things resonates with the episode's major theme, of course. The woman who breaks in is a thief, and she leaves loss in her wake. The ghost-like girl is Gleason's daughter, a very real reminder of the loss that the office (and most explicitly, Ted) has just suffered. And the flashbacks are about both the loss of Dick's virginity and the loss of a woman who seemed to actually care about him in a way his mother never did. All of these are echoes on the central theme, but they're just the noise obstructing the episode's central signal: the moment when Peggy rebuffs Stan's advances, telling him he can't deal with the loss of his cousin in Vietnam through drugs and sex. Stan smiles sadly and weakly offers that perhaps he's different from her. Maybe he can deal by not dealing. But both he and Peggy know he can't, that this is all a way to avoid confronting some very real emotions he wasn't prepared for.
Because this is exactly what is going on with Don. We see the cigarette stubs lining the hallway outside the Rosen's apartment. We see Megan, appearing over the shoulder where Don's devil might sit, pulling him back into the darkness of a life he doesn't want to lead. And we see Don diving into work, though it isn't what it first appears. Don is hiding from loss, but not by throwing himself into his job. Instead, he is in full on denial, throwing himself into getting Sylvia back so he can avoid dealing with his feelings over how much he has lost. For the second time this season, the flashbacks to Don's childhood don't work for me as well as the show seems to think they do. They tend to turn subtext into text in a way this show does at its worst, especially tonight. Previously, the show has said, "Don't like how Don treats women? See, he was raised in a whorehouse!" providing the sort of armchair psychology usually left to bad serial killer movies. Tonight, this is made even more obvious. Don remembers his time in a whorehouse, gets frustrated about loss and about Chevy, and decides to just stop chasing them. Why? Because, "I'm sorry, Ted. But every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse." Get it? Don was raised in one of those, and Joan prostituted herself for Jaguar. Remember those things? THEY WERE THEMATICALLY IMPORTANT. Even in an episode as stellar as "The Crash," these moments almost make me roll my eyes, even when they work (and that scene ends with Don receding from a stationary camera, just like when he walked away from Megan on the sound stage in last season's finale, which worked like gangbusters for me).
Don spends the entire episode, which takes place over a weekend, awake and in search of that one big idea that he thinks will save him from having to deal with his loss. He comes up with a pitch that isn't so much a pitch as a drug-addled philosophy about the way we slot people into roles in our life that need filling. Its true of life, and also of advertising, but it isn't the sort of insight that will make people buy a car, and its certainly not what Sylvia would need to hear to fall back in Don's arms. The people of SCDP/CGC (I'm glad someone made a joke, because I was just thinking we still didn't know what the new agency was called) are all hiding from loss in some way or another. Except, of course, for Ted, who exits this episode early on because he is doing what everyone else should be--taking the time to process his loss.
The episode opens with Ken Cosgrove getting in a car accident, in one of those brief, frenetic bouts of action that this show pulls off occasionally, but that isn't the crash the title refers to (or, if it is, its strange how small a role it plays in what follows, mostly serving to show us how fucked up people at car companies apparently are in Mad Men's 1960s). No, the crash is that moment we talked about a few weeks back, when our Tarzan runs out of jungle and is forced to reckon with everything he has spent his life running away from. Don's still running, but sooner or later, he'll realize that he can never truly escape.
-The episode also seems, in a lot of ways, to be a commentary on the Mad Men writers room, where everyone is stuck together, throwing themselves against a wall and trying to top past successes. I imagine the stress level is high there, but I hope no one is getting weird injections in the process.
-"Are you afraid of him?" "No. I'm afraid of you!"
-"The timbre of my voice is as important as the content." Oh, so Don knows that too, huh?
-"That was very inspiring. Do you have any idea what the idea is?" Peggy Olson, cutting through Don's bullshit in three seconds flat.
-"Does someone love me?" "What?" "That's what your question was." "Why would you say that?" "That's everyone's question."
-"You want to get someone in here who can draw?" "No, I don't care about art."
-"I asked her everything I know and she had an answer for everything. Then I realized, I don't know anything about you."
-Next week on Mad Men: Pete and Joan get married and live a long, happy life. Because he walked her out that one time.
Tags: Mad Men