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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review: Mad Men, The Crash

Season 6, Episode 8
Grade: B+
Verdict: In what is the by far the most perplexing episode of the series, Mad Men takes an unusual detour into sex, drugs and obsession in a bizarrely hallucinatory fashion. While it's ability to break with typical plot conventions is admirable, a bit too much time is spent on the Dick Whitman in a whorehouse segments that can continue to stop the show in its tracks. Then again, Ken Cosgrove tap dances. That's worthy of a passing grade in of itself.

Going "Lynchian". It happens every so often with a television series, where the narrative is interrupted by somewhat absurd dreamscapes. Most of these visuals are inspired by actual dream sequences to separate the strange approach from the more "mundane" goings-on. The most pertinent example I can think of is the amazing "Restless" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, still my favorite hour of that series. Every few years a fairly adventurous show-runner will adopt the aesthetic of a show like Twin Peaks and make something fairly wonderful, if somewhat bewildering. What is admirable about "The Crash" is that it not only does it "go there" but it also does it in a way that works into the narrative of the show without the safety of the dream sequence. Every season of Mad Men has an episode that plays with its conventions, this just happens to go a little bit further.

"The Crash" is nothing if not open to multiple interpretations. I'm sure to some viewers it came across as pretentious slop, and to others they can find connections that I wouldn't even hazard a guess at. The difference between "The Crash" and your by numbers art-house fare is that it has storytelling momentum. Strip away all of the extra pieces, Don's blabbering dialogue, Ken's dance-number, Cutler's almost ethereal presence and the episode still works because it continues to center around Don and the inner turmoil that is making up his life. Don is turning his affair into obsession, and while a few other players play a role (most notably Stan and Peggy), this episode centers on Don. Even Peggy's major plot beat in the episode, her rejection of Stan, is centered on her repudiation of Don. What occurs with the kids, is because Don made a mistake (even if that mistake is leaving the children in Megan's care). Don is the core, everyone else seems to revolve around him, whether its realized or not.

The crux that causes the pieces to fall into place is when Jim Cutler has Don, Ken, Stan, and Roger be attended to by his doctor who happens to inject them all with a potent mixture of B12 vitamins and amphetamines. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything funnier on the program than the scenes of Cutler and Stan racing each other through the office after, on the other hand, Don's reaction is a case of someone having a trip at the worst possible time. This trip is what ends up setting two important piece into place, that is, Don can't come home because he's "inspired" to work through the night, which leaves Megan with a choice with what to do with the children. At the same time, Don's drug experience gives him the "confidence" he needs to develop his pitch to get Sylvia back. It's strange, that such a lecherous guy like Don would feel so dependent upon a woman who has scorned him. But perhaps that's the key, she scorned him and not the other way around. Don isn't used to losing, and a romantic loss hits him harder than anything else. At the episode's beginning, watching him make his case over the phone to an angered Sylvia is one of his more painful moments. Far worse than any fight that occurred between he and Betty (or Megan), it's here that we see Don at his most emotionally vulnerable. This is a Don we're not used to, this is Don less as Superman and more as Lex Luthor, somewhat pitiable and full of envy. Don quickly becomes the male version of the woman that Pete slept with that ended his marriage to Trudy, though he's quick to snap out of it by episode's end.

Needless to say, Don never gets to deliver said pitch, as when he gets home, he finds Betty and Henry there along with a police officer who explains just what happened during Don's "mini Lost Weekend". It's a strange scene, when "Grandma Ida" arrives at Don and Megan's apartment while the kids are there on their own. At first her interaction with Sally (and then Bobby) seems like a strange hallucination in of itself. This never before seen woman rummaging through the Draper kitchen, claiming to be the woman who raised Don, and offering to make Sally some eggs just seems like someone who couldn't be real. In truth, she's a con-woman who got in the back door because it was left open by Don and never checked by Megan. It's a fascinating scene because it's so truthful. Con-artists and thieves can be pretty conniving people, and the fact that Ida was able to get Don's name and pull together a convincing enough story to keep Sally at bay (for a very short while) shows just that.  Betty's dig at Megan being on the "casting couch" and that Henry is "running for office" was hilarious. Betty is quickly becoming an old mother hen before her time.

The biggest issue for me with this episode is its continued focus on the adventures of Dick Whitman, boy amongst prostitutes. I didn't find it terribly successful the first time they tried to draw the line between Don's adolescent sexual experience and the man he's become, and it's even worse the second time. While it does serve an interesting narrative function in that it plays on his mind enough to be a focal point in the "ad campaign he's developing", (if we can even call it that) it still makes the flashbacks not only dramatically inert but also incredibly on the nose. We get it, Don had a tremendously difficult childhood, I wish the writers would allow him to grow past it at some point. It feels like a weak crutch that they continue to focus on in order to avoid any further nuance. This is strange, as Mad Men may be the most nuanced show on television in terms of character development. I hope that Don's closing lines to Ted, after Ted recognizes what little work went on while he was away at Frank Gleeson's funeral, "Every time we get a car this place turns into a whorehouse" (pointing right at Joan and Stan's actions) closes the book on this particular thread. I kind of doubt it. We had what seemed like an entire season's reprieve from Dick Whitman, but lately the show's weakest conceptual element just won't go away.

Basically, if you strip away the extra elements, including Frank Gleeson's I-Ching spouting daughter who wanders around like The Log Lady from Twin Peaks, you have a fairly straightforward piece about how we deal with our painful past. Don hides behind his pain through his need for a mother figure of a sort, Stan through hedonistic activity, Peggy through emotional connection to the one man she believes in. It's the theme that runs brightest through the "The Crash", and its likely going to be the episode I revisit the most. I just wish I knew if Ken's tap-dance routine really happened.

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