A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” coming up just as soon as I experience 24-to-72 hours of uninterrupted creative focus, energy and confidence…
“Where’d you learn that?” -Don
“My mother. No! My first girlfriend!” -Ken
Okay, I’ve got it. I want you to listen closely, because this is important. There’s a man, and he was born and raised in a whorehouse, and he has complicated feelings about women and mothers and whores and wives and freedom and his own identity, and he’s aloof and cold and hard but also empty and vulnerable and childlike, and he waits for the next idea to come and fill him up so that he can look in command – seem in command – for a few moments, so that nobody knows how scared and lost he truly is, right? And this man keeps looking for something to make him happy, and nothing ever does for long, because as the wisest woman he ever slept with once told him, he only likes the beginning of things, and beginnings only last for so long, and so he married another woman and was happy for a little while until he wasn’t and then couldn’t get out of it and decided to have another impulse marriage with his ad agency and his nearest rival, and that made him happy for all of five minutes until he realized he actually had to work with these people, and some of them were better than he is at this thing that doesn’t even satisfy him, anyway. And the closest thing he has to a friend has cast him aside for someone else, and besides she’s busy bandaging up X-acto knife wounds and fending off kisses but accepting compliments about her behind and is also the only one who can see through the garbage he’s spewing out this weekend because of the shot he got in his own impressive rear end, and why why why why won’t Sylvia talk to him, and who is this black woman in his apartment claiming to be his mother scaring his kids, and if they knew anything about him, would this have happened in the first place, and why did it take him so long to love them, anyway? And why are there Kia ads with that one junior copywriter from Cutler Gleason & Chaough along with Joan pitching Johnnie Walker and the seven different modes of 21st century transportation that Jon Hamm is selling you at once?
And how can I explain all of this to you properly if the available technology doesn’t allow me to come into each and every one of your homes or offices to do it while I tap dance? Failing that, just picture this entire review being read aloud by our man Ken Cosgrove:
Look, I can attempt to write this entire review as if I just got an injection from Jim Cutler’s doctor’s magic elixir, I can try to analyze the many maternal themes of the episode, or I can simply discuss whether the trippy style of “The Crash” worked. And while all the speed-enhanced shenanigans at the office, the large and loud performances and the elliptical editing made for an interesting episode of “Mad Men,” I don’t know that it was an especially good one.
One of my favorite episodes of last season was “Far Away Places,” which used Roger’s LSD trip as the inspiration for a time-twisting structure that deliberately blurred the passage and sequence of time. It tackled a familiar late ’60s trope in a way that felt honest, natural and not especially gimmicky. The structure and style of the episode called attention to itself, but it also very clearly spoke to what the episode was trying to say about the state of Don, Roger and Peggy’s lives at that moment in time, and how their pasts were knotted up with their presents. It was an episode where nearly every scene felt like it could be part of an acid trip, and yet most could also function as a straightforward “Mad Men” scene.
“The Crash,” meanwhile, was so loopy that I began wondering if every single character – and possibly those of us in the audience – had been given an injection by Dr. Hecht. Everything was off: characters speaking louder and faster than normal, multiple footraces through the office, Ken tap-dancing while offering his freestyle poem entitled “It’s My Job,” Don losing time(*), Sally waking up to discover a rumpled black woman going through her father’s things and claiming to be her grandmother, Betty being thin and blonde again without comment, and the usual Don Draper brainstorming method leading to absolute gibberish that ultimately wasn’t even about the product, but about Sylvia Rosen.
(*) The show has played with Don losing time in the past, notably during his drunken abyss in season 4, which simultaneously made it feel like a thing that happens when Don is under the influence and yet not different enough to speak to the effects of the wonder drug.
Now, much of this was memorable, and a lot of it was funny – even before Ken started tapping and rapping, we got Don shouting about the timbre of his voice and being uncertain about whether he would be “forceful or submissive” (clearly still having last week’s games with Sylvia on his mind) – but a lot of it played like parody: This is “Mad Men.” Now this is “Mad Men” on drugs. Any questions? I appreciated the way Matt Weiner and co-writer Jason Grote used the drugs to hang a lamp on the lunacy of Don’s creative process – it’s great if it leads to “It’s a time machine,” less so if he’s fixating on an oatmeal ad that reminds him of the hooker who deflowered him, and that he mistakenly believes is the secret to winning Sylvia back – but it’s the sort of game that’s very hard for a show this serious of purpose (even if it often has room for humor) to pull off without undercutting itself for the whole hour. When I watched “Far Away Places,” I was absorbed in all three stories, even as I was impressed (and, at times, amused) by the technique; as I watched “The Crash,” I was extremely conscious that I was watching A Very Special (or Weird) “Mad Men,” all the way up through Don spelling out the moral of the episode with his closing line to Cutler and Chaough.
And the thing is, I can see where Weiner, Grote and company were going with this. “The Crash” is a series of stories about what happens when parents neglect their children or are altogether absent, and the damage done as a result. Don never met his mother, and has had to rely on a series of ill-suited substitutes – what’s one more impostor, even if she’s really just looking to steal his jewelry? – to become the man that he is, and the entire drug fiasco at the agency comes about because one parental figure (Ted) is absent while another (Cutler) shows poor judgment in caring for his charges, in much the same way Don’s kids are jeopardized because he and Megan aren’t around. (Even Peggy, who can function as something of a maternal figure for all the manchildren she has to work with, only does so much to prevent the wreckage going on around her, and doesn’t stop Frank Gleason’s daughter from having sex with Stan while coping with her father’s death.)
In that context, and with a main character like Don – whose damaged psyche is defined by the circumstances of his birth and the emotional abuse that followed it – I can appreciate the idea of an episode where most of the characters are reduced to the state of hyperactive children, and our hero is locked up in flashbacks to the overlap between maternal affection and sex that he’s always struggled with. (Aimee the hooker serves as a stand-in for the mother Dick Whitman never knew, then services him in a way he assumes his mother did for so many other sad and lonely men.)
My problem is that the execution was too self-conscious, and ultimately so strange that it distracted from anything the episode had to say about Don, mothers, fathers, Chevy or the way, as Don puts it in one of the more coherent parts of his pitch to Peggy and Ginsberg, history holds us all together. This was a memorably weird episode of “Mad Men,” but one where I imagine I’m only going to remember the weirdness – the style and not the substance. As much fun as it is to watch Ken tap dance, or Ginsberg almost maim Stan, or Bobby try to make sense of Grandma Ida, those should be the garnishes on a “Mad Men” episode; they shouldn’t leave a bigger impression than the main course.
It also doesn’t help that so much of the episode leaned on another Adventure of Young Dick Whitman, which has never been an area where the show has excelled. The scenes at the whorehouse feel more leaden with meaning than the show usually does, and confused by the fact that they’ve used the same actor to play young Dick each time – even though the flashbacks this season seemingly take place not long after Archie died, as seen in an episode four years ago.
The advantage of “Mad Men” moving deeper into the more celebrated half of the 1960s is that Weiner and friends have a bigger canvas to work on, and a wider and brighter array of colors on the palette. The disadvantages include the greater familiarity of the era (it’s harder to tell stories that don’t feel cliché) and the way that those flashy colors call attention to themselves. For the most part, the show has done a really impressive job of transitioning from the more muted era of Sterling Cooper to this period where Joan’s hanging out at The Electric Circus and Don’s bending over to get an injection from a fictionalized version of The Beatles’ Doctor Robert. Even as the music and fashions become louder and more familiar, “Mad Men” still manages to feel like “Mad Men.” But it’s harder to pull off than it was in 1962, and “The Crash” was an illustration of what can happen when the the show has a big idea and doesn’t execute it perfectly.
Two episodes in, the impulse marriage between SCDP and CGC isn’t working out the way either Don or Ted imagined it at that Detroit bar. As the episode closed with Don announcing that he would no longer actively work on the Chevy campaign, I imagine the expression I had on my face wasn’t too different from what I was seeing on Jim and Ted’s: one that asked, plainly, What in the world just happened?
Sometimes with a TV drama – this one included – that can be a marvelous feeling to have at the close of the hour. Sometimes, though, it’s just a signal that the episode didn’t land the way it was meant to.
Some other thoughts:
* The parent/child idea at the heart of all the Chevy pitches could have turned into something if most of the creative team wasn’t high. But Ken’s earlier presentation of Chevy’s timetable begins to hint at the problems the agency will have in trying to sell the car that will become the Vega.
* Stan’s dead sailor cousin previously attended Don’s and Megan’s party in last season’s premiere, and was on the receiving end of an anti-war rant by Abe that eventually led to a “Johnny Got His Gun” reference, to which the cousin replied, “I thought there were going to be girls here.” His death prompts the second time this season where one of Peggy’s co-workers has kissed her in the office, even though her relationship with Stan had evolved into, as she notes, more of a sibling one than the sexual tension they briefly had after her hotel striptease in season 4. That scene was one of the episode’s simplest – and, not coincidentally, strongest. Stan is under the influence, but Peggy’s only mildly tipsy, if that, so it’s just a genuine conversation between two characters with a shared history.
* RIP, Frank Gleason. Though he appeared in twice as many episodes as Stan’s cousin, he only made a slightly larger impression. The scene where Peggy and Mathis argued over whether Gleason was a nice guy or a jerk would have been more interesting if we had more than a couple of scenes with the guy to draw our own conclusions from.
* I don’t know if we’ll ever see Sylvia after tonight’s episode, but Linda Cardellini played that final elevator scene with enough ambiguity that it could have either been relief that Don didn’t try to plead his case or intrigue because he played it so cool. Either way, it was a much more successful approach than if he’d actually made it to her apartment the night before.
* Still no new name for the agency, as the doctor asks Don about the alphabet soup problem of simply merging the two sets of names.
* I didn’t catch any date references, but “Mad Men” episodes tend to take place about a month after the previous one. That would put this episode at roughly three months since we last saw Betty (in “The Flood”), during which time she’s gone back to her familiar blonde hair and dropped most of the recent weight gain. She’s not back to her “Souvenir” weight, but clearly she’s been making a more concerted effort (perhaps with some shots of her own from a doctor?) to shed the pounds now that Henry’s campaign will put her back in the spotlight. I imagine January Jones is relieved to be rid of most of the prosthetics, but I feel for the writer of the @FatBettyFrancis feed.
* Christina Hendricks gets the week off – as she would have to, for Joan wouldn’t allow this level of nonsense – while Vincent Kartheiser gets his annual appearance where he’s on screen for less than a minute.
* Poems quoted during the early brainstorming session in the creative lounge: Poe’s “Annabel Lee” (“I was a child and she was a child”) and Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up” (“child is father of the man”).
* Popular ’60s fiction on display: Sally reading “Rosemary’s Baby.”
* Not only did the episode feature Trevor Enihorn in that KIA ad from the Super Bowl, but the hour was sponsored by Lincoln; no Chevy ads that I noticed. (Matt Weiner often uses brands the show has no product integration deal with, like Jaguar last year.)
* Among the songs in the episode: “Going Out of My Head” by Sergio Mendes as Don leans against the service entrance to the Rosen apartment, “Dream a Little Dream” on the radio in the whorehouse right before Aimee deflowers Dick, and The Mamas & The Papas’ “Words of Love” over the closing credits.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org