Reading Too Much Into ‘Mad Men’: 7 Fascinating Theories On This Week’s Episode, ‘Crash’

A lot of people left “Crash,” the most recent episode of Mad Men, scratching their heads, wondering what the hell that episode was all about. But like many of Mad Men’s best episodes — and in retrospect, this was one of the series’ best — it takes a while to unpack and process, and nothing is better to help elucidate the subtext than to read other people’s thoughts.

Some weeks, understanding Mad Men takes a lot of effort, but it can be fun meshing others’ ideas with your own, to help get you from “WTF Weiner?” to “Oh, I see what you did there! Niiiiiiiiice.” I do read too much into Mad Men, but unlike last week’s Room 503 piece, most of the theories below come from other sources, and they’re not nearly as oblique. However, I’ll save you the trouble of scouring through the Internet, and collect the best theories from around the web on this week’s episode.

1. “Half of this work is gibberish. Chevy is spelled wrong,” Ted Chaogh said at the end of the episode, and my take on that was that it was just as much a comment about the work that Don Draper and his team turned in as it was the episode itself. Matthew Weiner, I thought, was being self-reflective, even a little cute with a knowing wink at the audience, as if to say: “I was totally f***king with you.” It was a bizarro episode, where Weiner’s subtext was all brought to the surface, the way that we will share the thoughts we keep hidden when we are drunk or otherwise intoxicated. The subtext became text. Wendy, the hippie psychic, was trying to tell us that: “I wanna hear your heart,” she said to Don. “I think it’s broken.” “You can hear that?,” Don asked. “I can’t hear anything. I think it’s broken.” We didn’t have to dig in to much of the episode. Don was telling us: “My heart is broken.” Weiner was being literal, and using amphetamines as an excuse to do so.

And yes, Weiner was screwing with us, but it’s when he f**ks with us that we often get the most memorable scenes, as in the time that a lawn mower ran over a SDCP employee.

2. My colleague over on Pajiba, Sarah Carlson, had a really interesting take on the episode, suggesting that it was meant to draw comparisons to Vietnam, even picking up on use of Army green and its variants in several characters’ outfits. She brightly suggested that Sterling Cooper and its “soldiers” were engaged in a futile and “endless” battle to satisfy Chevy, a battle that could never be won. She writes:

An end barely is in sight for the employees of the newly merged, still-unnamed agency as they work around Chevy’s schedule, a three-year calendar of monthly deadlines sure to suck each of them dry. No matter how they try to distract themselves and ease their pain, the characters are stuck in a battle beyond their control. Between working weekends in a nice Manhattan office and trudging through the jungles of Vietnam, I think all viewers would choose the place of people like Stan over that of his 20-year-old cousin, who was killed in action during the war. But the parallel is important for representing the greater chaos of the ’60s and the feeling of helplessness pervading society. The war can’t be won; Chevy can’t be placated. Even stone sober, it is hard for someone to tell which way is up. Now, too many tragedies later, the dream of resilience is starting to crumble.

3. Slate digs even deeper into the Vietnam comparison, and finds a spot-on reference to The Deer Hunter.

Finally, at the center of this maelstrom is Stan, who spends the episode trying to forget about his cousin, whom he reveals was killed in action. This perhaps explains why he spends the episode (just as he has much of the season) dressed in a green, two-pocketed shirt, not unlike those worn by soldiers like his cousin. (Ken, too, wears an unusual, camo-colored tie.) At one point in his deranged sadness he even plays a game of William-Tell-meets-Russian-roulette, which for me couldn’t help but bring to mind another image of Vietnam trauma, perhaps the most iconic in our culture:

To add to that, Don’s little speech, which begins “In my heart I know we cannot be defeated, because there is an answer that will open up the door” certainly does sound like something a commander would deliver to his troops before they head into battle.

4. The amazing Margaret Lyons over on Vulture was the first to call out the Muhammed Ali reference in the scene described above in which the copywriters threw X-acto knives at Stan Rizzo. “He’s gonna look like St. Sebastian,” Ed Gifford remarked. What is St. Sebastian? He’s a martyr and a Saint, and in 1968 (a few months before the episode takes place), Muhammed Ali posed on the cover of Esquire Magazine as St. Sebastian.

Lyons, once again, tied it back into Vietnam, writing:

The magazine story isn’t about boxing so much as it is about Muhammad Ali being arrested for draft evasion, stripped of his boxing title, and banned from the sport. Given Stan and Peggy’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, it seems like those copywriters would be aware of the world’s most famous conscientious objector. Stan’s story later in the episode, about mourning his young cousin (who Peggy met at the “Zou Bisou Bisou” party last season) who was killed in combat, makes him seem even more likely to get the reference.

5. On Tuesday, Lyons once again came through, in a piece in which she suggested that “The Crash” was simply a retelling of an earlier episode, “My Old Kentucky Home” (the Roger Sterling in black face episode), drawing four key comparisons between this episode and that one. If you’re interested, do read the entire piece, but crucial to the comparison is the fact that “The Crash” and “My Old Kentucky Home” are the only episodes in which we can see what book Sally Draper is reading (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the former, and Rosemary’s Baby in the latter) and, of course, Lyons also tied Ken Cosgrove’s dance back to Pete and Trudy doing the Charleston in the earlier episode.

6. The Age picked up on something that many of us were not able to readily detect about Don Draper, because we had become so obsessed with our dislike of the flashbacks and the heavy-handedness with which Weiner often treats Draper (the mother and whore symbolism was in full effect this week in the flashbacks with a LITERAL mother and whore), and that was that Draper had actually TURNED A CORNER. Yes, the episode was about his stalker-y obsession with Sylvia and his heartsickness, but his crash/collapse finally brought him some clarity, enough to exorcise Sylvia from his system, and put his priorities back in order at work and move ahead with a clearer head. They write:

“Every time we get a car this place turns a whorehouse,” Don declared to his new and baffled colleagues, and the final few minutes offered a vision of a man who’d had a breakthrough, or at least an epiphany. Previous episodes have taken Don to the limits, but this was the first hint of what might come next. In exorcising Sylvia and recalling the loss of his virginity he’d found traction, or at least the self-control to move ahead.

Can we expect a more confident and assured Don Draper in future episodes? Maybe even the bad ass we used to adore? God, I hope so.

7. Finally, here’s a few random notes that others thought about the episode that I thought fascinating:

From U.S. News and World Report: “The “Inferno”/hell theme reappeared, with Stan telling the creative team he has 666 ideas. And the elevator is still stage for a telling scene between Don and Sylvia – it appears to be Don’s vehicle of choice as he moves through the circles of his hell.”

Add to that: Rosemary’s Baby may also be a reference to Inferno.

I had recalled Grandma Ida shared a name with another character on Mad Men: Don’s old secretary, Ida Blankenship, the one who dropped dead at her desk. I googled “Grandma Ida” and “Ida Blankenship” and while I couldn’t find anything good connecting the two, over at Esquire, they spotted an interesting callback:

So-called Grandma Ida — a woman who managed to simultaneously personify the two most egregious African-American stereotypes ever: that of the mammy and the criminal — was obsessed with finding Don Draper’s watch, a callback to the watch that, in this season’s premiere, had suddenly stopped working. The suggestion: time has run out.

I don’t think it’s the last we’ll see of that watch.

Clockwork Orange wouldn’t come out until 1971, so this is obviously a reach, but did anyone else think of that movie when Ken Cosgrove was dancing?

If the series makes it to 1971, you can bet your ass that there will be an ultraviolence sequence.

Finally, an UPROXX reader, ratiosans, caught this last month: The guy who plays John Mathis, one of Peggy’s copywriters, is Trevor Einhorn, who also played Frasier and Lilith’s little kid, Frederick, in Frasier.