“When you start something like this, it takes a lot of convincing. It’s all about whether or not the other person has as much to lose as you do, because you want to be able to trust them when it’s over.”
This week was one of those rather surreal episodes that Mad Men does so well, with a disjointed, hallucinatory feel that mirrored the perspective of the protagonists in its main plotline. Having found prestigious new clients Chevrolet to be demanding and impossible to satisfy, the staff of… whatever the newly merged agency is called pulled an all-weekend brainstorming session. OK, we’ve seen them do that before, usually with the aid of prodigious quantities of alcohol. This time, though, at the urging of new partner Jim Cutler, they were doing it with the aid of some pretty hardcore stimulants. The results were as messy – and as entertaining – as you’d expect.
The ep was bookended with two crashes, reflecting its title. It opened with a literal one, as we were plunged straight into Ken Cosgrove’s nightmare. Strapped into the driver’s seat of a swerving car at night, Ken was being bullied into going ever faster by the boorish, drunken Chevy execs, one of whom was waving a gun in his general direction. You could have been forgiven for thinking it was a misplaced excerpt from Aaron Staton’s other well-known role in computer game LA Noire, as the scene faded to black over the sound of crashing, grinding metal.
That was a weird enough opening, but things got even weirder pretty quickly. Ken, not dead after all, turned up at the partners’ meeting on a cane and revealed Chevy’s list of impossible demands, just as Ted Chaough got the news that his partner Frank Gleason had succumbed to his pancreatic cancer. Ted was therefore unable to take part in the weekend brainstorming session that was then proposed. As it turned out, that was probably his good luck.
Don, meanwhile, had other things on his mind than work, a recurring problem for him. He’s actually a highly talented ad man. If only he could keep his personal existential angst from preoccupying him when he should be doing his job, that is.
This week’s angst was, as ever, because of a woman. Don, still smarting from Sylvia Rosen’s dismissal of him last week, had taken to hanging around the corridor outside her apartment like a lovelorn puppy, smoking endless cigarettes. This, it transpired, was something of a problem. Arnold Rosen had seen all the cigarette ends and leaped to the conclusion his wife was smoking again. She, for her part, couldn’t tell him the truth without blowing the gaffe on their affair. Cue a scolding phone call to the crumbling Don, which told him firmly just where he stood, and led to an inexplicable bout of coughing that seemed to be more the result of stress than an actual illness.
The coughing led to a series of flashbacks to the life of the teenage Dick Whitman, that were interspersed throughout the ep. Still living in a brothel with his mother, young Dick had once contracted a cold so bad that he’d been virtually quarantined, in case it was TB. It wasn’t, but only young whore Amy was prepared to look after him. As this story unfolded, it was yet another revealing glimpse into The Origins of Don Draper, and particularly his none too well-rounded attitudes to women.
As Dick put it, “my mother can’t look after anything.” So Amy became a de facto mother to him, tucking him up in bed and feeding him soup as he recovered. Trouble was, she was also a prostitute, and more than prepared to teach the boy a thing or two about sexuality.
So, Dick, later to become Don Draper, lacks a proper mother, latches onto a prostitute to fill the void, and then ends up, hesitantly, having sex with her. When his actual mother finds out, she beats the living hell out of him for being ‘disgusting’.That’s a world of Freudian neurosis right there. No wonder Don’s feelings about women, love and sex are so screwed up.
This was gradually unfurled throughout the ep, as random things kept causing Don to stare into the middle distance, remembering. He does this a lot anyway, but this time it must have been more evident than usual, as various colleagues kept asking if he was all right.
He never is, of course, but this week he was worse than usual. Along with half the rest of the creative staff. Because they were all whizzing their nuts off on some unnamed “proprietary stimulant” that the genial Jim Cutler’s pet doctor had injected into them.
That was common enough in the 60s; there’s a well-founded rumour that JFK spent half his presidency on amphetamines, ostensibly to help him with back pain. If his mindset was anything like Don and the creative team this week, we’re probably lucky he didn’t start a full scale nuclear war through incompetence. Because, as anyone who’s tried them will tell you, that kind of stimulant may fill you with energy, confidence and brio but actually ends up making you less capable of functioning intelligently than if you were sober.
And so it was here, as the working weekend quickly degenerated into some kind of mad speed party, the creatives playing bizarre games under the impression that they were somehow producing useful work on the Chevy account. Stan was perfectly happy to be the object of a William Tell recreation involving a drawing of an apple and the throwing of craft knives; with predictable results when a blade ended up embedded in his arm.
Ken Cosgrove, previously limping around on a cane, chose to impart his frustrations with his job to the baffled Don via the medium of dance – specifically, an actually quite good tap routine. This was so weird that I still wonder whether it – and quite a few of the events – really occurred in Don’s imagination.
Don, meanwhile, was whizzing around the office, his hair unkempt and his face sheened with sweat, convinced (as you often are in this mindset) that he’d found “the answer”. Not to the Chevy problem though – to “everything”, as he explained to the baffled Peggy and Ginsberg. Peggy, in keeping with SCDP tradition, had eschewed the drugs for good old booze, but Ginsberg was in the frustrating position of being the only sober one in the office. Luckily for him, Don was so out of it that he didn’t notice he was being humoured like a madman (so to speak).
Don’s “answer” revolved around a nonexistent soup account the company had dealt with some years ago; it wasn’t hard to guess that it was his memory of Amy feeding him soup playing into this. As he lost all sense of time, the ep lost it with him. “What… it’s Saturday?” he asked, mystified, as Peggy suddenly turned up in the outfit she’d worn to Frank Gleason’s funeral. An enigmatic hippy girl suddenly appeared, doing Tarot readings in the creative office. Later, she turned up in Don’s office at his invitation; an invitation he had no memory of having made.
It all had a convincingly disjointed, illogical feel that mirrored Don’s fragmented mind, under the influence of whatever he’d been shot up with. And since Chevy was hardly at the top of his mind, the ‘problem’ he’d been working on was how to reconcile himself with the now-distant Sylvia. His sudden fixation with an old oatmeal ad that extolled the virtues of traditional motherhood led into yet another flashback, and it wasn’t hard to see his bafflement at the wholesome image in the ad contrasted with the sordid reality of his own upbringing.
In the week that Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby has been released, it’s never been more evident that Don is Gatsby for the late 60s – you wonder whether his eventual downfall will mirror that of Fitzgerald’s status-obsessed, lovelorn hero.
Predictably though, the weekend’s ‘work’ produced nothing of value, as the annoyed Ted found on his return on Monday morning. As he pointed out, everything they had produced was meaningless gibberish; “you’ve even mis-spelled ‘Chevy’!” Roger Sterling’s experiences with LSD may have shown us the positive side of the late 60s obsession with drugs, but here we saw the negative – the illusion of competence, even greatness, none of it real.
The only other perspective we saw this week was that of Sally Draper; but her little storyline was every bit as surreal. Left to babysit her brothers in Don’s apartment while Don worked and Megan went out to schmooze the theatre community, Sally was somewhat startled by the unexpected appearance of a slightly unkempt old lady claiming to be her grandmother. This was news to Sally, and rather less than plausible since the lady in question happened to be black.
It’s hard to know if this was another of the show’s comments on the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. Perhaps it was to emphasise that not every African American was a put-upon, oppressed decent sort. Certainly Ida (if that was indeed her name) was frighteningly off-kilter, as seen through Sally’s eyes. The flashbacks to Don’s youth played into the narrative, as together with Sally, you wondered whether she really was telling the truth about having “brought up” her father. But no, Ida turned out to be an itinerant burglar who’d been working her way through the building, and hadn’t expected to find anyone in Chez Draper.
Sally escaped unscathed, though Don’s return to the apartment found him faced with cops, less valuables than he used to have, and a furious Betty. Having just spent three days on stimulants with no sleep, the inevitable happened – he fell unconscious to the floor, the second ‘crash’ of the episode.
It was an odd little subplot, but it served to reveal a very important truth to Sally abut her father. As she pointed out on the phone to him, she’d asked ‘Ida’ for plenty of detail about Don, and she’d had plausible answers to everything. And since none of it was true, Sally had realised what many of the show’s characters have since it began – “I realised I don’t know you at all.”
Where’s Bob Benson?
No sign of SCDP’s genial mystery man this week. But things were weird enough even without him.
Not many this week. Nobody even mentioned last week’s assassination of Bobby Kennedy; while I didn’t want another navel-gazing ep with the characters reflecting on what a historical tragedy meant to them personally, I was a bit surprised that it wasn’t even brought up.
Vietnam still rumbles on though, and there was a nice scene between Peggy and Stan as he revealed that his cousin had just been reported killed in action – three months after the fact. “That means my aunt wrote sixteen letters to him he never saw.” It brought the tragedy of the war home by connecting it to the characters we know, and was nicely underplayed by both Elisabeth Moss and Jay R Ferguson. It also seems from this that the damage caused to their friendship a few weeks ago may be healed.
In popular culture, Sally’s bedtime reading material surely meant that she was not in the best frame of mind to deal with a home invasion. She was glued to the most popular horror novel of the 1960s, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby – a tale of a New York apartment building stuffed with Satanists who conspire to get the innocent young heroine pregnant with the child of the Devil. Roman Polanski’s movie version will have just been released at this point, but maybe Megan shouldn’t let her see it.
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Not many fashion faux pas this week, surprising given the drug-addled nature of the ep. Mysterious hippy Wendy (who turned out to be the daughter of the late Frank Gleason) was decked out in the requisite beads and flowery kaftan, but that’s no surprise for a hippy of the era. Sally Draper too was getting fashionable, with a rather short skirt that shocked the prim Betty. For her part, Betty’s fashions still seem mired in the early 60s rather than their tail end:
Peggy spent much of the ep in a sombre funeral dress, but earlier she had been wearing what appeared to be a stripey orange seat cover, complete with nipple-reflecting buttons:
And while he’s normally pretty respectable, I’m not sure how Ted Chaough thought this jacket was a good idea:
As ever, it was left to Megan Draper to be the best dressed, with yet another slinky dress that looked good on her despite embodying some of the worst excess of the era:
This ep, scripted by Jason Grote with the usual oversight of Matthew Weiner, was a surreal, drug-addled experience; to borrow the ad slogan of one of 1968’s most popular movies, it was “the Ultimate Trip”. As ever in Mad Men though, nobody came out of it any happier, more enlightened, or even having produced any worthwhile work. As a result, it didn’t advance the overall narrative, but amidst the fun and games, yet more light was cast on the enigma that is Don Draper, a man never happier than when in a fog of self-doubt and self-loathing under his 60s Alpha Male exterior. Not much may have happened here, but we learned a great deal, in a revealing and often bizarre hour of TV.
Oh, and interestingly, the disreputable Dr Hex actually echoed almost verbatim what I wrote last week: “What are you going to call yourselves? SCDPCGC? That’s a bit of a mouthful.” I promise I haven’t been reading Matt Weiner’s notes…