Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping as Don loses touch with reality in a surreal, febrile episode

By Keith Staskiewicz
May 20, 2013 at 08:44 AM EDT
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S6 E8
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When a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path.” – Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan

Castaneda’s first work, another published in 1968, was originally his master’s thesis in anthropology at the University of California. In it, the chronicler of mind-altered landscapes details the lessons he learned from don Juan, a sage and mystic of indeterminate existence who ostensibly took Castaneda on a psychotropic journey through a series of “non-ordinary realities,” or drug-induced spirit quests of the self. Mad Men‘s own Don (and Don Juan), on the other hand, doesn’t need a baggie of mushrooms or peyote buttons to have a reality-warping hallucinatory experience, just a “vitamin superdose” injected directly into his gluteus.

Head-trips were big at the time: this was also the year Tom Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his hyperactive New Journalism account of the LSD scene. Mad Men has gotten trippy before, particularly with Roger’s “enlightenment,” but “The Crash” is a funhouse-mirror nightmare that pretty much lasts an entire episode. For Don, his fugue state has turned reality into that dream where you’re in a play and everyone remembers their lines but you. Time skips like a record, sounds amplify, and the slightest thing (a coughing fit, an old print ad) can send him hurtling back in a Proustian reverie to his adolescence in a brothel. Everything’s so chopped up and disjointed that it’s like he’s living through a full weekend composed entirely of non-sequitur “Next Week on Mad Men…” snippets.

And so the season-long descent into Don-te’s Inferno finally starts to snowball. Don’s key characteristics have always included a cool detachment and an air of impenetrability. He likes to pretend the gray flannel suit is a bulletproof vest, but in reality he’s never as calm and collected as you’d think. Instead, he’s often temperamental, wrathful, unpredictable, and emotional. When Sylvia cuts off the affair, he becomes a man obsessed, hanging outside the Rosens’ apartment and lighting cigarette after cigarette with the torch he holds for her. Where he was once detached, he has now become unstuck. Don’s sexual fantasies may have included power games, but everyone knows real power belongs to the one who loves least, and his need for Sylvia sends him into a head-on collision worse than Ken’s Impala joyride.

Overall, the episode borrows pretty heavily from The Sopranos’s more dream-like endeavors, like Season 6’s “Join the Club,” with a little bit of Twin Peaks thrown in as well. Ken’s breathless tap-dance captures that Lynchian oddness that is both amusing and deeply, inexplicably unnerving. Even Sally’s experience with the quick-thinking home invader is packed with menace, a scene in which everything could be absolutely hunky-dory and easily explainable except for the fact that it isn’t. “Grandma Ida” comes off as yet another dangerous and surreal interloper, not unlike the Bonnie-and-Clyde pair that robbed Don in Season 3.

NEXT: The Chevy chase…

It doesn’t help that Don’s mental free-fall occurs over a weekend of crunch work on a new pitch for Chevy. They’ve given the company seven different ways to go for the campaign and all they’ve gotten out of it is a banged-up Ken. The car giant may have been a huge get for the newly expanded firm, but they still have to earn it. The trouble with a really big fish is that sometimes its hard to tell if you’ve hooked them or they’ve hooked you. Don is already doing poorly, but when Cutler invites in his own Dr. Feelgood to administer a proprietary injection intended to kick the office into overdrive, the nostrum ends up driving him over the edge. This is an episode of intense vulnerability for the unflappable Donald Draper, so much so that the sight of him leaning over a desk with his pants down is barely the start of it.

The show has always been fascinated by the passage of time and more specifically the way that it can sneak by unnoticed if you’re not watching carefully. Think of all those night-to-day transitions without a single edit, or Pete’s conversation last season with the driver’s ed girl about time’s slipperiness, or even the way each season sets the needle back down months or years in the future. In keeping with that tradition, Don’s breakdown is depicted as a series of ellipses. He pauses in the hallway, flashes back to losing his virginity, and suddenly it’s the next day and he’s sporting scruff and a pair of duffel bags under his eyes. His speeches, usually inspiring and grandiloquent, become rambling and alarming. “I know you’re feeling the darkness here today,” he intones, as everyone’s eyebrows go up. Wendy, the late Gleason’s hippie daughter, appears with a copy of the I Ching and diagnoses his broken heart. The glimpses of Don’s grim upbringing intensify and the nature of his deflowering helps to underscore his current emotional dysfunctions. An early recording of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” plays on the radio in one of his remembrances, probably a result of the fact that in the contemporary timeline it had just been covered popularly by the Mamas and the Papas, who also provide the episode’s outro song “Words of Love.”

I’ve always found that Don’s childhood flashbacks never really gel for me. The straight-backed man with the corner office is a long way from the boy who grew up on a farm during the Depression, or the gangly teen who ended up in a whorehouse once his alcoholic father died. It’s hard to connect the dots between these individuals on an emotional level, even when the psychological through-line is highlighted in neon. A pulmonary disease leaves young Dick in the care of Aimee, a Judy Holliday-voiced prostitute who nurses him back to health with soup and some freely dispensed carnal knowledge. Something about his rejection by Sylvia leads Don back to this sexual origin story, and the subsequent wooden spoon beating he received for it. Somewhere here is the (conveniently placed) key to his failure at relationships and to the way he confuses intimacy with secrecy. He may be the agency’s top dog, and a predatory lone wolf, but  both his younger and current selves act more like a wounded puppy.

Eventually the entirety of Don’s three days of hell take its toll, and when he comes home mumbling to himself only to find Betty, Henry, Megan, and two cops waiting with a story about a woman breaking into his home, talking with his children, and stealing his watches (yet more missing time), he ends up fainting on the spot. When he awakes, the fever has broken and the walls go back up. The next morning, Sylvia enters the elevator with him and it’s silence all the way down. Don has cauterized the wound and repaired the holes in his armor. At work, he tells the rest of the team that he won’t be working personally on the Chevy campaign and then delivers the episode’s shaggy-dog punchline: “Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse.”

NEXT: Highs and lows…

The rest of the agency seems to fare better with Cutler’s mysterious butt injections, maybe with the exception of Stan. The Great Beard may work well when he’s one toke over the line, but this pushes him even further into mania. He ends up trying to kiss Peggy in his office before admitting to her that his 20-year-old cousin was KIA in Vietnam. It’s an echo of their first interactions, when Peggy deftly and cleverly repudiated his sexual advances, and it ends with Stan expressing appreciation for her rear, to which she responds “Thank you.” Only Mad Men could try to make “You’ve got a great ass” sound wistful, heartfelt, and nostalgic. Then he ends up having sex with Wendy the psychic, failing to live up to the advice, “You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex.”

There’s yet more death with Gleason’s passing, and Chaough’s empathy contrasts once again with Don’s lack of it. He’s too busy mourning the sudden death of his affair, but Ted is genuinely affected. Peggy reacts to this and Don seeing her comfort his former nemesis sends him off on another trip back to his red-light past. Peggy is clearly feeling some form of dissatisfaction with her life with Abe and one wonders what will become of that relationship. After all, it’s her name on the apartment deed.

Sally’s adventures in babysitting leaves her feeling ashamed for having been duped. But, as she tells her father, it’s really only because the story was plausible by default. Why couldn’t her dad have had a black nanny he called Grandma Ida? That’s entirely possible for all she knows of his past. Don admits to her that the incident was his responsibility. “I left the door open, it’s my fault,” a line that could just as easily refer to his culpability with Sylvia. In his eyes, Don’s problem was leaving himself open to feeling and letting someone else peek into what lies behind the door to his heart. But he’s learned his lesson and from now on that door will be barred, chained, and double-locked from the inside.

STRAY THOUGHTS

Going down? Still more elevator symbolism this week. There should be a sign that reads: “Danger! Do not exceed maximum metaphorical weight.”

The only thing that would have made Ken Cosgrove’s opening drive more Blue Velvet-terrifying is if they were eerily singing “See the USA, in your Chevrolet….”

“Why don’t you take a nap? Your face looks like a bag of walnuts.” Roger’s line of the night.

Ken’s little bit of fleet-footed vaudeville is projection on Don’s part, who is the real song-and-dance man. His ranting summation of advertising as a trade-off of entertainment for attention cuts especially close to the fear that his profession and the profession of his mother are essentially one and the same.

“You just flushed the toilet in my head.”

“She’s off on the casting couch,” says Betty, with her typical civility towards Megan.

“Chevy is spelled wrong!”

Follow Keith on Twitter: @Staskijiwczejcz

Episode Recaps

Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama
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