Following the latest, delightfully crazy episode of Mad Men, ‘The Crash’, Joseph Lavelle Wilson and I slug it out over tap-dancing technique, the use of flashbacks, Peggy’s office romances and Don’s long, sordid history with the ladies. Let’s Rumble!
Joe: My god. What an episode. I thought things were weird when Ken Cosgrove started tap-dancing, but that was just the beginning! Aside from the drug stuff, which I think was pulled off spectacularly (as in the LSD episode – one of my all time favourites), this episode stood out for delving so deeply into one of the key elements of Don Draper – his oedipal obsession.
Don tries to get two words in on the phone with Sylvia – ‘Just listen to me!’ but she hangs up, shutting the door between them and he flies into a rage, smashing the telephone through his glassware. As the episode unfolds we realise that this frustration is based on his lost connection with his own mother, whom he never got to say anything to as she died in childbirth. Once Don takes the blue pill in the form of an unspecified drug and plunges down the rabbit hole, his desire for a mother’s love consumes him.
It is this desire which forms the crux of his relationship with Sylvia – why it means so much to him and why he wants so badly to fix it. He never got to fix anything with his mother, and his stepmother was an awful, abusive horror (did you notice how she looked a bit like Sylvia as she was brandishing the wooden spoon over young Don?). And so we get to the meat of the episode: Don’s drug-fuelled quest for some strand of history, signified by a half-remembered soup client, and a well-remembered first sexual encounter also involving soup. With all the false clarity stimulants can bring to the brain, he feebly believes this is the key which will enable him to recross the chasm which has opened up between him and Sylvia. It is the same chasm which exists between him and his mother. The ‘shared history’ Don perceives in his fever-dream links Sylvia to Amee, the prostitute who cared for him while sick, ‘took his cherry’, and then left him to the clutches of his stepmother. Don’s sense of abandonment is palpable, and chillingly echoed in this episode by his inability to care for his own children.
This episode took a lot of risks and I think for the most part they paid off. A wondrously executed leap of faith gives us so much insight into the perpetual enigma of Don. I’m only disappointed we didn’t get to see Pete Campbell high.
Stuart: Oh Don. You summed up his character’s personal trip down the rabbit hole this episode almost perfectly. That said, I’m not sure I enjoyed that aspect of the episode nearly as much as you did. Mad Men‘s flashbacks have been a mixed bag, and it’s always less than satisfying when a character’s behaviour is whittled down to a few signposts in the past (Dead Mother. Abusive Stepfather. Whorehouse. Got it.) Even as I appreciated the way we slipped in and out of Don’s feverish headspace, I can’t say we learnt anything new from that flourish about who Don is today. Don may have a fluid sense of identity and a fixation on the ability to remake oneself, but I don’t think he’s a mystery to us anymore. Don’s become less an enigma and more a Tony Soprano-esque figure, re-enacting the same destructive patterns that he’s too comfortable (or not self aware enough) to break away from.
In that vein, I think your Sylvia/Mother comparison absolutely nails a constant in Don’s (illicit) relationships with women, where he is attracted to strong, maternal figures with whom he is able to bare himself and show weakness, but at the same time cannot resist demeaning with aggressive power plays or sheer selfishness – Last episode’s hotel room scenes were particularly excruciating.
What I loved about this episode was simply how it played. Cosgrove’s tap-dance was utterly spectacular. I’ve never laughed so hard, or so often, at a Mad Men episode. At times, it teetering on the cusp of self-parody. Don’s “inspirational speech” to the creative team was particularly brilliant – especially when Peggy deftly undercut Don’s proclamations with a simple “So, what’s the idea?” In fact, it was an exceptional night for Peggy, who has somehow become the most sensible character on this lurching pirate ship of an ad agency.
The lack of Pete Campbell made sense. Pete may be consistently immature in his personal relationships, but he’s always pushing for office decorum and professionalism, and I don’t think he’d have had a bar of it. Same goes for Joan, who didn’t even deign to show up this episode to make an early exit. Although what the hell was Roger up to?
Also, I’m curious what you thought of “Grandma Ida” and subplot with Don’s actual children (who were, appropriately, in actual danger whilst Don was navel-gazing)?
Joe: I think it’s fair to indulge the show its flashbacks – they can be a little cliche and clumsy but I don’t think don is being reduced to a few signposts. Maybe you’re right though that the show uses his mystery as a crutch – 6 seasons in how many extra things can be hidden in his past? We’ve had the abusive father, the mystic hobo, the dependent brother, the identity theft, the secret friendship with the identity theft victim’s wife, etc. In the show’s defense, I think most of these flashbacks have rounded out and helped to explain an enigmatic character. It shows us how important our personal histories are and how they can form a kind of prism or lens for understanding how we are now. In fact, I’d argue this is a big part of what the show does as a whole: holds up the mirror of history to its viewers – we get outraged at the racism and sexism, and we’re warned against complacency when terrible things are happening.
I agree this was one of the funniest episodes, but I barely had time to laugh because something new and ridiculous would happen every five minutes. And yet it all made sense somehow – Peggy’s personal strengths are everything Don isn’t. I can’t wait for her to whip SCDPCGC into shape. Frank’s flower child finding her way to Stan was a beautiful conceit – two people unable to process their grief seeking relief in sex. I like to imagine Roger spent the episode writing a follow up to Sterling’s Gold called Drugs and Why They are Awesome.
The best thing about the grandma Ida subplot was how much venom January Jones was able to inject into about 12 seconds of screen time. But yes it served as a crucial crisis to pull Don back into reality, as his family so often does. I liked that it was a coming of age episode for both Don and Sally, and Sally showed that even though she’s young, she isn’t easily outfoxed – just like her dad.
Stuart: I’m not necessarily against flashbacks on Mad Men, but this week they felt out of step with the rest of the episode. Sure, they’re integrated thematically, but given the subjective storytelling in the modern day sections (the camerawork, the sound design, the little absurd flourishes), it was odd to jump back to some fairly staid segments from the 1930s. I’d have found those far more interesting if they were wrapped up into the episode’s style and tone more – instead we just cut over to them every time Don had a coughing fit. I feel the show missed an amazing opportunity to look back at these moment’s with Don’s drug-addled gaze, and really get inside his head, seeing how he perceived his past, as opposed to dropping in flashbacks that simply fill out Don’s backstory. I’m just not sure at this point Don needs any more explaining. Losing his virginity to a prostitute is hardly a surprise.
Part of it is that, these days, I’m far more excited about Peggy’s story than Don’s. Don’s been playing footsie with a full-blown existential crisis for a few seasons now, but Peggy is actually going out and getting things done, and every episodes seems to toss up a new dynamic or a new relationship for her to play off. Her scene with Stan was gorgeous, and definitely the non-tap-dancing highlight of the episode for me. That said, I didn’t see anything beautiful in the Stan/Flower Child pairing – absolutely in character, but it certainly cheapened Stan’s sentiments.
And I have to say, despite January Jones’ miniscule screen time, I feel this season has been strong on rehabilitating Betty. She has actually been – god help me – a pretty good mother this season, and she had every right to unleash on Don and Megan for their negligence. Remember when Don married Megan because he thought she’d be a good mother to his kids? Well, that didn’t last long. Plus, I’m sure January Jones appreciates being out of that fat suit at long last.
I doubt that the experience will pull Don back into reality in the long run – this isn’t the first time, and certainly won’t be the last, that Don has resolved to be a better husband and father. He’s great with new beginnings.
Joe: I meant the venom comment as a compliment – it was a remarkable performance. And yeah – it is great to see Betty getting some storylines that don’t make me groan with boredom/frustration. I liked the fact her hair reverting to blonde didn’t need to be a major plot point and I’m looking forward to seeing how she handles the return to trophy wife role when Henry goes on the campaign trail. I fully agree she was within her rights to unleash on Don and Megan – indignation is a really important part of the show’s moral compass.
Of course, Peggy admonishing Stan over resorting to drugs and sex to numb his grief could easily have been directed at a certain partner prone to afternoon naps in his corner office. I have no doubt that Peggy’s attitude towards grief is, like so much of her life and work, somewhat defined in opposition to Don’s. It’s remarkable how far she’s come. When we saw Don visiting Peggy post-pregnancy in the hospital in Season 2, his advice that she forget about the ordeal and remake herself seemed profound. At this point I think Peggy’s grown out of Don’s lessons, and rejected them for their deceptive simplicity. She’s one hell of an audience-identification character, come to think of it.
Bob the grovelling cyborg. I like that. After weeks of standing around as though he was an extra intent on photo-bombing every second shot of the season, I felt he came across as a pretty decent guy last week. Which, in Mad Men, means another shoe is about to drop. And hey, it just wouldn’t be the Mad Men we know and love if Pete isn’t indignantly losing his shit about something every week, would it?