“Uplifting” is hardly the first word that comes to mind when pondering this week’s “Mad Men,” one of the most dizzying and polarizing episodes in the entire series — all six seasons of them. “The Crash” turned around a weekend working on the Chevy account with assorted employees, including Don and Stan and Jim, on speed, administered by injection. The episode, with its frantic pacing, dialogue, cinematography, inspired so many WTF tweets from viewers, the Huffington Post made a slideshow of them.
By the next day, viewers and recappers were divided. Yes, the episode was strange and draining and disturbing — Grandma Ida was frightening, and Wendy, Frank Gleason’s hippy, i Ching-tauting daughter was trippy, especially on the heels of her father’s death — but there was also flashes of hilarity and insight into the creative process and the deadlines that come with it.
There is also a nod to loss, with Frank’s passing and Stan telling Peggy that his cousin, the one who attended Megan’s surprise party for Don in the season five opener, had died in Vietnam. Then, with Don’s shift in mood in the final scenes, enormous relief that maybe, just maybe, our troubled protagonist had hit rock bottom and was going to start finding his way.
Which is why I found this episode ultimately uplifting. By episode’s end, Don was the most solid we’ve seen him this season. Dr. Hecht’s proprietary energy serum, and the childhood memories it triggered, left him, if not healed and self-aware, resolved in three life categories: mistress, family, specifically his role as a father, and work.
Don went from stalking Sylvia, standing outside her kitchen door chainsmoking and eavesdropping as she asks Arnie what he wanted for dinner, to ignoring her in the elevator. He went from ignoring his children on one of “his” weekends, to reclaiming his fatherly role, calling Sally to assure her that he was okay, his fainting the night before, when he arrived home the evening before had not been a heart attack, and that it was his fault that the scamming, scheming Grandma Ida had been able to enter the apartment because he’d left the kitchen door unlocked.
Finally, Don goes from agonizing over the unreasonableness of Chevy’s demands, with their ambitious monthly deadlines, to asserting himself as creative director, and informing Ted that he will supervise work. When Ted, who’s reeling over the passing of his 20-year colleague, protests, Don shoots back, “I’m sorry Ted, but every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse.”
Now, where this takes us, whether Don’s found some sort of center, is anyone’s guess, especially where it concerns the office. As for the mass confusion and WTF spewing the episode inspired, I don’t quite get the extent of it. Yes, the show was chaotic, but it absolutely was not incomprehensible, even with some wilder than usual antics thrown in. This is what the late 1960s were like. (If you want to see a truly trippy drug trip, watch “Rosemary’s Baby.”)
Ken, who’d been in a car crash when the Chevy execs took him on a joy ride, broke into a tap dance at one point. The creatives were playing human darts with an Exacto knife, which hit Stan in the arm. (He didn’t feel a thing!) Stan kissed Peggy, who rebuffed him, noting that she didn’t like beards. Wendy made a pass at Don after trying to listen to his heart with a stethoscope that turned out to be broken, and then ended up doing the deed with Stan, in Stan’s office, with Jim watching through the partially opened door.
Jim has turned out to be a wild man, much wilder than Roger (he of the LSD trips) and Ted, who uses words like “groovy” but is about as hip as a ladderback chair. It was Jim who suggested he call the doctor to give them a shot. There was one Dr. Feelgood who did just this in mid-town Manhattan. He reportedly had a celebrity clientele.
Then there’s the Grandma Ida incident. The kids are at Don and Megan’s, Don’s working late and Megan is off with her agent, who’s introducing her to producers who might cast her in a play. (Bobby wants to know why, since she’s on TV everyday.) Sally is in Don and Megan’s bed, incongruously dressed in baby doll pajamas while reading the book “Rosemary’s Baby” — probably not what most 14-year-old’s were reading at the time — when she hears a noise in the apartment. She finds an older African American woman poking around the dining room. She introduces herself as Don’s grandmother, then, when pressed, her nanny. Sally senses something off, but Grandma Ida knows just enough to be credible.
Casting Grandma Ida as an African American has renewed debate about Matthew Weiner’s sensitivity to race. I’m fine with “Mad Men” being a show almost entirely about white people, though could see how he might have written in an African American creative as opposed to a secretary. But Grandma Ida is pushing the envelope, especially on the heels of Dawn disappearing after MLK’s assassination — this vexes me to no end, he pumped up her character, only to have her go AWOL for several episodes, returning in “The Crash”– and Pete seeing his father-in-law with an African American in a midtown brothel, someone he described as the biggest, fattest Negro prostitute he’d ever seen, well someone might be missing a sensitivity chip.
One moment made me appreciate how attached to props one can get. After Don speaks to Sylvia, who’s called to ask Don to stop smoking outside her kitchen door, leaving cigarette butts so she knows he was there, Don throws the phone at those stunning tumblers, the ones with the silver trim. No! I practically cried out. Dawn replaced them with a new set, I think an identical one but the shot was too wide and too far for me to confirm as much.
Betty’s back as a blonde and thinner — but not yet svelte. Peggy was a rock yet again, playing a working woman’s version of a mother hen, at one point telling Jim, “Look what you’ve done.” “The Crash” had no Joan, very little Pete, very little Roger. That’s what happens when two firms merge. Yes, it’s crowded in here.
In any event, love or hate “The Crash,” it will get you thinking and wondering what might happen next. And as every “Mad Men” fan knows, this show is just impossible to predict. (Case in point: I thought we were done with Dick Whitman flashbacks. We got them in this episode. They were smoother than the last set of flashbacks.) Until the next one!