'Mad Men' Deconstruction Vol. 1: Episode 8: 'The Crash'

It will take more than one column to figure out everything that was going on in what may be the weirdest episode ever. So let's start with the style over the substance.
Does Don Draper really love this woman?

An educated guess is that Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Crash,” will leave the audience split about its effectiveness, entertainment value and just sheer lunacy. But even trying to give series creator Matt Weiner and his writers some leeway to turn the show’s tone on its head, it’s still difficult not to watch “The Crash” and think that it maybe was an idea that sounded a lot better on paper than it ended up looking on the screen.

Mad Men is a series that very rarely strays from its style – going out West and changing the dark gray and black of New York interiors to the sunny outdoor brightness of California sure shook things up in Season 2. Don falling in with “The Jet Set” crowd and getting a taste of an alternative lifestyle was different. There was the LSD episode last season. And there have been small tweaks to the style (flashbacks, a fugue state, Roger’s LSD dream-like sequence, etc.), but there’s been nothing like “The Crash,” which opened as frenetically as any Mad Men episode ever – Ken Cosgrove and drunk clients, speeding at night into traffic with a handgun, someone hell-bent on pressing the gas pedal harder from the passenger side and a man in the back covering Ken’s eyes as we hear the screech of brakes and Ken’s frantic yelling.

Odd. But interesting.

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However, by having Cutler’s private and dubious Dr. Hecht give so many people an “energy serum” shot that provided “24 to 72 hours of uninterrupted creative focus and energy” really changed the equation. From that point onward, “The Crash” became an increasingly manic, time-loss, fugue-state of its own with rampant weirdness tossed in, highlighted by Ken’s insane tap-dance and song and the arrival of “Grandma Ida,” an older black woman who appeared in Don’s apartment while his kids are alone to rob him. Surreal? You bet. Effective? I’m not entirely sold on that idea just yet. Maybe I’ll change my mind later. But “The Crash” seemed more manipulative than any episode in recent memory and thus not actually believable.

(Because of this, I’m going to post a second Mad Men deconstruction focusing more on the content than the jarring style.)

The “energy serum” idea allowed the writers to do a ‘60s drug episode without actually making it much of a drug episode. But the shots allowed there to be altered personalities and altered states – Don ultimately being the one who seemed most affected by the shots. He lost time, he sweated and panicked and wrote down crazy ideas that ended up being about Sylvia rather than Chevy (in some ways it’s not surprising that Don would use an ad campaign to try to get Sylvia back). But the ad that sparked his memory was one that also allowed the series to continue the flashbacks to Don’s troubled childhood, where he was raised in a whorehouse, treated better by a prostitute than his step-mother who nursed his chest cold back to health (and we already know Don’s birth mother was a prostitute). But the flashbacks also shed more light – not that we needed any more – on how being in that environment has influenced Don’s behavior with women. I mean, hello, the mother-figure prostitute deflowers the virginal Don and his step-mother beats the crap out of him with a wooden spoon when she finds out about it, castigating him all the way through it.

STORY: 'Mad Men' Deconstruction Vol. 2: Episode 8: 'The Crash'

No doubt a lot of people will have enjoyed the craziness of the episode since it moved at an impressive pace – also not a hallmark of the series. And it allowed for plenty of humor (mostly from Ginsberg, who seemed fine and Stan, who seemed out of his mind and impervious to pain as he gets an X-Acto knife in the arm during a scene seemingly pulled from the William S. Burroughs biography. Stan was clearly not impervious to pleasure, as he kissed and flirted with Peggy and then slept with the I Ching girl, Wendy, who turns out to be the recently-departed Frank Gleason’s daughter.)

Again, I’m slightly conflicted by the episode because the delivery mechanism seemed so tonally off, but there were plenty of intriguing plot points and metaphors, mostly revolving around parents, happiness, broken hearts and the subtle notion of being wary about getting what you wished for (in the case of our two merging firms, it’s Chevy and the crazy demands from the enormous car company).

I think I’ll use a second deconstruction of this episode to get into those salient points – points more important than everybody acting high and tripping on energy serum.

But part of the reason that the choice to make everything crazy and weird was disappointing is that all of that artifice created by the shots too easily covered up one of the bigger flaws of this Don and Sylvia story line: I don’t buy the fact that Don loves Sylvia. I don’t buy into his standing outside of her door, smoking cigarettes for hours, or finding the connective ideas in advertising that will somehow close the door and win her back. We never saw Don in love with Sylvia. Ever. So for him to be pining for her now is a stretch that the craziness of “The Crash” couldn’t cover up.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine