Now that I have my “what the hell was that because I’m not sure I liked it” deconstruction of Mad Men over and done with, it’s time to move on to Vol. 2 of the deconstruction, focusing more on the content (which was plentiful) and some more on the weirdness (because how could I not?).
Peel away the craziness and there was a lot of work being done in this episode about Don’s ongoing existential crisis, but some of the detail work was troubling.
* For starters, we get Don listening secretly to Sylvia – who called everything off between them in the last episode — as he stands in the outside hallway. Strangely, she looks and sounds like the most dismissible housewife there is. But Don is in near-stalker mode, smoking cigarettes – a lot of them – trying…for what? To get back together? Whatever bond that drives him to sit there and listen in on Sylvia and Arnold was never very evident to viewers.
* Sylvia calls Don’s office and tells him, basically, to wake up, it’s over. She talks about the cigarette butts and wants to know how many nights he’s been out there doing it? (The time structure in Mad Men has always been confusing, so it’s often unclear how much time elapses between each episode; thus we have no idea how long Don has been pining away or licking his wounds from the break-up). Sylvia tells Don that Arnold is getting suspicious and she’s having a panic attack that Arnold will find out and she’ll have to tell him everything. Now, this would normally alarm Don, because he never wants to be found out about anything in his life. “Are you afraid of him?” he asks Sylvia, cluelessly. “No, I’m afraid of you.” But Don’s not getting it. He is, for reasons that viewers haven’t actually been shown, very clingy – as if he were in love with Sylvia. “I want you to try and be happy,” she tells Don, who asks, “About what?” That you got away with it, she tells him. It’s clear that Sylvia’s conscience has returned. “You loved Megan once,” she says. “Stop it” Don says, still blocking out emotions. “Nothing else gets through to you,” Sylvia finally says, then eventually hangs up on Don.
* Here’s why that scene doesn’t work: Don doesn’t really love anyone. At best, he loved Megan and the act of showing that love was a major step forward in Don Draper’s evolution as a character. Sleeping with Sylvia was a step backward into all-too-familiar and now less interesting dramatic territory. And it made little sense. At the end of the two-hour premiere where Sylvia was revealed, she asks Don what he wants and he says, “To stop doing this.” Fine, that works dramatically. He lapsed, he realized it and he’s going to deal with whatever atonement he can handle. But in the very next episode, he’s dismissive of their sexual encounters and the impact that it could have on Megan or Arnold, should they find out. He even gives Sylvia money, like a prostitute. Love? Not evident.
Later, on another awkward night when they have sex, it’s Sylvia who seems to be clueless about Don, suggesting that they have to be careful not to fall in love. Anyone who watches Mad Men with any attentiveness would have thought Sylvia naïve (and that naivete dangerous).
This is followed by news that Arnold may be leaving (for his job) and that he and Sylvia are having trouble. Wily Don sees this as just more opportunity to have a sexual play thing, which leads to last week’s odd domination scenes and then, after this game implodes, into Sylvia calling the whole thing off. So I ask you – where’s the love? Where was Don pining for Sylvia? Nowhere, is where. That’s why this sudden need to get her back makes no sense. Yes, you could say it’s all a game to Don and he wants what he can’t have. But he did have her. And through the history of Mad Men, Don has fled every impossible situation selfishly, in an attempt to find a fresh kind of happiness somewhere else. Never, in any of those scenarios, did he flee toward love. It’s not what he does.
* Now, the “energy serum” angle, which essentially turned “The Crash” into a drug story or allowed everyone, particularly Don, to be in a fugue state, tried in different ways to use that conceit to advance meaning about Don’s existential crises. He gives a random spiel to the ad writers and Peggy replies: “That was very inspiring. Do you have any idea what the idea is?” Don: “No. But I’m not going to stop looking.”
OK, that works on two levels. Don is searching for an answer to the Chevy conundrum, but he’s really working on a pitch to woo back Sylvia. In a broader sense – since we’ve already had flashbacks to his childhood – it relates to his ongoing personal journey of introspection.
* When we meet the I Ching girl, Wendy, it’s just another person randomly dropped into the story. But she’s there for a purpose. The I Ching is the book of change and as we all know, deep down Don wants to change, but doesn’t know how. We also know that change is literally a part of him – he swapped his life for that of another man. Mad Men has a history of deftly using books as guides to what might be going on with Don, and so this is no different (though certainly more obvious than, say, using Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations In An Emergency” in Season 2).
Wendy asks Don to think of a question but don’t say it out loud. Later in his office she says the question he asked was, “Does someone love me?” (She says everyone asks that question, which is in itself a nod to psychoanalysis and people’s basic need to have that affirmed). Certainly the flashbacks in the episode hint that nobody has ever loved Don, but the prostitute – “Ms. Swenson” — shows him kindness while sick that his step-mother couldn’t, plus de-virginizes him after his fever breaks. Yep, Don has a lot of issues to unpack.
But in a moment that was both funny and meant to be have meaning, Wendy puts a stethoscope to Don’s heart, listens and says “I think it’s broken.” Don acts like a secret has been revealed: “You can hear that?” It’s his confirmation that he does have a broken heart – or it never worked quite like it should from the start. But if the broken heart bit was supposed to reference Sylvia instead of broadly relate to Don’s life, who would buy that? In any case, Wendy was saying the stethoscope was broken.
* Later as Don listens again at Sylvia’s back door, her radio is playing “Goin’ Out of My Head” – a much-covered ballad. OK, we get it. But a song and some closed-eyes pining doesn’t prove love.
* Stan and Peggy have always had a thing, but after he makes a pass at her and they toy with the idea, she says he’s more like a brother. He talks about his cousin (we saw him in an episode last season) and the feeling off loss, to which Peggy says: “I’ve had loss in my live. You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex.” That played more like a lesson learned from Don, just as it seemed to be about Don and not Stan.
* Some of the surreal moments in this episode had nothing to do with “energy serum.” Sally waking up to find “Grandma Ida” in the house, robbing them, was far more jarring and mind-altering than any drug-like experience. As I explained in the Vol. 1 deconstruction, I thought the episode suffered from relying too much on the drugged out angle, which certainly diminished the robbery scenes. Had they appeared in a separate episode, the impact would have been tripled. I loved Sally’s calm and also the fact that Ida told her easily found out aspects of Don’s life, plus simple (your father is handsome, your mother is a handful) that could throw off a 14 year old. Better yet was how that circled back and Sally explained to Don how disappointed she was at being tricked: “Then I realized I don’t know anything about you.” See? That’s a far more effective way to reiterate the prime issues of Mad Men and Don. Direct talk. No serum. Because nobody knows Don. He doesn’t know himself. That’s why he’s searching. That’s why he’s trying to make sense of himself through flashbacks to his past. The fact that Betty said those words many times when they were married and Rachel, in Season 1, said she barely knew anything about Don when he told her she was the one person who knew him best, was the kind of groundwork that made the Sally line work.
* Also problematic in a episode where we don’t really know what drugs the characters are on, is whether to believe Ken Cosgrove really did do that insane tap dance or whether Don just envisioned it like that. The episode starts to suffer if we’re left to wonder what’s real or imagined.
* Don, who made all kinds of rambling remarks while working on the Chevy account, but really working on the Sylvia account, was used as an outlet by the writers to hint without clarity: “There is an answer that will open the door” Don says to the copywriters. His flashbacks to “Ms. Swenson” in the whorehouse have her comforting him with soup, a loving, motherly gesture, which prompts his mind to find a similar ad the firm did (this one about oatmeal, with a mother feeding her son and the tagline: “Because you know what he needs.” However, the woman in the ad is supposed to look like Sylvia. So, what? Sylvia knows what Don needs? She’s never shown it. Sylvia is supposed to be a stand-in for a mother figure? She’s never shown that, either. So it’s hard to believe – even in a fugue state – that Don is pining for Sylvia because he loves her. He’s prepping his speech to her, hoping she won’t shut him out, only to burst in on the scene in his apartment where the cops are there, along with Megan, the kids, Betty and Henry. He then passes out (but not before a suddenly thin Betty rips on him and “casting couch” Megan).
* When Don wakes up, Megan apologizes to him by saying, “Sally seems so grown up, but she’s really just a kid.” That’s a line meant to be about Don, otherwise it would have used a feminine reference to “her” or “young girl” or whatever. But we do know Don really isn’t really grown up. His reactions to so many things – anger, running way, denial in the face of the obvious – are all things young children do. To me, a scene like that works. And it works better than Don saying to Ted in the closing minutes that he’s not going to work on the Chevy campaign anymore because, “every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse.” I’m not sure they needed to be that obvious, unless it was just to prove that our spunky, focused Don is back and the delirious thing has passed. Still, circling back to make that connection was too easy – viewers didn’t need it.
* Ultimately, “The Crash” had a lot to say about Don, some of the characters and the firm itself (even if Joan was missing and Pete, Harry and Roger were barely in it). Some of those points were served by the flashbacks, which the series has done before, but the tone, I think, was undercut by attempting this manic “energy serum” angle. It almost felt like Matt Weiner had taken to heart some of the complaints that the series is moving too slowly (though it has always moved slowly, which is a large part of its appeal) and gave viewers an episode where everything was ramped up. As a one-off experiment, it’s hard to fault him for trying. A series creator should be allowed that. But I hope Dr. Hecht and his needles don’t show up again any time soon. And if he does, I hope this time he has “truth serum,” so he can give it to Don and Don can fess up that no, he’s not really in love with Sylvia. Because that’s a fundamental stumbling block to a major story arc this season.