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05/22/2013 04:21 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

'Mad Men' Recap: 'The Crash' Taps Into Old Themes

AMC

mad men crash

Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen the Season 6, Episode 7 of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "The Crash."

This message is brought to you by the Partnership for a Drug-Free Midtown Manhattan: Speed kills!

Don't believe me? Need more proof? Well, this is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. This is your brain tap-dancing on drugs.

We interrupt this public-service announcement about the dangers of amphetamines to bring you breaking news about next season of "Mad Men": A key episode will feature Harry Crane on peyote, in the Nevada desert, shouting "I get it!" (That's not set in stone, but if the show can't get tripping Roger Sterling back, then a naked, stoned Harry Crane will have to do.)

All right, that's enough tomfoolery for now, though any hour of TV that involves this much jittery weirdness is certainly going to inspire more of the same. It's only fair to say, by the way, that I didn't come to "The Crash" cold: Even though I avoided Twitter like the plague for the past three days, soon after Sunday's "Mad Men" episode aired, I heard from friends and colleagues that it was a very strange episode. And it certainly was, but not in a way that added much to our understanding of Don Draper.

A bunch of grace notes at the office were mildly entertaining. (The antics at the ad shop, for example, reminded me of certain office-set episodes of the FX series "Archer." All it needed was Krieger dispensing still more drugs and Lana Kane rounding a corner shouting, "What the sh*t, Archer?!") But the satisfactions were of a minor variety, and major elements of the hour flat-out didn't work.

By this point in the show's lifetime, I'm used to "Mad Men" heading in experimental directions mid-season, once all the main story lines have been set in motion. But unlike Season 2's "The Jet Set," which took Don on a dreamy West Coast trip, or last season's "Far Away Places," which memorably featured an LSD-laced Roger and a singing vodka bottle, "The Crash," for all its oddness, didn't break much new ground.

Experimental jaunts are just fine, but many of the topics explored in Sunday's speedy, stop-start episode were, ironically, quite tired. At the end of the hour, was Don's coldness to Sylvia the result of a emotional breakthrough fueled by an acceptance of pain and embrace of a more mature worldview? Did he have a thoughtful realization about how best to handle heartbreak? Or was his dismissal of her -- and of Chevy's high-handed ways -- just one more selfish retreat from a man who's well known for them?

The one possible demonstration of growth was his admission to Sally that he'd left the back door unlocked (he neglected to mention he'd done so in order to slip downstairs and moon over his ex-girlfriend like a 14-year-old boy). It's not like him to take responsibility for his actions, so that confession was something, I guess. But it's a measure of Don's still-intact narcissism that, after his daughter spent an evening feeling scared and humiliated thanks to her father's inattentiveness and irresponsibility, his first words to her on the phone were, "I'm okay!"

Well, good to know that weekend drug bender worked out well for everyone, Don!

One thing is clear from this episode, which was amped up and yet often came off as filler: Good Lord, those flashbacks to Young Dick Whitman have to go. They're embarrassingly thin, predictable slices of melodrama in a show that, at its best, embraces complex, thoughtful ambiguity. The fact that a young actor who looks nothing like Jon Hamm is wearing a horribly unfortunate wig in these scenes does not help. At all.

We interrupt this recap for breaking news: Dick Whitman's teenage diary has been found (the following excerpt should be read in a Gomer Pyle voice):

"Dear Diary, wimmen sure are confusing! My maw died having me, and I feel real bad about that. Then my paw was real mad, and he beat me and said mean stuff, and I feel real bad about that. Then he died and my new maw gave me the world's worst bowl haircut and set me loose in a bordello filled with Loose Wimmen. Diary, I don't mind tellin' yew, I am realll confused!! Because this one lady, Aimee, was real nice to me, and she was motherly to this lonely orphan boy when she gave me soup. But then I was distracted by her bosom and I could not help it -- Terrible Sins was committed. Yew will not be surprised to find that I feel real bad about that. Well, anyways, my new Mama found out about the sins and she beat me with a wooden spoon. Well, I suppose it is not all bad -- maybe someday I will be a successful advertising man who uses an image of a dark-haired woman looming over a young boy and a spoon (and maybe when I start out on my ad-man career, I will marry a blonde who cannot give me the nurturing that Aimee did). I will have a whole bunch of psychological damage and I am likely be a heel due to all my Sex/Mother/Nurture/Love confusion, but thanks to all that, I may win awards for my work one day. I suppose I should thank the Lord, who is no doubt doing His best to give me the most robust Oedipus Complex that a lonely young boy could ever hope for. I'm off to sleep in the shed now (and I promise I will not think about Fallen Wimmen!!!).
-- xo xo Dick Whitman"

I mean, come on. Everyone in these flashbacks is a type (Evil Landlord, Wicked Stepmother, Whore with Heart of Gold, Shy Young Man). Dick looks nothing like Don, and the whole thing plays like a poorly made silent film from the '20s -- but there's an even bigger problem here: We already know all these things about Dick/Don.

We know that he often confuses emotional support with sex. We know that underneath that aloof mask is a little boy willing to attach himself to any woman who offers him a challenge and/or a little maternal concern. We know he has a thing for platinum blondes, but he also gravitates toward hard-to-get brunettes. Once ensnared, he can't let go unless he finds a new target on whom to project all his mommy issues. Six years in, we've been there, done that, got the T-shirt from the Oedipal Complex convention.

On top of all that, the crux of "The Crash" was Don's heartbreak over a woman who was yet another mere collection of traits and attributes. Sylvia was never interesting in her own right, and after everything we've seen with Midge, Bobbie Barrett, Allison, Miss Farrell, Faye Miller, we know true intimacy is hard for Don and he invariably finds a way to mess it up. Thus, it was hard to work up much interest in seeing him pine for a relationship we knew would end almost exactly the way it did.

Gone are the days of "Mad Men" Subtext Theater: In one of the few scenes that I actually liked, Peggy came right out and stated the hour's theme: You can't sublimate pain with substances or work or sex, you just have to experience it. She's learning that lesson, yet ignoring other truths: The bonds she shares with Stan -- and with Ted -- are much more meaningful than her relationship with Abe. She's taught herself how to experience pain and use it in her work while remaining together and competent at home and work, but she hasn't learned much about letting herself experience pleasure.

The greatest pleasure of the hour, of course, was the sheer weirdness of Ken Cosgrove tap-dancing. In a season designed for GIF creation, that one may take the cake. We all know that these accounts guys have to dance for their clients and keep them happy around the clock, but we now know that, if called upon to do so, Ken can add a soft-shoe routine and jazz hands. Someone give that man a raise -- and some tap shoes!

Soon enough, though, the plot reverted to Don and his loss of control: His pitches for Chevy (such as they were) were really pitches for Sylvia. He needed to find the right way to her heart, but ultimately, he went back to the same old realizations: Intimacy always brings with it betrayal and loss, and he'll always get left behind by those who are kind to him. With both Chevy and Sylvia, he brought out the same old tool he always uses confusing situations: rejection.

Sylvia, whom he's treated as a whore all season (she even has a beauty spot on her cheek where Aimee added a cosmetic spot), got the full-blast Draper coldness in the elevator. He exited the elevator before her, because good manners are for ladies and she is Not A Lady. At work, we saw him bathed in flop sweat for three days -- on drugs, losing time, having to type out the kinds of pitches he used to give on the fly back in the day, returning to the kind of nostalgic themes that seem a bit shopworn in a more cynical era, listening to Advertising 101 hokum from Ginsberg.

But in the cold light of day, he realized he could still have the upper hand simply by walking away, so that's just what he did. When in doubt, Don whips out the condescension.

"Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse." Wow. That's a very crude and unkind reading of the Joan situation, but the apparent goal of his statement is to make it clear that Don thinks those expending energy to reach a difficult goal might as well be rubes in a bordello. Don's too good for anything like that, right?

The Chevy situation is a bit ambiguous, admittedly. Maybe Don just realizes he needs help with the creative and he wants Ted to pull his weight and manage the staff. Or maybe Don is just going to call a retreat a victory, and see if anyone calls him on his B.S.

As we head into the season's home stretch, it's not hard to see a scenario in which Don mostly phones it in while Peggy and Ted forge an alliance that ultimately makes Don more or less irrelevant (and it's interesting to note that Don's flashbacks to pain and loss begin when he sees Peggy -- his Peggy -- comforting Ted).

If that's how it's going to be, it's hard not to wonder what the rest of the show's season-and-a-half run will be about. Uh, something? "For Immediate Release" was a great example of all the things the show does really well, but this hour was one of several in the last season and a half that kind of spun its wheels to no great purpose.

Speaking of the show in general, here are a few "Mad Men" Truths I want to lay on you. They came to me right after Dr. Hecht shot me up with a proprietary mixture of vitamins and stimulants, so with that in mind, I present for your approval:

"Mad Men" Truths, Part 1: Things That Are Interesting/Worth Exploring In More Depth

  1. Key (non-Don) characters who are experiencing change and evolution, especially Peggy and Joan, but also Roger, Stan and the rest of the crew at SCDPCGC (or whatever the new agency will be called). I'd love more screen time for the newer characters, I'm on board with continued development of the lives of the original staff members (and Sally, of course), and I always want to see more of Joan and Peggy, whose story lines, at this point, are far more interesting than anything in Don's personal life.
  2. Office politics. Many of the finest episodes of the show have featured office shenanigans, reversals and surprises. I may now think that Jim Cutler is the ultimate skeeve of all time (really? Pimping out your dead partner's daughter to your staff so you can watch? Sterling looks like a saint compared to this guy), but I want to see how that sleazy guy and everyone else at the new and old agencies mix it up.
  3. Ted Chaough. So far he's been a terrific counterpoint to Don: He's witty, reliable, just as gifted as Don, but less arrogant and less prone to self-destructive acts. The more we see how his relationships with Peggy and the rest of the SCDP employees develop, the better. Plus, it's been a while since we've watched an ad man consistently at the top of his game -- and who may have to struggle to stay there.

"Mad Men" Truths, Part 2: Things That Are Not Interesting/Not Worth Pursuing Unless There Are Compelling New Reasons to Go There

  1. Flashbacks to Don/Dick's past. It was real bad. Enough already. When your flashbacks are reminding me of "Across the Sea," the worst episode of "Lost," that's not a good thing. Ultimately, I don't necessarily need explanations for why things are the way they are, I want to care about the people at the center of the story, or at least remain interested in what happens to them next. The flashbacks are no longer helping with that, they're actively hurting the show.
  2. Don's intimacy issues with women/affairs/infidelity, etc. Thanks to Jon Hamm's continually engaged and subtle performance, Don will always be worth watching, but the show seems out of ideas when it comes to his personal life, and the Sylvia storyline is proof of that. That's no knock on Linda Cardellini's performance, it's an expression of disappointment that she didn't get to do more to make this character interesting and three-dimensional. And I'm not anti-Megan as such, I just I wish I cared about her -- but I don't. The truth is that Ginsberg, Stan, Cosgrove, Peggy, Joan and a bunch of other supporting characters are far more interesting to me than Megan, who's never been anything more than a youthful, somewhat naive character who's clearly there to shed light on Don's issues. When it comes to Don's psyche, the equation that we've gotten for six seasons amounts to "women and/or sex = pain and/or comfort and/or loss." Unless "Mad Men" is going to add to that in some fresh way, I say give a lot of that subject matter a rest.
  3. Anything to do with Betty or Henry. See also, Betty's emotional/maturity issues, Henry's aspirations, etc. Those two are utterly boring and the show's long since run out of things to do with them. I. Just. Don't. Care. I know "Mad Men" will never dump Betty (I'm half-convinced it keeps her mainly to annoy me), but if we only see her in passing as someone in Sally's life, that's okay by me.

As for the episode's other main story line, it made me uncomfortable, and not in the ways it was intended to. The appearance of "Grandma Ida" was problematic to say the least, given how little screen time "Mad Men" has given to African-American characters over the years. We've only seen bits and pieces of the lives of the Drapers' former housekeeper, Carla, and the life of Don's secretary, Dawn, has been barely explored.

Yet this episode spent a long time with a black character who was a liar and a thief who menaced upper-class white children. For a show with a very spotty record when it comes to characters of color, the entire scenario veered very close to stereotype and caricature. Speaking more generally, as "Mad Men" has given more screen time to characters of color, it has also repeatedly reinforced the idea that urban life is unsafe, unclean and threatening. Does "Mad Men" not see the connection it is making between those two realms? It disturbs me to think that the show apparently does not understand that it is linking these things in viewers' minds, intentionally or not. For a show that is usually so intelligent and thoughtful, the blind spot in this arena is not encouraging.

Well, my energy serum is running out, and rather than risk a heart attack by having another, I'll end this recap with a few more bullet points:

  • Scenes featuring Stan and Peggy often end up being my favorites, and it's a testament to Elisabeth Moss' skills that she could give that "loss" speech and make it work, despite how on-the-nose it was. Great work from Jay R. Ferguson in that scene as well: Stan's often comic relief, but his pain and grief were wonderfully conveyed. The chemistry between those two characters is so damn palpable, but I can understand Peggy shying away from an office romance.
  • I couldn't help but notice the number of female characters wearing sunny spring colors (and of course, Peggy in a black dress for the funeral -- and as Tom and Lorenzo have pointed out in their great Mad Style essays, the Woman in Black has been a theme this mortality-obsessed season). I'll have to read this week's Mad Style by Tom and Lorenzo to see what all those pastels meant.
  • So office worker Ed's heart stopped, but nobody thought much of it -- and Roger got the shot, too, despite his heart problems. At least we've established that Dr. Hecht is the least competent physician in Manhattan.
  • Ginsberg's continual annoyance at everyone else's druggy or drunk behavior was continually delightful.
  • "In my heart, I know we cannot be defeated because there is an answer that will open the door." Remember when Don would wow clients with that kind of inspirational speech, instead of a room full of wasted copywriters?
  • It melted my brain that Don actually went home to his apartment building over the weekend, loitered around Sylvia's door and failed to check on his own children before going back to the office. It looked as though he was feverish and sick as well as hopped up on speed, but I actually find that scenario hard to believe -- that whatever the condition of his heart and body, he'd forget at least to check in on his kids. If that's the case, it makes me think he hasn't grown as a person at all in the past eight years, and that realization makes me think he won't evolve much before the show ends. So how about more Peggy and Joan story lines instead?
  • Sally spent the weekend watching "The Prisoner" and reading "Rosemary's Baby." How she didn't freak out at the stranger in their apartment is beyond me -- I would have at twice her age. She's one self-possessed young woman.
  • Anyone else notice that Wendy Gleason looks exactly like a college-aged version of Sally Draper? No wonder Don was able to resist Wendy the wandering hippie -- that resemblance was too creepy even for him.
  • What we didn't realize about "Mad Men" is that IT'S BEEN ABOUT SOUP THIS WHOLE TIME.

Note: Ryan McGee and I discussed "Mad Men" (along with "Community," "New Girl," "Arrow" and "Behind the Candelabra") in the latest Talking TV podcast, which can be found here, on iTunes and below.

"Mad Men" airs 10 p.m. ET Sundays on AMC.

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