If last week’s “Mad Men” was packed with satisfying scenes – Ted getting advice from his dying friend, Peggy scolding Don, Don sweating and shaking in Ted’s plane while Ted plays the hero, Sylvia leaving Don – then this week’s episode was all agitation and mania with much less payoff. “The Crash” began with recklessness, progressed to madness, and closed with remorse. Along the way, there were strange and colorful moments: Ken crashed, then tap-danced. Stan arm wrestled, then got stabbed in the arm, then mourned his cousin, then made a pass. Sally scolded her brother, then sassed her mother, then told her father she hardly knows him. Peggy rolled her eyes at Don, comforted Ted, and turned down Stan’s advance. And good lord, have we ever seen Peggy turn down an advance before? Pete, Duck, Abe, Ted … Peggy has always been the girl who says yes to halfhearted passes. Maybe this means she’s finally an adult.
Don, though, seems so grown up, but really he’s still a kid. (Megan says this about Sally, but it applies to Don, too.) First, Don stalks Sylvia Rosen, who dumped him without warning last week. Isn’t it great how, every time Don encounters Sylvia in her apartment, she’s looking and acting like the epitome of the nightmare housewife? She’s got a scarf on her head, she’s wearing a housecoat, she’s nagging her husband about money, she’s mocking his importance in the world. This time, Sylvia asks if Arnold wants something to eat, in a voice that’s courser than that of your average hash-slinging diner waitress.
Then, once Don has taken the crazy doctor’s electric Kool-Aid acid test, he starts reminiscing about the charming whorehouse where he grew up. His stepmother looks more like Sylvia than ever, and talks in the same brassy voice. At least that explains in part why Sylvia’s become so important to Don; she’s a stand-in for the brash woman who could never be bothered to act like a mother to him. Remember how Sylvia doesn’t pause for a second before taking Don’s money after they sleep together?
But it’s not enough to make Sylvia the nasty, emotionally absent mother-whore. We’ve also got to have a whore spoon-feeding a young Don soup, then having sex with him. Because Don can’t tell the difference between a prostitute and a mommy, get it? Don associates unconditional love with sex! He confuses the two! He loathes whores but he craves his lost whore-mama!
Why stop there? Why not throw in a woman pretending to be Don’s long-lost nanny and “grandmother,” who’s really just a thief in disguise? Because then we’ve got matriarchs who steal stuff — gold watches! Time itself, stolen! We’ve got motherly frauds who will turn on you the second you don’t give them hugs and trust them and tell them everything. This is the embodiment of what Don thinks will happen if he’s honest and gives his heart to a woman: She’ll steal everything that isn’t nailed down. As the ad says, she – the mom, the maid, the whore – will give you what you need, and that’s the whole trouble. She doesn’t care about you at all, she’s just serving up whatever you require.
Of course, this echoes Don’s view of himself. Once he starts freaking out in earnest, he says to Ken, of the Chevy executives, “You have to get me in the room so I can look them in the eye. The timbre of my voice is as forceful as the content.” Don is trying to reassure himself of his own charisma, but in doing so, he’s basically admitting that his appeal is skin-deep. “I don’t know whether I’ll be forceful or submissive, but I must be there in the flesh,” he adds, now talking about Sylvia instead of Chevy. His career, his love affairs, his entire life has been built on seduction. Without the power to seduce in person, he has nothing.
In response to this, Ken does a crazy tap dance, demonstrating the demeaning particulars of his role. “Where’d you learn that?” Don asks. “My mother,” Ken says. “No, my first girlfriend.” “Girlfriend, mother, whore, same difference!” Don shouts back.
No, Don doesn’t actually say that. But would it surprise you if he did? Seriously, Matthew Weiner, do you think we’re grasping your point about mothers and whores and friends and whores and brothers and whores and mourning daughters and whores, or do we also need Betty calling Sally a whore? (“Where’d you get that skirt?” “I earned it.” “On what street corner?”) Do we need Michael Ginsberg urging Don to “Promise them everything. You’ve got to change their life, you’ve got to take away their pain!”? Do we need Don announcing his unwillingness to yield his life to Chevy’s high-paying whoring schedule, and then piously telling Ted Chaough, “Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse”? Are we really meant to throw our sandwiches at the screen, yelling, “But YOU are the whore, Don Draper!”?
Sometimes I wish Don weren’t quite so covered in whoring whoremongers and the whoring whores who whore for them. I mean, this dead horse was beaten to a pulp months ago, wasn’t it? Every time they flash back to that whorehouse, I can’t tell if I’m watching “Mad Men” or “Boardwalk Empire” or “The Sopranos” or “Game of Thrones” (where at least the whores have biting words and little vials filled with poison). “Mad Men” is too smart and modern to send us somewhere we’ve been a million times before (and will be a million more times in the future). What if Don Draper just had a stoical dad who drank too much and beat him, like so many kids of his generation? Wouldn’t the specifics of that have to be a little more artful? Have we learned or seen one intriguing or interesting or artful detail about 1) young Don, 2) his stepmother, 3) Mac or 4) the nurturing whores in his midst? Given the rich, unpredictable nature of so many “Mad Men” scenes, these flashbacks are, in contrast, utterly flat and colorless. There were whores around, and it was confusing. Next!
Or as Peggy puts it, “That was very inspiring. Do you have any idea what the idea is?”
That said, this episode had more than a few entertaining moments (Pete’s earnest appearance mid-trip, Stan’s William Tell routine, Frank Gleason’s hippie daughter hitting on Don, Bobby asking, “Are we negroes?”). And there was movement. Don starts out lost: He has no Sylvia, no Megan, no connection to his kids, and no good ideas. When he asks Sylvia if she’s afraid of Arnold, he is briefly hopeful: Maybe he can save Sylvia from her threatening husband? Instead, Sylvia replies, “No, I’m afraid of you.” That must sound pretty awful to a guy who loves playing the hero. When Ted calls Frank Gleason, “A great artist and a great friend,” and says, “He made our company whole,” it’s no wonder that Don looks stricken. “He’s a piece that cannot be replaced,” Ted says. Don, meanwhile, is none of the above. Tellingly, Peggy now respects, listens to and comforts Ted instead of Don.
After this lost phase, Don finds an inspired path. “In my heart, I know we cannot be defeated, because there is an answer that will open the door. There is a way around this system,” he tells Stan, Peggy, Michael and the others. “This is a test of our patience and commitment. One good idea could win them over.” Not only is he optimistic that he can win over Sylvia and Chevy, but he’s optimistic that an open heart, patience and commitment will set him on the right path.
But by the end, Don has closed the door on “feeling a lot of emotions.” He answers Sylvia in one word when he sees her in the elevator. On the phone with Sally, he takes the blame for the robbery because he “left the door open,” which he clearly regrets. He has resolved not to let anyone in again. Finally he tells Ted that he can only take a supervising role when it comes to Chevy’s rigorous whoring schedule; he can’t be the guy dreaming up the big ideas week after week, with no chance of face-to-face seduction. Don Draper will not offer his heart on a platter to an unseen client. He can’t play the whore anymore, even though all of his strengths and victories are wrapped up in this act. He needs to power down and feel nothing. “You did everything right,” he tells Sally (and himself). “Time to forget about it.”
But Ted and Jim are confused. If Don can’t play the whore, what can he do, exactly?
Maybe that’s what Don himself was wondering, when he took that mega-dose of whatever it was and fractured into pieces like software gone haywire. Reduced to his essence, he was revealed to be nothing more than a glitchy, half-absent patriarch, a fugue of uplifting nonsense, a fraud who lied his way into someone else’s life and took them for all they were worth. Once he could see himself for the shattered replica of a man that he was, what could Don really do but glue himself back together again, and resolve to be even more closed and distant? Sanctimonious as ever, he’ll take the high road to his own doom.