Photo: Jordin Althaus
Like a lot of Mad Men episodes, “The Crash” needs to be seen twice — not to unlock any subtleties of structure or tone, but to get over the idea that it’s really “about” much of anything.
I guess you could make the case that it captures that post-MLK-RFK feeling that the entire world was losing its mind, or felt as if it was. Nearly early every moment feels knowingly off-kilter. A couple of the guest characters (the I Ching–obsessed, token-tossing hippie chick who ends up screwing Stan, and the African-American burglar posing as Don Draper’s mammy) feel like nightmare figures: manifestations of a rattled and deeply threatened collective WASP id. There are moments when the episode threatens to turn into another “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Office,” “Mystery Date,” or “Dark Shadows,” to name three Mad Men in which the terrors of sixties history intruded on the characters’ consciousness so insistently that the episodes themselves felt nightmarish; but they’re only moments.
Despite flashes of expressionist weirdness and at least one subtle substitution of a recurring character for a historical figure (the late Frank Gleason as Robert F. Kennedy, the “piece that cannot be replaced,” the equivalent of the lawnmower incident in “Guy Walks …” standing in for the JFK assassination), Mad Men is, for the most part, a “realistic” series. It’s not like Louie, a series whose relative realism ebbs and flows depending on the character’s feelings and obsessions in any given week. Weiner’s show is more traditional. It almost always tags odd flourishes so that you know that they’re manifestations of a particular character’s anxieties, or fantasies, or side effects of booze, drugs, food poisoning, what have you. But this time it was Mad Men itself that seemed to be under the influence, stumbling around sweating and yammering, desperately trying to come up with a Big Idea, like Don and the gang slaving for Chevy.
There were moments when I suspected I was seeing veiled in-jokes about what it’s like to write for the series. “Do you want to get someone in here who can draw?” Ginsberg asks Don, the supposed Big Idea man. “No, I don’t have time for art!” Don snarls, already on his way out the door. Anybody who’s worked in TV probably laughed out loud at that. Like low-budget filmmakers, television writers and directors can’t sweat getting it perfect when they’re mainly concerned with getting it done. As my colleague Todd VanDerWerff put it, this felt like “an episode of Mad Men that’s about writing Mad Men.” To its credit, “The Crash” was frank in acknowledging that the agency gang (stand-ins for the show’s writers, this time at least) stayed awake all weekend, frazzled by Dr. Hex’s injections, brainstorming and having drug-addled false epiphanies and flipping out, yet produced nothing of substance. “Half of this work is gibberish,” said Ted, perusing Don’s work after returning from his partner’s funeral. “Chevy is spelled wrong!” Don’s parting shot — “Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse!” — was one of the funniest subtext-as-text lines in an episode filled with them, but it only underlined the episode’s lack of a clear raison d’être.
After two viewings, and no desire for a third, I’m convinced that metafiction/jazzing around is the only prism through which “The Crash” is anything other than audaciously annoying. More so than any Mad Men episode I can recall, it doesn’t quite feel like a Mad Men episode, but a bunch of half-formed ideas for a Mad Men episode; I bet if you totaled them up you’d have six-hundred-and-sixty-six ideas, pace Stan, inadvertently name-checking the number of the Beast. Some of the ideas are great, others stunningly bad; still others don’t quite feel like ideas, even if you squint. It feels like the TV-drama version of one of those papers that every halfway-smart student writes when they’re exhausted and can’t come up with an idea, and decides to write about their inability to come up with an idea instead, and hope they’ll be so clever that they’ll get an A anyway. That might be the whole point of this episode, but is it a point worth spending an episode to make? “If this strategy is successful, it’s way bigger than a car! It’s everything!” Don barks, playing the role of Brilliant Idea Man while Peggy stares at him blankly, as tired of his b.s. as we are.
Written by Jason Grote and Matthew Weiner and directed by Michael Uppendahl, “The Crash” is exciting the first time out because of its sheer what-the-fuck-ness. It’s a perfect example of a quality of all great, or at least memorable, TV shows: a willingness to violate whatever expectations it has previously set up for experimentation’s sake, and to keep viewers on their toes. To quote John Mathis during the fruitless ideas meeting, “You’re pretentious, you know that? I like that!” From the opening sequence of Ken Cosgrove roaring down a green-screened road with Chevy executives carrying on like Frank Booth’s gang in Blue Velvet, to the drug-fueled footrace between Stan Rizzo and Jim Cutler, to Don Draper’s even-more-on-the-nose-than-usual Arthur Miller–by–way–of–Bob Fosse flashbacks, to Sally Draper’s encounter with the creepy African-American burglar who insists she’s Sally’s grandma (and who appears shortly after Sally is seen reading Rosemary’s Baby; hey, I wonder if that book has exactly 666 pages???????), it was clear that we were in the presence of a show that doesn’t give a damn what you think of it and is reveling in its freedom. But the hippie chick, the burglar, and many other touches were unfortunate reminders of the limits of Mad Men’s cultural imagination. About halfway through the episode, enamored by the writers’ chutzpah, the streak of absurdist humor, and the John Frankenheimer–esque fish-eye lenses, I tweeted that the show had knocked the cover off the ball. How I wish I could take that back! With a few hours’ distance, “The Crash” feels more like an on-field meltdown. Maybe the writers agree and were fessing up via the title, which reads like a veiled confession that after six seasons the show is about to faint from exhaustion like poor Don back at his apartment?
The awful stuff first: Burglar Mammy was horrendous, a confirmation of every harsh judgment levied against Mad Men for being too much of a white upper-middle-class historical fantasy, a show that’s not willing or able to really go where it labors to convince us it’s going. If Burglar Mammy were a dream figure attached to a particular character, and if Mad Men had shown any inclination to go anywhere substantive with its allusions to civil rights and racial anxiety, and if it hadn’t given us a black Playboy bunny, a black prostitute, a black mugger, and other disreputable minor characters over the years, but no people of color with personal or even narrative substance, I might feel differently about her.
Alas, Burglar Mammy is a real person, not Sally’s or anyone else’s hallucination. She even has a name, or an assumed name: Ida. There was a postmortem with law enforcement, and Sally didn’t get a cheek injection along with the ad agency people, so there’s no critical anchor point for claiming that Ida is an indicator of anything but Weiner’s issues, whatever those may be. Mere weeks ago, Mad Men did an entire episode about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that gave its only recurring black character, Dawn, maybe a dozen lines, and gave her fewer this time out (“You need some water?” and “Can I clean that up?” aren’t exactly Emmy-reel material). “Are we Negroes?” Bobby Draper asks Sally, tossing faux subtext in the audience’s lap like Colonel Kurtz chucking a severed head at Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now. As I wrote in a New Republic recap of “The Summer Man,” “For all the show’s oblique fascination with African Americans’ struggle for civil rights (a phenomenon that’s portrayed as just another vaguely unsettling thing on TV, rather like the still-new deployment of Vietnam combat troops glimpsed in the newscast that Don noted in his journal) the fourth season has directed most of its political attention to another civil rights struggle: feminism.” Two seasons later, Mad Men is still looking everywhere but at the subject it keeps telling us it cares about, and will get to eventually. Weiner, please.
The less said about Don’s flashbacks, the better. The wooden spoon bit was appropriately traumatizing for both young Dick Whitman and the audience. But Don’s childhood-issues-as-explanations-for-his-adult-dysfunction would seem played-out by this point, even if the flashbacks weren’t consistently poorly acted and written (“I defy your accusations!”) and integrated with present-tense material in a film-schoolish way. (Don coughs in the present; young Dick Whitman coughs in the past, etc.) And “Dream a Little Dream”? Seriously? Can we not do better than that, show? That’s a bit Forrest Gump–y, eh?
The best things about “The Crash” were the humor (looser and earthier than Mad Men’s usual constipated drollness; at times almost Robert Altman–esque) and the character moments. Stan makes a pass (not entirely deflected) at Peggy, then tells her about his cousin’s death in Vietnam — a moment foreshadowed by Ginsberg’s “Dad, I could be dying in Vietnam, don’t you want me to have a car?” Peggy counters Stan’s confession with “I’ve had a loss in my life” — a reference to her secret baby that doubles as a reference to JFK-MLK-RFK. Ken Cosgrove’s desperate, angry tap dance for Don sums up the Chevy people’s thuggishness, but it also feels like yet another metaphor for what’s it’s probably like to work on Mad Men (the poor bastard’s dancing as fast as he can, so that sonfoabitching recappers can write about what a rotten dancer he is). Ken’s thunder-footed soft shoe ends with a Draper-like memory-confusion of Ken’s mom and his first girlfriend — a moment that connects weirdly yet pleasingly with Don seeing Peggy (a mother figure as well as a little sister/trainee figure) touching Ted’s arm. Don stalks Sylvia, at one point leaning his head against her apartment door and listening to “Going Out of My Head,” a romantic obsession song doubling as description of the episode’s drugged-out, freaked-out quality.
Don’s office encounter with Wendy seems as if it’s going to end in a tryst (Stan drew that straw, apparently); instead it becomes a playful subtext-as-text exchange about broken hearts being detectable via stethoscope. I got a kick out of Don narrating his life after the drug injection. (“I’m gonna go out for cigarettes, then I’m gonna knock on her door …” ) There’s nothing wrong with subtext-as-text (Bergman and Antonioni and the other giants of sixties European-art cinema thrived on it) as long as it’s done with style and intelligence. There great examples in “The Crash,” though not enough to atone for all if the episode’s missteps, and for its general aura of extra-dramatic chaos and panic. It’s a drug and alcohol thing, but it can also be a grief or depression or sleep-deprivation thing. When your consciousness is altered, you narrative-ize your life even more aggressively than you would under normal circumstances. Everything starts to feel like fate, and every idea seems to have sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus. You start to notice what you think are literary motifs or mythical allusions in life, and you share them with other people who would have a lot more patience for them if they were in the same mental state as you. But they’re not, so they just look at you funny.
Lie down, Mad Men. Get some rest.
Odds and ends
* I love that Peggy is once again the voice of reason here, standing just outside the madness and finally splitting when she can’t take it anymore. Elisabeth Moss has a knack for delivering super-dry comebacks to male bluster. Stan: “Come on, I need this.” Peggy: “I know, I know, you’re in pain.” Equally good: Don’s insufferable monologue to the writers, which included another bit of seeming meta-commentary on this unformed episode: “One great idea can win someone over.” John Mathis: “Dear lord! You’re as good as they say!” Peggy: “That was very inspiring. Do you have any idea what the idea is?” Don, unfazed: “No, but I’m not gonna stop looking!”
* Peggy’s intimate moment with Stan was exquisitely observed. Despite his drug-addled inappropriateness and her sisterly feelings toward him, there’s real chemistry there; you can feel it. “You’ve got a great ass,” he tells her as she’s leaving. “Thank you,” she says simply.
* Also: “You’re lucky I don’t like beards.” Expect a clean-shaven Stan next week.
* I was reminded that Don once attempted a novel or memoir or some other bit of long-form literary expression in season four’s “The Summer Man.” Maybe the flashbacks to Don’s childhood are so bad because they’re Don’s fantasies, and Don is a bad writer?
* No Joan in this episode, and very little Pete or Roger. Me no like.
* I spelunked a bit to figure out what that doctor injected into the various characters’ hindquarters. I remember that the Beatles wrote a song about a doctor who provided this type of service to well-heeled workaholic clients: 1966’s “Dr. Robert.” According to Robert Fontenot, the title character was “… Dr. Robert Freymann, a ‘speed doctor’ on East 78th Street in Manhattan who regularly injected his famous clientele with amphetamines to get them through their day (or night). Most historians tend to agree with this explanation; everyone from Jackie Kennedy to Charlie Parker came for the good doctor’s shots of Vitamin B-12 laced with speed.”