Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear TV, “Mad Men” traffics in verbal metaphors and visual fact—a formula that Matt Weiner sometimes adheres to a little too faithfully. The images and fashion tell us one thing, while nuance is conveyed through language that, if done well, leaves us working through its implications long after they’re spoken. (It’s almost as if it’s a show about advertising.) And so, with a title like “The Crash,” there’s a safe bet that viewers are in for some kind of ride. The most obvious reference to this title is quickly done away with, as Ken’s cold open car crash that begins the episode gets forgotten by the first commercial break.
Ken is, like the rest of SCDPCGC, worn out at the start of “The Crash,” and Chevy isn’t relenting on how much new copy they’re expecting by Tuesday morning. It being 1968, Jim Cutler a.k.a. Aaron Echolls calls up his doctor a.k.a. speed-provider “to get Kenny here fixed up.” True to his word, Jim gets “everyone fixed up,” generating more verbal metaphors than is probably wise for a single episode—even in a show like “Mad Men.” After all, there are metaphors (like those we find in just about every single title) and then there are metaphors, like the ones Don doles out in this episode. These metaphor-laden speeches are dramatic and ridiculous, dreamt up in a flurry of a white-bread-and-mayo diet, sleep deprivation, and proprietary Energy Serum. And not only is Ken’s near-death experience quickly overshadowed, but so too is Frank Gleason’s actual death. “Either get used to it, or stop thinking about it,” suggests Roger—a line that can be read, if we want to take the metaphor one step more meta (and recappers of “Mad Men” so often do) as a general tip on how to experience Weiner’s show.
The fact is that “Mad Men” is not known for its narrative consistency, or even its narrative sense. The last time it could be believably described as coherent was sometime during season one, and only by dint of having not accumulated much backstory yet. A few seasons later—with all those famous time lapses and dropped plotlines—and “Mad Men” has repeated its trademark moves so often that I’m sincerely impressed at how the show manages to be both groaningly predictable and wildly inconsistent. Last week, Evan compared the clipped and isolated storylines of “Man With a Plan” to a modernist novel. This week, “The Crash” (lead by the directorial prowess of Michael Uppendahl) decided to thematize a drug trip. I mean, it’s almost the ’70s! Drugs come in all forms, and a “complex vitamin superdose” injected from behind seems harmless enough? Megan’s skirts are only going in one direction (with Sally’s following not too far behind), and I hope you enjoyed Peggy's polite response to Stan's “great ass” compliment as much as I did. “The Crash” is officially the butt joke of “Mad Men” episodes, and we all know how versatile butt jokes can be.
Getting everyone high is a great, if potentially lazy, plot device to exploit narrative inconsistency. There are no metaphors needed here: These characters—and by extension, this episode—is literally on speed. Did we, as viewers, complain that Weiner’s show felt like it was dragging on, or growing recursive? Did we whine that nothing really ever happened, or that Don was being glorified beyond his due? “The Crash” not only brought its awareness of such complaints to the fore, but it brought them at a speed usually reserved for those little explosions (slapstick, campy, or abject) that only interrupted the visually austere or pristine environment that defined “Mad Men.” While the episode was by no means insular (there’s Megan, Sylvia, Sally, blonde Betty, Henry, and Grandma Ida), it felt like a bottle episode. If last week was a riff on the modernist novel, this week was a joke on the avant-garde. Uppendahl showed us how it might look if all the iconic moments of “Mad Men” were stuffed into 40 minutes. With memorable moments (Don rhapsodizing, blood in the office, Peggy managing everyone’s expectations) placed on their heads or turned inside out, it all looks pretty ludicrous. Depending on how much credit you’re willing to give the writers, the result reads anywhere from coyly experimental to sensationalist schlock. (Where even to start on the nightmare Negro Robber?)
If “Mad Men” were ever to have a musical episode, this would probably be it. Between Ken’s Fred Astaire moves and Stan’s Russ Tamblyn kicks, I was almost disappointed when Young Don didn’t break out into a Nancy-inspired ballad. Standing on the staircase at SCDPCGC, the cinematography suggests that Don has three choices: to burst into song, to fall on his face, or to lapse into a flashback. Unfortunately, he doesn’t go with the first. But “The Crash” might as well have been a musical, for all its campiness and prolonged “uninterrupted creative focus, energy, and confidence.” Not only do Don and all the rest of the office’s men take the shot (does Stan really take it twice?), but they buy into it far more quickly than an ad man probably should—that is, before the drug even takes effect. Don tripping on a secretary’s lips just minutes after his injection is, to carry my metaphor forward, the same as bursting into song upon falling in love at first sight.
“I’ve got it,” Don declares, bursting into a room where the rest of creative is too absorbed in Wendy’s telepathic expertise to appreciate Don’s epiphany. Don doesn’t save the day in this episode; if anything, he fails his children, his wife, and ex-wife, as well as his many figurative mothers. The cult of spontaneous male inspiration isn’t laudable or heroic, but a self-fulfilling lie. What if it was just a rigorously drugged-up confidence all along? “That was very inspiring,” says Peggy, after one of Don’s nonsense monologues. “Do you have any idea what the idea is?” Don doesn’t, but he’s “not going to stop looking.” Recall too that 1968 was the year of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which parodied male creative genius in its own way. Who cares if you have 666 ideas, if all of them are worthless?
I feel great, but I'm on a deadline,
Jane Hu is a cultural critic, mostly at The Awl.