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, I don’t know whether I was more surprised by the abundance of farcical near-murders and almost-kidnappings in last night’s episode, or the extent to which the former were authorized by all the real deaths that remained pleasantly offstage.
Jane points out that the crash for which the episode is ostensibly titled gets no screen time after the show opens. But it’s no less disturbing for that: a sweaty, wide-eyed Cosgrove is being forced to drive at top speed with a gun literally held to his head. He’s injured in the crash, but once he takes the good doctor’s proprietary formula, his outrage over having nearly died undergoes a surprising transformation: He starts tap-dancing while babbling about being Chevy’s toy. The cane that had been medically necessary just minutes before transforms into a stage prop through the magic of modern chemistry. Aaron Bady pointed out to me that—to the extent that minstrelsy presents abjection as entertainment, with the performer in blackface wearing a rictus that passes for a smile with the force of violence behind it—Cosgrove’s dance could easily be in a minstrel show. The longer I thought about this, the clearer it became that the rest of this episode was a minstrel show too. The show has used minstrelsy before, but this time the blackface that set Roger’s act in “My Old Kentucky Home” firmly onstage is gone; the performance of abjection has blended seamlessly into real life. “Are we Negroes?” Bobby wonders, genuinely uncertain, and Don is uncertain too: The office is tapdancing on the fumes of its lost power, and if the kids are held hostage by a black con artist doing a blackface performance of a Southern mammy, the office is held hostage too—by Chevy, which refuses to even let Don onstage.
Whatever power Don and Ted hoped they’d gain by merging has dissipated: Frank Gleason is dead, Don fails a version of the intoxicant tolerance test he inflicted on Ted in last week’s episode, while Ginsberg, stone-cold sober, hurls knives at Stan’s face. (Vaudeville! With a little prestidigitation for good measure: Ginsberg reaches into the cup containing the writers’ pens and pulls out a knife.) Stan mourns his cousin’s death by having sex with Frank Gleason’s bereaved daughter—who appears onstage as a fortune-teller “here to make you feel better,” and only becomes Gleason’s daughter when the show comes down from its high. (We’ve been high too, we realize, at that awful, sticky moment when Ted explains who she was.)
Don likes to think of everything in terms of whores, so it’s not surprising that he slips up and misapplies the metaphor in this episode—that office has never not been a whorehouse, cars or no cars (remember when Pete pimped his own father’s death?). To a john, everything looks like a whore. But Don’s failure to recognize that the relevant term is minstrelsy rather than prostitution is understandable: He’s been in a minstrel show for two decades now, making and breaking exactly the whiteface American family the black con artist imagines them to be: “Is your daddy still handsome?” she asks Sally. “Is your mother still a piece of work?” Sally is nearly convinced, and who could blame her? She doesn’t know how generic her family is until this moment, when she realizes she has nothing with which to distinguish her father from anyone else. “Your daddy Mr. Donald Draper or not?” the woman asks. What can Sally say as she watches her "Grandma Ida" try to pry the television loose? She doesn’t know that the answer is: not.
O Jane-with-your-love-of-camp, my heart thrilled for you when a con artist took center stage in the ultimate con artist’s home while his wife was out watching a play while auditioning for parts. Were you delighted? Those poor Draper kids; such a tragedy they can’t be simulacra too; they’re so inconveniently flesh and blood (meta note: except not). “You’re their sister, not a hired hand,” Betty says when she realizes Don and Megan are turning the sibling relationship into a transactional one for profit. Meanwhile, Don is reminded his body isn’t just a construct as he coughs himself up into an Oedipal frenzy of disease and lust, soup and sex. He overhears Sylvia talking with food! While wearing a scarf on her head just like Amy/Amèe’s! Mothers and girlfriends, girlfriends and mothers! “Where’d you learn that?” Don asks Ken after his Al Jolson impression. “My mother,” Ken says, “no, my first girlfriend,” just in case we missed the Loss-Of-Virginity subtext and Don’s confusion of caretaking with foreplay. To become a man you’d best lie absolutely still while she “does all the work” or else tapdance your way onto a stage that lets you be in control.
I talked last week about Don’s surprising switch from submissive to dominant, and that strange BDSM flip got developed in “The Crash”. Don was passive when Amy “took his cherry.” Now he’s forced to be passive again, just when he expected to have maximum power. He’s been pushed offstage and shut out of all the venues where he’d planned to perform. Have you ever noticed his odd relationship to doors? Last week I got distracted by the plague of phones, but my mother pointed out that there were about seven scenes that showed Don opening doors—to the hotel room, to his office, etc. She’s right—Don was opening and closing doors all over the place. Ever the escape artist, Don can’t handle having a door he can’t walk through. He hovers outside Sylvia’s back door, trying to hear through it the way Amy (and later Frank’s daughter) tries to hear through his chest into his heart. Shut out of meetings with Chevy, he explodes at poor Ken. He demands that Cosgrove find a way to get them into the same room “so I can look them in the eye; the timbre of my voice is as important as the content.” It’s a big moment. This, to the best of my recollection, is the first time we’ve gotten insight—not into Don’s thinking, strategies, or approach to clients—but into Don’s sense of his own stagecraft. He’s admitting he’s a performer who can tapdance beautifully depending on his audience’s needs. “I don’t know whether I’ll be forceful or submissive,” he says, “but I must be there in the flesh.”
In other words, even Don is narrating himself as the vaudeville cipher he fully becomes in this episode. We’ve been testing the theory this season that we’re finally seeing “Mad Men” through Peggy’s eyes, so I want to close by examining Don’s parodic imitation of Don as genius advertising executive.
I know you’re all feeling the darkness here today, but there’s no reason to give in. No matter what you’ve heard, this process will not take years. 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. This is a test of our patience and commitment. One good idea could win someone over. [Emphasis mine.]
Remember Peggy’s fantasy of Ted reading a book by Emerson titled “SOMETHING”? Phil pointed out two weeks ago that Emerson never published such a book, though “he did, in 1850, publish a series of lectures titled Representative Men.” This amazing speech of Don as Don-the-Clown, of Don as vaudeville hypnotist—which is of course precisely what he’s always been when charming clients—continues Mad Men’s new project of undoing everything of substance we thought Don had. We see this through Peggy’s eyes, and if she’s starting to invest Ted with substance as she imagines him reading something—anything—that aspires to a higher plane, here she empties Don out completely. To his face, and in public. “That was very inspiring,” she says. “Do you have any idea of what the idea is?”