“Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse”
That, Don Draper, is putting it lightly.
I’ve watched “The Crash” twice tonight, and still don’t have a single concrete thought about it. I could justify rating it a 1.0 or a 10.0. Half the Internet seems to think it was a largely-incoherent drug-fueled waltz of insanity; the other half is hailing it as one of the defining episodes of the series, an avant-garde masterpiece that, bubbling beneath the surface level of insanity, told a story that was simultaneously sad, hilarious, and scary.
Maybe, just maybe, both sides are right. The conflicting views aren’t on opposite sides of a fence; they’re opposite circles in a Venn diagram, and the truth of “The Crash” is that it lies somewhere in the overlap.
Or maybe not. I don’t know. Am I on drugs? Where am I right now? Is it still Sunday night?
Whatever the case, I can say for sure that before tonight I’d never watched a drama while cackling in disbelief about what was happening on screen. ‘Mad Men’ is no stranger to structural and thematic hijinx – remember last season’s dazzling horror movie, “Mystery Date” – but this was an entirely different level. On most weeks, ‘Mad Men’ is sharp quips, rude behavior, and existential anguish. “The Crash” felt closer to a Vaudeville show (literally, in the case of Kenny Cosgrove) laced with the series’ now-trademark sense of dread and impending doom.
The episode opens its titular sequence: terrified Kenny trying to drive while drunken gun-toting Chevy executives harass him. This sets the tone for the rest of the hour. Turns out the Chevy account isn’t exactly going swimmingly, with our merged-and-currently-nameless agency struggling to get its work through the layers of corporate bureaucracy. “Be careful what you wish for” is an always-present theme on ‘Mad Men’, particularly when it comes to work (See: Hilton, Jaguar). It goes hand-in-hand with the “happiness is the moment before you need more happiness”, which at this point may as well be the series’ subtitle. “Mad Men: Happiness Is the Moment Before You Need More Happiness”. MM:HITMBYNMH. It has a ring to it.
But don’t worry, because Jim Cutler knows the way to happiness: Drugs! He calls in his “doctor” to administer “vitamin shots” to everyone at the office, and before long Cutler and Stan are racing around the building, Ken is tap dancing, the creative team is throwing darts at Stan (MONSTER week for Stan and his beard, aka my spirit animal), and Don Draper is…well…
The first time we see Don in this episode, he’s standing outside Sylvia’s apartment, smoking and sadly listening to her live her life through the door. Judging by the pile of cigarette butts at his feet, he’s been at it for a while. When a furious Sylvia calls him at the office, Don pathetically begs for her to take him back, unveiling such gems as “I’m feeling a lot of emotions, too” and “Please, just listen! I just want to talk to you about a few things.” Sylvia congratulates him for getting out of the affair without getting caught, and rightly hangs up on him.
A patented Don Draper Temper Tantrum leads to a coughing fit, at which point we enter the flashback world of Don as a child. Young Dick Whitman is sick, and his stone cold mother banishes him from the table to sleep in the cellar. This story unfolds over the course of the hour, with a prostitute named Amee taking care of Dick, feeding him soup, and nursing him back to health. Then when his fever breaks, she takes his virginity, leading to Dick’s mother beating him with a rolling pin. You know, the more of these flashbacks we see, the more I understand why Don is the way he is (that’s the point of flashbacks, right?).
Anyway, back in the present day. Don follows up his temper tantrum and flashback with a similarly patented Don Draper mid-workday nap, and when he’s woken up two and a half hours later by Dawn, Jim Gleeson has died. Teddy’s off for the weekend, leaving the office in the hands of soon-to-be drug-fueled maniacs Don and Jim.
Once the drugs kick in and Don finishes grilling Teddy’s secretary with nonsense questions, he retreats to his office to tear pages out of magazines and watch a fed up Ken Cosgrove dance a jig, because of course. Don then barges in to the world’s most hilarious creative meeting (Peggy babysitting Ginsburg + Stan + the new guy from CGC= comedy gold) to deliver a crazy-eyed monologue about not giving up (???).
After young Dick Whitman is fed soup in the flashback, Don’s struck with a lightning bolt of an idea; but when he runs (literally runs) back to the creative office, it’s Saturday evening (much to Don’s surprise) and a hippie-gypsy named Wendy has taken up residence in the office, and she can apparently read minds. After Don demands that Peggy find his old work for a soup account, Wendy materializes in Don’s office, but he’s so focused on his great idea that he doesn’t even consider getting it on with the comely young lass propositioning him. That, beyond anything else, is the #1 clue that Don Draper is TOTALLY F’ING OUT OF HIS MIND at the moment.
Back at the apartment. Megan’s about to leave to attend a play with her agent, but if Don’s too laser-focused for a booty call then he’s DEFINITELY not going to stop working to watch his kids, so Megan hires Sally to keep an eye on Bobby and Gene. This is a great plan until Sally wakes up in the middle of the night and a mysterious African-American lady is snooping around the living room. The lady claims to have raised Don, but Sally is suspicious. These scenes, intermingled with the wackiness of the office, were utterly terrifying. Knowing ‘Mad Men,’ it was not out of the question that something would happen to Sally, or that Sally would find a gun or something and kill the lady. Everything was in play, and when she catches Sally calling the police, I was holding my breath. Thankfully, nothing major comes of it: the lady issues a thinly-veiled threat for Sally and Bobby to go to bed, and robs the house.
At the office, a gleefully oblivious Don has found his old soup ad (tagline: “Because you know what he needs.”) and is furiously typing his masterwork. When it’s finally ready, Don calls Peggy and Ginsburg in to unveil the culmination of all this tireless work.
But as Don speaks, their faces slowly drop. Don’s not talking about Chevy. He’s not interested in selling cars. He’s talking about Sylvia. This entire weekend has been about Sylvia. He’s been furiously searching for the words he could say to her to get her to take him back. Sylvia knows what Don needs, and Don desperately needs her back. Peggy chides him, but Don skips home, convinced he’s onto something big.
Still mumbling about Sylvia, Don arrives at his apartment, at which point the real “crash” occurs. Police are there talking to Betty, Henry, Megan, and the kids. The whole situation is explained to Don, who promptly faints and falls flat on his face.
The next morning, a showered and sober Don by chance shares an elevator with Sylvia. They stand in silence for the 30 seconds, and Don exits without saying so much as goodbye.
The crash for the creative team came earlier. Following a rousing game of office darts, Peggy takes Stan back to her office to patch up his arm. High-outta-his-mind Stan basically invents the concept of “YOLO” by attempting to turn this situation into an opportunity to sleep with Peggy, and while for a second she appears to have fallen under the spell of his majetic beard, she ultimately resists and politely declines. Stan then reveals that his 20-year old cousin was just killed in Vietnam, and he’s very sad. Peggy, who is still carrying the secret of giving up her child, delivers the first sober, cutting observation of the hour:
“I’ve had loss in my life. You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex. It won’t get you through.”
If only Don Draper understood.