|Cutler (Harry Hamlin) and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) race through the office Jordin Althaus/AMC|
Every season of Mad Men, there is an episode that diverges from the show’s usual traditional, slow-burn storytelling. These episodes are usually experimental in ways that feel innovative, such as “The Suitcase” from season four, which only features Don and Peggy as they stay up all night to finish an ad copy, or they can feel slightly self-indulgent, such as season two’s “The Jet Set”, otherwise known as the disjointed “Don visits California” episode. As soon as the first scene of “The Crash” was over, featuring Ken Cosgrove getting into a car accident, I knew this was going to be one of THOSE episodes. This unfortunately fell into the “self-indulgent” category of experimental episodes with director Michael Uppendahl and writers Matt Weiner and Jason Grote ultimately choosing style over substance.
Much of the episode feels like a dream (though some would see it as a nightmare), with most of the show’s characters getting an injection of “energy serum” from a visiting doctor. Word gets around that the cancer-ridden Frank Gleason has passed away, which gives Cutler the idea to bring a doctor into the office. Additionally, with new client Chevrolet in their pocket, the creatives and partners at SCDP-CGC alike are forced to come together and pitch the best idea to the car company. Therefore, the doctor injects the workers with a “vitamin boost” to help keep them energized. This ultimately has disastrous effects, with many of the men racing each other around the office. The serum has a particularly negative effect on Don, who seemingly misses large gaps in time, hallucinates, and has flashbacks of his traumatizing childhood. He tries to comes up with the winning pitch for Chevy but because this is one of, if not the biggest client he’s ever had, it also has to be the best idea he’s ever had. He becomes so distracted by the stimuli around him, however, that he loses focus on reality. What seems like the idea to him is really just the incoherent ramblings of a man with severe mommy issues.
Don has a moment of altered clarity when he sees a random secretary in the office and asks if he knows her from somewhere else. This immediately brings about flashbacks of his teenage years where young Dick Whitman was raised in a whorehouse. We’ve flashed back to this time in his life already this season and once again it feels like we spend an unnecessarily long amount of screentime on them. We find out that he essentially lost his virginity through a whore forcing him into it, which leads to his stepmother beating him into submission. “Get it?” the show seems to say, “He has issues with women, and this is why!” Flashbacks have rarely worked on this show, as they tend to over-explain things in a way that could have just as easily been suggested through present-day action. Though it’s mildly interesting to connect his trouble with women back to his teenage years, the scenes feel like they’re in a completely different, worse show altogether. With the help of these flashbacks, he finds what he’s looking for in the present: an old ad featuring a mother and child with the slogan “Because you know what he needs.” Don excitedly tells Peggy and Ginsberg that he has the winning idea but he rambles incoherently about advertising, entertainment, and most importantly, giving “her” what she needs. He leaves without giving them a single usable thought, once again disregarding his work. When Peggy asks, “What have you been doing the last three days?” the answer certainly isn’t related to the agency. He is so far gone into his own head that everyone around him is just a bunch of springboards for him to play with. Though the flashbacks we see through the episode are not entirely necessary, I admire the characterization of Don this season. He has revealed himself to be this mixture of self-absorbed, aging shell of his former self and tortured little boy who just wants to feel something for someone again. It’s been a gradual transformation over the past few season and the execution has been beautifully subtle.
Sally, Bobby and Gene are staying with Megan for the day as Don works in the office. Despite Don’s absence, Megan goes off to meet some casting people for a play, telling Sally to watch over her younger brothers while she’s gone. Quite predictably, this ends up being a terrible idea as neither Don nor Megan show up at the apartment, for hours on end. Late at night, Sally stumbles upon a black woman shuffling through the kitchen cabinets. The woman assures Sally that she’s her grandmother, explaining that she took care of Don as a child. The woman is quite obviously lying but she ultimately ends up stealing one of Don’s watches and gets away. Here’s the thing. I understand that this show isn’t supposed to be a full slice of life in the ’60s; at its heart, the show is a character study of white, affluent characters and Weiner has not strayed from this concept. However, with the brief scenes we’ve seen from Don’s secretary Dawn and now this very negative depiction of the “Mammy” archetype, it seems that the show is either ignoring or doesn’t understand how to write complex black characters. What are we supposed to get from this storyline? The woman talks about Don’s childhood to an extent that Sally cannot deny, since the teen barely knows anything about her father anyway, so maybe that’s what it’s trying to show? If that’s the case, then the Mammy caricature (I wouldn’t call this person an actual character) is just there to show how little Sally knows about her father. It also probably shows why Megan would be a terrible mother. So she’s there to serve the white characters’ storylines.
Earlier this year, Weiner noted that the lack of black characters on the show was in keeping with the reality of the era. Rich, white Madison Avenue executives were barely if ever in contact with blacks, so Weiner reasons that they wouldn’t enter into Mad Men‘s overarching story. However, the show covered the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination earlier this season to great effect, showing how the executives knew they should feel bad but they didn’t know how to express it to their black co-workers. But with storylines like the one featured in “The Crash”, they does nothing but perpetuate a negative stereotype in such a way that also feels forced by the writers. I’m not in any way saying that the writers are racist, but it would be nice if there was at least one black character on this show that had any sort of complexity whatsoever.
For much of this episode, I was hyper-conscious of the fact that this was one of those experimental, dream-like episodes of the show, which is one of my least favorite movie/TV-going experiences. When I can feel the hand of the director/writer throughout an episode, it no longer feels like I’m in the story with these characters. I’ve seen many critics state that the episode was a metaphor for writing an episode of Mad Men, like a sort of meta-commentary. If this is the case then so be it, but when a writer tries too hard to show off how clever he can be, he sacrifices what brought viewers to the show in the first place. It was a bold experiment but it didn’t work for me.
MVP: Jon Hamm
Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Jon Hamm