Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Crash" (season 6, episode 8)

Mad Men - "The Crash" (season 6, episode 8)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on May 19, 2013/written by Jason Grote and Matthew Weiner; directed by Michael Uppendahl): "The Crash" depicts an office racing through a work weekend while cranked up on speed, producing illegible gibberish despite grasping for elusive epiphanies and foolhardy connections. The episode itself, however, pulls off exactly what the agency fails to achieve, resulting in one of the best episodes of the entire series. Dozens of elements coalesce and reinforce one another in dazzling, disturbing, and deeply insightful fashion while other moments stand out simply as brilliant audiovisual flourishes, like Ken breaking into a hysterical tap dance routine punctuated with a singsong "It's my job!" as he describes the clients' abuse of him, Michael and Peggy quoting Lewis Carroll while characters weave around the partitions behind them, or Stan nonchalantly taking a penknife to the arm as Michael broadly misses the picture of an apple over his head. That last scrape is far from the episode's only close call.

Driving all of this mayhem are four present-day events and one dimly understood distant memory. First, Frank Gleason has passed away, with only Ted grieving the loss enough to avoid the weekend festivities. Second, buckling under the pressure to perform for Chevy, the creatives (and a few other lucky participants) are injected with a potent serum by Dr. Shelly Hecht (Rick Zieff) ostensibly to provoke an onrush of inspiration. Third, Sylvia catches Don lingering outside her door and attempts to warn him off although especially in his narcotized state he's only further encouraged to pursue his redemption. Fourth, Sally babysits her siblings in the Draper apartment, leading to a long, strange sequence in which a would-be robber (Davenia McFadden) regales the suspicious teen with a ludicrous yarn about being Don's childhood nanny, back for a visit. And finally, during his Depression-era days in New Jersey, young Dick Whitman is nursed back from fever and chest cold by Amy Swenson, the beauty marked prostitute who caught his eye when his stepmother brought him to live in this house of ill repute, a few flashbacks earlier.

That sickbed memory is the key to everything else; or at least that's what Don thinks, and Mad Men's writer are eager to prove him right. Abandoning the Chevy mission to focus on crafting the perfect profession of love for Sylvia, Don obsessively hunts down an oatmeal print ad from the fifties. When he finally digs it up, we see that the beautiful, adoring mother feeding her gap-toothed son is wearing a head-covering similar to Miss Swenson's, a perverse, even perverted underpinning to the innocent image, considering what the amateur nurse actually did to Dick when he recovered. "I took that boy's cherry," she boasts when the pimp kicks her out, leading to Dick's beating by his furious stepmother. "Because you know what he needs," the advertisement coos a mere dozen years after its traumatic inspiration. Thus a young adolescent's sordid loss of virginity is converted into a portrait of blissful domesticity for the purpose of selling a commodity. Dick-turned-Don has forever after conflated Miss Swenson's soothing care and molestation, because the only real mothering he ever experienced was at the hands of the woman who immediately thereafter deflowered him.

Signposts Oedipal and otherwise turn up all over the episode, culminating in Don's memorable, double/triple/quadruple-charged kiss-off to Ted: "Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse." Sylvia's beauty mark and head covering are the same as Miss Swenson's; Ken informs Don that it was his mother who taught him to dance and then immediately corrects himself - "No, my first girlfriend"; Bobby incorrectly tells Don that the thief said she was his mom; a photo of an infant on Miss Swenson's mirror ("Is that you?" "No.") suggests her own familial issues; and Don is propositioned in his office by the stethoscope-wielding Wendy Gleason (Alex Nikolas), straight from her father's funeral, in another blurring of the line between seduction and medicine (although this time the age gap, if not quite the power dynamic, is reversed). Don, caught across all these currents, is swept back to his building in one last ill-fated attempt to woo Sylvia, only to discover a police officer, his ex- and current wife, his ex's new husband, and his three children waiting in his own apartment - a motley family informing him that his home has been trespassed by another imposter. There's nothing left for Don to do at this point except pass out cold on the floor, the crash he never realized he needed.

My Response: I wondered what this episode had in store based on the title. Was Ted's stint at the show's center about to come to a fiery end in his airplane, just as soon as it began? I assumed that "The Crash" would have a double meaning, and it certainly does, but I didn't expect the literal interpretation to be dealt with so swiftly upfront and with so little consequence, although I'm sure Ken feels differently. Indeed, that terrifying moment in the racing Chevy - with the loony GM reps covering Ken's eyes, waving a pistol next to his ear, and smashing into an oncoming bright light - is a microcosm of the whole episode to come, the character's screwed-up bodies and minds hurtling into the night with the worst possible disaster inevitable yet somehow avoided. In fact it's exactly that escape that changes everything. If Don carried through on his intention to make a complete ass of himself, the Rosen and Draper marriages would have been decimated - only a literal thief in the night saves him. But for what purpose? The final elevator ride reveals a Don more sober and controlled (truly controlled, not falsely, maniacally "in control") than we've seen all season, perhaps than we've seen in several seasons. Crackpot solutions may have been brushed aside but the problems they were meant to address remain. I'll be shocked if Don and Megan make it to the finale.

Meanwhile, "The Crash" provides one of the masterpieces of Mad Men's concentrated in-office drama mode, up there with the Election Night 1960 party, the infamous bloody tractor, or Don's and Peggy's all-nighter. Never, however, has everyone been so in on the craziness (nor has the craziness been so crazy). The episode also finally gives me reason to highlight Jim Cutler, played by the wonderfully creepy but charismatic Harry Hamlin. Between his work as Aaron Echolls and Ray Wise's as Leland Palmer, the show is really dipping into TV's history of "demented daddies" for its ensemble (not to mention shows I've covered as extensively as Mad Men on this site - and in addition to Veronica Mars and Twin Peaks, "The Crash" even brings the aptly loopy The Prisoner into the mix via a clip the Draper kids are watching on TV). Jim has already made an impression a couple times but while he still doesn't exactly have a thread of his own, he's given addition prominence in this episode. The executive procures those drugs and - even more sleazily - his recently deceased friend's teenage (perhaps even underage) hippie daughter for the office's enjoyment...er, productivity (he unabashedly watches Stan have sex with her from a not very hidden doorway). I can't imagine this character merely hovering in the background for much longer; he's a chaos agent disguised - none too convincingly - as a pillar of respectable authority.

Ted, meanwhile, is emerging as perhaps the most decent character on the series and increasingly a counterpoint to Don's ruthless amorality. That's a bit too simplistic, of course; he hasn't completely transformed from the egotistical, underhanded rival we met several seasons ago, and a nearly impossible-to-avoid affair with Peggy will probably further complicate things. Peggy's independence (even "under" Don once again) is one of the most fascinating elements Mad Men uses to move the story forward, and I'm especially intrigued by how she plays into Don's complicated (to put it lightly) relationship with women; indeed, the anxiety and uncertainty evoked by her advancement often manifest directly toward Megan. I don't think Don will be dumped by a wife discovering his betrayal once again. With Sylvia out of the way (although Arthur, a bit ominously, doesn't feel finished), it will probably be Don who leaves Megan, and Ted and Peggy will likely have something to do with it even if none of them could explain how, or even be aware of the connection on a conscious level. One smash-up has been avoided, perhaps only redirecting everyone towards an even more catastrophic crash.

Next (active on November 1, 8am): "The Better Half"Previous: "Man with a Plan"

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