“You’re pretentious, you know that? I love that.” – John Mathis, to Ed Gifford
I’m going to warn you. This review will be packed with layer upon layer of thick, gooey irony. A wedding cake of metacommentary, if you will. The first layer, the foundation of my struggle, is that I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said about Mad Men in general, or even about this episode by more reputable critics. Matt Zoller Seitz beat me to the punch on quoting John Mathis and using it as the jumping off point for analysis, as I did above. Todd VanDerWeff trademarked my initial theory that this episode is about the Mad Men writers grasping for an original, perfect idea and Alan Sepinwall eloquently articulated a recurring theme I picked up on—the absence or neglect of parents and the damage it does to our future selves (the episode ends with the sonf “Words of Love” by THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS. Wow, Weiner, we get it. Paents affect how we love!)
So in my search to describe the subtext of this episode, I have inadvertently, and as I foreshadowed, ironically, proven the episode’s conceit. Of course, I doubt if pressed Matt Weiner would own up to this train of thought, but it seems obvious that this stylistically haphazard and narratively fractured hour was guided by an epic pursuit of cleverness. But how is one to feel about a show that strives to outsmart its audience? Is it alienating or endearing? As a fan, I’ll admit that Mad Men has had an air of smugness about it for some time. From its first season it was applauded for being “the smartest show on TV.” It annually earns multiple writing nominations, won Outstanding Drama Series four years running, and is the most intellectualized show probably in TV history. I know a lot of folks who just DON’T get it. They don’t find the droll humor amusing, they think all the characters are pitiful or too privileged to be deserving of sympathy, or they feel like nothing happens, even though in almost six seasons we’ve chronicled eight years of one of America’s most eventful decades.
I can’t exactly dispute their dislike. It’s not an uproariously funny, action-packed or happy-go-lucky show. It’s a show that dives further and further into a pit of despair with each season. It’s about people giving in to their worst tendencies time and again. It’s about people losing and losing people. It’s the white male equivalent of ROOTS (shoutout to my friend Jennifer for this insight)—a history of the oppressors becoming oppressed by their own lack of identity and happiness.
It’s been asked repeatedly throughout the show’s run: who is Don Draper? Sometimes the show clumsily answers this questions through heavy-handed flashbacks like they did here. He’s ascribed an Oedipal complex where one of his only maternal figures during adolescence ends up being a prostitute who deflowered him. No wonder he has a screwed up relationship with women. He’s not used to being nurtured any other way than sexually, and the only way he knows how to love is when the person submits to his whims. It’s not an excuse for his narcissism, but it provides an illuminating context. And yet I’m left cold. This isn’t anything new. The Sopranos was the pioneer of mother-son issues, and I’ve often compared the two because it often seems like Matt Weiner is calling attention to himself lying its shadow. A charismatic but depressed male who sociopathy can be tracked back to his parents has long been a psychological trope, but now it’s a TV trope. But it’s the common thread between both Weiner and Draper that fascinates me. They cannot escape or exceed what came before.
I’m not suggesting that Homeland didn’t deserve the recognition it got. I thought it had the best debut season of a drama in quite some time. It’s hard to ignore, however, that it was the end of a dominant era. After four years of dwarfing the competition (although personally I thought Breaking Bad should have won for its third season), it had been dethroned. Why? The writing was still sharp, Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery were still dynamite performers, and it was still the sophisticated TV show that was fun to watch, too.
Or was it? What made the show so alluring was the mystery of whether Don would get his way. And he continues to despite brief fits of existential darkness. But is it still charming when he scores another beauty, or pathetic?
For me, Don Draper has undoubtedly become more despicable than dashing. His marriage to Megan is in many ways a lather, rinse, repeat of his marriage to Betty. And Sylvia is an amalgamation of Bobbie Barrett, Midge and Rachel Menken. Although she’s channeling Faye in the post mortem, dropping some knowledge bombs like “When you start something like this, it takes a lot of convincing.” Don is only as suave as his slickest pitch. And he’s been selling himself for as long as he’s been Don and not Dick. And occasionally that lost boy comes out. When he’s truly scared of losing what makes him feel whole. And it’s usually a women. When you deconstruct Don he’s really just an insecure little boy who wants to be loved but doesn’t know how to truly win someone’s affections because he’s so concerned with his own happiness. All women are some form of a prostitute to him—only as good as she is useful.
Back to Matt Weiner. Isn’t he, in reality, the man behind the handsome curtain? Don is only as successful as Matt Weiner allows him to be. And if Don has suddenly become the driver of a crashing vehicle, isn’t he to blame? So one of two things could be responsible for “The Crash.” Either the words that flowed like a river of seduction from Don’s lips aren’t as profound because Weiner has run out of material, or Weiner has decided that Don is past his prime and he’ll never live up to who he once was. Is the show’s voice slipping, or has Don lost his luster? Thematically speaking, I think Weiner has dropped enough hints that the insecurity exists more within the character than the creator. While this episode has some stumbling blocks which I will elaborate on in a bit, there are still some stunningly beautiful scenes. It’s Don whose a mess. Part of his decline is Father Time’s fault. The rest of the blame falls on his direct ancestry. But that doesn’t just mean a dysfunctional family. He’s trapped by his own patterns, his own ideas, his own mind. Personally, I don’t think a single one of his ads has topped “The Wheel” of season one. That was Don at the top of his game. And his batting average has dipped ever since.
This show is INCREDIBLY pretentious. It oozes self-importance. But that is Draper’s scent. And after six seasons it’s become a stench that lingers in every syllable uttered and frame shot. It’s hard not to feel contempt and disdain when you separate yourself from the screen and get into your own head space. Mad Men is a hoot and half while you’re immersed in it, but when you look back on it you are filled with regret and emptiness. Imagine how you’d feel if that was your life? And I don’t mean if you were a real life Don, Pete, Roger, Peggy, Joan or Betty. I mean what if you were writing for this show and your best days were behind you. There’s no more honeymoon phase, the awards aren’t being thrown at you like panties at a rock concert and your boss is striving to achieve perfection with and through you, but he’s reaching for something you all know will never come to pass. Now, I don’t think Weiner is as toxic as Don and I sure wouldn’t want him to think I’m saying that. But there does seem to be a lot of insider digs at the creative process that are voiced through the copywriters and other employees at the firm we’ll called the artists formerly known as SCDP & CGC.
For instance, how would you explain Ken Cosgrove tap dancing, rapping “It’s My Job” (gif below) for Don as he bitches about the hoops he has the jump through for Chevy (if that’s the audience stand-in, I’m frankly sickened by myself. Our expectations are way too high, and we nearly killed Kenny! Wait, different show). But I don’t blame him for feeling like a guy whose being asked to perform like a court jester for the client. They tell him they might not buy an ad for three years and yet they are exhausting themselves creatively and asking him to entertain them in the meantime. They’re toying with Ken because he’ll do just about anything to please them and his dance routine for Don is a reminder that he exerts the same kind of impossible pressure on his subordinates. Ken’s tapping feet are the answer to boss man Draper’s incessant “What have you got for me?”
And yet, the speed injections didn’t get any creative juices flowing, except for the meta-manic Mad Men writers themselves. On the shallowest level, it was a device, a frame within which the show could experiment. What would happen if Don’s clinginess to Sylvia coincided with a sleepless, drug-fueled creativity binge. What kind of obsessive, half-baked solution would he dream up? The answer: oatmeal. He jumped into the archives and pulled out old oatmeal copy that triggers his memory of a coughing, younger self being taken care of by Aimee, who later shoved her heaving bosom in his face as she REALLY took care of him. But when he tries to sell this to Ginsberg and Peggy, Ginsberg gets worked up thinking he’s stumbled upon brilliance by going back to basics, but suddenly realizes he wasn’t working on Chevy at all. He was working on the pitch that mattered most—winning back Sylvia.
The drug-induced, almost dreamlike environment allowed them to play with new characters as well, with mixed results. We’re introduced to Wendy as a future-reading hippie but she’s actually the promiscuous teenage daughter of the deceased Frank Gleason. She deals with her grief by riding Stan Rizzo who is relieving himself of his own grief over his cousin being KIA and rebounding from a rejection from Peggy. Wendy listens to Don’s heart and tells him “it’s broken.” In a bit of dark humor, he asks her how she can hear that and she responds that the stethoscope is broken because she can’t hear anything. It’s not softly delivered, but it’s not a hammered in either.
The other nightmarish addition is Ida the Thieving Mammy. For the folks of color who regard Mad Men as too whitewashed, this was a highlight reel of sorts. When Sally is left to watch her brothers by Megan who is attending an important event and expected Don to be home, a black woman walks in unannounced and starts rummaging through cabinets. Two things offended me about this subplot. One, Sally has been shown to be smarter than this. And Ida’s vague answers about her father like “he’s handsome” and “is your mother still a piece of work?” were all so clearly nonspecific that I expected her to pick up on her nefarious intentions much quicker. Second, Jesus was Ida drummed up from the mind of a racist.
Now, I’m not saying Weiner or anyone on his staff is racist, but it’s like they constructed someone who sprung from a prejudiced paranoia. She sweet talks her way into the children’s hearts then assures the police officer Sally later calls that everything is fine, and robs the Draper residence blind. While the payoff of Sally saying that she hardly knows her dad was rewarding, and it was an interesting tie-in to the theme of parental neglect and being trapped by those who came before, it was an awfully clumsy journey to the point. For a series that has notoriously avoided the issue of race in favor of deep examinations into gender I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to not only see a black character used so manipulatively, but to see one portrayed so decidedly evil. She dressed like a stereotype, and acted like a rich white man’s worst suspicion of his housekeeper. Not at all a worthwhile departure from the norm.
Ah, but there was a destination that suggested this whole trip in metafictional wonderland was worth it. Again, Mad Men may be past the days of subtle and smart delivery, but when he told Cutler and Chaough he would still evaluate work but not actively pursue Chevy because “every time we get a car this place turns into a whorehouse” I squeaked a little with glee. PROGRESS! There may be hope for Don Draper yet. He’s learning his limits, he’s not chasing after every skirt or sexy automobile (he even resisted conversing with Sylvia in the elevator) and he’s more aware than ever how his past dictates his future.
He’s a breed of man becoming extinct as those who were silenced are rallying against the monochromatic power structure. So maybe his fate is as inevitable as the season premiere suggested. But if there’s one thing Matt Weiner showed us with this episode, doing the same thing over and over again can yield different lessons for us. Eventually, the people that came before us will fade away and we’re only left with who we are. And slowly but surely Don is deciding he doesn’t like himself anymore. And there’s hope if he can reconcile who he was with who he can be.
And maybe this break from form will signal more than a return to form from Weiner as well. If you noticed, this was an entirely self-indulgent endeavor just like many of Don’s affairs. Joan was absent (the only explanation for why that office could become a whorehouse) while Pete and Roger barely poked their heads in. Now that Don has seen his darker self in the rearview mirror, maybe the show can look forward to giving other characters redemptive arcs. Pete has been pretty miserable, Roger could use some perking up and Joan may have a good man in the wings with Bob Benson. I don’t think a needle in his hindquarters solved all the woes of wandering Dick Whitman, but he’s freed from the clutches of prostitution—whoring himself out to clients and turning lovers into his whores, so maybe his forebears won’t hold him back as much.
As for the show, it may not be the fun foray into a bygone era anymore, but it could be becoming something far more interesting—who we are now. Think about it. Maybe the reason we don’t like what we’re seeing, is it’s a reflection of who we were, and how far we have or haven’t come since. After all, no idea is original. It had to come from somewhere. What’s within us has a history. And as Don tries to sell Peggy, that’s what holds us together. But as Matt Weiner shows us, it’s also what keeps us apart. It’s why Peggy can’t accept Stan’s advances, why she tells him that he has to feel the loss to get over it. It can’t be dampened by drugs and sex.
And this applies to this show, too. While the booze, cigarettes, sex and even the shots of Vitamin B give it a gloss that makes the pain easier to bear, without feeling the agony of separating from what we once had, we end up splintered into fractions of a soul. There’s no Dick, no Don, only broken pieces of a heart that belongs to no one, because he couldn’t let go. So Weiner, let go of the four Emmys and give yourself over to the new Mad Men. And it’s okay to resent what you’ve already done. It’s more than healthy. Just maybe don’t do a whole episode where you whine (cleverly, of course) about how hard it is to come up with something new and really be something new.