Mad Men started with Ken Cosgrove almost getting killed in the craziest car ride since Blue Velvet and ended with Don scaling back at work under the emotional weight of, what exactly? Mommy issues? Marital issues? His newfound speed addiction? Maybe a little bit of everything?
This episode was sort of everything that has been wrong with Season 6. We all loved that Mad Men always knew how to shock us and change direction in the most unexpected and interesting of ways, ways that, once the surprise was launched, seemed totally natural and inevitable in hindsight. This was not a surprise like that. This was just Ken Cosgrove tap dancing and Ginsberg slinging knives at Rizzo (considering Ginsberg’s beat-inspired name, was their game of William Tell an allusion to the infamous version that William S. Burrows played with his wife?) without it really adding up to anything. Instead of being thematically whole, the episode was just a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. Well, it signified something, just not something very interesting.
I’m sure when the episode wrapped there were many people sitting at home thinking, “I totally didn’t get that. Since this is Mad Men, I must not be smart enough to get it.” Wrong. The problem was that the episode, while fun and entertaining, was so poorly plotted that even David Lynch would find it harder to follow than a polar bear in a blizzard.
And don’t get me started on those flashbacks. They annoyed me the first time they were deployed this season, but in this otherwise chaotic episode, they certainly didn’t help streamline things. Seeing Don’s childhood directly takes something away from this unknowable anti-hero that the show has been cultivating all these years. It makes the show into something like Lost or, even worse, Once Upon a Time, where we’re supposed to learn about the characters and their present situations based on events from the past. Has Mad Men fallen so far that it is now using a tired network storytelling device?
Of course, everyone is going to think that this episode was about drugs, because Jim Cutler gets everyone some sort of speed shot so they can be more creative. (Actually, in light of last season’s wonderful LSD trip, it was almost like the writers said, “What if we did a whole episode like that?”) This hour was not about drugs. It was really about Don’s mommy issues. While I’m sure he’s always had these, Don was always a much more literary character, signifying something about identity, the American dream, and the lies we use to get ahead. Now he’s just a kid raised in a whore house who had some rough times. Now he’s just a Freudian study.
Don has three maternal figures in this episode — well, two and a half, really. First there is his stepmother, who diagnoses his illness. The next is Aimeé, the hooker who nurses him back to health and then takes his virginity. The final one is Grandma Ida, who wasn’t really a mother figure at all, but a con artist who pretended to be the woman who raised him. It’s bad enough that Don never had a mother, but now we see that every woman who was kind to him when he was young was not only highly sexualized but also betrayed him in some way. All of Don’s mothers, especially Grandma Ida, are imposters just like him.
The one interesting thing about this episode is how each of the mother figures are a direct parallel to one of the women that he’s been in love with. First there is Betty (blonde and skinny again, just like we like her), his first love who has become a hectoring scold, just like his stepmother who called him dirty and beat him for sleeping with Aimeé. Next there is Megan, who found Don two seasons ago when he was sick, tricked him into loving her, and now is increasingly absent — following Aimée’s arc. That leaves us with Sylvia, someone who used to sneak in through the back door, the maid’s entrance, just like Ida did. Syivia also pretended to be someone she is not when she called Don at work and said she was Arnold. In the parallel trifecta, she has also stolen something from Don, something he thinks is important. It’s his heart. Awww.
If you didn’t realize this was about Don, his mothers, and his lovers, we had Wendy, a girl whose father just died, telling Don that he has a broken heart and leaving him wondering if anyone loves him. That’s one of those classic Mad Men existential questions that is meant to be left unanswered.
While all this is going on, Don and everyone else is working on the Chevy account, which turns out to be much more trying than they thought it would be when they went after the business. Peggy and Ginsberg, the most sober of the crew, are herding the rest of the cats towards an idea. Stan has 666 ideas, none of which are any good. Don is trying to make everyone think that he’s working, but he’s really blacking out and flashing back, losing whole chunks of time when he’s not fighting off the advances of an I Ching-loving hippie hussy.
But Don isn’t doing anything. He’s running around and searching for old soup ads, but he’s not really thinking about Chevy. He’s trying to piece together his own past and come up with the one thing that he can tell Sylvia to win her back. (In all these years, is this the first time we’ve seen Don not able to get a woman he wants?) When he calls Peggy and Ginsberg into his office to deliver what we expect to be one of his killer campaigns, it’s just a bunch of gobbledygook. He carries on about trying to make the commercial what people tune in for rather than the entertainment, like he’s going to develop product placement or something (maybe that was a dig against Christina Hendricks’ Johnny Walker ads?) but it is really nothing. It’s just Don being high.
After he goes home and passes out, the next day he wakes up and finally runs into Sylvia in the elevator. Earlier, he had been inventing ways of talking to her when he knocked on her door, but in the sober light of day, he remains silent. He walks away from her, knowing now that she is an invasive impostor who has barged into his house and upset things. She is not the solution, she is another symptom of the problem. He also marches into his office and says he will only be inspecting other people’s work. He blames it on Chevy not wanting to make an ad for another three years, but it seems to be because he has lost his creative spark. Maybe it’s because he has mined his past for all the material that he can. Now that he’s coming to terms with that hooker raising him he doesn’t have any schmaltzy soup/oatmeal ads left. This entire season seems to be about Don Draper’s decline and now he’s not only stopped producing good work, he’s stopped producing work altogether.
Sally Draper got a decent amount of screen time this episode, and handled herself quite well in the tense and bizarre situation of dealing with Grandma Ida without getting herself killed. Through it she learned that she doesn’t know anything about her father so she couldn’t even tell Grandma Ida she was lying. When faced with the great lie of Don’s past, everything else is unknowable. He has the opportunity to tell her something about himself, but he is interrupted, like always, by work. I also loved that Sally was in bed reading Rosemary’s Baby and then is awoken by Ida. Last season we saw her terrorized by the idea of violence towards women, but now she’s getting more comfortable and canny about the idea of evil in the world. I don’t know if this is a good thing, but it’s there.
Stan Rizzo was also a central figure this episode. Not only did he screw Wendy (while her dead father’s former business partner watched, no less) but he also came onto Peggy while she was bandaging his arm, another maternal figure who has become sexualized. Peggy tries to stop him from kissing her and says she has a boyfriend, but there’s something that makes her want to do it. It’s like her kiss with Ted two weeks ago. Since Peggy is becoming Don Draper, she’s copying a classic move of his: starting a new relationship to wreck the one she’s already in. But she wisely stops herself with Stan because he’s like a brother to her. I also loved her speech about having to feel the loss in your life and not try to escape through booze or sex. It seems like she was talking directly to Don even though he wasn’t in the room.
Of course, we learn this when she tells us, point blank, that is why she isn’t doing it. Apparently whatever drug they were all on, the one effect it had was to take all the subtext that is usually in the show and fill it with text. Like finding a book of Mad Libs that someone has already used, the blanks have already been filled in and all the fun is gone. Yes, it’s funny when Ken Cosgrove does his tap dance, but his tap dance is quite literally a tap dance. He feels like his job is tap dancing for others. Duh. It all makes total sense, yet it all doesn’t add up. That means that, no matter how much fun we had last night, it was all completely useless.