This week’s Mad Men is one of the more unusual ones in the season. In similar fashion to Roger’s LSD trip last season, we get this sort of bubble episode in which everything and nothing happens at the same time. The pace of the episode matched the swiftness of a drug taking its effect, and slowed us down during the high just enough. Whereas Roger’s LSD trip was primarily revealing to us for one character and for one theme, we get some more jam-packed snippets into the many lives of those in the Mad Men universe. Overall, I feel the episode spoke strongly to two themes: the closeness of death and danger (not an uncommon theme for Mad Men, of course), and the responsibility of women in situations of similar duress (especially as it relates to Don).
We open the episode with a harrowing scene of a wild drive in the night, Ken Cosgrove at the wheel with unwieldy execs goading him on to be more daring. The first thing that should strike as a significant point is how tightly the older are hanging onto youth – it’s the older Chevy execs that want to be rambunctious and childish, and ultimately put younger (and more sensible) Ken in a place of danger. We hear the first of several crashes in the episode (fitting for the name of the ep) and are already left to wonder about how this moment of danger will affect the Mad Men crew.
We are thrown a red herring when everyone in the office is quiet and serious, dragging through their frustrations over not being able to win over Chevy just yet. Ken hobbles in with a cane, thankfully alive, but we are sobered once again with the announcement of Frank’s death, one of the former partners of CGC. This announcement comes after the office decides to work through the weekend to brainstorm a plethora of new pitches for an upcoming meeting with Chevy. At this point, we start to see the tables turn – as the weekend of work is about to begin, and with Ted taking the weekend to mourn, we see Jim Cutler (CGC’s Sterling, according to Peggy’s observation a few episodes ago) enact his plan to bring in a “doctor” to administer a dose of a “super vitamin,” a.k.a. the 1960s version of Red Bull injections (or possibly worse – my boyfriend believes it could’ve been cocaine) Jim wants to re-energize the downtrodden creatives, and again we see another older character trying to embrace that youthful energy (denying and fighting death). Prior to Don taking his dose, we see him cough roughly, and we begin some flashbacks into his past where he was sick with a similar condition. Seeing Don in a physically weak state has slowly become more and more prominent throughout the seasons, so seeing it here again of course rings the bell of DANGER! DEATH! We wonder how the drug will affect Don as he takes the dose, saying nothing of any other health conditions. As the drug takes its slow effect, we pull in the rest of the story for Don and for the creatives.
To move away from SCDP-CGC for a moment, let’s take a closer look at a different moment of imminent danger. We Don’s kids, now with Bobby and Sally more active (and interactive) with each other, and a freshly blonde Betty. The kids stay over with Don this ill-fated weekend, and as Megan tries to get Don to come home, in her position of responsibility, she instead follows through with her plans to see a play and leaves the kids alone under Sally’s watch. Of course, we’re starting to see Sally claim her adulthood – her attitude is very different, where she acts cool and tries to project maturity. It succeeds for a bit. Then suddenly, Sally wakes up in the middle of the night to find a strange, well-dressed black woman rummaging through the cabinets in the kitchen. This here also feels like a hallucination, like it’s too strange to be real – this happens right in the heart of the high, where time starts to suspend itself for SCDP-CGC and the viewer’s ability to put things together is still cloudy. Sally approaches the woman with suspicion but care, as the woman claims to be Don’s mother who was never spoken of. We of course are led to believe, with Sally, that this woman is off her rockers, but are of coursed jarred by the fact that the woman can actually speak on account of Don.
When the woman tries to find a gold watch in the bedroom, per Bobby’s suggestion, Sally attempts to call the police. The woman thwarts Sally’s attempt and for the first time we feel the real danger of a stranger in the home. The woman, “Grandma Ida,” changes her expression – whereas she played the role of gentle maternal figure, she became much more sinister, threatening the kids that they “best be asleep” when she returns. When the dust settles here, there’s a lot of blame assigned – to Megan for actually leaving the kids alone (this is the most irresponsible we see her with the family since she grew to know them), and even Sally blames herself a bit for not doing more sooner and for falling for the ruse. It is revealed of course once the cops are in the apartment that the back door was left open – from Don stalking Sylvia one floor below. This, aside from the fact that the drug has taken its toll on Don, prompts him to faint. When Don sobers, he claims his responsibility in what happened to Sally over the phone privately, in a very Don Draper non-apology apology. We see here the struggle for Don to claim responsibility over something gone wrong (he makes a similar error in his flashback), and we can also pick apart the choices made by the women in his life. Megan’s inability to truly embrace motherhood is clear in her decision to attend a play to further her career as opposed to sacrificing the time to stay with the kids (granted, she also believed Don was actually going to come home soon). We see Sally play it smart, but fail in the end – kind of the thing that happens with a kid who doesn’t have everything figured out. Without Don’s true support, these situations where things fall apart just seem to happen. I kind of consider this episode antifeminist, putting women once again in a place where they are incapable of protecting themselves. If Don had been sober and had gone home, he could have corrected this wrong.
In a more contained examination of the women in Don’s life, we see Don smoke outside Sylvia’s trash room door, a habit he’s grown as a result of her ending the affair. When she calls Don in his office, she does so under the guise of being her husband. When he answers with trepidation, she berates him for bringing them closer and closer to revealing everything to her husband. We see again a woman struggle in her position of responsibility – while Sylvia seemed very steadfast in her goodbye last week, we see the cracks in the veneer when she calls Don. She can’t even angrily hang up the phone on him to make a point! But again, we see how the woman in the situation is kind of incapable of keeping herself away from danger because of Don – the more he waits outside the trash room door, the more it aggravates the situation. They share a cold elevator ride at the end of the episode, which of course will lead us to wonder what will make the situation truly crack wide open – Sylvia, or Don?
As for the flashback, we see young Don in a moment of weakness where his cough has taken the better of him. His foster mother prescribes him time in the cellar, away from the clientele. As he prepares to go down, one of the prostitutes, Amee (spelled of course with an accent I’m too lazy to find and throw in here hehe) takes him in and takes better care of Don than the foster mother, who decides to just push him aside and out of sight. The prostitute who takes him in gives him, as the old ad he finds later, “exactly what he needs” – the right treatment for the chest cold. The tables turn, though, once he starts to feel better, and Amee makes a pass at Don, forcing herself upon him. His discomfort at a lack of control of the situation is what I think prompts him to be the way he is with the women he surrounds himself with – instead of being taken care of, or being told what to do, Don instead is the one who gives the orders. Why? Because situations like this in his past turn sour – Amee gets in trouble for “poppin his cherry for $5” and then the foster mother beats Don for something that isn’t even entirely his fault, calling him “trash.” And of course, we know that situation could’ve been avoided if the foster mother actually claimed responsibility for helping Don heal from the cold. No wonder Don finds it easy to be cold to women.
And lastly, let’s turn back to SCDP. While Don uses his high to find inspiration to tell Sylvia how he feels about her (completely ignoring that Chevy is the reason they’re there), the writers soak in the high with a blundering writing session, spitting out portions of ideas that don’t entirely make sense with Peggy, whose only solution to get through it is to drink with the boys. We see her try to write down the ideas as they happen, trying to be the responsible worker, which is of course thwarted by Ginsberg who wants to look like he’s busy too. (He didn’t take the drug, but we assume he gets caught up in the rowdy games) When a knife throwing game takes a wrong turn with Stan, Peggy rushes to nurse her dear friend. Once again, we see a woman taking responsibility get put into a compromising situation, with Stan trying to make a pass at Peggy. We’ve already seen her give in to the weakness of her attraction to Ted. We see her return the kiss Stan wants, but we see her pull away. Stan’s attempt to get Peggy’s sympathy again in his high actually prompts her to say something profound to him: “I’ve had loss in my life. You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex.” Of course, Stan turns around and sleeps with Frank’s daughter in his office, Jim Cutler eerily watching from outside the door and eager to show Peggy. Peggy shakes her head and walks away – I don’t think from envy that Stan just up and slept with the next open pair of women’s legs, but from the disappointment of the mess she can’t even begin to clean up in the office.
The weekend turns out to be even more of a bust because none of the ideas are sensible to Ted. And here, after Don’s whole experience in the office and at home, he seems to throw in the towel and say he’ll only approve ideas. Why? Because “every time we get a car this place turns into a whorehouse.” The guilt and memory is getting to him it seems, and this is the way Don is choosing to claim responsibility.
Again, this episode is what one can consider a bubble episode, but there’s much revealed not just about Don but about the mentality of the times, and about Peggy and Don’s family. The episode itself was a hallucination – we had to dispel how we usually absorb Mad Men and use our emotions and instincts to guide us through. Though things felt surreal, other points are now clearer to the viewer.
To close, some odds and ends:
-SO glad to see the CGC writers loosen up, and stay toe to toe with Stan. They’re still total dorks, but it was nice to see them more outspoken while they were on that drug.
-I remembered reading once someone draw a connection to the trash room door and the nature of Don’s affair with Sylvia. Again, the trash room door bites Don in the ass, and he was even called trash in his past!
-Loved the detail of Sally reading “Rosemary’s Baby.” Even crazier is the connection between the basic plot of the novel and what Megan essentially does to the kids – sacrificing them for the sake of furthering her acting career.
-Two words: Ken Cosgrove. That should be a monologue in some Fosse choreographed, post-modern performance.
With 5 more episodes left this season, I wonder how much more rapidly the 60s feeling will take over SCDP-CGC. Hopefully by next week I’ll be out of the fog this episode still totally has me wrapped in.