We all get burned out from time to time, but it seems that when ad men get burned out, things really go awry. Especially when there may or may not be steroids or some weird “stimulant” involved. This week’s Mad Men, “The Crash,” is a surreal, fever dream of an episode. Nightmarish events occur, but you won’t find any dream sequences here.
Written by Jason Grote and Matthew Weiner and directed by Michael Uppendahl, this episode throws its viewers down the same drugged up rabbit hole as the characters. And while it features some of those questionable Dick Whitman whorehouse flashbacks, it’s a very strong one in terms of the overall immersive effect of Uppendahl’s direction and the dark aura that it leaves behind.
Chevy has put a lot of deadlines upon the yet-to-be-named super agency, and they need to work all weekend to come up with a slew of new ideas for the campaign. Don isn’t feeling well, Ken got into a car accident test driving with the powers-that-be at Chevy, and many are saddened by Frank Gleeson’s passing, so Jim Cutler reasons that it’s a good idea to get a doctor to come to the office to inject any ailing parties with a stimulant which is supposed to keep them creative for over twenty-four hours.
I’m not familiar with the practices of quack doctors in the late 1960s, but judging from the results of the injections, it seems to be steroids and/or speed because some weird shit starts to happen post-doping. The ad men start running around the office. The previously-injured Ken starts tap dancing while talking to Don. Don starts having bouts of ill-founded creativity and makes inspiring speeches to his underlings: ”I don’t know whether I’ll be forceful or submissive, but I must be there in the flesh!”
And then there’s Gleeson’s daughter, Wendy, who comes back to the office after the funeral and starts telling people’s fortunes and listening to Don’s heartbeat. Which isn’t there.
Uppendahl’s impressive direction here lies in the surreal jump cuts. Especially those that make Wendy jump from place to place in a seemingly impossible short amount of time, to the point where you think that Don might be imagining the whole thing. And maybe he is. Wendy also pops up later in the episode, having sex with a doped-up Stan in an office, to the peeping eyes of Cutler and Peggy. Oh yeah, Stan and Peggy make out, but she stops it from getting too far. Wendy here is almost a harbinger of the uncanny. She is a foreign presence in the office, one that creates a palpable level of strangeness, of unease.
There is another foreign presence, in the form of Aunt Ida, a middle-aged black woman who walks into the Draper apartment claiming to be Don’s grandmother and robs it blind. The Aunt Ida scenes are perhaps the most frightening of the episode – Don is at the office for the weekend and Megan, now apparently as irresponsible as Don or Betty, pays Sally off in trendy clothing so that she can watch her two younger brothers while Megan networks at a Broadway show. Sally seems grown-up but probably should not be left alone – she initially buys the fact that this stranger can just waltz into his apartment, pretending to know her father with vague recollections.
Watching the seething undercurrent of deceit and rage in Aunt Ida’s voice and mannerisms as she invades the apartment with the children inside is the stuff nightmares are made of. Guest star Devenia McFadden is truly menacing as Aunt Ida, who switches from kindly to threatening on a dime. Again, as with Wendy, it is a jarring moment when Aunt Ida just appears in the apartment – it occurs so casually that you think you are seeing things and adds tremendously to the overall surrealism of the episode. It is uncomfortable to watch – almost unbearably so – and is perhaps one of the most masterfully unnerving Mad Men happenings yet.
As Sally later tells Don on the phone after the episode is all over, she doesn’t know him at all, hence why she was led to believe that there was an Aunt Ida. And not knowing your own father is a scary notion. In a real-world scenario, this would probably be grounds for Don losing visitation – and yeah, perhaps he should. It’s also surprising and disheartening, given her nurturing history up until now, that Megan has made a habit of leaving Sally in charge and alone in the apartment with her brothers. Betty as the best parental option? Well, it’s about time.
If we didn’t know enough about Don, we get said Dick Whitman flashbacks that are spurred by stimulant and the Sylvia breakup. Don smokes in Sylvia’s freight elevator space and eavesdrops… and Sylvia calls his office to tell him to stop. Anyway, Don thinks back to when he was sick as a preteen (again, the Alfred E. Newman look-a-like) in the whorehouse and a prostitute with a penciled-in beauty mark takes his virginity. He later sees the beauty mark invoked on an old oatmeal ad of his in the archives. These Dick Whitman flashbacks are as heavy-handed as ever, with near-caricatures of poor people and Depression Era-types. It also doesn’t add much to the dark, surreal nature of the episode – the parallels end with that current Don and preteen Dick were both coughing. I guess these flashbacks were here to give further insight into Don’s sexual problems, but, while the flashbacks weren’t that strong, they didn’t take that much away from the overall quality of the episode.
The episode ends with Don telling a miffed Ted that he wants to oversee the creative ideas of the firm, but that’s it. That’s all he can handle. Don was truly shaken by the events in this episode – he even told Sylvia that he had feelings too – and hopefully his brilliant flourishes of creativity have not come to an end. Fingers crossed that his eavesdropping and child abandonment have.
And sorry, Cutler, office doping is not conducive to creativity. At all. But it does make for a great episode.
The Upside: The dark, surreal nature of the episode and its truly unnerving, nightmarish moments.
The Downside: Preteen Dick Whitman flashbacks – these are always so heavy-handed.
On the Side: Betty magically lost the weight and dyed her hair back to blonde. Suspension of disbelief, I guess, though glad to see her back to normal.