Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mad Men 6-8: The Crash

Sometimes I wonder if the process of writing "Mad Men" bears any resemblance to the ad campaign work it loves to depict. Even if there isn't any, I have to think the show's writers must feel some kinship with the "creatives" at Sterling Cooper (aka, post-merger, the Alphabet Soup firm). I'm not sure, though, what that says about the profound weirdness of this week's episode. All I know is I now have a vision of the MM writers getting high as kites while casting about for that spark, that brilliant idea around which to build the episode, and deciding that they've hit upon it after writing down every idea and image that pops into their head. All 666 of them.

Ok, probably none of that is true, as I suspect the episode was carefully crafted and meticulously honed under the gimlet eye of Matthew Weiner - who's well known as a control freak and much more of a micro-manager than Don Draper ever was or will be. Nonetheless, the end result was (undoubtedly deliberately) so disorienting that I had to check to confirm that it wasn't directed by David Lynch. It wasn't. But it very well could have been, right from that jarring opening shot of a petrified Ken Cosgrove, trapped in a car full of lunatics, not so much steering as hurtling towards a terrifying crash, to just about everything that happened following the good doctor's "vitamin shots," which were more likely vitamins laced with a mother-lode of speed. It was impossible at any given moment to be certain whether anything we saw was "actually" occurring or was a product of Don's illness, the ill-advised booster, or some combination of both. Even the scenes that didn't include Don at all still felt distinctly surreal; in fact, some of the most unsettling moments were those involving the Draper kids and their midnight visitor/burglar, who came on like a nightmare version of Aunt Jemima. At that point I was fully prepared to accept that that whole storyline was Don's fever-dream, even though it turned out to have a more mundane - but still bizarre - explanation.

"Mad Men" has done both drugs and fever dreams before, the former, IMO, more successfully than the latter - I'll take Roger's acid trips any day over Don's fantasies of murdering a persistent paramour. But it's never let the border between reality and imagination become quite so porous, and for me, at least, the jury's still out on whether the technique was effective. Stylistically, it was interesting; substantively, I'm not convinced it had any real point, other than to underline the fact that Don's losing his grip on his conception of the world and his place in it. It's never a good thing when the plodding Dick Whitman flashbacks are the the pins holding an episode together, but that appeared to be the case here. We got further insight into Don's madonna-whore complex, and why he can't seem to let himself be loved, as I Ching girl could have told him. (Or did tell him; I wasn't sure she was real, either, though apparently she was the daughter of Ted Chaough's dead partner.)

The thing is, does anyone even care anymore why Don's attitude towards women and love - and by extension, all relationships - is so fucked up? At this point in the MM trajectory, the only way that shit stays interesting is if we see Don coming to understand his demons or better yet, fight them as he's seemed to do in the past, if fitfully. So far this season, however, he's just been wallowing helplessly in his fucked-upness, his inability to change in any fundamental way. We get it, but I think we've had enough by season 6, and all the Lynchian distractions in the world can't disguise that fact.

Tellingly, the best and most poignant moment in the episode - for me, anyway - didn't involve Don at all, but Stan (who's somehow gone from being one of the more annoying characters on MM to one of the more likable) confiding in Peggy about his cousin's death and Peggy gently telling him that she's had loss too, and knows that you can't dull the pain through drugs or sex. Sure, Stan fails to profit from her wisdom, but at least we haven't been watching him fail, and fail, and fail again. And Peggy, at least, doesn't seem to have fallen into the Don trap. True, she may yet repeat the mistake of getting too emotionally invested in her boss, if that little moment of intimacy with Ted Chaough - appropriately witnessed by Don in his state of, um, augmented reality - was any indicator. However, it hasn't yet become a habit that wearies. There's hope for her yet.

Random observations:

-Poor Ted Chaough (whom, like Stan, I'm beginning to like). Takes the weekend off to mourn a dead friend, like a normal person, only to have the inmates take over the asylum. As Ginsberg more or less put it.

-Speaking of Ginsberg, he sure doesn't need drugs to be strange...or to have lousy aim.

-Another Lynchian moment among many: Guy with glasses whose name I forget (the Roger Sterling to Ted Chaough's Don) spying on Stan and Wendy getting it on. Perhaps the second creepiest moment of the night, after the Draper kids' encounter with fake black grandma.

-Speaking of Roger, I'm disappointed we didn't get to see his reactions to the mysterious drug cocktail. And where was Joan? You know she wouldn't have stood for such goings-on.

-Although I continue to have little use for the Dick Whitman flashbacks, I did feel a twinge of real pity and discomfort for the poor kid. Mothered and then raped by his crush, and then punished for it by his - well, not real, but appointed mother. That would be more than enough to mess up up any kid for life. In a way, though, that's my problem with this storyline: it's too much, too heavy-handed with the symbolism, even for Mad Men.

-Just to be clear, while I'm getting sick of Don as a character, there's no question Jon Hamm's acting has been top-notch. He was especially good tonight, shifting convincingly from stalkerish/obsessive to completely drugged out (loved the timbre of his voice as he was going on about the timbre of his voice) to emptied-out nowhere man at the end, in the elevator with Sylvia.

-Episode highlight: What else but the magnificent Ken Cosgrove TAP DANCE? Preserved eternally through the wonders of GIF-making.

-Episode MVP: Ken comes close, but I have to give it to Stan, who managed to be hilarious (in his gloriously unfazed reaction to being stuck with an Exacto knife), piggish yet oddly seductive (in his move on Peggy), and touchingly vulnerable (in his heart-to-heart with her about his cousin).

-Best lines: a plethora of them this week, but top prize goes to little Bobby (for the second time this season after seasons of silence!) - "Are we Negroes?" Runner-up: Don washing his hands of Chevy - "Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse." And honorable mentions to Stan, for his delivery of what should have been (but oddly wasn't) a sleazy compliment to Peggy's ass, and the otherwise-absent Pete, for his disgusted response to the grunts' callousness towards a dead man: "He IS in a better place."

-Least subtle line of the week: A lot of contenders, as always, including Don's whorehouse comment, but let's hear it for Sally's last cut at Don - "Then I realized I didn't know anything about you." It hurts cuz it's true!


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