Mad Men season 6 episode 8 review: The Crash

Drugs, lies and tap-dancing feature in this week's surprising, ominous Mad Men, proving the show still has tricks up its sleeve...

This review contains spoilers.

6.8 The Crash

Writing for a character as inscrutable as Don Draper must be a mixed blessing. While Draper’s stylish, distant demeanour lends itself to delivering gnomic dialogue and posing for cool silhouettes against the Manhattan skyline, when it comes to showing the audience what’s going on inside TV’s most unreachable leading man, you find yourself painted into a corner.

Enter the pharmaceutical get-out clause, a temporary crisis that lets Draper escape his closed off personality and allows us to see something of what’s underneath. It’s the plot device that forces Draper to become uncharacteristically voluble and turn to face the camera for once. The Crash used a workplace amphetamine shot, but past glimpses into Draper’s mind have been provided by flu hallucinations, dental nitrous oxide, and that old Mad Men favourite, the drinking binge ‘n’ blackout.

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Draper’s previous holidays from sanity have zoned in on his guilt over Lane’s and his half-brother’s suicide (The Phantom), his anxiety about being discovered a deserting imposter (Hands and Knees), and his fear of repeating a cycle of misogynistic adultery (Mystery Date). Like a class assignment in Intermediate Freudian Analysis of Messed-Up Dudes, the character’s ampheta-mania in The Crash took us back to Dick’s childhood brothel, and showed us the genesis of his warped relationship with sex and women. The child is the father of the man? You can say that again, Peggy.

Dick lost his virginity in an experience combining physical and emotional abuse from his step-mother with maternal and erotic attention from his prostitute seductress. For him, sex, violence, motherly love and shame are all conflated into a writhing nest of the issues we’ve seen Draper cycle through over the past five and a half seasons. If you like, think of this week’s flashbacks as Draper’s psychosexual Rosebud, that, or the origin story for a really seedy superhero. All of which explains the character’s eccentric behaviour towards Sylvia: seducing her, debasing her, then mourning puppy dog-like over her departure. Broken-hearted Don just wants to be loved, the twisted bastard.

The rest of the firm’s men weren’t faring much better under the influence of the needle, from tap-dancing Kenny (David Lynch meets Ally McBeal) to maudlin arm-wrestler Stan. The shots brought in by the new Roger – who, unbelievable as this may sound, is proving even less scrupulous than the old Roger – didn’t have the desired effect of pepping up a workforce whose creative juices had been drained by the unsatisfied giant of GM. Instead, they landed the team with a weekend of misspelling, debauchery, and cod-philosophical bullshit. Business as usual then for anyone who’s spent time around ‘creatives’ on coke.

Winning the Chevy account has turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for the newly merged firms, which may have gone into the pitch together, but have yet to coalesce, or even give themselves a new name. GM is following in Jaguar Herb’s footsteps by throwing its weight around and making unreasonable demands. Don’s solution? The same as his answer to any tricky situation: get out of there, and leave someone else to pick up the pieces.

Literally picking up the pieces this week was Dawn, who joined Peggy in caring for the men this week. Since Peggy’s “Move on” instruction to Don last week, she’s back to being the voice of moral reason in Mad Men, lending Stan some wise words about coping with loss, and telling off Jim Cutler for the mess he’d made. Hopefully the pathetic men/wise women dynamic won’t continue uninterrupted for long, as reducing either gender to child and parent archetypes won’t serve the show’s characters well. Glad as I am to see Peggy back, she was more compelling giving hand jobs to strangers and exploring the edges of her own morality than she is mothering and chastising her male workmates.

Without Peggy and Dawn’s quiet sense providing a counterpoint to the episode’s drug-induced chaos though, this week’s dark tale would have been even darker. The theme of decay that’s come to the fore of Mad Men’s last two seasons was present in the death of Frank Gleeson, and the gradual sense of a world unravelling continued in the episode’s erratic, violent, and chronologically telescoped goings-on.

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Sally Draper’s thief situation didn’t exactly make for light relief either, a scenario that, like Don’s attack in Seven Twenty Three, walked the line between tension, threat, and unnerving amity. Grandma Ida’s blag seemed tailor-designed to work in the Draper household, in a family where the father is so unknowable, people from his past could well come out of the woodwork to make midnight eggs for his kids. So wide is the gap in our knowledge of Dick Whitman’s childhood, we were right there alongside Sally, smelling a rat, but with a shard of doubt telling us that we had little but instinct to prove that the interloper wasn’t really who she said she was.

We’re more than halfway through Mad Men’s sixth season now, and its world continues to darken. The Crash began with a literal collision, referred back to a time of national financial crisis during Dick’s childhood, and ended with yet another collapse from Don Draper. It was layered, atmospheric, and most impressive of all for a show this far along its lifespan, surprising. We’re left with a  couple of questions to ponder between now and next week, the first (show of hands, please) does anyone love Don Draper? And the second: just how much darker can things become?

Read Frances’ review of episode six, For Immediate Release, here.

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