Anyone else feel like they need a couple Alka-Seltzers and aspirins this morning? Feeling disoriented? Lost your creative focus, energy and confidence? Tell you what. Let’s not think about it too much just this one time. Let’s put some soothing Sergio Mendes Bossa Nova on our Admiral radio, unwind, and let this one wash over us, mkay?
Shit. That’s not gonna work, is it?
Fine. We’ll give it a shot. But in looking around the Mad Men-o-sphere this morning, we see we’re not the first or only ones to think this episode was deliberately constructed to defy the kind of feverish, obsessive critical analysis the show inspires. We’re having no problem at all envisioning Weiner & Co. gleefully rubbing their hands together and saying “Analyze THIS, freaks!” before collapsing into laughter at the idea of Ken Cosgrove doing a tap routine (or Stan doing a St. Sebastian routine) in the middle of the office. In fact, any time we do dig down into the script and uncover a thematic nugget, it tends to be either banal or something that’s been endlessly debated already.
Don has madonna/whore issues. Well, duh.
Don needs to feel in control and does so by essentially ignoring everyone else’s needs. Pfft.
The late ’60s were a brief, insane period where society lost its bearings and people took the moment to break out of their own routines before immediately retreating back to conformity. Okay, maybe that one has legs.
Unfettered creativity is pointless without discipline and control to guide it. Ah, now that one has some meat to it.
If you’ve ever listened to the Matthew Weiner commentary tracks on the show’s DVDs, you’ll quickly find out that Don Draper is (unsurprisingly) a Matthew Weiner stand-in, and that the show often uses the advertising world to make points about marrying creativity to mass media and corporate concerns. In other words, advertising is being used as a stand-in for television production. Weiner & Co. are using their own experiences in their careers to make observations about the careers of the people in the show. Looking at the episode from that perspective, it then becomes a study in creativity under pressure, a topic any television writer or show runner would be intimately familiar with. How insane does the creative process get when one is tapped out, exhausted, and under enormous pressure? What darkness bubbles to the surface?
Like we said: banal.
On the other hand, there was a small bit about how all that unleashed creativity amounted to nothing more than pages and pages of crap. That was something we wish the episode had delved into a little deeper. There was a fantastically subtle moment when Peggy was listening to Stan and that baby-faced copywriter, whose name we still don’t know, rattling off, well, nothing but crap, really. Peggy dutifully took notes of their ramblings and when Ginsberg asked for her pen so he could take notes, he realized it was “unclicked” and she hadn’t been writing anything at all. Peggy once again is the character in this inferno who comes out looking semi-decent (although Ted’s giving her a run, which explains their attraction to each other) and somewhat on top of her game. We wish more could have been made of her disgust during this whole clusterfuck. The best parts of the episode came when she was interacting with Don and, unlike everyone else in the room, could see that he was spouting pure drivel and nonsense. More of that and less of Wendy, the freaky, mourning hippy, please.
Look, this was probably one of the most enjoyable hours of the series, simply because everything was so unexpected and out-of-left-field that it couldn’t help but hold your attention. But when it was over, we, like roughly 98% of the audience (we’re guessing), turned to each other and said, “What the hell did I just watch?” And in the harsh light of day, as we’re treating our hangovers, this one just doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. Enjoyable, yes; but hardly revelatory. When the upshot of the episode is that Don has whore issues and advertising is nothing but a different kind of whorehouse, then the hour was, in some ways, a waste. But only if you think an episode of Mad Men needs to aspire to literary pretensions and offer up weighty, important, theme-laden hours of television each week.
We mentioned last season that we rate the WTF factor on Mad Men using the lawnmower scale. Guy gets his foot cut off: 5 out of 5 lawnmowers. Don’s wife unexpectedly breaks into a sexy song routine: 3.5 out of 5. Betty gained 40 pounds since we last saw her: 3/5. You get the idea. Our point is, the show likes to offer up these surprises and shocks on a fairly routine basis. You can point to one episode every season that could rightly be called the “WTF?!?!” episode. It’s just that when you place the “WTF?!?!?!” episode in 1968, it’s likely to be manic, trippy, and crazy. On that level, it couldn’t help but entertain. And it has the bonus of being accurate to the period in that it exposes the lie that the drug culture was purely a baby boomer thing. By this point in the ’60s, drug usage really was rampant, but not just among the hippies and college kids. The middle and upper-middle classes were a sea of Miltown‘d wives and juiced-up corporate husbands. The idea of the walls between culture and counter-culture breaking down is something the show’s been playing around with for a while and this is one more in a line of moments (from “I’m Peggy Olson and I’d like to smoke some marijuana,” to Roger’s first acid trip) demonstrating the growing pervasiveness of drug use in all strata of society. We wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find out that Betty’s dramatic weight loss was at least partially speed-fueled. She was certainly on fire and spitting nails last night, wasn’t she? Not that we blame her.
In the middle of all this drugs-and-whores drama (which almost sounds like a rebuke from Weiner to all those fans who elevated Don to rock star status; as if he’s showing them all the downside of it) was one freaking bizarre-as-hell episode involving an African-American woman breaking into the Draper apartment and briefly holding Sally and Bobby hostage. Mad Men has dealt with the growing crime and declining quality of life in NYC around this period before. Like Don racing through the offices of SCDP speeding his ass off, this is another example of the tenor of the times invading the unlikely spaces of the characters. New York City is a pit and one of the denizens rose up and walked right into Sally’s living room. The racial undertones here are problematic to say the least, when you consider just how few black characters have ever appeared on the show (and given that Grandma Ida is now the second of that small pool of characters to be a criminal). And we’re not sure why this bit was placed in this episode, except it served to snap Don out of his dangerous obsession with Sylvia. Still, it was one of the oddest things we’ve ever seen on the show, which, now that we think about it, must be why it was inserted here. It fight right in with all the unlikely stuff already going on. We can’t have been the only ones who found the sequence so bizarre and dream-like that we were wondering if Sally was on drugs herself.
Besides, it gave Betty the opportunity to pay Megan back for this scene, and on that level, we couldn’t help but cheer a little that Betty got her mojo back, and by that we don’t mean her weight loss necessarily. She’s clearly back to the polished Betty of the Ossining years; putting the effort in because she gets to be a trophy wife again. Standing in her kitchen, she was more made up and accessorized than we’ve seen her in several seasons. And because she has her armor back on and a husband that excites her again (“HENRY IS RUNNING FOR OFFICE, DON! DID YOU HEAR ME SAY THAT? DID YOU HEAR THAT PART ABOUT MY SUCCESSFUL, IMPORTANT HUSBAND?”) she’s got something that can pass for self-confidence to take the place of that mousey, Weight Watchers-attending, Mama Francis-lite version of herself. She had every reason to be angry at both Don and Megan, even if the primary responsibility for the kids rests on Don. On the other hand, there was definitely a sense of triumph in her fury, but like we said, we really can’t blame her for it.
What made this episode not-so-great in retrospect was the heavy focus once again on Don Fucking Draper and his Big Bag of Fucking Bullshit. Pardon our French. Show of hands: who found it shocking and revelatory that Don got his cherry popped by a blonde prostitute? Or that his stepmother abused him? There is nothing new to be found here and we found ourselves getting quite annoyed by the heavy-handedness of it all. For once, the meticulous costuming and styling details felt … almost crude, once you notice that Aimee, Sylvia AND the mother figure in the oatmeal ad all wore head scarves. And every time we wallow around in the recesses of Don’s psyche, we hope that this is the episode where the creators get it out of their systems for the season so we can move on to all the far more fascinating things going on around him, from Ted Chaough’s increasing anxiety that he might have hooked his cart to a runaway horse, to Jim Cutler and Roger Sterling embracing their similarities (because after all, who would Roger rather spend time with than another Roger? It’s easier than lugging a mirror around), to Peggy Goddamn Olson turning into the most desirable woman in the office and deftly handling the men around her in a way that would have made 1960 Joan Holloway arch an eyebrow and mutter, “I’m impressed.”
The scenes with Stan were some of the most enjoyable of the episode, partially because he’s relatively undefined as a character, and partially because he’s so charming a character. The scene with Peggy was awesome not just because the low-level sexual tension finally burst to the surface (aided by amphetamines and alcohol, of course) but because we find out that he’s in pain over the death of his cousin (who we met at Don’s birthday party last season) and that the constant shots of him smoking pot in the office this season might not be so charming in retrospect as it’s clear now that he’s self-medicating to a dangerous degree. Now that we’ve added the death of (admittedly, a very minor) character in Vietnam, the death of a character from a drug overdose seems almost inevitable what with the increasing number of scenes depicting drug use this season.
And with that, we just scared the shit out of a whole legion of Stan fans. Hopefully we’re wrong on that one. At any rate, we’ll have much more to say in our Mad Style post on Wednesday.
Because how could we not?
[Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC]