Mad Men, Season 6, Episode 8: “The Crash”
Written by Jason Grote and Matthew Weiner
Directed by Michael Uppendahl
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on AMC
There have been some excellent episodes of Mad Men this season. “The Flood,” “Man with a Plan,” and especially “For Immediate Release” have all been varying degrees of great, but “The Crash” is the first episode to leave me dumbstruck with awe the way so many season five episodes did. It’s an episode in which every scene seems precisely crafted to achieve an effect. What is that effect? Does it extend beyond inspiring bewilderment in the audience? If it doesn’t, and it’s as consistently engaging as this episode is, is that okay? As Andy Greenwald pointed out on Twitter last night, so much TV serves to satisfy our expectations that we should invite confusion and befuddlement when they arise rather than recoil from them. You can’t learn anything from having your biases confirmed. It’s refreshing when a show demands you think about it, even if the only thing you are thinking is “what the hell did I just watch?”
That feeling is present from the opening shot with Kenneth seemingly held hostage by a carful of drunken buffoons. It reaches its apex when an aged black woman who wonders into Don’s apartment claiming to be his mother interrupts Sally’s reading of Rosemary’s Baby. That was the moment I began to wonder if I had picked up a contact high from the ass speed Cutler’s doctor had administered to the staff of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Cutler Gleason Chaough. The effect of watching “The Crash” is a lot like trying to have a conversation with someone on a lot of drugs. It becomes fixated on seemingly inconsequential things: the ringing of a telephone or a radio playing the melody of “Dream a Little Dream” through someone’s door. There is a basic incoherence to everything, it’s operating on a wavelength that can’t be accessed with traditional logic. It’s so overwhelming that the second time I watched the episode I realized I had completely forgotten the scene with Kenneth tapdancing.
There is, however, something deeper going on. When Peggy is consoling a grieving Stan she says “You have to feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex. It won’t get you through.” We see later that Stan ignores her advice, but it also applies to Don. He seems genuinely saddened by the end of his affair with Sylvia. When Wendy Gleason says “I can’t hear anything. I think it’s broken,” Don mistakenly assumes she means his heart rather than her stethoscope. “You can hear that?” he asks incredulously. Later, as he offers a nonsensical Chevy pitch, the fact that it has nothing to do with Chevy is the least of its problems, to Peggy and Ginsberg he talks about “capturing her imagination.” “Who’s her?” Peggy says. Don’s relationship with Sylvia often dragged the first half of the season down. It felt all too familiar. But as Don’s ex, between the scene last week recounting her dream and her phone call with Don early in this week’s episode, she is proving her worth.
Stan, Don, and Ted are all coping with loss in their own way—Cutler too, I suppose, by doing some uppers and watching one of his employees sleep with his dead friend’s daughter—and the results are bizarre and engaging. Perhaps the subtext is overemphasized. Maybe Kenneth’s tap-dancing to please Don was a bit too on-the-nose. The closing line putting a pin on the similarities between prostitution and advertisement certainly was. That shouldn’t dampen your appreciation for Mad Men. This is an era with a plethora of great shows on TV (there have already been enough, less than halfway through the year, to populate an incredibly strong top ten list), but how many really challenge your expectations? How many are capable of taking a sledge hammer to the glass cocoon of complacency you’ve built up around yourself, demanding you engage with them? I can think of a handful: Louie certainly, a few episodes of Girls this season, and, in episodes like this, Mad Men. That is something to be cherished.