Surviving the crash

Last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Crash,” was packed with break ups, break ins, and breakdowns. Framed by the volatile relationship between the ad company and the Chevy account, the episode examines how things fall apart, both in and out of the office, through the tropes of collision, danger, safety and care. Herky-jerky and oddly paced, “The Crash” quite purposefully suffers from an irregular heartbeat that drives the viewer quickly forward, while also maintaining an unsettling sense of disquiet on the verge of nausea. We’re meant to feel feverish, sick. We’re meant to follow the fall of Don Draper and vicariously experience the thrill and horror of that flight/fall.

The office (newly merged with a business rival), Don (desperate to win Sylvia back), and the country (steadily losing troops in Vietnam) are all slipping and sliding, trying to stand on shaky ground. Beginning with a bang, the show opens with a scene of reckless driving and an automobile crash. Ken Cosgrove fearfully tries to control the wheel but the raucously drunk Chevy clients laugh and swat at him, brandish a gun, cover his eyes. The men question his masculinity because he won’t speed up, and eventually they overpower him, coaxing the car head-on into danger. When we next see Ken he’s injured and hobbling on crutches. He seeks sympathy but his co-workers don’t seem to care.

There’s a ton going on in this episode, but I was most interested in the issues of health and sickness and what it means to be a man. The show’s made an icon of Don Draper — he’s heralded as a mysterious lothario, a sixties “pimp,” and people, men, seem to find him admirable for this. Yet, lately, he’s off his game. His moments of Draper ad magic are coming with less frequency, less pop, and his love-’em-and-leave-’em sex magic seems pretty dried up, too, since he’s become needy, even frightening, in his desire for Sylvia. “The Crash” could be read as his coming down from a Sylvia high — the doctor’s wife acting as his anodyne, his distracting drug. Though we’ve seen Draper use sex as medicine before, something is different about this particular relationship. He places a much higher value on her, spins out of control, is lost and manic when she shuts her door to him.

Speaking of panaceas, things get uber weird when the company higher-ups call in a doctor to basically administer speed to the employees. Injected with a performance enhancing serum (business-man boner pills, anyone?), the copywriters are to gain focus, clarity, energy with one little shot. It seems only men take the drug and almost immediately foot races, and games of strength and fortitude fill the space. With the men turned little boys, the workplace is boiled down to its essence — “I can do it better, run faster, pee farther, than the next guy.” The serum causes quite the frenzied production, not to mention pretty serious side effects and hallucinations, but nothing that could actually count as usable, viable, ideas.

However, it is striking that the serum (and perhaps being on the brink of exhaustion) frees up emotional expression for the Mad Men. After the drug is administered, the fellas ask each other, “can you feel anything?” Though in reference to the serum taking effect, the question hangs starkly in the air. Do they feel? When and how? In the temporary “insanity” of sorts that follows, Don pleads with Sylvia on the phone shouting, “I’m feeling a lot of emotions!” Ken performs a bizarre yet marvelous soft shoe whilst expressing pent up hatred for his job, and Stan reaches out to Peggy seeking sex as succor for emotional wounds. Where this magical medicine is supposed to “fix” these men by creating efficient capitalist output, the episode uses the trip to explore much realer pains and ailments that expectations of masculinity won’t allow them to properly address. Why does my heart hurt? How and why do I work in an abusive environment? How do I grieve?

Don’s pain, of course, is central. For Draper, “The Crash” is about collisions within himself. Physical and mental smash together as his emotional detritus takes on somatic shape. After a particularly painful discussion with Sylvia, he collapses into a guttural cough that at some moments is indiscernible from sobbing — for this high power male exec, his sadness is his sickness. The cough threads us back to his past as Dick Whitman sick with a severe chest cold. His mother, rather than caring for the boy with hot chicken soup (the stuff that ads are made of) banishes him to the basement so as not to infect the others in the whorehouse with Dick’s supposed consumption. Layered with this painful lack of care is an even more twisted knot of memories. A whore takes him into her room, watches over him, nurses him to health, and then uses her power, age, and experience to take Dick’s virginity in what appears to be an abusive act. Yes, this could seem a cop-out backstory for a flawed character, but I don’t think it excuses his behavior, so much as gives it some context.

Once upon a time, Don Draper could hone the sadness of his past into the shiny, nostalgic, artifice of his work, his ads genius feats of psychological alchemy. In this episode, his feelings and history are overburdening the work. In his frenzied state he confuses work and home life in an unproductive and depressing manner. He spends all his time building an ad for himself, crafting the perfect spiel that will sell Don Draper, will get a foot back into Sylvia’s door. But, he’s also selling something to himself, the narrative that this woman is the key, the mother and lover that he’s always wanted but never had. Hopefully, the viewer discomfort churned up in episodes like this one will allow the audience to rethink Draper’s smoothness and make him a more nuanced character in a complex gender structure. One in which our performances as men and women are constantly negotiating power, expression, and perception.

All the edges of the episode suggest that there is no safety, people lie, there’s no one we can trust. Where early Mad Men revelled in the intoxicating allure of embellishment, this season is dipping into the emptiness and horror that can structure a lie. Peggy, though she harbors an avoidant past of her own, suggests that we have to let ourselves feel painful emotions, that we can’t “dampen [them] with drugs and sex,” but as one can imagine, this advice is not very popular. “The Crash” undoubtedly presents a male desire for care and comfort (coded as feminine) along with freedom from typical masculine roles, but sadly it suggests that truthfully engaging with such desires is a temporary madness that the right ad, right soup, right fuck can cure. It gives a compelling interpretation of the world of men then and now, tender, lost boys in beards and button up shirts, white-knuckling the wheel, holding on for dear life while secretly wishing to be in the passenger seat.

Ana Holguin writes PopHeart for The Idler.

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