I’ll spare you my constant ramblings about Matthew Weiner’s work on The Sopranos right after these next few paragraphs.
The sixth season of the compulsively-brilliant (and still-weirdly-marginalized-as-Goodfellas-esque) Mob show, in which Matthew Weiner became a lead writer, did something very strange to TV formula. Something we’ve not seen much of outside of Girls and Generation Kill. And that is a subversion of genre expectations related to pacing and plotting. The sixth season decided to settle down on the Mob plot-lines so it could focus on psychological distress, the primitive fears of its protagonists, and other things that would have made the French New Wave really excited.
It went sideways. It’s a convention often used in novels (Don Quixote, anybody?) but rarely used in our visual mediums. Not only because, appropriately enough for Mad Men, ad space is hard to sell for a show focused on not drawing its viewers to a conclusion, but because filmmaking is a collaborative art. Practical producers don’t have time for thirty hour fugues.
Lucky for us, the producers at HBO and AMC are the least practical on the planet, and they have allowed Matthew Weiner to, once again, take his diorama and photograph it sideways.
“The Crash” is one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen, and yet it could have probably been deleted entirely from this season without a single hitch in our understanding of the overarching plot. It’s sideways in every sense of the word, existing completely for the benefit of context and mood.
It’s like the whaling sections of Moby-Dick, or the constant footnotes in House of Leaves. On the surface, these are superfluous episodes in otherwise taut and compelling stories, but upon further inspection, they’re the real meat.
Mad Men has delivered several fantastic fugue episodes. “The Suitcase” is probably the most well-known, and well-liked, of the bunch. It focuses on a very easy set-up. Peggy and Don stay up all night and talk about the empty spaces they don’t know how to fill (read: Suitcase).
And if there’s any decency in this world, “The Crash” will become the next critical darling of the series.
Like an early Brian DePalma film, this episode starts with a high-strung Ken Cosgrove getting into a car accident with cartoonishly evil Chevy executives. The camera, unusually for this show, moves in hand-held from the headlights to the cigars being held by faceless monsters. Ken screams that he’s losing control of the vehicle. They crash.
He’s not dead. He’s barely injured. When he returns to SCDPCGC (they’ll have to solve that problem next week), nobody even cares that he almost died. Instead, they’re all frustrated by the infinite string of rejected ideas Chevy has thrown their way. Ken tells them that in seventy-two hours, they’ll have to produce a brand new packet of ideas for the company.
So they call in a “doctor” with special shots of adrenaline so they can work without sleep until the deadline.
Don feels the effects immediately. His senses heighten and he becomes manic and over-productive. His mind races at a million miles an hour.
But he forgets to do anything for Chevy. Instead, Don spends the entire episode somewhere in his own head, recalling an illness he had as a child that led to his loss of innocence. The flashbacks come and go seamlessly throughout the episode, making the parallels feel organic and revelatory. Young Don is meek and shy, and he does everything he can to please those around him. Match that with middle-aged Don, a womanizing, selfish egotist who only cares about what he wants, and you’ll see how great the writing for this show really is. You’re not thinking, “Man, this is a serious stretch,” but, “Man, what a tragedy the American dream really is.”
Everything from the camera-work to the editing is obviously inspired by early-seventies cinema, most notably, as I’ve said, Brian DePalma, but there are also elements of Polanski thrown into the mix. We’re even given a helpful hint of the influences by Sally’s book, Rosemary’s Baby, which she happens to be reading at the very moment a woman breaks into the apartment and claims to be Don’s mother. (The woman is African-American, and she’s never before appeared on the show)
The most eery part about all of this is not that somebody broke in, but that Sally doesn’t even know enough about her dad to verify the woman’s story. Her answers are hilariously vague, but so are Sally’s notions of who her father even is. The scene is quiet and foreboding. A stranger is in the apartment (because of a door in the back of the apartment, an inside joke Rosemary’s Baby fans will find amusing, I’m sure) and there’s nobody home to protect the children. Even more, the woman is an uncomfortably on-the-nose Mammy figure, straining to produce the kind of voice these kids surely grew up hearing (and, in fact, they did). Her wardrobe, her voice, her mannerisms, and even her feigned interest in the children are all designed to disarm children.
It’s a terrifying sequence for both its racial implications and its relation to the overall plot of the series. What we once knew to be good and safe is now scary and dangerous. The most trustworthy thing in the world (in this case, a rather stereotypical Mammy figure) has become a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The fact that these two stories are running parallel in this single narrative just proves the virtuosity of the writing on this show. A lesser series would devote its entire runtime to one of the threads, but Mad Men has opted to weave them together into something very interesting.
Don’s increasing isolation is catching up with him, swallowing him up into a solipsistic nightmare where he is both the hero and the villain. Does he even know he’s a father? Does he care? We already know he doesn’t love his children. At least not in the way he knows he’s supposed to. And he definitely doesn’t love Megan, as she’s only been an idea to him anyway.
As the I Ching reading daughter of the recently deceased Gleason says to Don at the peak of his mental deconstruction, “You’re wondering if anybody loves you.”
“How do you know that?” Don says.
“Because that’s the question everybody asks,” she says.
Don’s quest for love will be never-ending because he doesn’t understand its most basic components. Love is trust and patience and understanding. Love is an investment of time and compassion and adoration. Don isn’t equipped for love, so he settles for lust. Sometimes he settles for quiet obsession.
But even those die away after a time. His silent elevator ride with Sylvia can testify to that.
“The Crash” is a magnificently-produced hour of television that reminds us why we love Mad Men in the first place: it understands story, but it doesn’t need plot.