That the electrifying opening -- a dark, tight, frantic shot of Ken Cosgrove; a speeding carful of drunken, jowly old men; and a gun -- was not even the strangest moment in last night's "Mad Men" episode tells you just how bizarre it was.
In "The Crash," drugs, sex and late 60s psycho-spiritual mumbo-jumbo dominate, and not just as historical decorations. These themes actually wend their way into the agency's work. Time and place are out of whack and the characters are rambling, their lines both elusive and allusive, a lot of sound and fury signifying very little and certainly not a new ad campaign for Chevy.
Here's the set-up: The new, lucrative car account is weighing heavy on the agency. Even as General Motors rejects the agency's ideas, it's supplying an onerous-sounding calendar -- three years of monthly deadlines, strategy statements, copy testing and Byzantine approval processes. Cosgrove, the agency's ambassador to Detroit, has a cane and a limp from the drunken joyride. Meanwhile, the creative leadership is stressed and sleep-deprived, with Don coughing like a howitzer into his handkerchief.
A new set of deadlines means the bedraggled bunch will be working through the weekend -- including the funeral of Frank Gleason, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just before the merger went down. They need a fast cure and, before you know it, Jim Cutler, who's delightfully sprightly in a seedy sort of way, has summoned his Dr. Hecht. The quack proceeds to stab a bunch of ad asses with a mysterious "energy serum," describing it as a "proprietary complex vitamin superdose and a mild stimulant" that will offer a day or three of "creative focus, energy and focus."
As you might guess, the mass consumption of speed or some speed-like substance leads to some weird shit: Stan and Cutler racing through the office. Stan making a run at Peggy, then succeeding with Wendy, revealed later to be Gleason's daughter. There's a William Tell re-enactment and an "Alice in Wonderland" dramatization among the creatives. Poe is quoted.
The potion hits Don the hardest, which is only fair given that he's about as scuffling as we've seen him. His low state is expected when you consider how he's working to win the affections of two mystifying entities. There's General Motors, on one hand, and then there's Sylvia Rosen, the neighbor lover who has wormed her way into his head. Last week, we saw Sylvia give Don a brush-off that hasn't gone down well. Now Don's lurking outside her apartment, his cigarettes butts piling up in the hallway. In the opening minutes of "The Crash," she phones him up, warning him to stop the stalking before her husband figures things out.
Is Don, as he babbles his way to a new campaign, trying to sort out the G.M. question? Or is he trying to figure out how to win Sylvia back? It gets harder and harder to tell, as Don slips further into his speed trance and the gibberish piles up.
"You have to get me in a room so I can look them in the eye," he tells Cosgrove. "The timbre of my voice is as important as the content. I don't know whether I'll be forceful or submissive but I must be there in the flesh." We'll just acknowledge and put aside Cosgrove's amazing response, a neat little tap-dance and the rudiments of a Broadway hit about an account-handler called "It's My Job."
For Don, ever the salesman, the meaning of the words only matter so much. It's all about him getting, as he put it, "his foot in the door."
The speed sends Don searching the archives, both a roomful of old ads and those memories of his horrid childhood that the show leans on when Don is being most disgusting and/or mystifying. Don's ominous coughs especially have a historical analogue in some childhood sickness experienced at his stepmother's brothel. A young prostitute, who, like Sylvia, has a beauty mark, nurses the boy to health -- and then proceeds to deflower him. He's thinking of that prostitute when the sight of Ted Chaough's assistant throws him off kilter.
"Do we know each other?" he asks her. ".... I meant from somewhere other than this moment."
By the time we reach the episode's subplot, we're not quite sure what to believe. Because Don is working and Megan has theater tickets, the Draper children are left alone in their Park Ave. apartment with young Sally running the roost. And when her bedtime reading of "Rosemary's Baby" is interrupted by a noise, Sally finds an old black lady in the apartment.
Ida is not Don's mother, as she claims to be. She's a burglar, as we'll learn later in a cringe-worthy scene featuring an on-the-offensive Betty Draper Francis. In the meantime, not much is clear. The episode has so trounced our conception of reality and Don is such an enigma, even to his own children, that it's plausible that a random black woman could be their grandmother. "Are we Negroes?" Bobby asks in one of the show's greatest lines. Later, Sally remarks to Don, "I don't know anything about you."
By the end, which for such a hazy episode is surprisingly conclusive, Don has sorted some stuff out. He's decided to pull back from the copywriting and reassume his role as creative director, now just approving other people's work. The serum having worn off, he issues a bit of Draperesque clarity: "Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse."
The same confidence extends to his personal life, at least for a minute. In the elevator, he gives Sylvia the cold shoulder, a welcome departure from the desperate Don mode we've been enduring. Maybe it even worked. Sure, Sylvia's been frantically trying to extricate herself from Don, but, to this viewer, the look on her face seemed more intrigued than relieved when he takes leave of her.
"The Crash" is certain to be a divisive episode -- these sorts of things usually are. For my money, it was a fresh way of narrating the decline of Don Draper, a story that's getting harder and harder to make interesting after six seasons. Its use of the weirdness of the late 1960s avoided the cliche, as did its use of stimulants, the rare class of drugs whose role in American life is actually not discussed enough.
-- The unlikely character of Dr. Hecht reminds us that the new agency still doesn't have a name. "All anybody wants to know is what you're going to call this place. SCDPCGC? That's a mouthful." We've done our part to help.
-- Ida wasn't alone. Burglaries in New York City surged 14% between 1967 and 1968. There were just over 250,000, compared to -- wow -- only 65,000 in 2011.
-- It's worth remembering that all the effort at the agency was going toward the colossal failure that was the Chevy Vega, rolled out by GM in the 1970s. Here's one of the Vega ads: