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‘Mad Men’ Brings Together an Office on Uppers and Flashbacks to Brothel Living in One of the Show’s Best Episodes

'Mad Men' Brings Together an Office on Uppers and Flashbacks to Brothel Living in One of the Show's Best Episodes

This article below contains spoilers for “The Crash,” the May 19th, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”

High on an injection of B vitamins and speed and giddy from days without sleep, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) discovered the universal perfect pitch in last night’s episode. In his addled mind, at least, he grasped the advertising singularity, and for a moment, Don believed he could sell anything to anyone, evoke some primal yearning having to do with our desire for a connection with other people and use it to convince anyone, from Chevy to his wayward mistress Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini) to bend to his will.  Like most substance-enabled epiphanies, it dissolved in the bright light of sobriety — Don wasn’t actually able to see into the inner workings of human motivation like some persuasion-based variant on Neo at the end of “The Matrix.” No, his revelation had everything to do with himself and not some grander understanding of existence. 

“The Crash,” which was directed by Michael Uppendahl and written by Jason Grote and Matthew Weiner, offered up some of the heavy-handed pop psychology symbolism that “Mad Men” can so ponderously be anchored by, from a literal mother and whore in the flashback sequences to the theme of doors leading to both the break-in and Don’s pining outside the Rosens apartment, listening to the music on the radio. But for the most part these half-profundities were used as a force a good, because many of them were Don’s, not the show’s, and this episode providing a rare glimpse at our protagonist’s self-awareness and the fact that he’s not quite as deep or enigmatic as he likes to pretend.

The work doesn’t just sell itself, no matter what he says — it needs him there to finesse it, something he revealed he knew well to an equally tweaked Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), whose summing up of his place in the company by a tap dancing routine was one of the episodes surreal highlights. “The timbre of my voice is as important as the content,” Don delivered with amusing seriousness. “I don’t know whether I’ll be forceful or submissive, but I must be there in the flesh.” Those dominance games in last week’s episode were no blip — Don clearly thinks about his power plays in balder terms than he lets on.

As “Mad Men” winds its way toward a likely end game next season, it has had to deal with Don getting older but not necessarily better. He’s familiar to us in a way that he isn’t to anyone in his life, including his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), who told him that part of the reason she accepted the intruder (Davenia McFadden) in their apartment for as long as she did, in an amazing sequence filled with strange menace, was because she had all the right, vague answers, and she doesn’t really know anything about her father. The cloak of mystery that’s part of Don’s allure has been, for viewers, slowly pulled away from him over the years as we’ve learned about his Dick Whitman past, his affairs, his insecurities.

Even the dissatisfaction that continues to tug at Don no longer has the poetry it had when the series first began, because we’ve come to understand that he is his own worst enemy, and that happiness is never going to be his because he continues to search without looking for anything in particular. The best parts of this not always satisfactory season, of which “The Crash” stands as the easy high point so far, have presented a look at Don from the outside, as someone who’s as much a terror as he is a broody hero.

It was far funnier than expected to see Don on drugs, because, stripped of its focused impact, his earnest eloquence was hilarious — like the speech he ran into the creatives’ room to delivery, all ceremony with no actually substance: “In my heart, I know we cannot be defeated.” While hoping for a breakthrough of inspiration, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) also know Don too well to have been impressed with his bursts of upper-induced big talk, and while Peggy was dismayed by his breakdown of the “basic principal of advertising,” Ginsberg was savvier in going along with it in order to shoo his boss off into the night to do whatever he does when he strides off without explanation, freeing his underlings up to take it easy.

The office as Hieronymus Bosch tableau was incredibly entertaining — just disaster after disaster, from Ken’s dance number on a wounded leg he couldn’t feel to a sober and possibly vengeful Ginsberg participating in an impromptu William Tell moment that ended with Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) taking an X-Acto knife to his arm. Peggy almost hooked up with Stan in the office, turning him down reluctantly only to later see him having sex with the hippie waif Wendy (Alexa Nikolas) who was drifting through the office doing I Ching readings.

And Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin), who we haven’t seen much of yet, showed off a dark side with the round of shots to the office and the admission that Wendy, the girl he spied in flagrante, was the just-passed Frank Gleason’s daughter. While Ted (Kevin Rahm) was off mourning the partner he lost, SCDP spent a weekend coming up with a pile of ideas that were half nonsense and Don’s charming declaration that he just wouldn’t work on the project anymore until Chevy was willing to play along as he’d like — as always, quite the team player.

“Does someone love me?” That’s the question Wendy said that everyone has in their heart. But Don’s inquiry into this has been shaped by a lifetime of transactions, including that in the brothel in which he lost his virginity. There’s the mother (well, stepmother) who’s supposed to take care of him but who doesn’t care to abide by that social contract, ready to consign him to the cellar for the greater good in fear of tuberculosis when he has a cough. And there’s the prostitute who cares for him, sleeps with him, and then asks for money for the deed when she’s thrown out.

The sequences in the past were the latest of many keys to understanding Don that we’ve been presented with over the years — see, this is why he feels that family bonds are empty and why he thinks of relationships as bargains. But the more we get of these, the less important they seem, because identity isn’t so straightforward a realization, and because Don’s past can only explain his present so much. There will never be a solution to Don Draper, for us or for him, no woman waiting on the other side of the door who can make him complete and counter all the people who’ve disappointed, abandoned or been hurt by him before. He got on the elevator with Sylvia and had nothing to say that would make her come back to him, that perfect pitch long gone — what is there to come back for?

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