Yeah, I Was In the Sh*t: Vietnam Hits Home on “Mad Men”
Programming note: In last week’s recap, I noted this season of “">Mad Men” will be shorter, at only nine episodes. That may not be true — some sites have this season listed as having 13 episodes. But the titles, writing credits and such for episodes 10-13 haven’t been released, so it can appear like the season would end with next week’s episode, “The Better Half.” What I’m saying is, I’m probably wrong and we’ll get 13 episodes. I’m OK admitting that. This is what I get for injecting all those amphetamines …)
At times during “The Crash,” the eighth episode of “Mad Men” Season Six, it felt as if most of the characters were losing their minds. Their behavior was mainly thanks to a mixture of drugs, alcohol, exhaustion and exasperation as they worked on endless pitches for Chevy, but endless is the key here. An end barely is in sight for the employees of the newly merged, still-unnamed agency as they work around Chevy’s schedule, a three-year calendar of monthly deadlines sure to suck each of them dry. No matter how they try to distract themselves and ease their pain, the characters are stuck in a battle beyond their control. Between working weekends in a nice Manhattan office and trudging through the jungles of Vietnam, I think all viewers would choose the place of people like Stan over that of his 20-year-old cousin, who was killed in action during the war. But the parallel is important for representing the greater chaos of the ’60s and the feeling of helplessness pervading society. The war can’t be won; Chevy can’t be placated. Even stone sober, it is hard for someone to tell which way is up. Now, too many tragedies later, the dream of resilience is starting to crumble.
“The Crash” isn’t as trippy as Season Five’s “Far Away Places,” which took viewers along for the ride as Roger and now ex-wife Jane took LSD, but it definitely is an event. Jim Cutler (an increasingly entertaining Harry Hamlin) hooked most of the creative team up with his doctor’s “energy serum,” when injected was promised to provide “24 to 72 hours of uninterrupted creative focus, energy and confidence.” Just what they needed to tackle another long weekend of trying to make Chevy happy. But first: races through the office. And arm wrestling, and tap-dancing, and Ginsberg (the only sober one) throwing X-Acto knives at a drawing of an apple pinned above Stan’s head. The office goings-on aren’t quite as ridiculous as a man’s foot being run over by a secretary-driven John Deere tractor (Interesting that that clip, set in 1963, starts with men dismissing the threat of Vietnam), but the collective breakdown among the agency’s denizens is even more poignant. Of course the near free-for-all atmosphere is hilarious, and I almost prefer Don on speed than off. But the disillusionment their actions reflect is quite real. Chevy is pulling the strings by demanding new idea after new idea, and Jim has a point — that’s what Chevy is paying them for. But his other statement to the partners presents the bigger problem: “It’s not our clock; it’s theirs.”
The ad men and women are their own sort of soldiers — notice the use of Army green and its variants in several characters’ outfits, from Ken’s tie to Stan’s shirt — and they turn to the serum in desperation but also necessity. They can’t keep functioning at this rate, not and produce quality work, anyway. Unfortunately, most of what was created during the drug-addled weekend was “gibberish,” according to Ted, who spent the episode away mourning the loss of friend and business partner Fred Gleason. Peggy and Jim make it to the funeral, but they return to the office and everyone’s shenanigans with Wendy (Alexa Nikolas), Fred’s hippie daughter, in tow. She pops up now and again, first as she flirts with Don in his office and later as she has sex with Stan, and her scene with Don is one of several for him that appears jumbled. Time skips around, leaving the viewer as dazed as Don as an entire day goes by without him knowing it. He keeps slipping in and out of flashbacks to his childhood at the rooming house with his stepmother, Abigail.
A persistent cough links the memory with the present, as does his recollection of the prostitute Amy Swenson (Megan Ferguson), who took care of him when he had a chest cold. “Your momma don’t know how to take care of nobody,” she told the young Dick Whitman. “She ain’t my mother,” he replied. Once he feels better, Amy relieves him of his virginity, which infuriates Abigail. She calls Dick “trash” and “disgraceful” as she beats him with a spoon (as opposed to using the tool to feed him — nurture him). Amy’s face appears again, this time in an old oatmeal ad Don is convinced holds the answer to the Chevy account. In it, a woman smiles at a young boy eating oatmeal beneath the words, “Because you know what he needs.” Who knows if Don specifically thought of Amy as he designed the ad in the late 1950s or so, but her caring for him when he needed it — she also fed him — surely has played a part in his views on the role of women in his life.
Don isn’t handling the end of his and Sylvia’s affair well. He loiters outside her and Arnold’s apartment, smoking by the back entrance and eavesdropping on their conversations. Sylvia isn’t amused; Don isn’t holding up his end of the bargain — that when you have an affair, each partner trusts the other not to spill the beans. “When you start something like this, it takes a lot of convincing,” she tells him. “It’s all about whether or not the other person has as much to lose as you do because you want to be able to trust them when it’s over. And right now I’m wondering how I ever trusted you.” Sylvia didn’t sign up for Don’s recklessness, and she isn’t interested in babying him. He needs to move forward, as Peggy instructed him in last week’s episode, but he spent “The Crash” focusing on the past and trying to numb the present. Most of the characters did, and only Peggy (again) had the best advice to give on how to cope, which she gave to Stan: “I’ve had loss in my life,” she told him, after he made a pass at her and he spoke of his cousin. “You have to let yourself feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex. That won’t get you through.”
One of the more disturbing plots of the episode came with the entrance of “Grandma Ida,” a stranger who broke into Don and Megan’s apartment as his kids were staying over. Don was at work; Megan was out networking. Sally was left to babysit Bobby and Gene, and although she’s a smart kid, the sly Ida fools her for a bit by pretending to be a friend of the family. She robs the place, and a battered Don returns home to find Megan, Henry, Betty and a police officer interviewing the kids, none of them pleased. Betty’s loathing is valid — much worse could have happened to her kids, who weren’t being looked after — and Sally can’t be blamed for the break-in, either. Don left the back door open, sure, but who was Sally to question Ida’s stories about Don? “She said she knew you,” Sally told him. “I asked her everything I know and she had an answer for everything. And then I realized I don’t know anything about you.” Never mind that the children have never heard of Ida, not to mention the fact she is black and doesn’t exactly look a woman who could be their grandmother. They don’t know what to believe anymore. Their lives haven’t been in their control — is their future what Don’s generation has sacrificed, a la Sally’s reading material “Rosemary’s Baby”?
Don speaks to Sally on the phone the next day, having collapsed at the apartment after learning of the break-in. He hadn’t slept in days, and his ability to function wore away with the drugs in his system. He seems to have learned one lesson, at least, telling Ted he’ll handle Chevy from his role as creative director and nothing more. “Call me around 1970 when they’re ready to make an ad,” he says. No more games, no more of an uphill struggle to achieve the unachievable. There’s got to be a better way to meet a goal than to lose one’s self in the process. “I’m sorry, Ted,” Don adds, “but every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse.”
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.