Monday, May 20, 2013

Mad Men Season Six - Dr. Feelgood


Cocaine may be a helluva drug [1], but when you inject an office full of advertising executives and workers with a special cocktail that felt a lot like speed, you wind up face planted on your white shag carpet. In an episode that felt accelerated and off kilter, frenetic and disjointed, The Crash was uncomfortable to watch, from another flashback to the worst childhood ever (a/k/a "let's raise little Dick Whitman in a whorehouse and see what could possibly go wrong") to the desperate hours spent inside the walls of SCDP/CGC, where otherwise sensible human beings were reduced to some combination of Lord of the Flies and Caligula

The broad strokes were simple enough, another tight deadline by the ever demanding overlords at General Motors coincided with the death of Frank Gleason, leaving Don and the crew to pull an all-weekender trying to come up with new ideas for the GM executives to shoot down. For inspiration, Jim Cutler calls in his own personal Dr. Feelgood, who doses the crowd with enough amphetamines to keep them running for 48 hours strong. And while Peggy, Stan, Ginzo and the new kids from CGC scramble, babbling incoherently in the euphoria of their high, Don is grappling with his very own advertising pitch to Sylvia, who he simply cannot let go of. In his mania, Don is incapable of coherence. His kids are visiting for the weekend but he cannot be bothered to see them; his wife is going out without him, but his focus in solely on coming up with the perfect "pitch" that will convince Sylvia to take him back. 

When Frank Gleason's daughter appears in the full bloom of hippiedom, I Ching in hand, clad in batik print flowing dress, she tells Don that he asked her "does someone love me" but that does not make Don exceptional - according to her, everyone asks that question. But in Don's case, we know that is a question for which he fears the answer - "no." Indeed, the only person who ever truly knew him is long dead. [2] Instead, the window is pulled back a little more to Don's wretched childhood where Aimee, one of the prostitutes he co-habitates with, deflowers him after nursing him back to health after he takes a high fever. She is quickly dismissed by "rooster" Uncle Mac [3] and Don takes a beating from Abigail for cavorting with the young blonde woman. That Don connects this episode to what he is experiencing with Sylvia is curious, particularly in light of the old oatmeal campaign that used the tag line "because you know what he needs" he ends up focusing on as the way to get Sylvia back. 

Don's speed high causes him to sweat and become ever more disjointed in his thinking. Meanwhile, drugs cannot mask Stan Rizzo's pain - his cousin, who we met briefly at the beginning of Season 5, [4] is killed in Vietnam and when he tries to turn his sorrow into a grope session with Peggy, she demurs, advising him that masking his pain with drugs and sex will do him no good. Over on Park Avenue, Sally, who was introduced to the numbing effect of Seconal by Grandma Pauline, [5] stumbles on a kindly old woman who introduces herself as Grandma Ida but turns out to be a thief who has entered the Draper's penthouse apartment from an unlocked door. Although Sally has the presence of mind to call the police, "Ida" intercepts the call and makes a hasty retreat, presumably with all four of Don's watches in her satchel. When Don returns home, utterly wired and exhausted by his weekend bender, his family, both old and new, are there to greet him with the news of the burglary, with Betty twisting several knives into Don's back for his poor parenting. 

Indeed, this "B" story had the most ominous overtones and was the episode at its most claustrophobic. Its insularity was amplified by the rest of the storyline, which seemed to speed up and careen under the influence of drugs and desperation, but Ida's superficial pleasantry toward Sally was tissue thin and the hint of foreboding and violence that was communicated through her words and deeds gave these scenes a menacing aspect that only reinforced the hour's ominous vibration. 

Drugs have played a role on Mad Men since Season 3 [6] but while their use (particularly marijuana) has grown since then, The Crash exposed the less salutary effects of mind altering substances. Instead of using LSD to commune with a loved one [7] or marijuana to get involved in some anonymous movie theater hanky panky [8], the Dr. Feelgood shot exposed raw nerves, anxiety and hyperactivity that is not sustainable, much less preferable even in small doses. The collective fugue produced a lot of gibberish masquerading as good ideas, but only served to allow those who were under the drug's spell a brief respite from the pain they felt in their own lives. Last night, recreational drug use went from being portrayed as ethereal and escapist to edgy and ugly. 

But like so many of the narrative constructs that have been used this season that nodded to seasons past [9], just when Don hits rock bottom, in this case, coming home wired and ranting to a room of his first and second families and a police officer before fainting from exhaustion, the next morning, it is as if nothing has happened. He sees Sylvia in the elevator, barely exchanges pleasantries, and doesn't even pay her the courtesy of allowing her to exit first when the doors open - he simply powers past her. At the office, he makes up with Sally over the phone by taking responsibility for leaving the side door to the apartment open and then tells his partners, both new and old, that he's out of the business of being led around by the nose by the client, even one as exalted as General Motors

To me, the end of The Crash carries on this season's echoing theme. The closest parallels are Season 4, where Don hits a nadir upon learning of Anna's death, causing Peggy to look at him with despair and ask him "how much longer are you going to do this" (referring to his excessive drinking). There, once Don experiences the catharsis of learning of Anna's passing and affirmation of Peggy's place beside him as emotional ballast, he appears the next morning in a freshly pressed suit and tie, new idea in hand for Samsonite and a request that his door be left open. [10] Last season, Don was drifting aimlessly and in no particular creative direction until he realized he was punching below his weight in fighting pitch skirmishes with Ginsberg and instead turned his sights on mega-accounts, landing, as we now know, Dow Chemical and Jaguar. [11] 

Indeed, if you dig deeper into the show's history, Don is always <this close> to having things fall apart for him entirely before transmogrifying into the next iteration of himself. Back in Season 1, he was ready to flee New York in the face of Pete's blackmail threat before confronting him head on. [12] The following season, after his affair with Bobbi Barrett is exposed, Don does flee to California, fully accepting he has ruined his (and his family's life) but returns home after cleansing himself in the Pacific Ocean. [13] In Season 3, he learns of Betty's connection with Henry Francis and, in a drunken rage, attacks her. The next day, he's opening his life to the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce firm and acceding to Betty's request that he allow her to divorce him. [14]

The experiences that brought Don his swag back last night were consistent with this leitmotif, and were of a piece with what one might call Don's "Falling Man Syndrome." Matt Weiner makes this obvious literally from the moment the show's credits begin running - as everything collapses around an animated version of Don, and he descends, inexorably toward a crash; but when the curtain rises, he's perfectly coiffed, cigarette in hand, firmly on top of his game. Last night, Don Draper shed yet another skin, revealing nothing but the same impeccable surface that guides him through life. 

END NOTES

1.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udNHsk57f24
2.  The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7. 
3.  Mac's actions make one question why Don once referred to Mac as one of the few people who was nice to him while he was growing up. The Gypsy and The Hobo, Season 3, Episode 11. 
4.  A Little Kiss Part II, Season 5, Episode 2. 
5.  Mystery Date, Season 5, Episode 4. 
6.  My Old Kentucky Home, Season 3, Episode 3. 
7.  Far Away Places, Season 5, Episode 6.
8.  Ibid.
9.  Don's attempted assertion of dominance over Ted echoed a similar stunt he pulled on Roger in Season 1. Man With A Plan, Season 6, Episode 7; Red In The Face, Season 1, Episode 5. The agency losing two large clients simultaneously (Jaguar and Vick's Chemical) mimicked a similar story line from Season 4 (North American Aviation and Lucky Strike). For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6. Hands and Knees, Season 4, Episode 10. 
10.  The Suitcase, supra. 
11.  Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12, The Other Woman, Season 5, Episode 11. And yes, it is a fair point to say that it was Joan, not Don that truly carried the day with Jaguar. 
12.  Nixon vs. Kennedy, Season 1, Episode 12. It is also worth noting that Bert gave Don his blessing to fire Pete and Don did not do so. A decision that began bonding the two in ways that would impact them both (and the firm) for years to come. 
13.  The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12. 
14.  Shut the Door, Have A Seat. Season 3, Episode 13. 

13 comments:

  1. My mom use to get B12 shots in the 60's....very reministant.

    She told me this am that she still gets them!!

    "'They Really give you energy! A big lift! But maybe it is age, but now they
    don't seem as powerful."

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    1. B12 shots, yes. B12 plus amphetamine, no.

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    2. The amphetamine chaser is not a good look for anyone ...

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  2. Really applaud Matt Weiner for his taking our childhood memories in his Stellar writing room to the screen.

    All of a sudden my day is brighter with his illuminating our parents in a brighter light....

    He is our Morning Star.

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  3. @MMPlayboyClubLondon1968May 20, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    Sending buckets of chilled champage to The Writer's room....

    Thank you for another grand insight into 1968.

    Would bring strawberries covered in white chocolate if only they would let me in to thank them

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    1. It was an out there episode - unlike Far Away Places, which had a warm, hallucinatory feel (aside from the last 10 minutes or so), The Crash had all the itchy, twitchy edginess of people who have switched from "love" drugs to "hard" drugs.

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  4. Thanks for a great recap/interpretation!

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    1. You're welcome - thanks for visiting!

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  5. Nice summary and interesting observations about how Don has shed his skin in previous seasons.

    However, something seems very different about it this time...or maybe I want it to be different? First, Don seems to be gaining insight into his own situation and is beginning to connect the dots among his feelings, his childhood memories, and his behaviors. Second, he is trying to be a better father with Sally when he took responsibility for leaving the service door unlocked. Third, his lack of engagement with Sylvia in the elevator is a sign that he is moving forward. Finally, I think he has a different perspective on his work as he proclaims he is the creative director who will supervise the work, maybe not produce it (or whore himself out to clients).

    Thanks again for an insightful summary.

    Your Pal, Polly

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    1. Don's ur philosophy is two-fold: (1) people don't change and (2) people tell us who they are, but we ignore it b/c we want them to be who we want them to be (If I'm not mistaken, the show credits are The Mountain King S2E12 and The Summer Man S4E8), so shedding his skin, drifting from paramour to paramour, swinging from the vines like Tarzan (cc: Pete Campbell) are of a piece. Don bailed on SC but came back just in time to save it from Duck Phillips running a PPL-owned version of the company. Next, he hatched the "fire us" plan so they wouldn't be stuck working for McCann. He wrote The Letter to get the stink of losing Lucky Strike off the firm. It's who he is - same as he ever was. Not learning, not moving forward (as Pegs suggested he should do) just reliving the same thing over and over. At least that's my opinion.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. Good recap, I especially liked the observations about Don shedding his skin once every season. Maybe subconsciously he sees it as some kind of perverse ritual (i.e. going through the abyss to be born again).

    However, I felt that while choosing to ignore Sylvia in the elevator was a move towards emotional maturity, his throwing the Chevy account into Ted's lap seemed like he was giving up a certain amount of power; instead of hanging in there and realizing that he can't always swoop in the day with the "Epic Pitch Accompanied By Hypnotic Music" (at least not anymore) he chose to take the easy way out. Of course you probably could also look at it as Don realizing that the pressure of working on the big account brings out his worst self-destructive tendencies (like leaving his kids alone and vulnerable to a burglar) and choosing to back away. But when has Don ever purposely taken the back seat to another creative ad man?

    Speaking of Grandma Ida, I've read a lot of comments over at Vulture (along with recapper Matt Zoller Seitz) voicing disappointment in that character and holding her up as another example of Matt Weiner's clumsy handling of race. While do think he could have developed Dawn a lot more by now (and it wouldn't kill him to bring in a recurring black male character either), I didn't see Grandma Ida as a stereotype; she was a con artist who knew how what to say to a young white girl whom she correctly guessed grew up with a maid. I didn't find her phrases ("give me some sugar") or offering to make fried chicken racist, but just a reflection of southern culture (I had older women in my family say "give me some sugar" to me countless times growing up).

    Also, everyone seems to have glossed over the fact Ida also made prejudiced assumptions about Don; she figure rich white man=had a mammy growing up, when in reality he grew up dirt poor in a whore house.

    End of essay lol:). My recap:
    http://kclarkscorner.blogspot.com/2013/05/mad-men-season-6-ep-8-crash.html

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    1. I read your recap (it was quite good) and agree with much of what you said - Don does tend to unravel under pressure and/or the influence of mind altering substances (I would throw his phenobarbitol hallucination in 7-23 as another example), but I read his blow off of Sylvia as a turning of the page to whatever is next. You notice, once Don's affairs end, they end - he moves on. Like I said, it was just another example of Don falling helplessly through space and time, only to reinvent himself in the same skin (albeit now looking a little worse for the wear after all the abuse he's inflicted on himself).

      I'm not in the camp of people who think the flashbacks are overdone. Are they enlightening us as much as the S3 flashbacks, no - they are less subtle and the same kid is now playing "Dick" even though he's only supposed to be 10 years old - but the point you made about Aimee being the first nurturing female in his life but that "relationship" being messy and ending bad is spot on. It's no wonder Don switched those dog tags in Korea. That step monster ...ugh ...

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  7. Mad Men is a drama about one of New York's most prestigious ad agencies at the beginning of the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm's most mysterious but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper. It tells the lives of the men and women who work in an advertising agency in New York in the 1960s. The agency is enjoying success, but the advertising game becomes more competitive as the industry develops. The agency must adapt to ensure its survival. Don Draper is a talented ad executive at the top of his game, but the secrets from his past and his present threaten to topple his work and family life.

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