by KARA VANDERBIJL
creator Matthew Weiner
"Every time we get a car," said Don at the end of Sunday night's episode, "The Crash", "this place turns into a whorehouse." Powerful judgment coming from a man who, with many of his colleagues, spent a weekend in the office high on a cocktail of B vitamins and speed. As it turns out, the Chevy account has been every bit as much of a bitch as the Jaguar account before it, and the new SCDP/CGC mashup agency is sweating, crying and running their way through the halls trying to come up with a pitch that will satisfy their nitpicky clients.
But as the frequent flashbacks to Don's youth prove, the relationship with the whorehouse is complex, and not as easily dismissed as Don's bravado would have us believe. I think we're all sort of done with these peeks into Draper's past: we don't need to see a play-by-play of his Freudian dilemma as the whore who nurses him back to health from a severe fever subsequently initiates him in the ways of sex. If anything, these yawn-inducing scenes exist simply to illustrate Don's last point: a whorehouse is not an ideal habitat, but it's where your mother and your lover live. It's where there's comfort and excitement. It's sexy and dangerous and terrible for you, and it'll keep you — and your agency — afloat.
The episode was hard to follow, partly because it was supposed to be but mostly because so many divergent plotlines tried to sneak in the back door and make an appearance. Some of them, like Don's continuing obsession with his neighbor Sylvia and his habit of smoking outside the service door to her apartment at night, are quickly lost in the carnage.
Others, like the Draper children being held hostage in their apartment by an elderly black woman who wants to rob them blind, are so strange and misplaced that they're laughable. I swear, back-to-blonde Betty and her righteous indignation is what kept me from going crazy this week, as well as Peggy's serene, smiling response when Stan tells her she has a nice ass:
For most of the episode, we're not sure what day of the week it is or what time of day it is, whether or not anybody has been sleeping or whether anyone is making any progress on Chevy. The work becomes an excuse for unbridled frenzy, as each character becomes a caricature of themselves on their best or worst days. Kenny Cosgrove, who opened the show in a speeding car full of drunk Chevy executives brandishing weapons and yelling, tap-dances in response to an inspirational speech from Don. He's got a foot injury from the car accident, but it's like it doesn't exist. In the business, injuries become assets, the worst possible work ends up inspiring the best. They're all taking it in the butt for Chevy. It's their job.
We're forced to pay attention to Don, but his trip is the least interesting: he merely becomes a heightened version of himself on the job, pitching cheesy lines left and right and striding meaningfully in and out of rooms. "The timber of my voice is as important as the content," he yells at Kenny. "I need to be there in the flesh."
It's easy to assume the role of the hero in an environment where everyone admires you, but the sentiment doesn't extend far past the creative department. At home, Don is the father who doesn't give enough of a shit about his kids to come home and babysit them, or the husband who needs to be pitied and nurtured because Megan isn't sure how to communicate with him otherwise. It's a fair guess on her part, if mother/lover are as intricately entwined in his mind as it would appear.
Disguises are important. If the strange black woman looting your dad's apartment in the middle of the night tells you she's your grandmother, should you believe her simply because you don't want to fall prey to racism? A granny holding up a bank is the oldest joke in the book, but this plotline felt forced, especially since it gave Sally an excuse to tell her father, "I don't know anything about you." We get it, Don's a mystery to everybody, even himself. Except he's not, so let's not waste Grandma Ida's time. It was really cool when Dawn the secretary had a super interesting life just waiting to be plundered for our entertainment. Now she's back to piling files on Don's desk.
Grandmother/thief, mother/lover, blonde Betty/brunette Betty, Don/Ted, Peggy/Ginsberg. Swapping roles comes easy to this lot, and the only person who is completely incapable of deception — Pete — clocked out early in the episode. We weren't asking for a high-speed chase when we asked Season 6 to get interesting. The frenetic, frequent drug use and its consequences (waking up? getting dressed? taking an uncomfortable elevator ride?) are distractions from the meatier, character-centric drama I appreciated so much in early Mad Men. It may seem like we're moving forward, but we're just running around in circles.
Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Mad Men. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing for This Recording here.
"Asleep at the Wheel" - Jamaican Queens (mp3)
"Black Madonna" - Jamaican Queens (mp3)
The new album from Jamaican Queens is entitled Wormfood and it can be purchased here.