This week on Mad Men,
the show gets weird as all the characters turn to drugs to come up with ideas for the Chevy account. In the end, no one ends up coming up with any ideas at all. "Chevy is spelled wrong!" an exasperated Ted declares while looking at their drugged work at episode's end.
But although the staff don't do any actual work, they do impale each other with pencils, show off impressive tap-dancing skills and flashback to whorehouse deflowerings. So all in all, a pretty typical day in the SDCP(CGC?) advertising agency.
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To say this ends up producing a weird episode of Mad Men
would be ... an understatement, to say the least. Halfway through the episode, I feel like I have a contact high. As the agency zooms around the office on the '60s equivalent of chugging, like, 20 cans of Red Bull, the characters end up revealing the pieces of themselves they usually try to keep hidden.
Nowhere is this subtext made more painfully, apparently textual than in the case of Don Draper. As the episode ends, Don waves off Chevy, declaring that the agency turns into a whorehouse whenever they get a car account. But it's his own past growing up (and losing his virginity) in a whorehouse that is really on Don's mind.
Despite some heavy, weird material, this might have been one of the funniest episodes of the season thus far. There is little better than seeing the members of SDCP totally off their rockers, or watching Stan stand under a paper apple smoking a cigarette. I love the episodes when Mad Men takes a risk and dares to be really, really strange.
A Bad Trip
Occasionally, Mad Men likes to play around with its usual narrative structure, and when that happens, things can get weird. This week's episode is a prime example of the show taking the action to a strange, psychedelic place.
One of the great things about this show is its unpredictability; you just never know what kind of Mad Men you're going to get when you turn on the television on Sunday nights. Sometimes, you'll get an ad agency caper. Sometimes, you'll get a slow-moving, symbolism-packed character study. And then sometimes you'll turn on your TV to watch Ken Cosgrove tap dance while delivering perfect expository complaints. You just don't know.
Last year, we were treated to the wild, wacky LSD episode, where the narrative zoomed back and forth in time and Roger's drug trip led to some self-discovery. This year, it's all about Don (when isn't it?) as his shot of "energy serum" causes flashbacks to his own unhappy childhood and perhaps the root of his intimacy issues.
Don is obsessed with Sylvia, unable to let go even after she broke things off last week
. He's been standing outside her door, smoking cigarettes and hoping to catch sight of her like the creepiest of stalkers.
A desperate phone call with Sylvia and a coughing fit bring him right back to his own childhood. A young Don gets a cough and is taken care of by a kindly prostitute, who then takes his virginity in predatory fashion. It's gross and sad, as is much of Don's history.
On a shallow note, is it even possible to get an actor who looks less likely to grow up into Jon Hamm than the one they cast?
Meanwhile, the rest of the agency staff are zooming around as high as kites, or drunk, or both. Don is chasing after an old soup ad, but like most of his life, it turns out Don is chasing after the wrong thing. What he's really looking for is an Oatmeal ad, one where the woman pictured has a beauty mark in the same place as the prostitute who swiped his V-card. "Because you know what he needs," the ad reads.
Don presents the idea to Peggy and Ginsberg, who struggle to see how it actually connects to a car. Don keeps talking about how it all goes back to a shared history, looking like he's covered in about five buckets of flop sweat.
In the face of insanity, Peggy still manages to keep a somewhat level head. One of my favorite moments is when Don, running hilariously around the corner where the creatives are working, gives a rousing speech. One of the new CGC guys is instantly in awe, mentioning that Don is "as good as they say." Peggy also applauds the speech while pointing out, reasonably, that there's nothing behind it. It's a bunch of empty words; Don still doesn't really have any ideas at all.
It's a small moment and yet one that speaks to something bigger about the way their old mentor relationship is slowly turning. We saw it a few weeks ago when both pitched Heinz and Peggy clearly came out the winner. Professionally, Don is so far out of the game he's barely in contention anymore, made even more clear when he wipes his hands of the Chevy account by episode's end.
Stan's Story, Peggy's Past
Meanwhile, in other corners of the office, Stan and Peggy share a moment. After Stan kisses Peggy, he confides that he's upset because his young cousin died in Vietnam. "You have to let yourself feel it," Peggy advises him. She says drugs and sex won't help him through.
It's tiny moments like this, when Peggy talks about personal loss, that I remember that Peggy had a baby and gave it up for adoption. I'm always amazed something so big has managed to be backgrounded so thoroughly by the show. "It will shock you how much it never happened," Don told Peggy once. And yet Peggy is now giving Stan the opposite advice, telling him to take time to mourn his loss instead of pretending it never happened.
It's a testament to the show that Peggy's personal tragedy is so rarely mentioned (unlike, say, Joan's deal from last year or Don's twisty past), and yet it can be perfectly evoked in just one sentence. Don spends all episode looking to get "her" to sit up and listen with just a sentence or two. Yet its Mad Men that has the power to say so much with so little, which might be why critics and viewers are sometimes put off when the show feels the need to underline and highlight its own symbolism.
Of course, Stan doesn't take this good advice and hooks up with I Ching enthusiast Wendy. And who is Wendy anyway? The late Frank Gleeson's daughter, who tagged along to the agency after her father's funeral. Bleak stuff all around.
Watch Out for Grandma Ida
Elsewhere, in the "hide yo kids" section of this week's episode, Sally and Bobby get an unwelcome visitor in the apartment. Don is still at work and Megan is meeting with some theater folks, so she leaves Sally in charge of her younger brothers.
In the middle of the night, Sally wakes up to find an elderly black woman in the apartment seemingly shoving valuables into her purse. But the woman proclaims herself Sally's grandmother. "That's impossible," Sally says logically. But the woman persists that she practically raised Don, then makes Sally some eggs.
Obviously, no one ever taught these kids "stranger danger." Still, having never seen any of the Home Alone movies, which is where all modern children learn about home invasions, Sally goes along with Grandma Ida for a little while.
This part of the episode is part wacky caper, part The Help and part nightmare fever dream. So it pretty much goes along with the rest of the episode's weirdness. I have to say, though, if someone was going to rob me, I think it's pretty nice of them to stop and make me scrambled eggs first. That's a pretty hospitable robbery.
Another big laugh for me is watching Grandma Ida try to pry the TV out of the wall and then proclaim to the confused Bobby, "That's really in there!" When Sally calls the police, Grandma Ida menacingly takes off like a scary Mary Poppins. When Don returns home, he finds the police and an angry Betty informing him of what happened. So of course, he promptly faints.
Later, on the phone with Sally, Don apologizes for leaving the door open. Sally manages to get in a solid burn, saying Grandma Ida sounded like she knew a lot about Don. But then again, Sally points out, "I don't know anything about you." Good luck, Sally, knowing Don Draper is pretty much impossible.
What did you think of this week's weird and wild Mad Men? Will Don give up on Sylvia or keep stalking her? And will they ever come up with an ad for Chevy? Sound off in the comments!