“You’re a monster,” is the key line of tonight’s episode. It’s almost comically literal when you think about it alongside the exchange between Duck and Pete. Duck claims he’s never seen anything like Bob Benson before, and Pete chillingly intones “I have.” You can almost hear the theme from Phantom of the Opera in the background as it cuts to Don. Variations on this theme have been strung throughout the season. Think back on the moment Peggy walked into Ted’s office only to find Don there. He was reintroduced to us in the premiere reading Dante’s Inferno, suggesting a descent into hell, but now it seems as if he would feel at home there, a monster among monsters. Maybe he and Walter White could get a beer.
The final ten-minute stretch of “Favors” consumes everything that came before it. A tender scene between Pete and Peggy, undercurrents of war and disfigured mice, they all scatter as Sally drops the doorman’s keys to the floor. Angles and approaches, ways into the episode are tainted by that moment. The discussion Don and Arnold share concerning the innocence of youth, how children make the best soldiers because they’re unaware of their own mortality, suddenly seems to presage this moment—a daughter instantly dispelled of all illusions pertaining to her father.
“I don’t know what happened. I usually feel better out there.” When Don goes to California, there is the expectation that we’re going to get a look at a looser, more relaxed Don. When he signed the wall “Dick + Anna ‘64” in Season Four’s “The Good News” it created the impression that California Don is actually Dick Whitman, the idea that this is how he behaves when the expectations of the Don Draper persona are left behind. But it’s 1968. Things are changing in this country. California is no longer an escape for Don, somewhere he can find solace, and as he awakes from his hash-fueled near-death experience, he is as lost as Pete Campbell when he descends onto the couch, taking a hit of Rizzo’s joint as the sounds of Big Brother & the Holding Company permeate the soundtrack.
There have been some excellent episodes of Mad Men this season. “The Flood,” “Man with a Plan,” and especially “For Immediate Release” have all been varying degrees of great, but “The Crash” is the first episode to leave me dumbstruck with awe the way so many season five episodes did. It’s an episode in which every scene seems precisely crafted to achieve an effect. What is that effect? Does it extend beyond inspiring bewilderment in the audience? If it doesn’t, and it’s as consistently engaging as this episode is, is that okay? As Andy Greenwald pointed out on Twitter last night, so much TV serves to satisfy our expectations that we should invite confusion and befuddlement when they arise rather than recoil from them. You can’t learn anything from having your biases confirmed. It’s refreshing when a show demands you think about it, even if the only thing you are thinking is “what the hell did I just watch?”
“He enjoys being dominant,” I wrote of Don Draper last week, and he spends the first two thirds of this episode attempting to assert that dominance. He keeps Sylvia in a hotel room existing only to satisfy his needs. He drinks Ted under the table and parades him around in front of the other copywriters in an attempt to communicate his place at the top of the food chain. In earlier seasons, Don would have emerged from these encounters triumphant, but they backfire on him. Times are changing, but Don remains the same. In the episode’s fantastic final shot we are greeted with a man alienated not only from his wife but the world itself.
If Don is constantly trying to get everyone around him to bend to his will, Bob Benson is only too happy to be submissive. Up to this point, he has mostly served as a reliable punchline, offering his assistance at the most inopportune of times. In this week’s episode, he shares some wonderful scenes with Joan. Sure, he’s trying to keep his job in the wake of Burt Peterson’s firing (and how great a Roger-being-Roger moment was that?), but there is the sense that a genuine kindness underscores his actions. Joan doesn’t see it until her mom points it out to you.
This week on the podcast, we’re back to more balanced split of television, between comedy, genre, and drama. First we break down the week in comedy, focusing on Bob’s Burgers and Veep, then genre, focusing on Orphan Black and Doctor Who, then reality, and finally drama, particularly Mad Men and The Americans. Then we spotlight the season finale of The Good Wife, “What’s in the Box?”, before welcoming SoS contributor Kate Rennebohm to the DVD Shelf to take a look at the black sheep of the Joss Whedon TV family, Dollhouse.
Leave it to Mad Men to recapture the power Planet of the Apes’ ending must have held for audiences that hadn’t been inured by decades of spoilers. Juxtaposing the scene on the beach and all that it implies with the violence that swept the nation in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination only serves to deepen its significance. “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad,” and Mad Men is a show that’s always understood this. The moment of empathy Bobby shares with the theater attendant, and his horror at the film’s closing scene, elicits an emotional response from Don. He had gone to the movies to escape, to ease his worries about Sylvia being in the midst of the worst of the violence in DC, but the film shoved it in his face. Yet it managed to inspire a deeper kindness from Bobby, a boy disturbed by the fact that the seams in his wallpaper are showing. Don references this moment in the midst of the heartbreaking monologue he delivers to Megan, implying it was the first time he ever felt anything for one of his children.
There is a shot in the middle of “To Have and To Hold” that recalls the towering heights of Mad Men’s fifth season, when form seemed to outweigh all other concerns. A slow, swooping take begins with two silhouettes imposed on a hypnogogic background of swirling color as Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s “Bonnie and Clyde” provides a fitting accompaniment. The camera comes down to reveal Joan’s friend Kate underneath the man she met at the soda fountain, while Joan sits idly by. A friend of the man approaches and joins Joan on the sofa. Expressing a bemused indifference, she begins to make out with him as the camera continues moving and returns its focus to the psychedelic background.
Joan’s indifference is also on display in the scenes leading into the shot. Both of them take place in the backseat of a taxi. In one, Joan reluctantly plays along as the soda jerk wants to see who kisses better, her or Kate. In the other, Don and Megan alternate between disgust, shock, and amusement while processing Mel and Arlene’s proposition. Is Joan more open than Don to the era of free love, or has she just become inured to it, having to trade her sexuality for power when her skills went unnoticed. Perhaps Joan just doesn’t care anymore.
There is an undercurrent of war present in “The Collaborators,” exclusively in the scenes concerning infidelity. Pete flirts with his neighbors at a party and is struck with the news that North Koreans have taken captive a US ship. A moment of post-coital bliss shared by Don and Sylvia is interrupted by news reports of the Tet Offensive. Dr. Rosen engages Don in discussion of both events at dinner before he has to take a call, leaving Don and Sylvia alone together. Johnny Carson is interrupted by a report from Vietnam as Pete anxiously awaits Trudy’s return. It’s worth pointing out that both these events—the Tet Offensive and the Pueblo affair—involved countries violating treaties.
The most electrifying declaration of war comes courtesy of Trudy Campbell. “I’m drawing a 50 mile radius around this house, and if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you.” It hits with a force greater than the two punches we’ve seen Pete take to the face, and Trudy makes it clear she bore no illusions as to where the second originated. When Pete asks Don and Roger what Munich means, Roger responds with “we gave the Germans whatever they wanted to make them happy, but it just made them want more.” Pete says “Well who the hell won the war?” completely missing the point. Trudy is clearly the United States in the metaphor; Pete is Munich celebrating his own defeat.