Don and Dick “Crash” Into Each Other during Mad Men Season Six, Episode Eight

by sweatermanifesto


While poor Ken Cosgrove is the victim of a real car crash at the beginning of this episode–joy riding with a bunch of mid-level Chevy managers whose idea of fun evidently is torturing advertising client execs–the ultimate collision in “The Crash” happens in Don Draper’s life, as his ability to keep his memories of Dick Whitman at bay literally breaks down and the boundaries between his past and present seem fuzzier and more easily breached than ever before.

Don begins the episode frustrated both personally and professionally- rebuffed by Sylvia after she founds out about his lurking at her back door and angered by General Motors’ bureaucratic inertia in dithering over a new ad campaign for the Chevy that the merged agency came together for and won.   And on top of that, he espies his former protégé, Peggy Olson, sharing a quiet moment consoling a heartbroken Ted Chaough about the death of his friend and partner, Frank Gleason.  And that’s just in the first fifteen minutes.     Shot up with Benzedrine to keep the creative juices flowing, up against a client that doesn’t swoon over his brilliance and cast adrift by his very Draper-like lover, it’s not long before the Dick Whitman flashbacks start appearing like subliminal “popcorn” signs flashing at an old Drive-In movie theatre.

The merging of the professional and personal lives of our protagonist- one of the season’s primary motifs– plays out during one of the most hyperactive episodes of the year and possibly of the show’s entire run.  For those who complain about Mad Men’s leisurely approach to plot development, this episode is Matthew Weiner’s resounding rejoinder.   “The Crash” is essentially Mad Men’s brain on speed, and it is a wild ride.    In one episode, we get the death of a partner, a break-in, a car crash, the introduction of a “Dr. Feelgood”, the reappearance of  “Thin Betty” (who obviously took a couple weeks off the show to get into shape for husband Henry’s political campaign- better looking but still surly and self-righteous), an unrequited pass at Peggy by the increasingly endearing Stan, and a tap dancing Ken Cosgrove, who, while high on speed, does a passable imitation of Donald O’Connor to demonstrate his newly pain- free legs while providing an amusingly painful riff on the life of a client man.   All this, and Dick Whitman loses his virginity, predictably to one of the “hookers with a heart of gold” who inhabit his Uncle Mac’s House of Horrors.

Meanwhile, in the precarious present, the speed-fueled Don is ostensibly working on a new campaign idea for Chevrolet and imploring Ken to get him into the room with the Chevy brass so that he can pitch his ideas in person (making the bizarre assurance that “the timbre of my voice will be as important as the content”).     But that’s not what Don is really up to, as Peggy realizes in a horrifying moment near the end of the show, when Don calls them all into his office to hear his Big Idea.    She realizes- as we have suspected all along- that the idea was not meant for Chevy, but rather for something (or namely someone) else.   For the first time in his career, Don is pitching a woman, and the room he wants access to isn’t a boardroom, but a bedroom.   Ostensibly, the object of this pitch is Sylvia, but it could be any other woman who was ever in his life.    This is Don Draper at his most vulnerable, putting the pitch of his career together to sell himself as deserving of love.   Clearly, the timbre of Don’s voice would be important in that context.

Weiner perhaps could have been subtler about this, as he uses a mysterious young woman (who later turns out to be Gleason’s daughter, finding a somewhat dubious means of coping with loss) as the messenger of this plot point.   She touts herself as a mind reader of sorts, and the question she thinks she hears Don wordlessly asking is “am I worthy of love?”   If that’s not obvious enough, she finds a stethoscope (probably Dr. Feelgood’s but perhaps a reference to Arnold Rosen) and when she puts it up to Don’s heart, she can’t hear anything.  She speculates that it’s broken (the stethoscope, not Don’s heart), but we’re faced with the prospect that it’s actually the latter- Don’s immediate and startled reaction to her remark.   She then propositions Don in that carefree, consequences be damned kind of way that make us baby boomers nostalgic for the sixties (in my case, NOT!), and ends up as the lovelorn Stan’s consolation prize after he strikes out with Peggy.

So what’s the previous creative work Don is looking for that will change his life and bring his lover back to him (while doing nary a thing to help Ken Cosgrove keep those rambunctious ad guys at Chevy from endangering his life again)?   An oatmeal ad with a mother who looks suspiciously like the prostitute who nurses him back to health and introduces him to his manhood—all the way down to a beauty mark on the mother/prostitute’s cheek.    If there were ever any doubt that much of Don’s creative inspiration comes from his own life, that oatmeal ad puts it to rest.    The line is “she knows what you need”, and it’s very much a line that any ad creative type would love- they like to believe that they understand human behavior and what drives wants and needs, and through entertainment, clever messaging and inspiration they can scratch that all-so-human itch like no one else.

During the brainstorm for yet another round of Chevy creative, Peggy utters a line that may be the theme not only for this year but every other year that we’ve watched the tormented Draper run just ahead of the demons on his heels.   She says, “the child is father to the man”, a famous line from William Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” whose premise is that the older we get, the further away from the divine we become, and the more we yearn for that glimpse of divinity we had in childhood.  Although in this context it has an ironic twist, given what we know about the unfortunate and strangely passive Dick Whitman’s childhood.  In this context, it really means that the past for Don Draper is prelude-the manipulations of the people around him as a child; from the kindly prostitute to the physically abusive stepmother- all conspire to create the repressed, insecure adult he has become.   It is the Wordworthian romantic view of nature and man’s role in it stood on its head (who says being an English major doesn’t have its advantages?).

Finally, we can celebrate the timely and welcome return of the precociously talented Kiernan Shipka as Sally to the show, anchoring a truly memorable scene- an exercise in Kabuki theater with an African American thief (a remarkable turn by Davenia McFadden) who has broken into the Draper household, claiming she is the kids’ “Grandma Ida”.   The balance the gifted young actress strikes between credulity and skepticism, and the finely honed balance the older actress deftly strikes between kindness and malice, imbues this scene with real tension.     When the older woman leaves, we breathe more easily.  Not so the negligent father, who when confronted with the aftermath of Sally’s strange adventure, predictably crashes.

Some random questions:

Joanie and Bob sitting in a tree somewhere?   So where is the fun couple (if indeed they are a couple).  They’re nowhere to be found this week.

Longest elevator ride?  We hear neither the timbre of Don’s voice nor the content of his remarks while he and Sylvia take an agonizingly long elevator ride down at the end of the episode.   After coming up with all of those “words of love”, Don is angry, uncomfortable and somewhat tongue-tied post crash.  And what is that enigmatic look on Sylvia’s face as she watches Don stalk out of the elevator?   Is she thinking of backsliding?

Most appropriate song, or what?    Cass Eliot’s “Words of Love” may be the most appropriate musical selection the show has offered.   Clearly, Don was looking for those words that Sylvia had never heard before- something beyond the exceedingly warm embraces of his hyperactive libido.   But Don was also looking for words of love from others, to compensate for the crater-sized hole at the center of his own life.   It’s an appropriately haunting way to close out the show.

Will one night with Herb last a lifetime?    Joanie’s partner-clinching tryst with the sleazoid Herb is the plot device that keeps on devising, when at the end Don notes that every time he gets a car account the agency “turns into a whorehouse”.    This not only relates to his flashbacks of his own virginal deflowering, but also alludes to the way Joan locked up the Jaguar account and a partnership all in one coital fell swoop.  Don’s long memory- and his resentment that his own creative prowess didn’t carry the day- doesn’t bode well for the widening rift between him and Joan.

Who’s got a fork?  Can someone tell Megan what’s going on, so she can stop trying to save her marriage, move to Hollywood and collect three or four more husbands?

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller