Mad Men is back! If you’re a fan, join us regularly for Mad Men Musings – a space to discuss selected highlights, low points, or just plain water-cooler worthy moments of each episode.
Anyone else feeling a little bit Alice in Wonderland-esque? We’ve strayed into some serious down-the-rabbit-hole territory: drugs, nonsensical speeches, metaphysical journeys, and altered realities. This isn’t the first time we’ve gotten a through the looking glass kind of episode – unlike Roger’s bare-bummed acid trip last season, however, this one felt darker, infused with a black humor that quickly shaded into unease, even menace.
The opening scene – Ken driving a bunch of gun-brandishing, loutish Chevy execs around – seemed so weird and off-kilter that I originally thought someone was having a nightmare. And truly, Chevy is turning out to be nightmarish, a corporate vampire sucking the creative team dry. Ted is out of commission, grieving for the dead Frank Gleason, and Don is busy “feeling a lot of emotions” towards Sylvia (read: being a creeper outside her apartment), so his energy is directed elsewhere.
So what do you do when your team needs a boost? Well, if it’s the late 60’s and you’re Jim Cutler, you bring in a shady doctor to pep up the team with some B vitamins/amphetamines. I’m not quite sure what this stuff was, exactly, but it seemed like some hellish version of Adderall, with the added “benefit” of inducing time-warps.
The initial reactions were pretty awesome – races through the office, Stan coming up with 666 ad ideas, and oh-my-god-Ken-is-tapdancing-his-heart-out-with-a-cane-because-IT’S-HIS-JOB, people.
After Stan has been William Tell-ed by Ginsberg, (exacto knife in the arm? Ain’t no thing to Stan) a drunken Peggy plays nurse and cleans up his arm. And finally, we get the romantic moment some of us have been waiting for. Except, it was rather anticlimactic. Neither one of them was in their right minds, and Peggy dissuades him. A deeper moment, really, was when Stan told Peggy how his cousin had died in Vietnam, and Peggy counsels Stan to “let yourself feel it.” Of course, he ignores this advice and promptly does Gleason’s young daughter. (And ew, Cutler watching the whole thing?)
These moments are eclipsed, however, by the unraveling threads of Don’s psyche. Yep, we’re flashing back to the old childhood whorehouse. Don’s boyhood memories are always discomfiting – the sordid, seedy milieu, the implicit threat of violence, Dick’s horrible bowl cut – but this time we get an important chunk of the story that we’ve never seen before. Stricken with a chest cold, Dick is mothered by the blond Aimee (“it has two ee’s and an accent” because she’s classy like that) in a way that initially seems caring; she has him rest in her bed and feeds him soup. It’s a small kindness, one Dick is grateful for.
Because this is Dick/Don, however, that decent human interaction devolves into a lesson about powerlessness, shame, and sex – Aimee is not only a devoted nurse but really, really into her job as a prostitute. Abigail is equally into her job of shaming, humiliating, and beating the crap out of Dick with a wooden spoon. Two distinct mother figures – each violating boundaries in a different way and branding him for life.
Even though this scene made me squirm, it was a fascinating one. Don’s internal compass was forged here, leading him towards a true north of unattainable, unsustainable love. All of these memories are bound up with Sylvia and the end of the affair, of course — it seems that Sylvia triggers Don in very specific ways.
His obsession with the soup-that-turns-out-to-be-oatmeal-ad (the completely obvious subtext here being the loving mother/whore figure, complete with both Aimee’s and Sylvia’s beauty marks mirrored in the ad’s model) spirals into an incomprehensible speech about “the key to everything.” In his fevered state, Don thinks he has the answer – not so much to Chevy, but rather to Sylvia, to life itself.
While Don’s busy falling down the rabbit hole, Sally, alone with her brothers in Don and Megan’s apartment, is faced with an intruder, “Grandma Ida.” For the record, this was probably like the tenth time I said, “What the hell?” to the tv screen. Initially, it seems plausible that there is, indeed, a mother figure in Don’s life that we know nothing about, but it quickly becomes clear that something is very wrong here. Poor Sally – she knows, too, that there is danger, but what can she do? Like she tells Don afterwards, she doesn’t even know anything about him, really. When your dad’s a locked vault, random grandmothers are within the realm of possibility.
Once the super-shot works itself out of Don’s system, he’s clearly back to his usual cold and controlled self. He tells Sally to just forget about the whole Ida incident, he rides in the apartment elevator with Sylvia and barely spares her a word or look, and he tells Ted he’s basically done with Chevy: “Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse.”
Which is a great line, sure, but can we be done with the whole whorehouse thing? Until Don can actual do something with his memories, until some kind of epiphany truly galvanizes him in a real way, he’s essentially living in his own personal “Groundhog Day.” I think I’d almost rather just watch Ken tap-dancing.
Readers – What is going on with Roger – did he really have a heart attack? Thoughts on Peggy and Stan’s kiss?
(And on a Peggy-related note, has anyone watched the superb “Top of the Lake” mini-series starring Elisabeth Moss?)
Amity writes and teaches in Central PA. Her obsessions include: Rodarte (she can’t afford any Rodarte, mind you, but a girl can dream), espresso, books, vintage/thrift fashion and fountain pens. She thinks you should dress like a weirdo once in a while, just to shake things up.