Mad Men 6×08 ‘The Crash’: Sex, drugs, and misery

Source: AMC

Mad Men has at least one episode that deviates from the normal narrative structure used through most of the show’s episodes.  “Seven Thirty Three” moved between past and present to effectively tell three specific stories.  “The Suitcase”, for the most part, followed two specific characters through a life-changing night.  “Far Away Places” wove together three different stories, but told them one after the other instead of cutting them up and piecing them together.  But this episode…it’s not simply bizarre.  It’s completely off the wall.  There were a plethora of moments so abstract and strange that I often found myself just staring blankly at the television with my mouth draped open.  However!  The episode does have a specific point to make, as it discusses the defense mechanisms that people use in order to shield themselves from the pain in their lives.

There were a couple key phrases in the episode that encapsulated what the episode is about, and before I even try to explain any of it, I’m going to start with those phrases:

“Am I from somewhere other than from this moment? –Don Draper

Source: AMC

Source: AMC

“Gotta get used to it (death) or stop thinking about it.” –Roger Sterling

“I’ve had loss in my life.  You have to let yourself feel it.  You can’t dampen it with drugs and sex.  It won’t get you through.” –Peggy Olson

That last one is the biggest (and most obvious) indication that this episode is about people using defense mechanisms like sex and drugs in order to keep themselves from feeling the pain of life.  The situation in which the phrase is uttered is also indicative of a pretty dismal truth: We can’t do much to escape using those defense mechanisms.  Right after Peggy tells Stan that key phrase (after he tells her that he lost a family member in Vietnam), he just compliments her butt.  She can spell things out for him, but it doesn’t matter.  Nobody, while using those defense mechanisms, cares at all about reality.  Of all of the characters on this show right now, Peggy is the one trying to keep everybody together, something she’s not having a lot of success with.  She’s successful with Ted, as he actually allows himself to grieve over Frank Gleason’s death and abstains from the drugs, but Stan was simply a lost cause.  She sees him having sex with Gleason’s hippie daughter in his office, completely oblivious to the advice that she gave him.  Peggy can try to help those around her, but there’s only so much she can do.  The inexorable pull of the delusional proves stronger than her own.

AMC 6x08 Mad Men Don

Source: AMC

Don is really the focal point of this episode, as most of the periphery characters are connected to his delusion in one way or another.  After he, along with most of the rest of the office, is injected with an unidentified drug by some sort of doctor, he spends the episode focused on the latest pitch to Chevy, neglecting just about everything else.  He’s fixated on the present moment, as he says to Chaough’s secretary, refusing to believe that anything else exists.  The only other thing that he’s fixated on is Sylvia, his other defense mechanism, his sexual release from reality.  His interaction with her is immensely creepy, as he stalks near her apartment and tries to regain control over her, only to be rejected every time.  Sex has always been a release for Don, as we see reiterated in his flashbacks.  His flashbacks pertain to a time when he was living at a whorehouse, physically ill with a vicious cough (whereas now Don is emotionally ill).  He’s nursed back to health by a prostitute, who then takes his virginity (in an act that could possibly be constituted as rape, though it’s left unclear).  For Don, healing has always been associated with sex, though the ramifications of that sex have always been negative as well.  After that prostitute is fired, confessing that she stole Don’s virginity, he’s beaten by his stepmother with a wooden spoon for being a “dirty boy”.  Don’s passivity towards his sexual encounter/possible rape comments on something that Mad Men has pushed time and time again: the notion that things happen that we don’t entirely control.  Events have consequences; Don is healed by a prostitute, prostitute has sex with/rapes Don, Don is beaten for having sex.  Our futures are crafted without our consent, without us having a say in what happens or the effects that those events have on us.

But Don’s fixation on the present, on his delusion, is just damaging all around him.  He’s working furiously on a pitch for Chevy, but doesn’t actually come up with anything worthwhile.  He’s frilly words and supposedly deep messages without any real substance, and Peggy absolutely sees that.  He even ditches the project at the end of the episode because it doesn’t fit the ideal that he’s crafted around his job.  In addition, he’s “working” so hard that Sally, Bobby, and Gene are left at home without anybody to watch them, which results in a near-disaster when an older black woman claiming to be their “grandmother” breaks into the house and robs them blind.  It’s a tense and awful set of scenes, where it’s not entirely apparent what is going on (which is how Sally and Bobby feel), but it’s a situation that forces Don to consider reality.  His delusion could’ve really harmed his children, if not killed them outright, and he realizes that.  It’s why he passes out on the carpet, why he “crashes”.  Reality, after swimming in delusion for so long, hits harder than ever.

“The Crash” is where these people are inevitably moving towards.  Don may have experienced a little crash at the end of this episode, but that’s nothing compared to where he’s going.  He can try to dilute his pain with sex and drugs, but that pain is there, and it’s not leaving.  All that dilution does it keep him from preparing for the inevitable crash.  It keeps him from moving forward, instead allowing him to drift out to sea.  Mad Men has consistently discussed utilizing defense mechanisms to shut out pain, and consistently asserted that such short-term fixes only damage a person even further in the long run.  Because the further somebody like Don strays from reality, the harder reality is going to beat him when it comes screaming back.

And make no mistake.  It will come screaming back.  It’s just a matter of when.

This episode has been rather divisive among critics thus far.  What do you think?  Pretentious or genius?  I’m of the opinion that it contains a fair amount of genius, but there are certainly those out there who disagree.  Let me know in the comments what you think!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.