Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Fetters: This is your ad agency. This is your ad agency on drugs.
This week's episode of Mad Men showed us what happens when Sterling Cooper employees get free injections of a supplement containing "B vitamins and a mild stimulant" that provides two to three days' worth of surging creative energy, a concoction I'm sure there's a street name for nowadays. Ken, Don, and Stan get the injection, and soon after, brainstorm meetings turn into weird idea-spew sessions where half-baked ad concepts and projectile X-Acto knives whiz through the air; Ken becomes a world-class tap dancer; a fortune-telling rando named Wendy holds the staffers spellbound with her I Ching coins; and Don, who's already suffering from a nasty cough, gets sweaty, talks fast, waxes philosophical about advertising and/or nothing in particular, and blacks out for huge chunks of time.
During his blackouts, illness-addled Don retreats into his memory and relives a time in his adolescence when he had similar symptoms (a chest cough and a fever). In a series of flashbacks, his stepmother banishes him to the basement of the brothel that was his childhood home to keep him from getting the girls sick. On his way there, though, he's taken in by Aimée, a prostitute who nurses him back to health in her room and then takes his virginity. When Don's stepmother finds out Aimée has deflowered Don, she beats him.
Back in 1968, meanwhile, Stan makes a pass at seducing Peggy. She resists—somewhat reluctantly. She has a boyfriend, she murmurs. Don, still heavily under the influence of the injection, spends the weekend at the office on a grand quest to create the Great American Chevy Ad Campaign inspired by an old soup ad he suddenly remembers after a flashback to Aimée feeding him soup. (It turns out to be an oatmeal ad, but whatever.) But when he delivers his revolutionary pitch to Peggy, she asks him whether he's been working on Chevy at all for the last three days.
Don also spends some time throughout the episode lingering outside Sylvia's apartment (against her wishes), at one point pressing his ear up to her door to hear her radio playing Little Anthony and the Imperials' "Goin' Out of My Head."
Hmm. "Going out of my head over you / Day and night, night and day and night," while Don tenderly rests his head against Sylvia's door, having gone days without sleep? Not the subtlest symbolism. Is this another thread coming loose in what's beginning to look like the season-long unraveling of Don Draper?
And in perhaps the weirdest twist of all, a thief calling herself Grandma Ida drops into the Draper residence, where Megan and Don have left Sally, Bobby, and Gene alone for the night. Grandma Ida fools the kids into thinking she's Don's mother—which sets Sally up for one of my favorite Sally Draper Truth Bombs ever. "I asked her everything I know, and she had an answer for everything," she tells Don later. "And then I realized I don't know anything about you."
In a broader sense, Mad Men didn't feel like Mad Men to me this week. A drug episode will often take a series out of its established space (remember when things got cartoony on Roger's LSD trip?), but aspects of this one, especially, felt borrowed from other shows. Don's compulsion to track down his long-ago soup ad reminded me of Carrie Mathison frantically searching for a green pen on Homeland; Grandma Ida's appearance out of nowhere reminded me of some of the disorienting, under-explained sequences on The Americans; Twitter was abuzz with quips like "So when do the Mad Men writers get to hijack an episode of Breaking Bad in return?" Stan and Peggy's late-night office non-encounter even had that tragic-friendly-flirty sort of Jim-and-Pam vibe they've tried on before. Whatever this was, it was not Mad Men as we've come to know it.
Amy, what did you make of this week's bizarro show? Last week you and I were joking via Twitter about how WTF Betty was maybe about to meet her counterpart in WTF Don—but this week, muttering, bug-eyed WTF Don actually made an appearance. So I'll turn it over to you for your thoughts on a few Don-related matters: What's going on with his recurring sleeplessness in this season? And let's unpack that closing line: "Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse."
Sullivan: We get it, already. Dick Whitman/Don Draper had a horrible childhood in which apparently every mother figure he had also turned out to be a whore. How many versions of this do we have to watch? Is there any Dick/Don flashback that could tell us anything new at this point?
If I sound cranky—and I am—it's because this whole episode seemed to scream "We're doing something crazy here!" instead of the more artful way it used Roger's LSD trip last season. It's one thing to keep your viewers off balance. It's another to exasperate them. The very first scene had me wondering when Kenny became an actor and got cast in some second-rate heist flick. Please tell me that wasn't all to put a cane in his hand for that awesome dance routine at the end of the episode.
I should also acknowledge that I was completely and totally wrong last week when I speculated that Don had planned the whole S&M hotel experience for Sylvia as a way to get her to call off their affair and save him the messiness of an uncertain relationship one floor below his home. Whoops. It turns out that Don was not "The Man With a Plan." His stricken look in the elevator after overhearing Sylvia yelling at Arnold was not panic that he had gotten in too deep but rather panic that she cared more about her husband than him. So, yes, Ashley, now I'm back to wondering where WTF Don came from.
I'm also cranky about all the (possible) red herrings preparing us for some spectacular Don Draper health crisis. This was one of the few episodes this season that didn't involve a character telling Don he really should stop smoking. Instead we were treated to that series of flashbacks establishing his previous lung illnesses. And I lost track of the number of times Don hacked into that handkerchief of his. I was almost expecting him to recreate Pete's fall down the stairs of the still-unnamed ad agency, ending up in an unconscious heap on the landing.
Instead, of course, Don collapses in his apartment after once again clinching "Worst Father of the Year." (Note that he was lingering outside Sylvia's apartment in the service hallway around the time that "Grandma Ida" was terrorizing his children in his own apartment. And then he returned back to work without checking on them. Nice.) After the collapse, Don's fever broke and he returned to normal life as the cold, compartmentalized Don Draper we know so well—blowing off Sylvia in the elevator and covering up his weekend incompetence by pretending that principled objections to the way Chevy worked had led him to drop off the active creative team.
Relationships with women bleed together, so that it's hard to remember who's who
Once again, Ted Chaough gets the line of the week, trying to figure out what the heck happened during his absence over the weekend: "Half of this work is gibberish. Chevy is spelled wrong."