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.
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."
And once again, it's Peggy who I find most interesting. Did anyone else notice her advice to Stan after he told her about the cousin who had recently been killed in Vietnam? "I've had loss in my life," Peggy said. "You have to let yourself feel it. You can't dampen it with drugs and sex. It won't get you through." Stan doesn't listen to her, but more important is the fact that "You have to let yourself feel it" is the exact opposite of Don's words to Peggy after her son was taken away from her: "It will shock you how much it never happened."
Peggy has learned from and been shaped by Don, but she has not become him. I suspect that will allow her to surpass him eventually. It was amazing to realize right along with her that Don had spent the entire episode not working on the perfect Chevy ad but instead scheming about something completely different. We know what she does not—that Don was desperately trying to get back into Sylvia's life and bed. But that hardly matters. What Peggy realizes is that her once talented and unbeatable boss has fallen to earth.
What did you think, Eleanor? Are we supposed to notice that Betty is back to her blond, slim self? And can you make any sense of that car company/whorehouse line?
Barkhorn: I love that we all have different nominations for line of the episode. For Ashley, it's Sally's devastating summary of her relationship with her father. For Amy, it's Ted's devastating summary of the drug-addled agency's work on the Chevy account. For me, though, it's Ken's devastating summary of the way a lot of the men on this show see women. After Kenny does his amazing soft-shoe routine, Don asks him where he learned his moves. "My mother," he replies, then corrects himself. "No, my first girlfriend."
This line encapsulates a theme we've seen running throughout the show, with Don especially. Relationships with women bleed together, so that it's hard to remember who's who. Remember when Don broke things off with Bobbie Barrett because she talked too much? And then later in that same episode, Sally tells him, "I know you don't like it when I talk too much"? That statement is enough to make Don almost start to cry—he recognizes that his expectations for his mistresses bleed into his expectations for his daughter.
Amy, you wondered aloud if this week's flashbacks taught us anything new. I'd say maybe they didn't offer any 100 percent new information, but they did deepen our understanding of Don's complex relationships with women. This episode, for all its weirdness, offered an explanation for why why it's so hard for Don to differentiate between his romantic and familial longings. Aimee begins as a mother figure to Don, nursing him back to health when he's sick and caring for him in ways his stepmother cannot ("She doesn't know how to take care of anybody," Aimee says). But as soon as he's back to health, their relationship turns from maternal to sexual as she insists on "taking his cherry." To make things even more confusing, she later puts a price on their encounter—five bucks, she tells Mac. So in the space of a few days, young Don's conception of Aimee went from mother to lover to prostitute. No wonder he has so much trouble with women.
(Don's not the only one who has trouble drawing distinctions in his relationships with the opposite sex. Stan tries to make a move on Peggy, even though, as Peggy says, he's more of a brother to her. We learn at the end of the episode that Wendy the rando is in fact Gleason's daughter, who mourns her father's death by having sex with one of his colleagues.)
We're also reminded, yet again, of how much Don's past informs his work. The margarine ad he pitched last week was soaked in nostalgia for the perfect farmhouse upbringing he never had. This week he became obsessed with a decade-old ad for oatmeal that was inspired by his relationship with Aimee. As he was searching through the SCDP archives, he came upon the Heinz baked beans ad—a campaign he and Megan concocted that also draws on a sentimentalized vision of family life.
Don's built his career on selling happy families, but his obsession with his broken childhood will only take him so far, from what I can tell. His ideas for the Chevy campaign are, as Ted says, gibberish. And we're treated to a visual clue that Don is living in the past. In that final scene in Ted's office, Don is wearing a classic blue suit and striped tie. Ted, on the other hand, is in a green jacket with a paisley pocket square. His office wall is covered in a psychedelic, wavy print. Ted represents the groovy future; Don, the buttoned-up past. We'll see who comes out on top, but I wouldn't put my money on Don.
As for Don's line about the whorehouse and the car campaign, it seemed to have two meanings. The first, which Ted and Cutler would have picked up on, is that Don is sick of the chaos that the Chevy account has wreaked on the office. Ken got in a car crash trying to impress the GM execs, and half the agency's employees got strung out on that weird injection in an attempt to come up with a good campaign. He doesn't want to turn tricks to make money anymore.
But the other meaning is far more literal. The stress of working on a big, high-stakes project like Chevy turns the office into a whorehouse for Don—that is, he is transported back to his childhood in the brothel. His emotions, which are apparently more fragile than we realize, can't handle the flashbacks.
Regarding Betty, yes, I did notice she's back to her old, perfectly coiffed self...and that her shrill, lecturing posture toward Don has returned as well (for good reason, of course). But more striking to me was how Henry saved the day after the Grandma Ida fiasco. (Side note: What are we supposed to make of the fact that Ida is the same name as Don's dearly departed secretary, Mrs. Blankenship? We'll have to discuss on Twitter.) When the scene shifted to Henry and the police in the Drapers' living room, I breathed a sigh of relief: "Henry's here. All is well." We've gotten a hint in the past that Don's kids also see Henry as a much-needed source of stability. Bobby had trouble sleeping a few episodes back because he was worried Henry would be killed just like Dr. King and JFK.
But Henry remains the least-explored of Mad Men's major characters. We don't know much about him except that he deeply cares for Betty, even as he occasionally gets exasperated with her, and that he's been a dependable caregiver to her kids. What's his dark side? His penchant for younger women, as we saw hinted at in the season premiere? Or something else? I predict we'll find out more about Henry as the season wears on.