Lately I have been wondering why I like to watch Mad Men. This show infuriates me sometimes, even thrills me occasionally. But the worst is when it bores me. I sometimes don’t go for “the bargain,” as Don calls it during a speed-induced (yup) rave. I don’t go along with all the seduction, all the hip swiveling, all that comic relief. I can think of plenty of mistresses I’ve been unmoved by, I don’t always feel endeared to whatever wacky character moment has gone viral in gifs. At some point in each season, I have to be roused back by a shot in the arm. How does Mad Men do that? How does it get through to me? How does it get its foot in the door when I have so little attention to spare?
With episodes like this one. “The Crash” is Mad Men when it’s throwing out 666 ideas, when it’s risking a dart in the eye for a chance to hit the apple. It has a frenetic energy that always comes with the episodes where people go on benders, when the office becomes a whorehouse, when someone (or something) else breaks in and starts poking around in all the cupboards. Even with a lot of the usual plot devices that I dislike (flashbacks to Don’s brothel childhood being number one on that list), I felt that old loving feeling.
Before I go into full swoon mode, let’s back up. Here’s what happened. The Chevy executives are making Ken Cosgrove their play thing, taking him on joy rides that result in a trip to the doctor and a cane, and they still don’t like an idea enough to keep the team from working weekends. Jim Cutler (pause: Harry Hamlin is creepy and mutedly hedonistic in this role, and I adore him for it) decides to shoot up the office with some feelgood speed. Yeah, really. Just some vitamins and a stimulant, says the doctor before Don bends over and takes a shot in the ass. It’ll get the creative juices flowing. Soon people are running in circles, claiming their hearts have stopped. Stan is letting Ginsberg blindfold him in a William Tell exercise and throw an X-acto knife at his head. More seriously, Chaough is off grieving Gleason’s previously awaited death (with Peggy’s sympathies, which Don sees and emotes a bit over), and Gleason’s rich hippie daughter is wandering around the office throwing the I Ching for people and hitting on anyone who seems like they need to feel good.
And everyone needs to feel good. Stan’s cousin was killed in action; Don can’t get over Sylvia. It’s said about Chaough that he doesn’t know how to deal with “these things,” meaning death, loss, pain, but of course no one on the show seems to know this. When Stan tries to make something happen with Peggy (!) and she stops him, he pleads, “I need this.” Peggy responds, “I know, I know, you’re in pain,” like she’s said this a million times before. And she probably has at this point. On this show, people are always kissing each other for the wrong reasons and drowning their feelings in alcohol and sex. What else is there to do? Her advice to Stan—just feel that loss—doesn’t appear to persuade him; the rich hippie ends up in his office. As for Don and his way of feeling through the pain, his inability to get over Sylvia’s choice to end their affair results in some serious, um, character development. He’s stalking her, for one thing, smoking cigarettes outside her back door. He’s really going through a lot of emotions here, but she is unsympathetic, wondering how she ever fell for this song-and-dance that Don did to get her to sleep with him.
Even with all the empty phrases he says to her to try to get his point across, I somehow believe him. I believe he’s heartbroken, because of a scene midway through the episode. Don listens to the radio play Sergio Mendes’ cover of “Going Out of My Head” through the wall adjoining Sylvia’s kitchen. We don’t see Sylvia listening to the radio, but Don might be thinking she’s there. If I’m reading the scene correctly, he gets hope through this. Maybe she feels the same way he feels. She’s listening to a romantic pop song, after all; she’s going out of her head over Don. Of course, we don’t know if she is, and neither does he, but he would rather believe it. He’d rather lean in and close his eyes.
“Going Out of My Head” is the perfect kind of song for this show, because it pretends to be universal in that way that horoscopes and the I Ching can be universal. Evoking emotions too strong not to be specific or at least honed, it plays upon that history we all have, all the loss and love that everyone goes through, and it manipulates, it twists, it exploits you where you’re vulnerable. It gives a crescendo to romantic agony. I love that this was the era, too, of the sorts of performances that were decidedly awkward, not graceful like Gene Kelly (or Ken Cosgrove, as shown by his “Good Morning!”-style tap dance born out of the speed jitters). This was the era of the girl on quaaludes in the spotlight, swaying gently as the orchestra plays. This was the era of torch songs, Burt Bacharach, “As Tears Go By.” Look at the way these girls sway and stare off camera. Look at the way those palm trees look. They look fake, don’t they? But the emotion is still there. This was one of the most performed pop standards from the 60s precisely because it is about “everyone’s questions,” as the rich hippie says when she guesses what Don wants to know. Don wants to know what we all want to know. Does anyone love me? Why don’t you love me? What can I do to get you to stay? Pop music (and advertisements, and art, and everything that this show dances around) are built on the promise of one great, simple idea winning someone over, one thirty-second secret to all of your problems. Two sentences that get your whole life across. If only you could just say the one thing that will convince someone else to trust you. If only you could stop being so shy. If only, if only, if only.