Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Puddles of My Mad Men Season Six: "The Crash"

Amphetamines, Finnegan's Wake and knowing what's good.


It’s hard to know when something is good. In the span of two hours, you may write a short story on your friend’s Miami apartment balcony about an overly romantic breakup that you had with a girl in the rain, and you can send that story in to an editor who happens to like you or happens to think that story is good and it can be published. Or, you can belabor over a story that you think is your best work; that shows a depth, perspective and approach that you have never attempted before. And that story can be rejected by an editor that likes you or your work because it isn’t the right time, or it just doesn’t hit them—even if it contains some of your best prose. All of which can make you question if your instincts are correct.

Sometimes, though, you have to trust your instincts and continue taking risks. You don’t have to be difficult for the sake of being difficult, but you can take risks with your writing, your painting or music that challenges both you and your listener to reach for more. No matter what how good you are, no matter how close you come to reaching a certain level of inevitability with your work, someone’s going to hate it or be apathetic for it. People even hated the Beatles and that was before we had Twitter. Imagine if John had said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus today.

“The Crash” was the best episode of Mad Men this season and, I have to admit, my favorite episode of all-time. I am more than happy to listen to arguments to the contrary. I will take them in, explain to you why you are right, but then firmly disagree and tell you that you are wrong, but, hey, let’s have a beer and move on. That’s just simply the kind of approach I take when it comes to subjective matters. I understand you. I agree that you are right to think what you think. However, I disagree and in fact, you’re actually wrong.

I can be a bit of a pretentious ass, so I am prone to referring to James Joyce and his work in my everyday conversations and constantly on this blog. However, “The Crash”—in its druggy, off-kilter state—reminds me of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Not in any direct sort of way; “The Crash” does not try to communicate a kind of dream language or relay the circular history of Western civilization and myth within its running time. No, “The Crash” is like Finnegan’s Wake because it, like many pieces of good art, places all (or much of) its own personal history—it’s own personal knowledge of itself—out in the world for the viewer to interpret. Now, very often, the true meaning will be coded and difficult to decipher, but it is up to the viewer or reader to decide what can of meaning they will take from the work in question.

Finnegan’s Wake was a series of dots for a reader of English (or any language) and any student of Western history to decipher. Joyce placed his immense knowledge of language, myth, history, and fairy tales into a story that only he truly understood, but that didn’t stop people from trying to make sense of it for themselves. And sure many have argued for years if it makes sense or it’s just gibberish, but many of those people have missed the swooning (Joyce forever changed the way we think of the word swooning in literature) language of passages such as this:

“But I'm loothing them that's here and all I lothe. Loonely in me loneness. For all their faults. I am passing out. O bitter ending! I'll slip away before they're up. They'll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me. And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms.

To many (myself included) on one level much of this language is gibberish. However, to those who have pored over the annotated version of Finnegan’s Wake there seems to be some kind of structure, delineated by scholars who used Joyce’s notes or “intent” to figure out what the story is about, or what it means. There are others who pick at words and phrases that they recognize from other languages; character names, historical figures, nursery rhyme creatures and try to decipher the action for themselves. And still there are others (myself included) who read a passage such as the one above and just enjoy the effect of the rhythm and whatever the hell the words mean—because it’s like music and “You Never Give Me Your Money” didn’t really mean anything, but it sure as hell felt like it did.

“The Crash” is like Finnegan’s Wake in that way. As a direct piece of narrative television, it may not have been what you like or what you were looking for. You may have watched it and saw the frantic, speed-fueled weekend of work as a symbol for what it’s like to write for Mad Men itself. You may have seen “Grandma Ida” as Matt Weiner’s self-aware nod at all the criticism that the show has received for the way it depicts African Americans in its realist version/vision of the 1960’s. The fact that Sally was reading Rosemary’s Baby, that Stan came up with “666 ideas,” that Wendy Gleason was doing the I Ching could have all meant something about the impending darkness and depression that is surrounding our characters as the 60’s and the show itself comes to an end. These are all dots placed on a television screen for us to connect. They may be red herrings, but if they mean something to you, have some kind of relevance, isn’t that all that matters. Was Room 237 made in vain?

Yes, it’s odd that Joan is not at the office or that we barely see any of Pete Campbell or Roger. And, yes, the whorehouse symbolism may have been over the top. The flashbacks to the young Don are also not the show’s strongest suit, plus they are becoming increasingly awkward with the casting. That kid does not grow up into Don Draper. But, is that really important? Does that ruin the entire effect? For you it might, and I understand; but you’re wrong.

Besides, there are plenty of profound, meaningful moments everywhere else. The intimate, amazing interaction between Peggy and Stan has been in the works ever since their power dynamic shifted after their nude brainstorming session in “Waldorf Stories” back in Season 4. In fact, Peggy, continuing her claim as perhaps the show’s actual protagonist in the second half of its life, has every important moment in “The Crash.” She kisses Stan, realizes she likes it, realizes that she has to be mature and tells him that, she’s had loss in her life to and that “you have to feel it. You can’t dampen it with drugs or sex. It won’t get you through.” Stan then tells her they are different and Peggy later finds him sleeping with sixteen-year-old Wendy Gleason.

Peggy also cuts Don down in two crucial moments. First, in the Creative Lounge, Don comes in, high on speed, and makes a trademark Don speech—the timbre is the same, but the cadence and the content are different. One of the copywriters, also high, treats Don as though he was still the hero of 1960, but Peggy says merely, “That was inspiring. So, what’s the idea?” Don bounces back with a druggy, confident, “I don’t know, but I’m going to keep looking.” Later, when Don fails to deliver his speech about the meaning of advertising and life, Peggy wordlessly realizes that Don doesn’t have any idea that will save them and that he hasn’t been working on Chevy at all. At first, she’s thrilled Don has an idea, then we see her surprise, which changes immediately to a quick glimmer of anger, followed by disappointment and then a vague maternal worry. It’s a masterful show of the entire history of one human relationship in about sixty seconds.

Then, we have the truly heartbreaking fact of the entire episode: the robbery of the Draper household by “Grandma Ida.” That entire sequence was filled with a palpable sense of menace that I have not experienced while watching television or a movie in a long, long time. In the end, Sally did her best, but was duped by a criminal. Don tries to make her feel better, but even his saying, “Sally, I left the door open. It was my fault,” can erase Sally’s devastating, “Then I realized, I don’t know anything about you.” I didn’t know the extent of my parents’ faults and foibles at fourteen, but I had made my own mistakes that had caused them to reveal portions of their own misdeeds—I knew a glimpse of them as human, and they knew the same for me. To see Sally come to that realization was a very powerful (if perhaps obvious) moment. Don may have woken up refreshed and ready to hit the reset button (as he often does) after his affair with Sylvia and the break-in in his home, but it will be hard to repair that kind of damage—ever.

Like Finnegan’s Wake, the true achievement of “The Crash” was in the feeling that it elicited from me as a viewer. Like Roger’s LSD trip last season, Weiner and the rest of the Mad Men team nailed the sense of simultaneous paranoia, joy, elation, recklessness and wariness that being on an amphetamine can cause in a person. By making time pass quickly, having characters say things louder and quicker than they usually do, using dialogue that is more elliptical than ever (“It’s broken?” “You can hear that?” “ I can’t hear anything”; “I can’t stand up.” “That’s just the shot.”) and using a variety of Don’s impending personal responsibilities, you felt the inebriation seep into your own skin, even if you were watching stone sober.

It’s that last part that matters the most. Even if there was nothing substantive to be gained from “The Crash,” its ability to make you feel, as a television viewer, almost exactly what the characters were feeling in this frenzied, drug-fueled environment, was astonishing. What was interesting was that, for me, the way I felt the virtual amphetamine the most was by the show juxtaposing Don’s drug experience with the increasing disorder and disarray of his personal life. He is extraordinarily distant from Megan, his ex-wife hates him, his wife’s new husband pities him, he’s begging his mistress to speak to him, his children don’t know anything about him, and his protégé is losing her respect for him and transferring it to someone else. The worst part about drugs is that feeling you get when you cross your fingers and hope that nothing important happens in real life while you take the plunge.

“The Crash” made me feel that sensation. It was a singular television experience. If you think that Weiner as a showrunner and Mad Men as a show are somehow losing their fastball, then I understand. I see your point and respect it, but you’re wrong. And even if you end up being right, it doesn’t matter anyway because I enjoyed “The Crash.” I connected my own dots and I liked what I saw.

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