When you read cases in law school you’ll often catch in the excerpts that one of the parties to a case made what’s known as a “slippery slope” argument. (Bear with me.) The thinking goes that once you allow something a little out of the ordinary, a whole host of undesirable and uncontrollable consequences will follow. Here’s an example in the news: gay marriage. You’ll hear opponents of gay marriage assert that if we permit two people of the same sex to marry, that will beget bestiality and siblings marrying each other and all sorts of innumerable horrors. That’s crazy talk, of course, but that’s what a slippery slope is: a little fear-mongering wrapped in a poorly disguised argumentum ad absurdum, or an argument from absurdity. Last night’s “The Crash” represented Mad Men taken to its absurd extreme, the direction it’s headed if the GM execs keep Ken Cosgrove in the driver’s seat after blocking his vision and playing with guns in the back—the joyride arrives at a frightening, crazy, drug-addled destination if you keep your foot on the gas. Laugh all you want at Mad Men (last night was funny, indeed), but just remember you laugh because of the absurdity of it. What made “The Crash” bizarre is that what it depicted was maybe ten seasons too soon and out of step with every previous episode; we’ve seen these characters’ problems simmer neatly without last night’s fiery immolations. Almost always, someone hits the brakes before the end of the slippery slope, but that doesn’t mean people don’t think about it even if those kinds of arguments get laughed out of court. “The Crash” didn’t foretell the end of Mad Men, it warned what, however implausible, could happen if the lid comes off.
Every absurd consequence in last night’s episode flowed from the sheer existence of the Chevrolet account and the demanding, bureaucratic, and powerful client that is General Motors. Don’s slathers his line at the end—that any car account turns SCDP…CGC…ADUTKF in to a whorehouse—with innuendo; the partners, except Don, whored Joan out for Jaguar, and now the ad execs are slaving away, wasting energy, ideas, money, and, ahem, Vitamin B for a result they’ve glorified but that will probably disappoint. To turn the normal prostitute-john relationship around, the agency has become the client (of Chevrolet), unsure of how best to service GM and timid—Ken has no leverage with which he can win GM over. The difference is that GM won’t fake any pleasure for the sake of the poor schlubs exhausting themselves in search, vainly, of the fulfillment that should accompany such a prestigious account. Given Don’s quite uncommon—dare I say absurd—upbringing, suffice it to say that he knows a whore when he sees one (though he sees everybody as a whore, of course).
Even if the slippery slope resembles a logic game more than reality, the off-kilter weekend brainstorming session demonstrated the fineness of the line between bullshit and insight. It was more a Draper brainstorming gone mad, with Don and the creative team spewing out the first thing that came to their minds. A soup campaign from a few years ago that’s not a soup campaign! A gift to the son! A gift to the dad! 666 ideas! The child is the father of the man! (Okay, this one contains some truth, but sane, only-drunk Peggy uttered it.) Brainstorming requires thought, but nobody in the office took the time to think through their ideas, and injections to your ass don’t help—thank god Peggy’s nice ass (Stan’s words) was spared. Even though advertising is silly—a cute little jingle and punny tagline to which people pay no heed most of the time—that’s no excuse to go off the cuff. They should know how much care and thought and imagination those stupid commercials require, because advertising (like Mad Men) works in its strongest messages subconsciously before revealing the treacherous and, in this case, farcical places those messages can lead you to. The speed propelled Don, Stan, and the two CGC guys so far off the deep end that they were back to basics, bumbling and verbally fumbling like children. When Don gave his “motivational” speech to his employees towards the beginning of the episode and tried his hand at empathy (“I know there has been a lot of darkness today”), the reaction wasn’t to put pen to paper but to sit back and laugh. Without Ted to confer a sense of direction to the proceedings or Joan to establish order, the inmates, looking to dull their grief or not do much of anything at all, start running the asylum.
At least equally unsettling was the burglary of the Draper home by “Grandma Ida”; emptily consumed by the nothingness that was the SCDP-CGC weekend and the black hole that is Don Draper, shitty and neglectful parenting is the logical extreme of Don’s personal life. Only recently has Don discovered that he might actually love his children, but Don Draper on speed only has time to drop by his apartment building to see Sylvia and not his kids—he cupped his ear to Sylvia’s back door just before the intruder came calling for his gold watch. It’s no surprise that Don wouldn’t know how to manage his kids when he can’t manage his creative duties; in any event he’s always leaving them in the charge of his wife, who played with them in the pool on one vacation but prefers to spoil them now and avoid actually parenting.
What was striking was where Matt Weiner insinuated Don’s womanizing might be headed. Before Don opened the door to his apartment and saw in front of him the police and the two people actually interested in parenting his children, he was stammering the Declaration of Independence in preparation for his plan to get his foot in the Rosen’s door and profess his love to Sylvia. I would have thought that the logical extreme of Don’s womanizing would approach something domineering, akin to the commands he bellowed at Sylvia in “The Man with a Plan.” Instead, I think Weiner is suggesting that Don’s extreme would be the loss of his ability to compartmentalize and a state where he treats everything like an ad campaign, looking for shallow affirmation. Weiner’s case is a persuasive one, and though I see things somewhat differently I also recognize that I’m not Sigmund Freud. I can understand that in his haze, the rigid separation Don maintains between his true self and his self-image would crumble; perhaps a man with that adolescence* can’t keep things separate forever.
*As I’ve written before, I’m not a big fan of virtually any Dick Whitman storyline, and we got plenty of that last night. That said, if there was ever an episode to highlight some of the Dick Whitman stuff, “The Crash” was that episode. The scenes were about more than the usual “Don isn’t Don Draper”—you got a better indication about why Don is a crappy dad and treats everyone like they’re a whore—but those scenes were filmed the way they always are, with none of the weirdness of the rest of last night’s episode. Instead of being your typical Dick Whitman-as-a-kid scenes, these could have, and should have, been the weirdest, not the most normal. Additionally, these scenes weren’t the reason that “The Crash” was so crazy; if the presumption is that Don’s upbringing constantly informs his actions and thoughts, then he’d be acting crazy all the time. Rather, the drugs affected all of Don’s processes, including remembrances from the past he’d like to repress.
If “The Crash” was too outlandish, to self-consciously bizarre for you, I get that; the episode was jarring and confusing and intentionally so. But, it’s also the logical conclusion of Mad Men‘s artistic license. First, in defense of movies and shows that are confusing, let me say that the director or writer does not have an obligation to make things clear to you all the time; good movies and good TV don’t just require you to think, but want you to think, and in the right hands the existence of ideas or plots that you struggle to grasp can enhance what you watch by enabling your curiosity. Trying to think through the stuff we see should be a reason to embrace a show, not shirk away. Moreover, much of the praise showered on Mad Men, especially during the last two seasons, has involved the frequency of self-contained episodes that have the feel of small, singular movies even if they still form part of the whole. Mad Men makes room for experimentation, whether it’s with camerawork, sound, or narrative structure. (I’ll add that for whatever reason, I loved how the episode’s opening sequence, of Ken in the car, in darkness with only a white light shining, was filmed.) Now, last night was its grandest Dr. Frankenstein experiment yet, and it would appear that the slippery slope of creative freedom leads to a place not unlike David Lynch’s brain. I doubt Matt Weiner will lift the lid again (at least for some time), but that’s not stopping him from playing David Lynch for a night, nor is it stopping him from emphasizing that the distance between perfection and absurdity is not far-travelled.