After 73 episodes, Mad Men is still finding new ways to tell a story about a man who can't change.
Sunday's "The Crash" found Don Draper accepting an injected drug cocktail from the mysterious "Dr. Hecht." The drugs leave him unstuck in time, and Don loses most of a weekend in flashbacks to yet another unpleasant incident in his childhood, which feels more and more like a lost Steinbeck novel every week. And recalling a much older literary classic, Don's descent into the Inferno — which earned a none-too-subtle cameo in the season premiere — continued unabated in last night's bleak, strange episode.
When ranking TV anti-heroes, Don Draper scores relatively low on the villainy scale — unlike Tony Soprano or Walter White, he has never killed anyone — but he does share one fatal flaw with the rest of the TV rogues' gallery: An uncanny capacity for deception.
But even as Mad Men made it clear that Don Draper was a liar from its very first episode, it's been far cagier about whether Don knows what a phony he is. Every moment of self-awareness comes alongside a moment in which Don asserts his superiority in some smug and self-satisfied way, which makes it difficult to gauge whether Don is actually capable of change. "I'm feeling a lot of emotions too," insists Don in a contentious call to Sylvia, either unwilling or unable to say what those emotions actually are.
After five and a half seasons of Mad Men, "The Crash" finally provided a definitive answer to one of Mad Men's long-running open questions: Don Draper is aware, on some level, that he's a huckster — even if he'd never admit it in his (increasingly rare) sober hours. "The timbre of my voice is as important as the content," Don tells Ken, acknowledging that he, as the medium, is the real message that he's selling to clients. "I don't know whether I'll be forceful or submissive, but I must be there in the flesh." But the world is changing, and both internally and externally, Don simply can't keep up.
As "The Crash" reminds us, Don actually has an excuse for his awful behavior that's been in his pocket for decades: The nightmarish, oedipal web that connects his maternal figures to his objects of sexual desire. Let's review. Don was born to a young prostitute and reluctantly adopted by Abigail Whitman, whom he eventually spied on while she had transactional sex with his so-called "Uncle Mac." As a young teenager, Don lost his own virginity to a prostitute who had just nursed him back to health and spoon-fed him soup while lying in bed. As an adult, in between his affairs, Don likes to pay prostitutes to slap him while he's having sex with them. In "The Crash," when Don finds the soup ad he's been looking for, which depicts a happy mother and son, it makes him think of Sylvia, the woman who dumped him in last week's episode. That's a lot for any human being to deal with, and Don would probably benefit from a doctor who spends less time injecting weird drugs into his gluteus and more time talking to him while he lies on a couch.
I suspect that as Mad Men gets closer and closer to its ultimate ending, we're finally being asked to reject Don Draper once and for all — something that many of the show's characters have already done. "Right now I'm wondering how I ever trusted you," says Sylvia during a heated argument with Don — and she's far from alone. Just two weeks after Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's big merger with Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough, Ted is already fed up with Don's nonexistent work ethic. Joan, whom Don charmed on an impromptu work outing last season, recently called him out for his selfish behavior regarding the Jaguar account. He has a terrible relationship with his ex-wife and a rapidly declining relationship with his children, who risk being victims of a potentially dangerous robbery because he can't be bothered to be around. For now, Don still has Megan — but there are five episodes left in the season, and there's no reason to believe that their relationship is going anywhere but down.
And then there's Peggy Olson, who proves once again that she has surpassed her onetime mentor. When Stan tries to seduce Peggy, citing the death of his cousin Robby in Vietnam as a reason that he "needs" her, she stops him and offers him some genuinely healthy advice: "I've had loss in my life. You have to let yourself feel it. You can't dampen it with drugs and sex. It won't get you through." It's advice that Stan almost immediately disregards, and it also happens to be in direct contrast to the advice Don gave Peggy after her baby was taken away: "This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened." Based on how both characters are functioning in "The Crash," it seems pretty obvious which of them turned out to be right.
As "The Crash" shows, people can always find excuses for the bad things they do — but that's not a good enough reason to actually do them. With Frank Gleason's death, Ted Chaough had more reason than anyone to spend the weekend drinking away his sorrows — but instead, he buried his friend and showed up ready to work on Monday. Betty didn't let her failed marriage to Don destroy her life; she built a new marriage with a man who genuinely loves her. And Peggy (who is, for all her faults, the true hero of Mad Men) managed to build her life into something meaningful after giving up her baby — not because she forgot about it, as Don advised, but because she remembered it.
After Sally apologizes to Don for acquiescing to "Grandma Ida," the strange robber who insinuated herself into Don and Megan's apartment — which makes Sally more mature than most of the adults in this episode — she explains how she could have fallen for such an obvious forgery. "I asked her everything I know, and she had an answer for everything," Sally says. "Then I realized I don't know anything about you." The problem, as the rest of our characters are beginning to discover, is that there's nothing about Don to know. "I don't know whether I'll be forceful or submissive, but I must be there in the flesh," says Don. He's referring to both his desperate, failed attempt to reconcile with Sylvia and the Chevrolet pitch he tries and fails to write. In the end, he doesn't show up "in the flesh" for either — but that's okay, since there's no real Don Draper to appear there anyway.
Read more Mad Men recaps:
* Mad Men recap: Fifty Shades of Draper
* Mad Men recap: 'For Immediate Release'
* Mad Men recap: 'The Flood'
* Mad Men recap: To have and to hold
* Mad Men recap: Sex, lies, and a ketchup account
* Mad Men premiere recap: Death and 'The Doorway'
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Russia's new air force is a mystery
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- 11 scientific studies that will restore your faith in humanity
- How Hillary Clinton's 'smart power' turned Libya into a dumpster fire
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- When it comes to ISIS, our Congress is full of cowards
Subscribe to the Week