For the first time in a while, I missed Sunday’s Mad Men when it originally aired, as we were taking in the final day of Hangout Fest. Since then, however, I’ve caught up (with repeat viewings), and—like everyone else on the internet—I can’t stop thinking about what’s surely the craziest, most symbolism-heavy episode of the series.
In lieu of a review, I’ve compiled a list of the 10 things from “The Crash” I just can’t seem to shake, whether they’re recurring themes that are sure to crop up again later or fleeting moments of greatness (cough cough—Ken’s soft-shoe—cough cough).
There’s a fascinating theory floating around that the entire episode is an allegory for the Vietnam War. Slate has an excellent in-depth exploration of this, but we’ll just rattle off a few of the parallels that struck us: the Chevy account is an impossible task for the agency and will take years. Don tries to rally the troops with a drug-fueled “In my heart, I know we cannot be defeated.” Much of the cast is dressed in green or brown (Stan in particular, who reveals he lost a cousin in the war and is later wounded himself after facing a William Tell-inspired firing squad, looks like a POW when he’s got his tie around his eyes like a blindfold). Ginsberg—who is the only sober one after everyone else in the office besides Peggy gets hopped up on speed and she gets drunk, and who previously revealed he’s a virgin—can be read as the show’s conscientious objector.
Thanks to some truly Oedipal flashbacks where we see young Dick Whitman sort of unwillingly lose his virginity to a prostitute who acted as a mother figure to him and nursed him back to health when he had a chest cold, we have a much clearer understanding of why Don chooses the women he chooses and makes the mistakes he does. It’s why he chose Megan over Dr. Faye after watching her clean up his kids’ spilled milkshake in season four, and it’s definitely why he’s now cheating on her with Sylvia—if that wasn’t apparent earlier, Matt Weiner hammered it home for us with that soup ad Don spends the episode searching for. The copy reads “Because you know what he needs,” which can have an innocent motherly meaning or a more sexual one, and the woman pictured is wearing a bandana and sporting the same birthmark as the hooker who deflowered Don. Sylvia’s seen earlier in the episode wearing a bandana and cooking for her husband, and she’s got that same birthmark. Yikes.
We see what you did here, Weiner. This shot of Sally reading Rosemary’s Baby brings back memories of season three, when she was convinced that baby Gene was possessed by her recently deceased Grandpa Gene and wouldn’t go near him. But it also hints at other recent developments on the show—like Megan’s recent miscarriage and religious discussion about abortion with Sylvia—and ties back to the aforementioned motherhood theme. Maybe it’s just a spooky hint of the evils that lie ahead on the show (at one point Stan not-so-subtly says he has “666 ideas” for the Chevy account). Or perhaps Sally herself is the spawn of Satan; the Internet’s been spouting “Don is the devil” theories for years now, and this could be a tongue-in-cheek nod to that.
Doorways have been a recurring image this season, and Don spends much of the episode lurking outside Sylvia’s backdoor after she’s literally and figuratively shut him out of her life. The shot of him pressing his face against her closed door is absolutely heartbreaking (seriously, give Jon Hamm all the Emmys), and when he has his big epiphany about history (which really has nothing to do with Chevy and everything to do with Sylvia), he rushes home, practicing what he’ll say to her if he can just get his foot in the door. “Don’t shut the door on me, Sylvia,” he mumbles as he stops by his own apartment first, and she never has the chance to—he walks in to find the police there along with the kids and the two wives he’s neglected over the years reeling from a robbery. He’s been so busy worrying about winning Sylvia back, about busting through a door that’s already been shut in his face, that he hasn’t been tending to his own home. “It was my fault,” he grimly tells Sally. “I left the door open.” Which brings us to…
At this point, it wouldn’t be a season six episode of Mad Men without Don floating around from floor to floor in that elevator. Sometimes it seems like he lives in the thing. After Don tells Sally he left the door open, he runs into Sylvia in the elevator. Instead of declaring his love for her—or whatever it was he was planning on saying to her the previous night—he’s ice-cold and silent. When she asks him how he is, he curtly replies “Busy.” It’s obvious his door is now closed. And while last week we saw Sylvia exit the elevator, leaving Don aboard in limbo, this time it’s Don who steps out first and leaves her behind.
Her encounter with Herb from Jaguar is alluded to by Don’s last line (“Whenever we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse”) but Joan is nowhere to be seen in this episode. You’d think she would be, given how perfectly she fits into that maternal whore complex. Perhaps she can no longer work Saturdays now that—in addition to all the rowdy man-children at SCDP—she has a child of her own to mother?
As usual, the musical choices in this episode were spot-on. Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66’s Going Out of My Head is heard on Sylvia’s radio through her door (“I’m going out of my head over you,” “I must think of a way into your heart”) when Don is…well, out of his head and trying to think of a way into her heart. But the real song that knocked us sideways this week was the one that closed the show. After Don drops that whorehouse line and grumpily heads back to his office, we hear “Words of Love” (relevant with lines like “worn-out phrases and longing gazes won’t get you where you want to go”). Who sings this saloon-style romp? The Mamas and the Papas—specifically the gone-too-soon Mama Cass. The Oedipal allusions from this song choice get even more disturbing when you factor in that lead singer John Phillips allegedly carried on a 10-year romantic relationship with his daughter Mackenzie.
It’s interesting that Ted and Stan both make their moves on Peggy this season in moments where she’s comforting them—Ted kissed her a few weeks ago after she told him he’s strong (not unlike the way a mother might build up the confidence of a kid being bullied), and Stan swoops in while she’s tending to his wounded arm. And let’s not forget, it’s that glimpse of Peggy touching Ted’s arm in his office after he learns of Frank Gleason’s death that signals the beginning of Don’s drug haze. She comforted him after the death of someone close to him once, and the meaningful-hand-touching is kind of their thing. This is a thread that will undoubtedly be explored further in the coming weeks.
Peggy busts out this William Wordsworth quote in the middle of a Chevy brainstorming session, and it speaks volumes about some of the themes of this week’s episode. Wordsworth’s main idea is that our childhood experiences shape our adult existences, and Don has a similar epiphany when he declares that history is the key to success. When Peggy asks if he’s done any work on Chevy, he declares that “this is bigger than Chevy. This is everything.” He’s right. Our antihero, who’s spouted off lines like “It will shock you how much this never happened” and been so keen to move forward that he literally reinvented himself and left his past behind, has discovered that those who don’t pay attention to history are doomed to repeat it—and it was all because of that soup ad (which was actually an oatmeal ad Don had incorrectly remembered) that so conveniently explained his entire history with women. It’s a huge breakthrough for Don, but will he remember it now that he’s soberly shut that door?
Ken’s tap dance (captured in brilliant GIF form by Vulture) sure was enjoyable to watch, but it also fits in with this week’s prostitution theme. When Ken gives us a little show while talking about how it’s his job to keep the customer satisfied, Don asks, “Where’d you learn how to do that?” “My mother,” Ken responds. “No—my first girlfriend.” BOOM.