by Claire Moshenberg on May 25, 2013

Mad Men logo“I refuse to watch this again,” I fumed to our fearless editor in chief in the midst of watching “The Crash.” “I refuse. I can’t do this anymore.”

“Bailing on the season is not an option,” he responded (with kindness, mind you — it’s true, even if it’s not what I wanted to hear). Then my laptop swallowed my notes and my entire draft whole, deleting it into a clean white page, and then I caught the borderline psychedelic head cold running through my house; now, emptied and dizzy, 20 sweaty minutes off of a broken fever, I’m re-watching this nauseating whirligig of a Mad Men episode that has made every disheartened fan and discombobulated critic sit up and say, “WTF?”

I’m on your side, kids. Let’s see if the head cold helps.

Infidelity, The Realist Edition: “When you start something like this, it takes a lot of convincing. It’s all about if the other person has as much to lose as you do, because you want to be able to trust them when it’s over.” Have we ever seen honesty about infidelity on this show, really? There’s been a lot of sleek falling into bed, and sure, Betty once stumbled into the truth. But this episode really encapsulates the strange pain and paranoia of a completed affair. The party’s over, and everyone’s supposed to go home and keep their mouths shut. But Don’s been allowed to act like . . . well, like Don in the previous episode, and for years. He’s been allowed to set the rules, and mysteriously, women have simply disappeared from his life. Even when it’s his kid’s teacher, even when it’s a client, he just slips out and moves on with ease. So maybe this is the gift of a disintegrating Draper: honesty. People’s feelings are messy, people’s relationships are complicated — and when you misbehave, you rarely get a clean break. You get a broken heart that you think the hippie love child can hear with her stethoscope; you get a scared ex on the phone asking how often you’re waiting outside her door. You leave doors unlocked, you throw phones, you smash bottles. “I’m feeling a lot of emotions, too,” Don says to Sylvia. Draper, with feelings related to the present? Might be the highlight of this episode.

Baby Draper: Hey, did you know Don had a terrible mother who wasn’t even his mother, who judged him since birth and then became a prostitute? Hey, did you know Don had the kind of mom who raised him in a whorehouse and sent him to the cellar all by his lonesome to recover from a hacking cough? Hey, did you know that when Don lost his virginity, it was by being assaulted by a maternal hooker who later demanded payment, and that it led to a ruthless beating from his mother?

Hey, do you care about any of this anymore? I know — me neither. We used to be on a journey with this character: we got tantalizing scraps, we got a thrill from watching him grow or act like a human, we wondered who would find out his secret next and what they would do. But now these flashbacks are trotted out to evoke sympathy, and as Trudy Campbell said long ago in one of my favorite WASP-y Mad Men lines, “Don’t go to the well; there’s no water there.” There’s no water here. There’s nothing. Don Draper is exhausting, and the obsessive focus on him this season has sucked the life out of my favorite show. Don’t show me scenes I’ve already heard about; don’t reveal secrets that aren’t even reveals, just re-tellings. Where’s Joan? Where’s anybody else?

Fun With Amphetamines: For another fun splash of realism, let’s check back in on the freshly drugged staff at SCDP-As-Yet-Untitled, who are unwinding reams of drivel, bopping on their heels, gesturing and dilated. And like anyone who’s ever been amphetaminized, they are convinced that everything is SPECTACULAR. Everything they hear and say is profound and they want to over-promise and over-deliver and they want to move and details matter and you’re just seeing them for the first time — new details, one after another.

Don is the worst on drugs. He is the sweaty, pontificating guy; he has a speech and you’re going to hear it. Peggy’s response to the first of many impassioned Don speeches, “That was very inspiring . . . do you have any idea what the idea is?” is the politest possible way of saying, “You’re high and full of BS. Can we get back to earth now?” (I heart Peggy.) Don on drugs reveals the most basic, broken caricature of Don. The pacing, the “just listen, I’ve got it,” but he doesn’t — it’s nonsense. It’s the kind of stuff your mind can only generate on amphetamines — that the most obvious truth in the world is a psychic stone you’ve overturned, and no one else ever has, and it’s going to blow this place open. He used to blow this place open, he used to offer the big reveal, but all season long we’ve seen one halfhearted pitch after another that leads up to this: sweaty, shaking Don, hours away from fainting, explaining Advertising 101 with mouthy hyperbole, convinced he’s a genius when all he’s revealed is that days have passed and he hasn’t completed any work. “He’s happy; now we can relax,” Ginsberg says, but Peggy knows it’s a lie. The Draper system has failed completely. There is no swooping in and uncovering the perfect campaign. There’s just a sad, drugged guy in a suit and his two underlings left to pick up the pieces.

The Basics of “The Crash”/The Basics of TV Watching: There’s a lot to say here, but it’s a week later and so much of it has been said. So here are the basics:

  • I’m glad more and more critics are chronicling the blatant racism this season. The Grandma Ida story line was atrocious.
  • Peggy and Stan continue to be the sweet spot of this show, though I don’t understand why they had to follow up a meaningful, satisfying scene with an unnecessary peep show featuring Stan and Wendy.
  • Do you think it’s frustrating to be Ben Feldman, the actor who plays Ginsberg? Last season, he got all this set-up to be a real character, and now they cart him out once every two weeks to do a bad Woody Allen impression.
  • How infuriating was the episode’s last line? Like Don is on some kind of moral high ground, and oh, thanks for harkening back to the “whorehouse” days of yore — so good to know that this one story line would influence the next season-and-a-half. (Do you hear the sarcasm? I may be stuffy and have a  hoarse voice right now, but I wanted to make sure that was coming through loud and clear.)

So that’s all been said, and we’re all ready for tomorrow. But here’s what’s on my mind: I think it’s ridiculous to make these kinds of emotional demands of a starved audience. “The Crash” was an exhausting episode: characters were in danger from the first 60 seconds; the swerving, dizzying camerawork was nauseating; the heightened sense of danger was stressful; there was no reward. No satisfying twist, no “wow!” — none of the gifts an audience can get from a good block of television. And these demands were made of us after a half-season of tiring nothingness: boring story lines, sloppy narratives, poor character development, and limited movement or satisfaction in the story.

You have to give something. It doesn’t have to be a laugh, it doesn’t have to be a smile — Mad Men has always been dark, and I like dark dramas and messed-up characters; I like sad novels and depressing television. But there has to be some oomph, some movement, or else it’s just traffic. It’s just sitting on the highway, banging your steering wheel, and there’s no reason why you’re so mad. There’s no breakthrough. There’s nothing but the raw-nerve irritation of being stuck.

Quick Hits:

    • Megan’s mini-dress and giant necklace, you’re the real winner.
    • Dawn’s face while Kenny tap dances — Dawn, you are the highlight of this season.
    • After this season of Mad Men, if Arrested Development lets me down, I might just throw my TV out the window and call it a day.

* * * *

Claire Moshenberg is a San Francisco-based author, activist, and new-media consultant. She is co-proprietor of the web site Charm City Jukebox and a contributing editor of The Spleen.

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