Mad Men, Week 7: Speed Kills

Michael Yarish/AMC Madmen

“This is no dream! This is really happening!”
— Rosemary Woodhouse, Rosemary’s Baby, 1968

Speed is no joke. I should know, I get spracked on green tea and Coca-Cola every Sunday night to stay up and write these recaps until dawn. Sometimes I find myself staring in the mirror at my sweaty reflection, unable to recognize my own face, muttering to myself “Who is Dick Whitman anyway? Why is he such a controlling pervert? Does Ken Cosgrove know how to tap dance? How dangerous is it exactly to play William Tell with X-Acto knives?” Lately I’ve been fantasizing about setting Don up with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Veep character, Selina Meyer. It would be a fair fight. We now know that Don’s fetish for loudmouth brunettes who put him in his place was probably implanted in his cortex by the hooker with a heart of gold who relieved him of his virginity without his consent at The House of the Rising Backstory.

When Ms. Swenson (Megan Ferguson) bragged about taking Dick’s “cherry,” I wondered if calling it that was historically accurate — and guess what, it is! “Cherry” as slang for virginity dates back to at least 1889 in the U.S. It’s not anatomically accurate though, since “cherry” technically refers to the hymen (“but perhaps also from the long-time use of cherries as a symbol of the fleeting quality of life’s pleasures“). She was using it in the metaphorical sense, like when Sean Penn text messaged Madonna “I just popped my cherry kissing a guy. I thought of you, I don’t know why.” while he was filming Gus Van Sant’s Milk.

Women Don Draper Would Like: Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) in Goodfellas

Don is unconvincing at telling Sylvia that he has a lot of feelings. He’s much more believable throwing a phone. In flashbacks Dick’s stepmother is cold, controlling, and prone to beating him with spoons for his deviance. Ms. Swenson the whore is warm and controlling. Don’s issues with women are spelled out in I Ching hexagrams: Women ruled over him in youth, so in adulthood he reclaims his power by crushing his lovers’ wills like cigarette butts underneath his heel in an apartment hallway. Sylvia refuses to be squashed, even though she’s known full well it might happen since she first wedged herself underneath Don.

Viewers were split over whether Dawn’s disappearance last week was significant, or just a plot device so that Peggy could walk into Don’s office unannounced. This week Dawn was back with no mention of why she’d been gone, unruffled in a pink gingham dress as she politely but sardonically asks Don whether he needs any more sleep after his two and a half hour nap. Don looks no better for having slept. His face has morphed into a pillow. The only way to gauge whether an event is important or a red herring is with perspective, which only occurs with time. Well, that or a powerful shot of a mystery drug from a stranger that’s offered to you for free.

Judith Exner, Alleged Mistress of JFK

The injections that morphed “The Crash” from typical Draperian existential crisis into absurdist farce were administered by Cutler’s physician, a Max Jacobson type. Jacobson was the man dubbed “Dr. Feelgood,” who prescribed mostly amphetamines to a star-studded roster of patients that included John F. Kennedy, Mickey Mantle, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Nelson Rockefeller. His miracle shots were composed of amphetamines, vitamins, painkillers, placentas, and eel cells. It was the 1968 equivalent of a juice cleanse. In 1969, JFK photographer Mark Shaw died of amphetamine poisoning, and within a few years Jacobson had his medical license revoked. Cutler’s doctor is not Jacobson although his “energy serum” shots are pure Dr. Feelgood.

Don’s faith in medicine as a nobler art than his own might be misplaced. Just like advertising, medicine has more than its share of quacks, shysters, and egomaniacs. Dr. Rosen may be selfless when it comes to his patients, but he seemingly can’t spare any similar compassion for his wife. Sylvia overcompensates for her guilt about cheating by offering Arnold “leftover veal and some cold past.” (What, no gabagool?) She seems to have started cheating because she felt abandoned by him, which is also why she didn’t take kindly to Don abandoning her in a hotel room for hours.

Selina Meyer, Veep

There are altruistic doctors whose work is necessary and heroic, but there are also doctors who take kickbacks from big companies in exchange for promoting new drugs and let their patients become guinea pigs for cutting-edge medications. Some study claims that tannis root helps keep you focused during particularly grueling work days, and before you know it everyone’s on tannis. A modern SCDP might not have a drink tray, but they’d probably have a drawer filled with Adderall.

Peggy didn’t opt for the shot, so we avoided a joke about how “all the meth’s in the tail.” She didn’t need any speed to feel fidgety and paranoid; that came naturally from the butterflies she experienced whenever she was around Stan, especially in private. Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) just gave an interview to New York in which he claimed that Peggy and Stan’s friendship was platonic with no romantic undertones whatsoever. That promise was a typical Mad Men troll of its fans, like how Matt Weiner claimed that last season’s finale wasn’t a cliff-hanger about whether Don would cheat on Megan, and then closed this season’s premiere with the reveal that Don has been secretly boinking Sylvia. But Peggy and Stan’s relationship has also been a classic When Harry Met Sally situation in which the sexual tension is obvious but goes undiscussed, until it’s suddenly on the table. Or more likely, on the desk.

Gloria Trillo, Globe Motors

Some other signs Matt Weiner is trolling us: (1) We were teased that this would be a Ken Cosgrove episode, but it was really a classic Mad Men “Don and Peggy Pull an All-Nighter” plot. (2) The return of Don’s younger bowl-cutted goth nerdy virgin Dick Whitman self in another one of the dreaded old-timey flashbacks (3) A minority character received possibly the most screen time and lines of any character of color in one episode of Mad Men to date … and she was a scary grifter who bragged about making good fried chicken. Sally’s scenes with the mystery woman who claimed to be Don’s grandmother were unsettling, provoking an anxiety laced with racial tensions. Sally can be bribed with miniskirts into babysitting, but for all her mature affectations, new sexy deep voice, and child supervision expertise she is still just a kid. While she makes fun of her mother just like any normal hostile teenage girl, Betty still mostly makes her daughter feel safe. Don makes her feel much more like an adult, but with all the instability that entails. With Don and Megan both missing in action and a real crisis under way, Sally gets to feel her powerlessness in all its might.

It was an extended joke about productivity; about all the hours of procrastination and fucking around that go into creating any usable work, the 665 useless ideas that get sacrificed to produce one viable one. Last year we saw Roger have a psychedelic breakthrough, now we watch as a turbo-powered Don hits a brick wall at full speed. It’s a sign of things to come as the ’60s spill into the ’70s, and opening your mind turns into getting as fucked up as possible. Don is known for coming up with his brilliant idea at the very last second, but he doesn’t always pull through. This time instead of revelations there were pushbacks. The speed didn’t push him forward, but sideways. Don’s speech had the timbre of a normal eleventh-hour, company-saving Draper pitch, but the content was nonsensical.

The “Vitamin B” shot helps Don make some connections that seem useful but aren’t. His speed-fueled euphoria gives him a false confidence that his ideas are much better than they are. He realizes that commercials are seen as an annoyance by the viewers. Even the cleverest commercial doesn’t attract the same kind of fandom as an actual TV program, which is one reason ABC couldn’t flip the GEICO Cavemen into a legitimate show. I thought Don was going to invent product placement. Instead he turns down chakra-expanding sex with Wendy the I Ching–slinging hippie babe, unknowingly gifting it to Stan.

Peggy learned the hard way that doing the right thing often sucks. Peggy’s attempts to worm her way out of confronting her attraction to Stan by diverting him with humor were nearly overpowered by the sexual magnitude of Stan’s beard. She is flattered by his advances, and waits to fully reject him until after she sees what it feels like to kiss him. She pushes him away, not because she doesn’t like it but because she likes it too much. Even though she recently seemed all set to cheat on Abe with Ted Chaough before she got Chaough-blocked by Don, Stan actually called her bluff and made a move. Several moves! She turns him down, but is already regretting it by the time Cutler beckons her over to watch Wendy Gleason ride Stan in an office chair like a low-rider Impala.

SCDPCGC provides plenty of opportunities to try out Stan’s technique where you come onto someone by making the argument that sex will be a comfort against death. People are always dying at that place. In a riff on “child is father of the man,” we witness how little squirt virgin dweeb Dick Whitman gave birth to life-ruining sexual dynamo Don Draper. The episode was jarring from the nightmarish first moment, when it opened with Ken’s headless horseman’s ride. It continued to progress in a dreamlike fashion, taking a turn into David Lynch territory around the time of the booster shots and never looking back after that. By the time “Grandma Ida” was cajoling Sally into showing her where Don keeps his gold watches, things had gotten profoundly weird and obtuse, even for Mad Men.

As per usual, Don was preoccupied with his own desires and forgot that anyone else existed or needed anything from him, but this time the consequences were especially dire. Sally begs to go “home,” meaning Henry and Betty’s house. Then Don somehow reframes the genuine crisis of a stranger breaking into the apartment and going all Misery on his kids into a more Don-centered experience when he has a Tony Soprano–style panic attack that luckily was not the expected speed-induced heart attack. Don is a coward. His reaction to confrontation is to escape by whatever means necessary.

Even after we found out the truth about Grandma Ida, a strange taste like bad eggs remained in her wake. Did she just cold read Sally about her dad being handsome and her mom being a piece of work? How did she know Bobby’s name? There were multiple allusions to food in this episode; the eggs, chicken salad sandwiches, Don’s yearning for Proustian soup. Don’s terrible ad idea and his whorehouse flashback have a theme in common: When you let someone take care of you, you become vulnerable. If you assume their agenda is benevolent, you could be being overly naive. You better trust that your doctor, or mistress, or parents, really care enough to put your needs before their own. Children are instructed to trust adults, but the process of growing up is the gradual betrayal of this trust. Sally already suspected it, but suddenly she knows for sure. Now this might hurt a little.

Filed Under: AMC, Don Draper, Jon Hamm, Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, Peggy Olson, Recap

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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