“The child is the father of the man.”
Who is Don Draper? It’s a question that Mad Men has held over our heads for six seasons now, and overtly explored in the aftermath of his divorce from Betty. But though Don may have been intoning “deep thoughts” in the narration of his diary page, somehow the man underneath has always stayed distant from us. Even the time that Don spent living openly as “Dick Whitman” in California only served to give Don another mask, another role to play as effortlessly as he does “Don Draper, Advertising Genius”.
Through flashbacks sprinkled throughout the series we have learned that Don’s mother was a prostitute who died in childbirth. The infant Dick Whitman was taken to live with his stepmother, who was none too pleased to find herself raising the offspring of her husband’s affair. Don’s father was killed, which eventually resulted in Don and his stepmother going to stay with “Uncle Mac”, a pimp running a run-down whorehouse.
This has always seemed to be the series’ justification of the callous (and sometimes openly abusive) way that Don treats women. Because his mother was a whore, and later even his stepmother was forced to sell her body (an act we saw Don witness earlier this season), naturally Don came to view women as property. As the series has developed, the flashbacks to Don’s past have become increasingly redundant, treading ground and providing explanations that we’d been given more elegantly through other scenes—until last night’s brash, divisive episode “The Crash”, the best of an otherwise turgid sixth season and the high mark of the series since “The Suitcase”.
The episode begins with danger, with Kenny Cosgrove crashing in a drunken joyride with a group of clients who ultimately reject the agency’s work anyway. It’s significant that the episode opens on Kenny’s terrified face, and that he’s been forced into a situation that nearly kills him.
Kenny’s injury, along with the need for a creative spark to find an ad that Chevy will actually go for, leads Jim Cutler to bring in his own personal Doctor Feelgood, who delivers booster shots to the agency’s employees filled with “B-12” and his own secret ingredient. Whatever it is, it sends the men racing (literally) around the office and hurdling furniture, and allows the formerly limping Kenny to tap, tap, tap his troubles away.
For Don, the shot seems to dislodge him in time, Billy Pilgrim style. Don spends most of the episode in a vivid, disorienting flashback—but the shot doesn’t create the flashback. Don is already experiencing it before he visits the doctor, and the flashes are so real that we see young Dick turn as if startled by a noise in Don’s present. This suggests that Don is already flashing, and the drugs just kick it up another level.
Don’s memories take him to the whorehouse, where he has developed a nasty cough that his stepmother fears is consumption. She tells him to stay in the cellar, lest he infect the others, but on his way down he is lured into the room of Aimee, one of the younger whores, who tells him that all he has is a chest cold, and that she’ll take care of him. She plays “good” mother to his stepmother’s “bad” mother, nursing him back to health.
Once Dick is better he’s sitting up in bed talking with a touch of the confident timbre that we recognize in the grown Don Draper (kudos to that kid for pulling out a decent Hamm impersonation for that moment), but whatever newfound self-respect Dick has withers once she asks, “do you like girls?” He becomes uncomfortable as she approaches him in bed, lifting the covers to reveal his erection. He is unsure what to do or say, and freezes. Dick is attracted to her, but that’s not the point. As we leave the scene, he’s asking her to stop and looks terrified, as she coos, “It’s okay, I’ll do everything.”
That’s a very important distinction—young Dick Whitman has said “no”. It’s still, sadly, common for the seduction of a young boy by an older woman to be thought of as a conquering achievement, when if the gender roles were reversed it would be called rape without hesitation (also a teachable moment on Glee this season that was handled about as subtly as Glee handles anything). Rape, molestation, whatever we choose to call it, that’s exactly what this moment is. Don is forced into a sexual situation—his first sexual situation—against his will, by a woman who had been treating him with motherly affection.
This leaves Don unable to tell the difference between a “good” mother and a “bad” mother, which is paralleled by Sally’s unnerving encounter with “Grandma Ida”, a strange black woman who Sally finds rooting through their apartment in the middle of the night. When Sally asks who she is, she claims to be Don’s caretaker when he was a boy. Sally knows hardly anything real about her father upbringing, a fact she will later shame Don with, so the con-woman’s words cause just enough doubt to keep Sally from calling the police immediately. Should she trust this woman, who has all the outward appearance of a motherly nanny?
But who can be trusted in the world of this episode? Grandma Ida is no less worthy of trust than the drug-pushing doctor, Ken’s lying clients, or Sally’s own father, who can’t even trust his own memory or senses. And how is Sally supposed to tell the difference between a “good” or “bad” mother when her birth mother, Betty, is telling her she dresses like a street walker and her stepmother, Megan, leaves her alone in the city at night? Of course, ultimately “Grandma Ida” is unleashed on Sally by Don, both in the metaphorical and literal senses, as she was able to enter the home because he left the back door unlocked.
Back at the office, Don asks first Ginsberg than Peggy to search for an old campaign for a soup company, convinced that it’s the answer he’s looking for. Peggy assumes it’s the key to the Chevy campaign, Don assumes it’s the key to winning Sylvia back, but really, it’s just another reminder of his abuse. When he finally finds the artwork, it’s a picture of a mother hovering over her child’s shoulder as he eats a piping hot bowl of oatmeal (not soup) with the caption “Because you know what he needs.” The mother in the ad has a beauty mark—the same kind of mark we’ve seen Aimee self-apply, right before she tells Don that her real name is Amy, she just thought Aimee was more exotic-sounding. Here Dick Whitman, later Don Draper, learns the fluidity of identity.
It’s also, of course, a beauty mark like the one that Sylvia has, which clarifies a bit of Don’s obsession with her. Don could be drawn to Sylvia for any number of reasons, she’s beautiful, intelligent, and mature in ways that Megan is only beginning to approach, but his clinging, domineering ways are new for our experience of Don. But seen as an echo of his past, Sylvia then becomes a kind of skeleton key to Don’s abuse, a secret that has been working its way to the surface for years. Don’s sadistic treatment of Sylvia last episode, then, is an echo of this behavior as well, as is Sylvia’s desperate line in this episode, “I don’t really have a choice, because you’ve got me.”
In the final flashback of the episode we see Aimee kicked out of the whorehouse. As she leaves she reveals that she took Dick’s “cherry”. Dick’s stepmother is furious, and beats him for it. For young Dick Whitman, being discovered as a sexual creature, first by Aimee under the blankets, and then with his stepmother’s brutal reaction, seals an association of sex with control and violence.
That this boy grows up to be a man who forces women to get on their knees in front of him, that digitally rapes his lovers in crowded restaurants, and who holds onto secrets at all costs, is really no surprise. For all of the flashbacks we’ve seen in the course of the series, these are the first that have ever truly been necessary to understand Don and his behavior.
Don Draper has never been sympathetic—not really. For all of the flashes of genius and sensitivity, Don’s always been a petulant child who treats not just women, but especially women, in deplorable ways. This new information hardly excuses Don’s behavior, but it does provide a sturdier framework for our understanding of him.
For the entire episode, and we can extrapolate, the entire series, Don has been hiding from the truths he’s forced to face here. At the episode’s end, finally sober and heavy with the weight of his wound and the fact that he put his family in danger, Don is more defeated than we’ve ever seen him. He’s a ghostly shell staring into space, still feeling the sting of his stepmother’s beating.
“The Crash” is the most daring episode that Mad Men has ever attempted, and its deliberately confusing narrative has already led some fans to scream “jump the shark”. The episode is dreamlike, but proceeds with a clearer vision than it may appear at first glance. It’s also intricately layered with meaning, from the first line of the episode—one of Kenny’s clients screaming, “it’s like riding a hard-on”—to Don’s ending proclamation that each time they get a car account, “this place turns into a whorehouse”. And, most importantly, its revelations are invaluable to our understanding of the interior world of Don Draper.