Mad Men, Season 6

Don Feels the Need for Speed
Talking television.
May 20 2013 6:53 AM

Mad Men, Season 6

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The entire agency feels the need for speed.

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Jordin Althaus/AMC

Paul, Hanna,

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Have you ever hung out with people rolling on a triple dose of Adderall? It feels a lot like you’re rocketing down a highway in an Impala, blindfolded, with a loaded handgun and cackling fiends on either side. It feels, I would venture, a lot like this episode.

I don’t know if the concoction in that syringe was vitamins or amphetamines or something in between. But from the moment Jim Cutler called in Dr. Feelgood to “get everybody fixed up,” the SCDPCGC office melted into a fever dream. Result: a whole lot of dreamy symbolism, including whores, doctors, and doors. By the end, it appeared that Don—after he crashed to the carpet—had found some new footing.

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When not a time-compressing blur, this episode was all about vulnerability. There was sickly Dick Whitman, at the mercy of a prostitute who has her way with him. Stan needs some nursing from Peggy after he’s punctured by a wayward X-Acto knife. But he in turn punctures Frank Gleason’s young, grieving daughter. Poor Ken Cosgrove tap-dances for those jerks at Chevy until he’s left bruised and limping. And Sally Draper is abandoned in an unsecured apartment, battling an intruder.

(I’m pretty sure I’ll be having fever dreams about Grandma Ida. The menace in those scenes felt like something out of Grimm’s.)

But perhaps most emotionally vulnerable of all was Don. Let’s retire the theory that last week’s dominatrix routine was a calculating, bank-shot plan meant to drive Sylvia away. Don’s still mooning for her as this episode begins. He’s loitering in the hallway outside her apartment, awaiting a moment to jam his foot in the door and ambush her with one or two perfect sentences.

I’m trying to remember if we’ve ever seen Don so discombobulated by a woman. And I’m left wondering how Sylvia, in particular, was able to reduce him to a puddle of confusion. Did she simply arrive at a wobbly moment in Don’s life? I’ve not glimpsed deep enough into her soul to understand what she provides him. Is it succor? Escape? Punishment for his sins?

In any case, what could Don’s endgame possibly be? There were no promising outcomes here aside from, as Sylvia notes, getting out unscathed. Did he really want her alone in that hotel room forever, naked and waiting? (For those of you still keeping track of Inferno references, note that nether realms, nether regions, and the Sherry-Netherlands all seem entwined in the shady underworld of Mad Men Season 6.)

There were doctors and prostitutes, stethoscopes and bosoms, at every turn. Hospitals and whorehouses provide different sorts of comfort, don’t they? And it seemed every time a character submitted to a wholesome healing force, things veered darker. That sweet-faced woman in the Granger’s Oatmeal ad—“Because you know what he needs”—looked suspiciously like the opportunistic prostitute who first coddles Dick but then corrupts him. Stan gets Peggy’s best “bedside manner,” but it just opens the door to an awkward sexual advance. Dr. Feelgood’s syringe injects a nice boost that gives way to a nasty crash.

This is the delicate, double edge of vulnerability. You must open the door to let in lovely things. But then scary things (like Grandma Ida, and sadness, and loss) can find their way in, too. Overworked metaphor alert: Don frets that Sylvia will “close the door” on him; he swears there’s “an answer that will open the door”; and when his vulnerable home is robbed, he apologizes, “I left the door open. It was my fault.”

As the episode closed, it felt like Don had slammed and deadbolted all the doors to his heart. He’d been desperately searching for words to win Sylvia over, but in the end he goes silent on that elevator ride, letting the door close behind him. This new resolve spills into his professional life. He’s tired of ministering to Chevy’s needs, so he’s closing the door on them, too. “Every time we get a car this place turns into a whorehouse,” Don grumbles. He’s done pimping out Joan to Jaguar and Ken to Chevy.

A few questions for you two:

—Was the amphetamine clockwork of the episode—skies flickering dark then light, days whirring together—meant to evoke the frightening velocity of the era? It must have felt in summer 1968 like the world was hurtling, spinning frantically out of control.

—Did something horrible happen to Roger? He gets a syringe-full, despite disclosing his heart problem. A lot of portentous references to broken hearts and heart attacks throughout the episode. I confess I’m concerned about my favorite accounts guy’s ticker.

—Amid his speedy, sweaty declarations, Don claims to have invented something “bigger than ads” that will succeed even if people reject the “bargain” of content interrupted by commercials. Did he just invent non-display, native marketing? (Someone prep Harry Crane to lead the digital strategy team.)

—Have we been witnessing Don’s midlife crisis? Recall that Episode 1 of this season began with the opening lines from Inferno: “Midway along the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in dark woods.” Has Don emerged from those woods? Is the dark interlude over?

—Seriously, though, have you ever tried to collaborate with someone who’s overdone it with stimulants? This is the kind of work product you get. I loved when an exasperated Ted marvels that even “Chevy” is spelled wrong.

The timbre of my voice is as important as the content,

Seth