by Bob Schwartz
Definition of Phantasmagoria
1. An exhibition of optical effects and illusions
2. A constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined
3. A bizarre or fantastic combination, collection, or assemblage
The latest episode of Mad Men, Crash, is not the first to involve a car crash or the use of drugs. But it does use both as a device and as prefiguring of what is down the road for Don Draper and company.
Previously on Mad Men, besides the limitless consumption of alcohol and tobacco, in this late 1960s era there has been the increasing use of marijuana, and a few LSD experiments. This time, though, the drug of choice is speed.
Chevy is the agency’s new and prized client. Ken takes the Chevy guys out for a booze-fueled night, and drunken speeding results in a crash that leave’s Ken’s leg injured. Chevy is placing impossible demands on the agency, and so a weekend of work is ahead for the creatives and the account people. A sort-of doctor is brought in to inject the senior staff with a sort-of “stimulant”—a combination of vitamins and speed.
Speed heaven and speed hell break out. People are racing each other down office aisles and over desks, playing William Tell by throwing sharpened pencils at each other, wanting sex, talking nonstop. Don has two distinctive reactions. On the mental side, he seems on the brink of a breakdown. His mind flows back to his growing up in a whorehouse, where we learn the possible origins of his sex addiction and other problems. He loses track of time, something that has happened before.
On the creative side, he has a breakthrough, the kind that speed can convince you (often falsely) that you are having. Don is obsessed by an old agency campaign for soup that he is sure holds the key to Chevy. He ultimately finds the ad, though it is for oatmeal; the soup is from his memory of a prostitute who nursed him back to health and was his first sexual experience. The headline says, “She Knows What You Want”.
But when Don calls everybody in to announce his creative triumph, the speed speaks, pontificating that, no, he hasn’t solved the Chevy puzzle—he has solved the big puzzle of life itself.
Events in and out of the office keep spinning. The speed has apparently “cured” Ken’s injury, as he throws away his cane and starts tap dancing. Don has left his children alone in the apparent, and an older black lady who calls herself Don’s Grandma Ida breaks in, confronts Don’s daughter Sally, and steals some of Don’s watches. Sally doesn’t believe Ida is Don’s grandmother, but since Sally doesn’t really know anything about Don’s real background, anything is possible.
The speed crash comes on Monday, and it is different than any other of the post-drinking hangovers that Don has ever suffered through. We can’t tell exactly what has gone on in his head, or what combination of murky and clear is operating, or whether he has really figured anything out. But he does something he has never done before, because being creative—making things up—is what his adult life has been about. He relinquishes creating for the Chevy account, and says he will only serve as creative director, managing what others come up with.
At this point, as he has a few times before, Don is seeing that if he keeps moving the way he has, he will crash. But he thinks that if he stops moving, he is dead. Of course, Don Draper is dead, killed accidentally and indirectly in Korea by the young Dick Whitman. Just as Draper’s suicidal younger stepbrother Adam Whitman was killed indirectly by Don, as was Draper’s suicidal partner Lane Pryce.
If it doesn’t stop on its own, maybe the uncaring laws of life and physics will take over. Maybe there will be a much more serious crash.