“When a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path.” - Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan
Castaneda’s first work, another published in 1968, was originally his master’s thesis in anthropology at the University of California. In it, the chronicler of mind-altered landscapes details the lessons he learned from don Juan, a sage and mystic of indeterminate existence who ostensibly took Castaneda on a psychotropic journey through a series of “non-ordinary realities,” or drug-induced spirit quests of the self. Mad Men’s own Don (and Don Juan), on the other hand, doesn’t need a baggie of mushrooms or peyote buttons to have a reality-warping hallucinatory experience, just a “vitamin superdose” injected directly into his gluteus.
Head-trips were big at the time: this was also the year Tom Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his hyperactive New Journalism account of the LSD scene. Mad Men has gotten trippy before, particularly with Roger’s “enlightenment,” but “The Crash” is a funhouse-mirror nightmare that pretty much lasts an entire episode. For Don, his fugue state has turned reality into that dream where you’re in a play and everyone remembers their lines but you. Time skips like a record, sounds amplify, and the slightest thing (a coughing fit, an old print ad) can send him hurtling back in a Proustian reverie to his adolescence in a brothel. Everything’s so chopped up and disjointed that it’s like he’s living through a full weekend composed entirely of non-sequitur ”Next Week on Mad Men…” snippets.
And so the season-long descent into Don-te’s Inferno finally starts to snowball. Don’s key characteristics have always included a cool detachment and an air of impenetrability. He likes to pretend the gray flannel suit is a bulletproof vest, but in reality he’s never as calm and collected as you’d think. Instead, he’s often temperamental, wrathful, unpredictable, and emotional. When Sylvia cuts off the affair, he becomes a man obsessed, hanging outside the Rosens’ apartment and lighting cigarette after cigarette with the torch he holds for her. Where he was once detached, he has now become unstuck. Don’s sexual fantasies may have included power games, but everyone knows real power belongs to the one who loves least, and his need for Sylvia sends him into a head-on collision worse than Ken’s Impala joyride.
Overall, the episode borrows pretty heavily from The Sopranos’s more dream-like endeavors, like Season 6’s “Join the Club,” with a little bit of Twin Peaks thrown in as well. Ken’s breathless tap-dance captures that Lynchian oddness that is both amusing and deeply, inexplicably unnerving. Even Sally’s experience with the quick-thinking home invader is packed with menace, a scene in which everything could be absolutely hunky-dory and easily explainable except for the fact that it isn’t. “Grandma Ida” comes off as yet another dangerous and surreal interloper, not unlike the Bonnie-and-Clyde pair that robbed Don in Season 3.
NEXT: The Chevy chase…