As Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem, and the fate that befalls him there, he spends 40 days in a desert fever dream. Three times the devil tries to bargain with him and three times Jesus refuses. Don, riding on the top of an amphetamine wave, cracks open the fundamental idea of advertising: It’s a bargain. Entertainment is delivered in exchange for a car commercial. “But what if they don’t take the bargain?” he asks. Don has spent his life jamming every pain-numbing remedy available into his system: alcohol, money, power, women, sex (often all at once). Each time, he takes the devil’s bargain, each time he rides the high, until, inevitably, he succumbs to the crash. The doorway to the afterlife that Roger spoke about in the season premiere opens wide this episode and Don stands awash in its horrifying glow.
Sylvia, a woman who certainly started as another painkiller, has morphed into a significant source of anguish for Don. He stands outside her apartment listening to her fight with her husband.[ref]We haven’t actually seen the good doctor in a while, and I think it’s because, more than ever, this season takes place from Don’s perspective. Sylvia’s husband doesn’t exist in his mind and, thus, we never see him.[/ref] It’s a high school move, one boombox away from his own Lloyd Dobler moment, and one that could never result in anything positive. Like the agency’s ideas for Chevy, Don is grasping at straws at this point. When cigarette butts are your calling card, you know you’re in trouble. Don, suffering real heartbreak for the first time in a long time, has no idea how to act. We don’t often see Don desperate in this way. Despite his moral and emotional failings this season, this episode softened him back to the flawed-but-good-hearted Don we’ve seen in previous years.
In a call with Sylvia, Don is cut to ribbons. “I’m feeling a lot of emotions, too,” he says. What’s remarkable is that he is feeling a lot and it’s clear that he hates it. Rarely do we see genuine emotions from Don, especially when it comes to women. Sylvia talks about the crash that comes after an affair–the smashed-up mangled mess of guilt, mistrust, and heartbreak. The only way she snaps him out of his heartsick spell is to mention Megan, “Nothing else gets through to you,” she says. Don throws his phone into glass, a literal crash, as he continues to crater.
A doctor arrives to give everyone in the office an “energy serum,” which is actually just amphetamine.[ref]Speed was also used by the military around this time.[/ref] A drug-fueled weekend brings a madness, more “Alice In Wonderland” than Dionysus, to the office and sends Don down the rabbit hole of his past. We learn that his virginity was taken by one of the prostitutes he lives with, right after she nurses him back to health from the flu. It’s Oedipal,[ref]Almost literally, Don’s mother was an unknown prostitute who died at his birth–he must search for, and see, his mother in every girl in that house.[/ref] it’s odd, and it gives insight into why Don doesn’t equate sex with love. He grew up around the idea that sex was a bargain–entertainment delivered for a price. His first sexual experience was with a woman he called “Ms.” It was, in essence, an advertisement for what sex is; a facsimile of the real thing. Love was so very far away from that brothel.
A young woman, who is revealed to be the late Frank Gleason’s daughter, plays tarot games with the sped up creatives. She has a book, “I Ching,” on the table, which was an ancient Chinese text (see “To Have and To Hold” for more Chinese imagery) about divination. It uses hexagrams to determine upcoming changes (“I Ching” translates roughly to Book of Changes). The lower half of the hexagram is the inner, personal aspect while the top half is the outer, external situation. The change, then, is the dynamic between the two. Much of this season has shown Don’s descent into a personal hell mirrored against a hellish America with its assassinations, wars, and riots.[ref]Stan notes that it is three months after March, thus halfway through 1968–we are now heading out of the woods instead of into it. Noted too is the Cheshire Cat’s rumination that one gets to where they want to go if only they walk long enough.[/ref] This episode, the dynamic between Don’s inner demons and his external situation with Megan, Sylvia, and his work, shifts dramatically. Don loses a day, but in a very different way than we saw in season four. It is Friday and then it is Saturday. A piece of Don dies. The piece that was beaten by his stepmother. The piece that was deflowered by a prostitute. The piece consumed by the fear of death. Don, in discovering the importance of his own past, spits to himself, “The history cannot be ignored. The history should not be ignored,” shedding the millstone of guilt and shame and fear that hangs around his neck. Roll the rock back and Don is gone. It’s no coincidence the episode takes place over the weekend–Easter just came late for Don this year.
Sally, like her father, has had to grow up too fast. She takes care of her brothers, packing their suitcase, even while her own mother crassly insults her, implying she bought a skirt with street corner money. Instead, Sally gets money to babysit, an odd notion to Betty, who has always just neglected her children for free. But Sally’s innocence is brought to light in an odd home invasion by a black woman claiming to be her grandmother.[ref]Bobby’s reaction: “Are we negroes?”[/ref] Creepily, Sally is reading “Rosemary’s Baby,” a tale of a couple in a New York City apartment–one of them, a struggling actor–that discovers their child is actually the spawn of Satan. Yikes. Grandma Ida, as she calls herself, steals a few of Don’s items and disappears into the night. It’s Don’s recklessness that endangers his children and despite Sally’s maturity, her safety remains in her father’s hands. Also, despite her age, she laments that she knows nothing about him. A random stranger can guess just as much about Don as his own daughter can.
The crash, the come down from the high, the spinning wheels amid broken glass, the cuts, scrapes, and bruises that will lead to headaches and scars, are, in some ways, proof that we survived. Don gropes manically around the recesses of his past, looking for an answer to lead him out of Hell. An answer that isn’t, as Peggy warns Stan, “sex or drugs.” An answer that doesn’t just numb the pain, but susses out its essence rendering it inert and impotent. As Don rides down peacefully with Sylvia and cedes control of the Chevy account to Ted, he does the one thing we didn’t know he could–he closes a door and avoids a crash.