May 24th, 2013
Crossposted from Amy and Adam’s Mad Men tumblr, shesanastronaut.com
The Devil Rides Out was released in July 1968, shortly after the events of The Crash. Both feature a demonic presence marked by its sudden materialisation and the colour of its skin.
In many ways it’s preferable that this is a coincidence, fitting as it does with the uncanny atmosphere permeating The Crash. After all, it’s not as though TDRO is the only spooky text haunting the action. In fact this week’s episode is full of them, all crinkling the surface reality in unsettling ways. There’s the fourth episode of The Prisoner, Free For All, featuring a parody of the electoral process that holds a fun-house mirror up to Henry’s attempt to run for State Governor; Rosemary’s Baby, a story about a reluctant young woman’s satanically conceived pregnancy – a sideways look at Sally’s narrative, where she’s forced to play at being a mother before she’s ready; Alice in Wonderland, the tale of a girl who finds herself lost in a parallel world, rather like the SCDP offices in The Crash, where physics and logic are turned on their head; and The I-Ching, The Book of Changes, here deployed at change’s end, after a funeral*. Add to this noisome stew, mind altering drugs, Sata—I mean Stan’s 666 offerings to Mamm— uh, ad ideas; Creative’s battle with ‘the darkness’; the slaying of a martyr; a genuine child witch stalking the office’s halls; and the invocation that kick-starts the whole thing, the utterance of the magic word, the secret name of the Beast of Collisions, “SCDPCGC”, and its fair to say that this week Mad Men was positively beset by the otherworldly.
By her sign shall you know her.
The narrative is pockmarked by strangeness. Mad Men seen through the broken glass of a shattered windscreen. A place of work reassembles itself into a playground, brainstorming is replaced by divination, Don Draper’s stirring speeches misfire, becoming drug rants, SCDP transforms into a brothel. There are gaps in reality. Doors jammed open. And it’s through these gaps that, about two thirds of the way through the episode when reality has softened enough, Ida comes clambering through.
The creature, you’ll notice, doesn’t bear the usual signifiers of its infernal origins: horns, wings or a pitchfork. The fact that it’s of African descent within a privileged White space is enough to identify it as an unholy fiend. In the adaption of Dennis Wheatley’s novel the demon pops up out of a pentacle in a stately home. In Mad Men it’s found wandering around in a swanky apartment block in the Upper East Side. Like the bum in Mulholland Drive who is “behind everything”, Ida represents all the things society denies. She’s homeless, poor and black. She’s the antithesis of the glamorous world conjured up advertising. Ida is the anti-consumer. She has no aspirations other than just surviving and, by the looks of her, no money to pay for luxuries like soap, let alone dream cars. For her drugs aren’t recreation or an energy serum, but an addiction. She’s the fear of the abject, of hopelessness, loneliness and destitution, that drives the world of consumption. By abandoning his children for a crazed weekend of narcissistic brainstorming, Don’s left the narrative’s most vulnerable point, his children, open to her assault.
There’s something terrifyingly inevitable about Ida, then, in that she’s an emergent property of all the weirdness and neglect and a twisted answer to Don’s attempt to come to terms with his own history, or as he calls it “the system”.
But to really understand this demon you have to go deeper.
Over the course of her ransacking of the apartment, Ida is asked many questions, all of which she responds to with a lie… except in the case of the most important one – Sally’s first line of inquiry.
Traditionally, demons enjoy toying with the truth and Ida is no exception. At first glance this is the most audacious lie of all, given that Ida is negro and Don Draper palpably is not. Sally’s not about to let a whopper like that slip by her.
But Ida quickly clarifies things….
Obviously it wasn’t unheard of for white children to be brought up by black servants, and Sally knows this. However there’s another truth being got at here.
The Crash doesn’t just mangle the present, It sees the past careen into it. Don’s sexual and emotional history collide with his current romantic entanglements and at a more forensic level his sense of self. But there is a deeper crash, of a more impersonal kind, that stands behind all this: Wall Street’s implosion in 1929, the Great Depression and it’s inevitable fallout. Which led to this….
….and to this.
Ida isn’t just the bad mother, but the mother of all bad mothers. The embodiment of all the awfulness that ensues when capitalism, SCDP’s lifeblood, fails. She’s the spectre of the original financial crash and the economic hardship that came with it returned to haunt the story to which she gave birth. She contains the whole thing within her, recuperating the entire narrative. I mentioned before how she found a foothold in the gaps, but the most important gaps, as Sally explains to her father at the end of the episode, are in Don Draper’s story – his life as Dick Whitman. Ida comes from this other-world, the world left to rot when Dick became Don. She is this despised, forgotten world – a world that will never quite go away no matter how much wealth or sex or alcohol Don consumes.
Peggy tells Stan that to recover you have to face your demons. Ida is the face of Don’s repressed history and the brute misfortune that underpins it. All of Don’s negative formative experiences compacted into a trench-coat and a manky old dress, and just as in his case, she threatens those with the least power of all: children.
At the start of The Crash, just as the drugs take hold, Don teeters as if about to fall. The next shot, however, a wide angle, sees him confidently powering down the stairs. In hindsight we’re not fooled. We know everything that follows implies a catastrophic trajectory. The doctor’s superspeed serum is really a slow motion dive through a windscreen and into the night beyond. A crash that ends with Don thudding down head first on his living room floor, like a body on the tarmac. It’s no coincidence that this is when the final memory roars into view. The weightless flight of the amphetamine rush, the remembered sex, the peel away from time’s cruel surface, all of a sudden gives way to pain. Rising floor, rock-hard Cause and Effect. When he walks into his apartment Don witnesses the devastation his history leaves in its wake, a terrible formative experience that will echo forever in the lives of his children. He sees this, all of the denied bits of Don Draper, all the bits he keeps hidden, locked down there in the dark, the place where he is not – he sees Ida: and he faints.
It would be nice to say that Don learned something this episode, but I’m not sure that he did. The last few minutes see him falling back on his tried and tested strategy of ‘moving forward’, which in his case equates to straight up denial. Denial of Sylvia, denial of Chevy, denial of the pain he caused Bobby and Sally. Sally doesn’t want to know if Don had a heart attack, she wants him to apologise and to explain. She wants to know her father.
Ida winds up in jail, shut away from a society that can’t deal with the problems she represents.
Don’s history likewise.
But this demon, who so far has wrecked a marriage, destroyed a home, terrorised children and killed a brother, can wait.
She has all the time in the world.
*if you must know, there are only two complete hexagrams – Number 38: Opposition, turning into Number 14: Possession in Great Measure. Looks like things might pick up in the long term.