The end of season two of Mad Men finds us all in crisis.
Crisis. It’s a very powerful and distinct word in the English language. It’s married to certain other words: the Cuban Missile Crisis (more about that later), the Energy Crisis of the seventies, the Savings & loan crises of the eighties, today’s Wall Street Crisis, the generic midlife crisis and spiritual crisis.
As we prepare to leave Don and the gang at Sterling Cooper, this is what we find:
Betty is in crisis from being forced to acknowledge Don’s cheating; Roger’s crisis is the classic midlife variety, with a woman younger than his daughter; Freddy Rumsen’s is the crisis of midlife unemployment; Pete Campbell has had several, from the death of his father to that of elusive parenthood; Joan’s is the most horrific--sickening proof her fiancé’s abusive nature—and not running from it.
And then there’s Don.
Don has finally been thrown out of his marriage by Betty, and while on the run in LA, he watches an aerospace presentation that portends the potential for Doomsday. There’s nothing like the reality of nuclear warheads to call attention to the meaning of your life.
From there, Don joins the Euro-grifters in Palm Springs, where he spends a lot of time lying down. In the final scene, he is nearly naked as a new-born babe, when Dick Whitman calls the first Mrs. Draper. This begins a series of flashbacks and present-day confusion, as he continues to be Dick Whitman, until he wanders into the ocean, either as Norman Maine, or as a seeker looking for the cleansing water of baptism.
Don is a living identify crisis-—not something you often see on television. I have vague memories of some characters in the seventies saying things like “I don’t know who I am” (oddly enough, Karen Valentine from Room 222 is popping into my head here, as is Ellen from Thirtysomething), but nothing that compares to the turmoil in Don’s borrowed soul.
I knew a priest who once told me that all crises after 30 are spiritual. (I was 26 at the time, but it still seemed reasonable.) And so it is that Don’s crisis is deeper than identity, it’s spiritual.
In today’s self-help language, it might be called a spiritual emergency. There are many blogs with personal transformation stories, like this one:
“I am an individual who has undergone a transformative experience that in this culture and setting would be identified as psychosis or schizophrenic. Other cultures and settings have other names for the same experience: kundalini awakening, shamanism, mysticism, gnosis, the psychotic-visionary episode, the dark night of the soul, ego death, the alchemical process, positive disintegration, post traumatic stress disorder with psychotic features, spiritual emergency, etc.”
I don’t know if Weiner knowingly tapped into this world of transpersonal psychology, or if he just had the creative idea of a man who takes another’s identity, and then plotted what he thought would be the emotional fallout from that. Either way, Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency is an interesting touchstone.
As for the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis: there’s very little I can say about that. My parents, who both worked for Pfizer, sold a considerable amount of Pfizer stock when the market tanked in the uncertainty, and for one reason or another they didn’t get back in. The way they always spoke of it, I would have been a Pfizer heiress if the missile crisis hadn’t happened.
It’s art imitating life, all around.
You don’t want to miss the last live blogging of the season with Tom Watson and myself. Sunday night, 10:00 ET at newcritics.