It doesn't help that Don's mental free-fall occurs over a weekend of crunch work on a new pitch for Chevy. They've given the company seven different ways to go for the campaign and all they've gotten out of it is a banged-up Ken. The car giant may have been a huge get for the newly expanded firm, but they still have to earn it. The trouble with a really big fish is that sometimes its hard to tell if you've hooked them or they've hooked you. Don is already doing poorly, but when Cutler invites in his own Dr. Feelgood to administer a proprietary injection intended to kick the office into overdrive, the nostrum ends up driving him over the edge. This is an episode of intense vulnerability for the unflappable Donald Draper, so much so that the sight of him leaning over a desk with his pants down is barely the start of it.
The show has always been fascinated by the passage of time and more specifically the way that it can sneak by unnoticed if you're not watching carefully. Think of all those night-to-day transitions without a single edit, or Pete's conversation last season with the driver's ed girl about time's slipperiness, or even the way each season sets the needle back down months or years in the future. In keeping with that tradition, Don's breakdown is depicted as a series of ellipses. He pauses in the hallway, flashes back to losing his virginity, and suddenly it's the next day and he's sporting scruff and a pair of duffel bags under his eyes. His speeches, usually inspiring and grandiloquent, become rambling and alarming. "I know you're feeling the darkness here today," he intones, as everyone's eyebrows go up. Wendy, the late Gleason's hippie daughter, appears with a copy of the I Ching and diagnoses his broken heart. The glimpses of Don's grim upbringing intensify and the nature of his deflowering helps to underscore his current emotional dysfunctions. An early recording of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" plays on the radio in one of his remembrances, probably a result of the fact that in the contemporary timeline it had just been covered popularly by the Mamas and the Papas, who also provide the episode's outro song "Words of Love."
I've always found that Don's childhood flashbacks never really gel for me. The straight-backed man with the corner office is a long way from the boy who grew up on a farm during the Depression, or the gangly teen who ended up in a whorehouse once his alcoholic father died. It's hard to connect the dots between these individuals on an emotional level, even when the psychological through-line is highlighted in neon. A pulmonary disease leaves young Dick in the care of Aimee, a Judy Holliday-voiced prostitute who nurses him back to health with soup and some freely dispensed carnal knowledge. Something about his rejection by Sylvia leads Don back to this sexual origin story, and the subsequent wooden spoon beating he received for it. Somewhere here is the (conveniently placed) key to his failure at relationships and to the way he confuses intimacy with secrecy. He may be the agency's top dog, and a predatory lone wolf, but both his younger and current selves act more like a wounded puppy.
Eventually the entirety of Don's three days of hell take its toll, and when he comes home mumbling to himself only to find Betty, Henry, Megan, and two cops waiting with a story about a woman breaking into his home, talking with his children, and stealing his watches (yet more missing time), he ends up fainting on the spot. When he awakes, the fever has broken and the walls go back up. The next morning, Sylvia enters the elevator with him and it's silence all the way down. Don has cauterized the wound and repaired the holes in his armor. At work, he tells the rest of the team that he won't be working personally on the Chevy campaign and then delivers the episode's shaggy-dog punchline: "Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse."
NEXT: Highs and lows...