Mad Men 5×04: “Mystery Date”

As the AV Club’s review of the fifth season premiere pointed out, Mad Men has a way of side-stepping events in American history that seem significant in the twenty-first century retrospective—for example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream…” speech was mentioned, but not really addressed.  This isn’t always true, of course, the most glaring exception to this being the Kennedy assassination, which got a whole episode to itself and also seemed to play heavily into Betty and Don’s divorce.  Maybe what I mean is that the show picks and chooses which cultural events are most likely to shake the characters to their core.  And frequently the events portrayed with any gravity are those that affect the middle-to-upper And that’s exactly what this episode does: the reverberations of Richard Speck’s rape and murder of eight Chicago nurses rock fifth avenue and the suburbs.  Joyce says it best when she brings the un-publishable photos of the crime scene to show off at SCDP: “I think this is going to make the cover, not the riots…[W]e did the riots this week: ‘Watts: A Year Later.’  Plus, there have been five riots this summer.”

Like I said last week, I’m really interested to see what the show does with Ginsberg.  In one way, they kept with his wildcard boisterousness.  At the beginning of the show, Ginsberg is disgusted with Joyce bringing the prints Life won’t print.  “You’re excited by it.  Some girl trussed up like a cut of meat!”  He leaves, calling everyone ogling the prints “sickos.”  But then, in a meeting with the Butler pantyhose executives (why is Peggy not there? , Ginsberg changes the tone of the meeting by insisting that using the Cinderella trope (rejected by Don as cliché) is too dark.  He proceeds to paint a picture of Cinderella running away from the ball with one shoe,  “wounded prey” who “in the end…wants to be caught.”  This spins the wheels of Butler, who change their minds after they’ve been sold.  Don is pissed and gives Michael a talking-to that the latter shrugs off. The way that Michael sells this with his reverse psychology ploy is downright creepy, and the way that Butler just laps it up is even creepier.

At least once a season there’s an episode of Mad Men that focuses on the women in the show.  Of course, in the first season, misogyny abounds as Peggy and the rest of the secretary pool deal with daily sexual harassment, but “Ladies’ Room” in particular deals with how so many of the women are put through the ringer on a daily basis.  Season Two had “Maidenform” and “Love Among the Ruins” are two episodes in Seasons Two and Three that come to mind that show how the advertising dudes just don’t get the lady folk sometimes.  “The Beautiful Girls” from last season meditated on the diversifying career paths for women in 1965 (and also how many of the show’s main characters are still very unhappy).  And what I loved about “Mystery Date” is how it pairs women in the show who seem to have little in common until it brings them together: Sally and Pauline; Joan and her mother, Gail; and Peggy and Dawn. I think every one of these storylines demonstrates the vulnerabilities of these women (which are all different).  There’s a pervasive idea of not being able to trust other people, oftentimes tied in with the Richard Speck murders, but not always.

Sally is all alone with Grandma Pauline and baby Gene; Betty and Henry are delayed coming back to town and Bobby is having some bed-wetting problems at sleep-away camp.  And because Baby Gene doesn’t talk, it’s Sally and Pauline.  Pauline tries to shield Sally from reading about the Speck case, but also does things to pique Sally’s curiosity about it.  Pauline gives a long lecture about how she attributes her strength of character to her physically abusive father.  Of course Sally gets ahold of the newspaper and has a late night chat about the murders with Grandma Pauline that ensures no one will ever sleep again.  I (like everyone else who watched last night’s episode) looked up the Richard Speck murders last night and had the same reaction as Sally: it probably can’t happen to me, but it happened to someone, and is it just me or is it really dark in here?  The issue of vulnerability here is interesting: Pauline doesn’t seem very vulnerable but clearly she is, being an old, unhealthy (heart condition, remember?) woman alone in a house.  But even though she clearly understands that men like Richard Speck are out there, her world experience clues her into the improbability that she could be randomly murdered.  It doesn’t stop her from using the story to scare Sally, whether she thinks it will make Sally more obedient or whether it’s just to be cruel.

Joan and Gail begin with planning their celebration for Greg’s homecoming.  While Gail flits in and out with Kevin to give them some alone time, Greg drops some pretty big news on Joan: he is going back to Vietnam for a full year.  Over dinner with Greg’s parents, the truth comes out that Greg, contrary to what he tells Joan, volunteered to go back.  This scene is made all the worse by an accordion player coming up to entertain the table, a reminder of “My Old Kentucky Home,” with that tragic scene of Joan playing the accordion and singing “C’est Magnifique” at a dinner party full of doctors.  Joan sang after the disappointing realization that Greg totally sucks as a surgeon and now it seems that the accordion will forever be a symbol of these moments of the broken Harris marriage.  (Of course, there’s no way an accordion could be present for all of those.)  I must say, after all the bullshit that Greg has put Joan through, I was truly surprised (and glad) she ended the relationship, especially when she brought up the incident that had all my friends refer to him as “Dr. Rapist” through the subsequent seasons.  Interestingly, this storyline does not touch on Richard Speck, but does touch on the riots, as Greg stands up for his African-American compatriots in Vietnam.  However, this storyline still brings to the front two women in a social position that both makes life without male protection (financial, but also physical) difficult, but also makes them prey to other types of men.  Joan grew up in an unstable home in a way that’s hinted at, and she realizes that if she wants what’s best for her and Kevin, she’ll have to choose one type of stability over another.  The way the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)” plays over the sight of a single working mom, her single working mom, and a new baby was great (and pretty relevant to Joan’s relationship with Greg, really).

Peggy and Dawn’s storyline had some of the best moments in the episode.  It starts with Peggy milking Roger for all he’s worth (stop carrying cash, Roger!)  so that she can bail him out of a Mohawk Airlines mess.  I delighted in watching Peggy work Roger over.  However, once everyone else has left the office, and Peggy hears a noise, the photos from the Speck case no doubt creep into her mind.  Instead, she finds Dawn asleep in Don’s office, unable to get home because of the riots.  Peggy invites Dawn to crash on her couch, where they have a heart-to-heart, but Peggy’s pretty gone.  I liked their “we have to stick together” talk because it was uncomfortable and it flitted between Peggy addressing the social changes happening that brought Dawn into the office in the first place and Peggy side-stepping those to talk about how hard her own life is (when really she comes from a much more privileged background than Dawn does).  Her line about how her boyfriend was in Chicago covering the riots was pretty close to “I have a black friend” in a way that avoided Paul Kinsey-levels of pretension (which are, of course, unparalleled since his departure).  And of course, all that ground is lost as Peggy glances for too long at her purse before leaving it in sight of Dawn.  I suppose in this case, the mistrust of men (policemen, strangers, potential murderers) is what brings Peggy and Dawn together, but even as they get to know each other, Peggy gets hung up on Dawn’s race—a hang-up presented as a humiliating reflex.

Don has an awkward run-in with an old booty call, Andrea (apparently played by Madchen Amick, more famously known as Shelly Johnson on Twin Peaks), with Megan in the elevator.  Megan is displeased, and continues to make Don aware of this.  Okay, we get it: Megan is insecure because of Don’s man-slut past.  This storyline didn’t really work for me.  Don, very sick, has a fever dream about Andrea-from-the-elevator coming in to use her womanly wiles to bed him again.  Don pushes her out the door, then she comes back and they have sex and then she calls him “sick” and he strangles her to death and hides her under the bed.  It was obviously a dream sequence.  I like Don’s flashback dream sequences better.  This one was too on-the-nose.  What?  Don’s not sure he can stay faithful to Megan?  Oh, was THAT what the dream meant?  I think that Ginsberg’s turning Cinderella into a horror story did a far better job of showing how each man could be Prince Charming, Richard Speck, or both, and there’s no way to tell.

But after watching this episode I feel like Mad Men is really back.

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