Welcome back to the weekly Mad Men discussion roundtable, in which I’m joined by my friends Cory Barker of TV Surveillance and Les Chappell of A Helpless Compiler. A bit tardy this week, I apologize, but without further ado, please enjoy our thoughts on “Mystery Date.”
Andy: So, fellas: Did we really watch this episode of Mad Men, or was it merely a subconscious projection of our desire to enjoy quality TV drama on a Sunday night? Here’s my recollection of “Mystery Date” – does this make any sense, or was it just one of my characteristic sex-and-violence-laden fever dreams?
Like so many slumber party board game players in the ’60s, everybody in “Mystery Date” is ending up with someone they didn’t expect. Sally’s stuck for the weekend with Grammy Francis and her mortifying bedtime stories about child abuse and Richard Speck. Roger hurries to enlist Peggy’s services on the Mohawk campaign, after completely Britta’ing his responsibility to assign a creative brief to Ginsberg.* Peggy stumbles into an impromptu girls night with Dawn, and runs up unexpectedly against the painful limits of her progressivism. Joan, who thought she was getting a husband and father to Kevin, winds up with a man more interested in a second tour in Vietnam than in settling down with his family. Butler Shoes selects a sharp SCDP campaign, before Ginsberg seduces them with previously rejected idea that undercuts his coworkers. And Don’s guest for the evening is old flame Andrea, determined to tempt him back into his philandering ways.
Except that she’s actually a hallucination, brought on by that strain of TV illness that inspires highly literal dream sequences. I think this may be the most divisive element of the episode (albeit one with relatively little screen time), so before getting too deep into the weeds I’d like to ask what you thought of it. Did you buy Don giving into, and then literally killing, his demon? And apart from the execution, does it represent progress for Don? Or simply the need for every AMC protagonist to experience a fugue state?
Les: The evidence is in front of us: Don Draper killed Rosie Larsen! How did we not see this before?!
Okay, getting to the subject at hand. This season has to me had an occasionally dreamlike quality to it – there have been scenes I felt bordered on Lynchian – but this was the first time that it seemed like the boundaries between awake and asleep were overlapping each other Detective Britten-style. I don’t think I was ever convinced this was something that was actually happening in the show’s established timeline, mostly because the episode established that Don was sick early on and then showed him passing out. From the moment Andrea* appeared I was half-convinced it was a fever dream, especially since there was no way that she knew what his address was unless she’d been stalking him, and her successive appearance on his bed felt very much like something Don would imagine as opposed to the way an actual human being would behave. Certainly by the time she was telling him he was sick and he strangled her I’d lost any realism in the story, and I knew he was imagining this because there was no way Matt Weiner was going to go down this road with a murder subplot.
*I didn’t actually recognize her until the credits pointed it out, but Andrea was played by Madchen Amick, best known as Shelly Johnson from Twin Peaks. That certainly adds to the Lynchian vibe of things. Who wants to bet on “Damn good coffee” being used should Folgers approach SCDP to run a campaign?
As to its value as a symbolic gesture? I think it did its job. Personally, I’ve never understood the backlash against dream episodes on television in general – I still fondly remember “The Test Dream” from season five of The Sopranos – and this dream wasn’t obvious enough or surreal enough to take us out of the main story. They could have gone much further, having her shift into Allison or Dr. Faye or even Peggy at spots, but they kept it consistent enough to make us see this would be a possibility Don has in the back of his head every time he sees a woman he’s been intimate with. Who Don was as a person didn’t just magically vanish when he married Megan, as much as he wanted to think he found a fresh start, and this was (as you say Andy) Don coming to literal grips with his demon. Don is broken at his core, and to see that even in a moment of weakness he would have sex with a strange woman in his wife’s bed and then subsequently choke the life out of her and shove her body under the bed, one telltale red-heeled leg still poking out? I think that’s something that’s going to force us to reevaluate seriously how we look at this character going forward.
Cory, what’s your take? Too dreamy or just the right amount?
Cory: I don’t think I was ever convinced of the plot’s authenticity, and yeah, maybe the whole thing played a bit on the nose, but when you deal so heavily in theme like Mad Men does, that’s bound to happen. The one part of the the whole story you guys didn’t really mention is Megan’s role. It was very interesting to me that she more or less spurred on the conversation, and ultimately, Don’s guilt. If I can recall our discussion of the season premiere, there’s definitely a big story here brewing about Megan’s control, or at least strong influence on Don’s life. Obviously, he has felt guilty about his adulterous for a long time, but I always got the sense at the end of last season that Don hoped his relationship with Megan would be the clean slate he wanted and needed.
But of course, all those past problems don’t go away — especially when you’re as brutally honest about them as he’s apparently been with Megan — and Don’s new wife isn’t afraid to remind him that he used to be a pretty massive fuck-up. Don’s reaction to Megan’s cold shoulder in the elevator was tremendous because he appeared to be legitimately shocked that Megan might be a little nervous that her husband’s long-standing philandering ways might creep back up. He’s not used to having to defend himself for those actions, and perhaps he thought fessing up would be good enough?
In any event, I guess we could read Don’s fever dream as a very specific reaction to what Megan said, and how what she said impacted him. Don clearly cares about Megan and doesn’t want to be the person he was for all those years, but it appears that he’s still not exactly sure how to suppress or deal with that version of himself. Apparently, getting a gym membership and journaling doesn’t quite do it. Yet, I’m curious to see if Megan’s chastising and the “handling” of this major demon results in anything resembling progress for Don. Will he be able to let go of those urges? And maybe more importantly, does Megan pushing him to face these problems allow her to gain more control over a man who seems ready to give up that power?
Andy: “Control” is an intriguing way to think of whatever influence Megan may be exerting over Don (or will in the future), considering the episode’s examination of power dynamics and sexual violence. The grisly Speck massacre is only the most overt example; it’s not for nothing that in Don’s hallucination he doesn’t merely cast Andrea out, or even defenestrate her as he’d earlier implied. He chokes the breath out of his temptress and discards her under the bed. He can’t ignore the song, so he must destroy the Siren. (In the real world, Megan has a more artful weapon in her arsenal, unabashedly telling Don that there are parts of town where she could bump into old “coworkers” as well – a pretty brazen assertion of her own sexual power and liberation which probably places her a bit ahead of the cultural curve.)
Turning to a marriage stained by real-life sexual violence, Joan hitting her breaking point with Greg and kicking the goon to the curb was as satisfying as I could’ve hoped. For as long as she’s endured this insecure, sometimes threatening man simply to preserve a modicum of domestic stability, she can’t abide him choosing another year in a war zone over the needs of his (as far as he knows!) son. If he’s going to be out of their lives – whether for another year or for good, given where he’s headed – than better for him to be gone on her terms, not his. Calling out his selfishness and weakness (“You’re not a good man. And you know what I mean.”) was pure, uncut Joan Holloway. And the final shot, Joan uncertain but content alongside her child and her mother, was a lovely bit of serenity to close out a nightmare-infused episode.
Now, of course, I can’t help but wonder: Kevin’s fatherless…Roger needs a newfound sense of purpose…is there a heartwarming tale of redemption in our future, you guys?!
Les: Three cheers for Joan indeed! Classic her. After so many people have been cheering for Dr. Greg to get caught in friendly fire or step on a mine over in Vietnam, I think this dismissal of the character had so much more impact. Rather than Joan seeing a Marine at the door and being initially shattered, only coming to terms with it ex post facto, for her to realize just how wrong he is for her and say it to his face gave me a flash of affection for the character only comparable to when she sashayed through the agency door in the season three finale. Joan’s facing a tough road ahead – being a single mom is hard enough today, let alone in 1966 – and I imagine she’s going to need that sense of confidence going forward that this was her choice and nobody else’s. Definitely felt like she was waking up from a long and unpleasant dream.
(And in our regular discussion of just how funny Mad Men can be, that moment in the restaurant with the accordion reduced me to hysterics, both for reminding us of the last time Joan played an accordion and just what an absurd break in the tension it was.)
But a heartwarming tale of redemption? Clearly anyone who thinks that’s coming isn’t watching the same show we are. Roger and Joan have a history almost as fraught and complicated as Don and Peggy’s, and if Roger learns she’s single again he’ll certainly make a pass at her. But with Kevin in the picture, that changes Joan’s entire take on him. Last season, when he both suggested that she could pass the baby off as Greg’s or said “So you want to keep it?… Of course not,” and then followed it next episode admitting to her that he’d lied about knowing when Lucky Strike was bailing, you could see walls going up behind Joan’s eyes even as her face didn’t change. I think she’s realized that Roger is in his own ways as weak as Greg is, and she’s not going to invite him to be a serious part of her life because he’s not capable of being a serious part of anything.
Maybe Roger will want to step up for the kid, but I didn’t see any flickers of paternal pride when he held his son for the first time, and it’s not like Roger’s done much stepping up this season. About the only thing Roger has going for him in his life is that he knows exactly what the money is for – and what it’s for is to bribe people so he can maintain at least the image of control. That works easily on Harry and worked with Peggy after negotiations, but it’s certainly not going to work on Joan Holloway.
Andy: So then, we’re all in favor of a scene where Roger peels off a wad of bills and hands it to the baby, right?
Cory: Joan rising up against Greg (and even her mother a bit as well) was definitely the highlight of the episode for me as well. I actually watched this episode with a non-viewer who was vaguely aware of the series’ plots, and I kept talking about how disappointed I was to have Greg back (and well, alive). Yet, like you Les, I realized that Joan ditching Greg in this fashion was so much more satisfying and important for the character than him just dying an off-screen (but hopefully TERRIBLE) death in Vietnam. As the always-helpful previously on clips suggest, it looks like Joan is headed back to work, which is really just great news all around. I’m not sure what that means for her relationship for Roger, but it does mean that she’s morally freed to pursue that hook up with Don that everyone on the planet wants to happen but is afraid to actually experience, just in case the world explodes due to two creatures like that doing that thing.
Andy, you briefly touched on the Speck case and its placement within the episode, and I wanted to bring that forward a little bit more. I don’t know if it’s just me, but it feels like this season of Mad Men is more overtly interested in history and cultural events of the time. Every episode has included very specific mentions to important moments, and while the series has always done that, the proliferation of references is very interesting to me. As I think we discussed after the premiere, there was so much going on in 1966 that it has become more difficult for the series to ignore those events or pretend that they wouldn’t have an impact on Don, Roger, Peggy and the rest of the firm. I’m not necessarily sure where the Speck case fits in with that pet theory of mine, but one could probably argue that the office’s deranged giggling and Grandma Francis’ gossiping phone calls are reflective of how the media learned to turn stories like that into things, things that entertained and terrified us all at the same time.
Speaking of that, Sally’s battle of wills with Grandma Francis are sort of the inverse of what her father deals with in this episode. As Don struggles to face what he knows is there, lurking around the corners, Sally strives to uncover what she doesn’t know. Sally is stubborn in her belief that she is mature enough to do anything: watch television (it’s summer, after all guys), avoid lunch or read up on what has the neighborhood buzzing. Of course, she ultimately discovers that there are actually things that kids shouldn’t know, at least not yet. However, I’m not really sure what to make of Grandma Francis giving Sally a little sleeping assistance, or the visual symmetry of Sally sleeping under a couch just like Don’s “victim” was stashed under the bed. What am I missing?
Les: As to Sally’s positioning, I didn’t get a specific symbolism off that. I read more into the fact that that’s both where Speck’s last victim hid to avoid detection and where Don hid the evidence of his own imagined crime showing how Don’s own potential for violence is as boiling under the surface, and while he’s obviously not a serial killer in his own way he’s still a monster. Extending that to Sally just felt like Mad Men being just a little too on the nose.
I moved past it for the big picture of how great it was to get a Sally story again, and how startlingly adult (and terrific) Kiernan Shipka was in this role. Sally has a ridiculously bad selection of role models in her life, and Pauline certainly didn’t do much to break the mold, basically ignorant of where Sally is in her development – saying “They probably thought he can’t rape nine of us” was mortifying. Sally’s a naturally curious person given to thinking deeply about things – her contemplation of the Land O’Lakes butter package from last season proved that – and the problem is that there’s nobody in her world who can answer the questions she has or do so in a way that satisfies her. Betty’s a lost cause, Henry’s a non-entity to her, Megan’s still foreign in her world and Don tries but can’t quite get there. Clearly there are things she shouldn’t know yet, but she should also have someone to tell her exactly why, not offer theories on how Speck’s victims got in that position. She needs to go back to therapy and have someone to talk to.
And the pills? Sigh. It’s clearly Pauline looking for an out of the conversation, his doesn’t seem like a road that will end well for Sally Draper, especially with the “consciousness expansion” of 1967 now less than a year away. I’m starting to have the same feelings towards Sally as I do toward Arya on Game of Thrones, in that my message to the writers is the same: “You can do what you want with the story, I just want this person to be okay at the end of it.”
Andy: If only we could figure a way for Arya to slip into the Francis home and bust Sally out. Then they could hightail it to Albuquerque to rescue Jesse Pinkman, and all live out the rest of their days as the most grateful people on the planet.
I’m not sure whether one ill-advised Seconal will prove to be Sally Draper’s White Rabbit, but Mad Men does have a way of introducing key, solitary moments whose immediate consequences are left largely to our imagination. Peggy’s low point with Dawn strikes me as another which could play out that way. We may not see any direct repercussions for either of them, but Peggy’s shame and Dawn’s justifiable mistrust will inform their interactions going forward.
There’s a lot of concern about how deeply, and how skillfully, Mad Men will handle stories stemming from the Civil Right movement. But moments like that one, subtle and sudden and unspoken and unflinchingly honest, play right into the show’s strengths. Peggy belongs to a generation which believes that bigotry is immoral, but she was raised by a generation which did not. All of the ugly prejudices of the culture she’s grown up in are still implanted in her subconscious. She (and very likely, most of her counter-culture cohort, no matter how outwardly liberal) may understand the evils of racism on an intellectual level, but they haven’t full interpolated capital-T Tolerance. Grappling with that tension, with the struggle of people who want to be better than they may be capable of, should be directly in this show’s wheelhouse. It’ll also be much more engaging – not to mention much more relatable, perhaps uncomfortably so, to modern viewers – than just pointing and laughing at the absurd racism of Burt Cooper or Roger “My Old Kentucky Home” Sterling.
Less certain is how adeptly Matthew Weiner and company will handle showing us Dawn’s perspective, or that of any other African-American characters who may enter SCDP’s universe this year. Her initial exchange with Peggy, in Don’s office, nicely communicated the sort of fears and troubles that Dawn faces, which aren’t even on her new coworkers’ radar. But that exchange was also handled largely from Peggy’s point of view. Will Dawn become a POV character in her own right, or will Mad Men continue to reinforce the criticism that it’s only interested in (or capable of) addressing Civil Rights struggles through the lens of privileged white Manhattanites?
Les: Truthfully, I’ve never been really bothered by the supposed blindness of Mad Men to the racial tensions of the 1960s, because that’s never really been what the show’s about. The show’s about the way this group of people within the walls of a Manhattan ad agency is reacting to the changes around them, and how they try to assist either with good intentions (Peggy letting Dawn stay with her) or more selfish ones (Paul heading south to protest with his girlfriend, Pete trying to get a bead on what TVs African-Americans want to buy). These people aren’t activists, they’re traditionalists, and forcing them out of that role would mean they’re being incredibly out of character – something Mad Men avoids with a passion.
Of course that doesn’t mean that I think the show should duck these issues, rather that they find an organic way to introduce them, and I think that so far this season they’ve actually done a pretty good job of doing so. The Y&R issue from the premiere showed how SCDP using “equal opportunity” as a joke blew up in their face, and I think the brief interactions with Dawn prior to this episode showed how they’re reacting to this unexpected situation. (If the clips are true and Joan is returning to the office next week, I look forward to the moment where she first sees Dawn and stops dead in her tracks with surprise.) I don’t know if we’ll ever see Dawn moved up to POV character status, but Teyonah Parris was very good in that quiet moment where Peggy eyed her purse, and I certainly wouldn’t be averse to her getting a more central storyline.
But again, I don’t want to see that story if it’s one the writers are shoehorning in because they feel they need to tell a civil rights story. Give me quiet moments like that to get your point across, Mad Men – you’ve proven you can do better than most any show on TV.
Andy: You may be in luck Les. The description for next week’s episode, “Signal 30,” includes the plot point, “Pete entertains guests.” So join us next week, as we thrill to Trudy’s carefully arranged place settings!
Filed under: Mad Men