Mad Men: Mystery Date

"I'm glad the army makes you feel like a man, because I'm sick of trying to do it."

I think everybody has a moment in their lives when they begin to recognize the negative qualities they possess. That maybe you make rash judgments about others, or you exhibit behaviors that can be interpreted as damaging to either your own well-being, or the well-being of society. Sometimes you wind up shocked at your own flaws, sometimes you embrace them, and sometimes no matter how hard you try and improve yourself -- those bad qualities just insist on coming back. Mystery Date was all about those hidden feelings, the ones you try and suppress but struggle to entirely rid yourself of. It's a theme that runs through every one of the episode's stories, and it's characteristically fascinating.

One of the more notable areas of distinction that has separated season five from previous years is in the character of Don Draper, and how he's supposedly turned his life around since marrying Megan. Other characters have remarked how calm and content he appears, while he hasn't jumped the bones of whatever passing femme he latches his eyes onto... which is new. But there's still been that underlying area of suspicion, where we're constantly pondering whether this new incarnation of Don is truly the genuine article. Mystery Date seems to answer that, with Don riddled with flu and struggling to fight his inner demons. After an awkward elevator encounter with an old flame, something that instantly riles Megan, Don returns to his apartment and is visited by the same woman -- his past misdeeds constantly re-appearing no matter how much he tries to get over them. It leads to what is undoubtedly one of the most unsettling moments Mad Men has ever depicted, Don killing the woman on his bedroom floor. While we were never intended to believe that Madchen Amick's ex was anything but an illusion outside of that initial reunion, the story remained evocative, that final image of her red stiletto poking out from underneath the bed being a gorgeous visual depiction of the creeping moral degredation lurking inside of Don. It's always been there, it'll probably never leave -- but right now Don wants it to.

Peggy, too, fell prey to inner anguish this week. This season has seen her doubting herself. She's been resentful of Megan, mystified by Ginsberg, disappointed in Don and is struggling to find her place within the company. This is very much a story of having great success and making enormous strides in the workplace, but struggling once you reach a personal pinnacle. Where does Peggy go from here? She's drinking a lot more, she gleefully analyzes morbid pictures of murder victims -- she's acting like a man. Because surely that's what she needs to do, right? Her conversation with Dawn was filled with what felt like a sense of disappointment, or at least a sense that she's tired of fighting. There was once a point in time where Peggy was recognized because of her gender, since it was such a fluke that a woman was rattling off ideas and proposals that people couldn't help but sit up and pay attention, if only to initially see if she's out of her depth. But now she's not exactly special anymore, or warranting of any additional attention. Ginsberg is something fresh and polarizing, just like she was a couple of years ago, and Peggy is slowly fading into the wallpaper.

There was also that wonderful scene of racial awkwardness with Dawn. I was so happy when the shuffling stranger in the office turned out to be her (I was terrified it would be Ginsberg and we'd have to endure some late-night romantic banter), but while they initially seemed to bond, Peggy recognized her own weaknesses in that brief moment with the purse. Was it a fear that Dawn would pocket the cash inside? Or a desperation to be politically correct and not do what she normally does so Dawn doesn't think she's prejudiced against her? It was just a small conveying of an uncomfortable flaw within her, and thinking way too much about something.

Elsewhere, Greg always belonged in the military. I remember watching The Hurt Locker a couple of years back, where one of the major themes was the almost attraction of war and how it becomes the natural home for a lot of these men and women -- their actual home suddenly seeming so alien. The problem with Greg feeling this way is that he has a family at home, as well as the feelings that Joan has been experiencing for so long but has struggled to articulate. Their relationship was always based on social attraction -- the idea of marrying a successful surgeon, the idea of marrying a bombshell red-head. Turns out there was a lot of misery there, but with the social restraints of the time preventing any of the misery from sounding the death-knell for them as a couple.

But Joan's outrage here really did prove finite. Her rape in season two had completely become his identity and her memory of him, while her son's paternity only helped in adding another layer of superficiality to their marriage. If anything, it's just another sign of the world changing. I imagine it wasn't exactly unusual for wives to be assaulted and raped by their own husbands, while infidelity and emotional distance were never exactly deal-breakers, either. But here Joan stood firm and ended things, because deep down she knew it just wasn't worth it. As much as she tried to put on a brave face, she hated that man. And sometimes, even if you don't want to hear it, you can't help but give into your inner desires.

Notables

- Sally was adorable here, desperate to convince herself that she was grown-up and fine to hear all about rape and murder -- only to wind up being terrified at the thought of it. Her interaction with Grandma Pauline was frequently hilarious, especially Sally's face reading abject apathy whenever they talked to each other. And who doesn't love a chunky grandma with a huge carving knife?

- Lots of hiding under things. The shoe, the sole survivor of the murders, Sally under the seat.

- Pegasus? Ginzo? Massa-cree? God, she's annoying.

- That accordion at the restaurant would have been horrible even if you were in a good mood.

- I think they should have cut Joan's line alluding to her rape. "You're not a good man, you never were" was a good enough indication of what she was talking about -- adding an additional bit of dialogue felt a little too transparent for this show.

- This song was brutal. Flawless.

Quotage

Cosgrove: You know you almost got fired just now.
Ginsberg: I don't think you're right about that.
Cosgrove: I'm positive.

Grandma Lorraine: Take out the trash or you can go to bed right now. Watch the sun set from your bedroom window. It's the saddest thing in the world.

Peggy: Do you think I act like a man?
Dawn: I guess you have to a little.
Peggy: I tried, but I don't know if I have it in me. I don't know if I want to.

Previously posted at Unwelcome Commentary.

6 comments:

Jess Lynde said...

Great thoughts, Max. I agree completely that Don's actions towards Madchen Amick's character still managed to be incredibly disturbing even though the whole time it was obviously a dream. I couldn't stop thinking about it for awhile afterwards. He's always had this angry predator quality to him (I'm still disturbed by what he did to Bobbi Barrett in that hallway), and to see it go so far, even in a fever dream, is deeply haunting. I'm actually feeling a bit bad for Megan at the moment.

I also couldn't stop thinking about Joan finally telling Greg to shove off. It was so deeply satisfying to see her put him in his place and remind him that, no, he isn't a good man, and he never has been. (I don't agree that her line of dialogue was unnecessary. Perhaps for the audience, it was. But not for Greg. He's arrogant and thick, and I think that she needed to make a fairly specific reference to that incident to really drive home her point. To make sure he knew that she never forgot or forgave what he did to her.) I can't wait to see Joanie making her own way as a single-mom. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Billie Doux said...

What a disturbing episode. All the myriad reactions to and echoes of the Richard Speck murders of the student nurses were just fascinating -- women hiding under beds, Sally's stepgrandma with the knife, Don strangling his ex, Joan finally breaking up with the man who raped her. I thought Don was trying to strangle his own proclivities. I bet he wants to cheat on Megan, it must have occurred to him in the elevator, and he was trying to kill his own impulses.

I absolutely loved the accordion scene in the restaurant. It was like a literal reminder of how discordant Joan's and Greg's marriage has been.

Terrific review, Max.

Rachel said...

Excellent review Max!

I agree with pretty much everything you said but are you sure that Sally was just hiding? That whole scene with her and Grandma Pauline skeeved me out, especially when she gave her that pill. I'm legitimately worried that she did something to Sally, and am not totally convinced that she was just hiding. Pauline may have put Sally under the couch for some reason we don't know yet.

Anonymous said...

I don´t think Don wants to cheat on Megan. Quite the contrary it seems to me and that he strangels his former self or old impulses so he does not screw things up with Megan. But was his former flame ever in the appartement or was the scene where he threw her out part of the dream?

Highlight of the episode: Peggy and Roger.

Great review as always!

Suzanne said...

Great review! I was a bit creeped out by this episode, but I have thought a lot about it the last few days. This must be a sign that it was well done. They really did do a great job of including many layers to the theme of violence against women. I even noticed that Stan had a stocking over his head in an early scene where they were pitching ideas. I am not sure I buy the nonchalant way they all looked at those photos, though. you would think Megan would have been put off by it too given her speech to Peggy in an earlier episode about how cynical they all are. Did she just decide to give up and join them?

I agree that the scenes with Peggy and River were great. Will he be her next Duck?

Mik said...

I think that the awkwardness with the handbag and Peggy was very cleverly played. It wasnt the fact that there was a black woman in the living room, it was the fact that she had $400 in the handbag.