Mad Men was almost too light and airy in the first three episodes of the fifth season, and so in that sense this week’s episode, “Mystery Date,” was a return to form. It was heavy and weird in the way that only Mad Men can be.
Violence against women — or the threat/undercurrent of it — was the clear theme this week, thanks to the inclusion of the real-life Richard Speck murders, ostensibly. In truth, it was woven throughout — from Joan’s tense shouting matches with her husband Greg to Don’s fever-induced hallucination of the strangulation of an ex-lover.
Even the parts that weren’t directly related to the overarching theme, though, were troubling and/or disturbing. On to the breakdown.
1. No One Can Handle Violence, Including Us
Speck, if you haven’t heard of him, raped, tortured and murdered eight nursing students in Chicago in 1966. Grisly photos of the Speck crime scene — provided by Peggy’s friend (and Life employee) Joyce Ramsay — are where we start in “Mystery Date.” Perhaps we should have known right away that we were going to be put through the ringer.
Voyeurism is a big part of Mad Men, of course, so you had to enjoy the meta-foreshadowing moment when new hire Michael Ginsberg chides Peggy, Stan and the rest for gleefully looking at the negatives of the crime scene. We never get to see those negatives, but if you’ve ever seen graphic photos of that type before, you know that the price of morbid curiosity is the inability to un-see what you’re about to see. So it is with this episode.
Sally Draper can’t un-know the vivid descriptions of the Speck crime scene, and so she ends up being supplied with sleeping pills by her step-grandmother to get her to bed. Don can’t simply forget about his past paramours — not when he keeps running into them in Manhattan elevators — and so, in a fever-induced haze, he fantasizes(?) about murdering one that has caused problems between him and Megan, about literally killing off the source of his marital problems that day. We, the viewer? Well, we can’t un-know what we know now about Don.
What are we to make of Don’s dream, anyway? It was brought on by severe illness and inspired by events swirling around him. It’s exceptionally misogynystic, and it may reveal something about Don, or at least something about the guilt he feels for his womanizing over the years. We also know from the season premiere that he and Megan have a sexual relationship that incorporates moments where violence seems to seep in.
On the other hand, it’s just a dream, and dreams are often very dark. You know if you’ve ever had a bad one.
About the only person who does seem to have the right handle on violence is Joan, who finally sends husband Greg packing after he volunteers for a second tour in Vietnam. Let’s put things in perspective, though. Greg, we know, is a rapist. By rights, Joan should have shown him the door long ago (at the very minimum), but it’s taken her this long to come to that decision, and based on the tense borderline-physical confrontations they have during this episode alone (Greg grabbing Joan by the wrist, pounding on the closed door, etc.) I think we can assume that Joan and Greg’s marriage has crackled with violence all along. Thus, we can’t really say she’s handled everything perfectly, either.
2. Peggy Gets Pegged Back
For about 45 minutes, this was one of my favorite Peggy Olson episodes ever.
And then … the purse scene.
I’ll get to that in a second, but first the background on why it was so Peggy-riffic. Half in the bag on a Friday afternoon, Peggy extorts Roger, who is desperate for last-minute help with an ad campaign for Mohawk Airlines, to the tune of more than $400. Later that night, as Peggy is finishing up her work for Roger, she hears a suspicious bump in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and, spooked, goes exploring. She eventually stumbles upon Don’s new secretary Dawn Chambers, who is sleeping in Don’s office because she has no great way to commute home that particular evening.
Peggy, maybe three-quarters in the bag at this point, invites Dawn back to her apartment to spend the night. Once there, they bond even more about being outsiders in a white-male-dominated world. Or maybe Peggy is just drunk and talks too much, and feels like she’s bonding with Dawn, even if there isn’t much of a genuine connection from the other end.
And then … the purse scene.
Peggy says goodnight to Dawn and then, realizing there’s more than $400 sitting on her coffee table, she takes a long glance at her purse, which is resting right where Dawn, a relative stranger and a *gasp* African-American, will be sleeping. Peggy, seemingly motivated by liberal guilt more than anything else, winds up leaving the purse on the table, but both Dawn and Peggy have to know what just went down. And so do we, of course.
I was pleased to see this scene included after reading a criticism in just the last week that Mad Men is a celebration of the triumph of liberal ideals; to paraphrase things crudely, latte-sipping East Coasters like myself love it because we can look back and say, oh, we’re not racist/sexist like that, anymore. We’ve moved past all that.
Well, I’ve never felt that way — believing instead that Mad Men is about rich and complex characters more than anything else and, as such, its soul is less tied to the period in which its set than you would initially think. Peggy, in many ways, represents those liberal ideals, breaking through the glass ceiling at SCDP, exercising her sexual freedom and being, more or less, a harbinger of the future. Her latent racism in “Mystery Date” would seem, to me at least, to support my perception of the show over the idea that it’s some sort of exercise in effete, congratulatory back-slapping. At the very least, it’s an indictment of the idea that the U.S. has arrived today in some sort of post-racial utopia that was set in motion back in the 1960s. Thanks for that, at least, Mr. Weiner.
3. Sally Draper Is Becoming Her Mother’s Daughter
She might hate Betty, but it seems clear that if Sally continues down this miserable, bored existence she’s going to turn into Betty (except maybe with a prescription drug problem). Sally’s description of and interchanges with her step-grandmother were wildly entertaining, but it hinted at more than pre-teen/teen angst, I thought; I’d call it early-onset Betty Draper malaise that might require some expensive psychoanalysis if left unchecked.
Can we get Glen back in the picture? Or move Sally in with Don and Megan? Anything this side of sleeping pills and terrifying true crime stories to break her out of this rut would suffice. Consider this an official SOS — Save Our Sally.