I've commented several times already on how Mad Men is about the moment when white, middle-class America awakens from that squeaky-clean, all-white, suburban fantasy of itself. These were the Ozzie and Harriet years, the Leave It To Beaver years, the post-war boom years before Vietnam, Watergate, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution. For many people, that period still represents the quintessential version of America, one to which they long to return. (When conservatives talk about a return to "family values," isn't that white suburban nuclear family the family they're imagining? Aren't they visualizing Betty at home in an apron, Don at the office in a hat and tie, and Carla doing all the work?)
Mad Men has slowly subverted this fairy tale all along—one could hardly hold Don up as an exemplar of "family values"—and this season is the transition point where the dark undercurrent that has always run beneath that social order begins to overwhelm it. "When is everything going to get back to normal?" Roger asked last week. We've seen protests, heard passing mentions of race riots and the escalating war in Vietnam, and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has hired a black woman and a Jew. Somehow, though, people like Roger haven't really grasped that what they think of as "normal" was built on some fairly reprehensible assumptions, and that this foundation is crumbling.
"Mystery Date" is the episode where they begin to realize it, and the fear and anxiety begins to creep in. The episode felt like it could have been directed by David Lynch, who has said a thing or two in his films about that dark undercurrent beneath the suburban American fairy tale. (It's probably a coincidence that Twin Peaks alum Mädchen Amick is along for this Lynchian ride, but I like to think it's not.)
The title refers to a '60s board game for girls (shown in a commercial while Sally watches television), which involved players assembling an outfit for an occasion, and then opening a door to see if it's their "perfect date" behind it, or a "dud." It's a game about one kind of fairy tale, the Cinderella story about the handsome prince at the door. (Elsewhere in the episode, Michael Ginsberg—in a rambling, ad hoc pitch to a client—turns the Cinderella story into a dark parable in which the handsome prince is a predator.) "Mystery Date" is also a cruelly ironic reference to the big news story everyone is reacting to this episode: the rape and murder of eight student nurses in Chicago after they opened the door to a man named Richard Speck. Though serial killers of this kind were not really a recent invention, crimes like this could still hold the country's imagination riveted in 1966, and we see characters reacting to it: Sally can't sleep; Grandma Pauline keeps a butcher knife beside her on the couch; Peggy gets weirded out when she hears a noise in the office at night. The world is suddenly less safe.
But all this anxiety really has less to do with this specific crime, and more to do with creeping anxiety about the way the social order is changing. We get a nice nod towards that when Peggy opens the door to Don's office to find her "mystery date," Dawn. Dawn says that she's sleeping in the office because a cab won't take her to Harlem, and her brother doesn't want her taking the subway with everything that's happening in Chicago. "You're not a nurse," Peggy says—and then realizes Dawn wasn't talking about the Speck case, but the racial violence. The white characters are focusing all their attention on this sensationalistic murder case, while consciously ignoring the larger—and, to them, more threatening—events happening in the world.
Peggy takes Dawn home with her, and is feeling pretty good about herself: in her own mind, she's the hero of this story, the prince rescuing the harried maiden. ("Do you think I act like a man?" she asks Dawn.) Over beers, she drunkenly and condescendingly tries to bond with the new secretary, in what is almost a parody of a seduction scene. "I know we're not really in the same situation," she tells SCD&P's first black employee, "but I was the only one like me there for a long time too." Peggy has said things like this before, comparing her struggle to rise in the firm to the struggle for civil rights. ("I have to say, most of the things Negroes can’t do, I can’t do either, and nobody seems to care," she said last season.) Peggy's battle to make it in a man's world is honorable, and historically significant, but she gets a wake-up call here, a lesson in the very different challenges she and Dawn face. Going to bed, Peggy hesitates to leave her purse full of money alone in the room with a black person. It is just for a moment, but that moment is long enough for both of them to realize what just happened. "We have to stick together," she had said earlier, trying to ingratiate herself to Dawn. But they're not together: Peggy thinks of herself as one of the oppressed, but she's one of the oppressors. She thinks she's a good person, but she has the same racist assumptions less liberal white people have. She thinks she's the hero of the piece, but she's really one of the villains.
Don, too, is grappling with the dark side of his Prince Charming persona this week: he's always been the idealized man of his time period, at whom women swooned and for whom they readily opened their doors. He had the fairy tale life with Betty, but he systematically destroyed it through his constant lies and womanizing. Now, trying to make it work with Megan, he receives a reminder of his true nature when they run into Andrea (Amick) in an elevator. Megan is understandably jealous by being slapped in the face with just how many women slept with her new husband, and what it says about him, but she's willing to let it go until Don brings it up again. "All I can think is that you feel guilty, and which means it's worse than I thought," she says. Don's argument is that when he was with Betty he was unhappy, and therefore chased women, but Megan reminds him that he did the same thing when he was divorced. "That kind of careless appetite, you can't blame that on Betty."
And so, in a flu-induced hallucination/dream sequence (that I suspect wasn't really intended to fool anyone, and didn't), Don is pursued by Andrea, the Ghost of Mistresses Past. In his fevered imagination, she seduces him, and he tries to resist for the good of his marriage, but this manifestation of his inner demons is too powerful for his fledgling conscience to resist. He yields to her temptation, and then, when she tells him he can never change—“You loved it, and you'll love it again, because you're a sick, sick…"— he murders her and stuffs her under the bed. For me, this entire storyline was a bit obvious and far too on-the-nose, with the heavy-handed parallels between Andrea, Cinderella, and the nurses in Chicago. But I like the way it compliments the other storylines, and plays into the larger narrative about shifting acceptability of behavior: Don used to be Prince Charming—the way in which he treated women used to be acceptible—but now he's the villain. (Here, with wonderful complexity, he's both: his attempt to be a better man towards women manifests itself in a fantasy about murdering a woman.)
I also like the way it echoes Michael's sexist Cinderella story (which the men at the meeting all find entrancing), and the lingering fantasies about woman who want a predator. ("He's handsome," Michael says of Prince Charming. "She knows she's not safe, but she doesn't care…She wants to be caught.") Don is wrestling (literally) with his own character failings, but they still manifest in the form of a woman who tempts him, who seduces him, who is asking to be caught. It's a blame-the-victim scenario that is repeated throughout. ("Why did that man do that?" Sally asks Grandma Pauline about the Chicago massacre, and Pauline explains how the nurses drew the handsome-but-homicidal stranger to them: "All those young, innocent nurses, in their short uniforms, stirring his desire…")
Breaking out of the fairy tale fantasy, at last, is Joan. She thought she had found Mr. Perfect by marrying a doctor—what could be better?—but even before they were married he turned out to be a villain, a predator. While they were still engaged, he raped her on the floor of Don's office (looking back, the location now seems significant), and from the moment they married nothing in this fairy tale scenario played out the way it was supposed to. We've seen Joan try again and again to turn him into her prince, supporting him and cheering him and trying to bolster his confidence; only once before have we seen her strike back at him, and it was when he inadvertently invoked the fairy tale itself. "You don't know what it's like to want something your whole life," he whined, back in Season Three. "To plan for it, and count on it, and not get it." Joan, of course, knows exactly what that's like, because that's what Greg was supposed to be for her, and that's what their marriage was supposed to be. She planned for it and dreamed of it all her life, but her perfect date turned out to be a dud. (And so—in what was perhaps her finest moment—she hit him with a vase.)
And now, finally—in a reversal of the "Mystery Date" rules—she shows him the door. Many of us have been assuming—and praying—that Dr. Rapey would die in Vietnam, and he still might. But this is better, because Joan is making a conscious decision that she's not buying into the fairy tale anymore, and she's tired of making a prince out of a predator. "I'm glad the army makes you feel like a man," she tells him, "because I'm sick of trying to do it." He says the army makes him feel like a good man, but she quickly reminds him—referencing the rape for the first time—that he's not a good man, and never was.
Joan will have to be the hero of her own story. I don't think any of us have any doubt that she's up to the task, but the episode ends on a bittersweet note, with three generations—Joan, her mother, and her baby—laying on a bed while the sounds of sirens can be heard outside. The world is changing, and it is becoming more dangerous, more uncertain: this is not a corruption of the innocent world that existed before, but rather a boiling over of the darker elements of that world—the entrenched racism and sexism—that were there all along. The American ideal of the '50s was always a fairy tale, and now it's just about over.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits:
- There's a school of thought that says Sally is the real main character of Mad Men, and sometimes I'm inclined to agree with it. There was a classic moment in Season Two when—after brutally telling Bobbi Barrett to "stop talking" in bed—Don was faced with his own reflection in the mirror as Sally watched him shave, promising that she wouldn't distract him by talking. Her ending up hiding under the couch—like the nurses and Andrea ended up under the bed—was a little too much, but the question of what sort of world Sally is going to inherit—and how she will be treated as a woman—is definitely central to the show.
- And one thing Sally is definitely going to inherit is America's love affair with drugs to deaden all this anxiety: Betty's diet pills are clearly working, and now Grandma Pauline slips Sally a Seconal this episode to chase the bad thoughts away.
- The scene with Peggy and Dawn was a great moment, and I credit the show for acknowledging the intrinsic racism in one of our leads—but it was Peggy's scene, not Dawn's: the show continues to treat the black characters as objects for the white characters to react against, not as full characters in their own right. (Give me a scene about Dawn from her point of view—or at least one that isn't about how the white characters react to her presence—and I'll stop complaining about this.)
- Peggy's scene with Roger, on the other hand, was pure gold. "Do you want me to take your watch?" And how much longer can Roger keep going to his wallet to maintain the illusion that he's still important?
- I'm enjoying Grandma Pauline and her interactions with Sally: her story about how her own father kicked her across the room for no reason brought another generational perspective on the changing standards of acceptability.
- Michael is growing on me as well. After getting chewed out by Don for his stunt during the pitch, is there anything he could have said that would have been stranger than, "He's such a decent guy"?
- I should probably just give up on apologizing for the delay in posting, and just admit that posts will go up when they go up. But I do apologize, and I am trying to get them done earlier in the week. (From the Department of Shameless Plugs: Follow me on Twitter or Facebook, or subscribe via email on the Home Page, to be notified when new reviews are published.)