The dirty, violent, erotically-charged, drug-fueled, violent, violent, violent world is encroaching, and none of us can hide from it. Not Sally, not Pauline with her knife, not Don in his fever, not Dawn on Don’s couch.
This episode was shocking, disturbing, and brilliant. Neither director Matt Shakman nor co-writer Victor Levin has worked on Mad Men before, so let’s say welcome aboard, fellas, because damn, you’re good.
In three crucial moments of Mystery Date, female bodies are under a piece of furniture. First, the Richard Speck murders are discussed at the office: The episode takes place on Friday, July 15, 1966, and the following morning. The murders occurred on July 14, and Speck was arrested on the 17th, so during the days depicted, the horrific mass murderer was nameless and at large. Stan gruesomely recounts how the lone survivor of Speck’s killing spree hid under the bed. Next, in the most shocking scene we’ve ever seen on Mad Men, Don hides Andrea’s body under the bed, her foot luridly sticking out. Finally, Sally hides under the couch overnight after Pauline has made her feel worse rather than better.
I suspect the scene we all want to talk about is Don and Andrea, but let’s look first at Pauline and Sally. The swirling mass of chaos that is 1966 is affecting all the characters. Divorce, Vietnam, racial tension, sexual anxiety, promiscuity, rape, violence, drugs, the generation gap: they’re all here. Once Sally has managed to frighten herself by reading the newspaper (not a forbidden piece of fiction, mind you, it’s the newspaper that’s unsuitable for the young) and gone to Pauline for comfort, Pauline blasts Sally with such a megaton of crap that I wanted to hide under the couch, too. Parents kick you for no reason, but that’s a good lesson. A twelve year-old girl (Pauline is sure) already knows, not only what sex is, but what rape is. It’s bad but it’s sexy, and Pauline tells it like a camp counselor with a flashlight under her chin. Here, let me show you my big knife. Here, let me give you a Seconal. Holy crap. That one scene encapsulates, in its emotional tone and in the notes it hits, almost everything that happens in every other scene.
The episodic stuff this week was enormously eventful. Joanie kicks her scumbag husband out, Peggy extorts Roger, and DON . . . yet none of what we’re seeing is entirely about the characters. This is a mood piece, and the mood is grim. Even the humor (and there are plenty of laughs) is grim: Stan with pantyhose over his head is funny, but then you can’t help thinking he looks like a serial killer, especially given that’s his “outfit” when Joyce (luv ya, Joyce) comes in with the unprintable student nurse photos.
So, did you know, when Don strangled Andrea, that it was a dream? I was reminded of 5G. We wondered, five years ago, if Don could possibly be planning to kill Adam. It was a new enough show that it was easy to be uncertain. Five years down the road, it’s harder to imagine this can possibly be a direction the show will take, but we can’t be sure. That scene was filmed with a feverish intensity that left you believing. At the end, Don leaving the foot sticking out seemed impossibly sloppy, and only then was I 100% convinced it was a dream or a hallucination.
Two dreams in two weeks. We’re living in unreal times.
The violence permeates everything. Peggy, whom I’m sure has worked late and alone many times, is suddenly scared when she hears a noise. Finding Dawn, she sees someone (on another couch, by the by) even more constrained by the violence outside than herself. Dawn can’t go home. Cabs won’t go into her neighborhood, and her brother won’t “let” her ride the subway. (Fancy that; her brother is still in his teens, but as the man of the house, he gets to make decisions for Dawn.)
See, I’ve worked in the city and been afraid to leave the office alone. Hell, I’ve felt that way working in the suburbs. That women’s lives are restricted by the threat of rape and violence is not a “period detail.” It’s a reality that women live with every day, and that men often don’t notice. So often, I’ve been in offices, making little pacts with other women to walk one another out, while the men assume we’re overreacting, or don’t pay attention. We women are bounded about by violence and the threat of violence, sexualized violence made light of, as if it’s erotic, as if it’s exciting, as if it’s a dirty fever-dream like semi-willing sex with a former lover you then strangle. But it’s none of that. It’s real and confining and we tiptoe around it. Every. Damn. Day. Like Peggy. Like Dawn.
It’s interesting that it’s a man—new guy Michael Ginsberg—who notices how horrible it is. He objects to the excitement over the murder photos, but he’s not above a sales pitch based on the sexiness of being stalked in a dark alley. “Too dark,” he says with mock sincerity, but he’s thrilled to make the pitch, which results both in a sale (to the client) and a threat of violence (from Don). That’s almost like saying, “He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss,” (the closing song, by Goffin and King).
The other side of the darkness of this episode is choice. Choice is as much a theme here as hiding under the bed. You have to do one or the other, is the thing. You have to hide or you have to make your own choices, because there’s no escaping the grim reality.
“I’m glad the Army makes you feel like a man, because I’m sick of trying to do it.”
We’re all glad to see Greg go, I’d wager. This is a much more satisfying resolution for Joan than having Greg killed in Vietnam, which many fans were expecting. It’s vastly better to see Joan making a choice than having one made for her. “Greg dying is not a solution,” she said in Hands and Knees. Kicking him out on his ear is. I wonder what comes next in the saga of Joan and Roger, now that she’s going to be divorced. I have no predictions, except to say that she’s learned not to be victimized by one man, and I doubt she’ll let herself be victimized by another.
Don is choosing to be faithful to Megan, when he has a different opportunity. (I’m unclear if Andrea’s first visit, when he sends her out by a service elevator, is also a hallucination. Is there really a back door in that apartment?) And when he suddenly, depressingly, seems to change his mind, it’s portrayed as foul. Andrea says sex is meaningless, she calls Don dirty and sick, she embodies everything he hates about his own promiscuous past. And, like Sally hiding under the couch, he fears his own doom is inevitable. Don’s impulse to kill the false Andrea is a suicidal impulse just as much as it’s a murderous one: He hates himself for what he’s done and for what he fears he may do. The violent impulse he directs towards his own hallucination is a violent impulse he directs towards himself. (Richard Speck was arrested when he was hospitalized for a suicide attempt right after committing masss murder.)
Don can choose to do better. He can choose to eradicate, by strangulation if necessary, his own infidelity. Joanie can choose to kick her rapist husband out (and it’s no coincidence that in this episode, with Speck hovering over the proceedings, she finally makes reference to that horrific day). She can’t make Greg a good person, or a good husband, but she can stop being wounded by him. Don can’t make women from his past disappear, and he can’t stop Megan from being jealous when that happens, but he can choose how he behaves going forward. Choice is the only weapon in dark times.
Peggy, too, makes a choice. Dawn knew what Peggy was looking at. Peggy knew she knew. The racist thought, ‘I can’t trust a black woman with my purse full of cash,’ came to her entirely unbidden. (“Racist” is an adjective, not a noun. It describes the thought or action, it doesn’t define the person.) This happened then, it happens now: well-meaning people suddenly find racist (or sexist or homophobic or what-have-you) thoughts leaping into their heads. The choice, the only choice, is in what you do about it. Peggy could have taken her purse. She chose not to. Dawn may never feel truly at ease with Peggy, but she saw Peggy choose.
Some additional thoughts:
- Roger now has exactly one account and he didn’t manage to assign the work. I can’t wait to see how this blows up. It’s going to be spectacular.
- We barely glimpsed Betty, and my eyes may be deceiving me, but she seems slightly thinner this week. I predict a Mother’s Little Helper subplot very soon.
- Quote of the week: “Hey Trotsky, you’re in advertising.”
- Ginzo feels like a nickname that’ll stick.
Originally published at Indiewire Press Play.