What scares me? How do I react to fear? More to the point, what do I get to do in response to my fear? And are those actions defensive or offensive?
Fear is on display so often in Mystery Date, it’s practically a guest star. Don fears both the actual Andrea and his attraction to her; Pauline fears the still-at-large killer in the Chicago murders, and gleefully delineates her terror to Sally; Ginsberg describes fear as both pursuer and prince, in his “Cinderella” pitch.
Dawn and Peggy—sleeper and searcher for the thing she fears, respectively, in the dark SCDP office—may know fear the best. One knows it much better than the other.
We have seen men take shelter in the office before. Harry and Don both did, when their wives kicked them out. Dawn’s choice of Don’s office as a hiding place is something else. This is the choice of a woman who doesn’t live anywhere nearby and has no way to get home. It is the choice of a woman who, in 1966, is in much greater daily danger than any of her colleagues. Worse, Dawn knows there are places she cannot go—not because she may fear those places, but because she may inspire fear in others.
Think about that. You are a young professional woman. You work in a Midtown high-rise. You like your job; you are the image of respectability, approachable and very polite. With a profile like this, would you ever describe yourself as frightening? Should you ever need to stop yourself from accepting the simple things that are offered to you?
And how would you stand living in a world that thought the answer to those questions could ever be “yes”?
I know that Mystery Date was probably filmed (and certainly written) before this happened. But here we are. This year’s murder of an unarmed Black teenager looms large over the episode. Trayvon Martin’s murderer remains at large—not, as in the case of the Chicago massacre, because no one knows who he is. The world knows who George Zimmerman is. The murder he committed is six weeks old. The state where Zimmerman committed that crime allows him the liberty to take a life, and this technicality condemned Trayvon Martin to death.
I know that Peggy has a choice, when she sees her purse on the table between her houseguest and herself. Lane Pryce faced a similar choice when he discovered a stranger’s wallet on the seat in a cab driven by a Black man. In both cases, not just property but integrity is at stake. Lane makes one choice: removing the wallet from the custody of the business on whose premises he found it. Peggy makes another. To her credit, Peggy does not follow her impulse in that moment. She leaves the purse where it is, but not before her houseguest sees her fear.
I understand Peggy here. I do. But I feel for Dawn: in the light fading from her face, in her realization of what she still represents to Peggy, I feel for her.
She carries inside her body, in her skin, something that she knows others may fear. How does that make her feel about herself? About those others? If you are Dawn Chambers, how few places are you willing to go, even under the auspices of work? How achingly slow must you learn to be, before you can open up to anyone, or trust, or have fun?
Was it fair in 1966, is it fair now, to place such massive responsibility for the feelings of others on any human being? Male or female? Young or old? Cab driver or colleague? Hands hidden or where “I can see them”, driving a car, carrying a purse, a bag of Skittles?
Yes, fear is irrational. It arrives unbidden, moving from the brainstem to the conscious mind in an instant. We can’t control what puts it there. We can question it. We can ask ourselves how any fear matches the facts of its situation. We can drag it into the light, challenge it, and finally put it away.
We can control what we let fear make us do, as Peggy did. We can. We must.