Cautionary Tales – Mystery Date

 Posted by on May 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm  Season 5
May 232012

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Mad Men is watching Sally Draper try to figure out adults’ baffling ways. There’s that yearning to be a grown-up already, to finally have the power to make your own decisions, and the fear that maybe you won’t be up to the task. After all, no one hands you a life manual. If you’re lucky, yes, you have guidance from mature and generous mentors. But for most of us, adulthood is really sink or swim. Here’s a life preserver. Keep paddling!

Sally looks around and takes it all in. She is now on the verge of womanhood, and trying to piece together what that means. Occasionally, someone like Pauline will sound a cautionary if stupefying and abstruse tale by scaring the crap out of her, and cluing her in on the fact that being a woman comes with hidden dangers. The fact that Pauline cannot fully reveal what those perils entail is all the more frustrating. Sally’s experiences are never more touching than when she reminds us of those exasperating moments when, as children, we would ask a question, only to be given an enigmatic answer. No matter how much we pushed for clarity, it was never forthcoming.

Pauline makes a big show of shielding Sally from the horrors of the Speck nurse murders, but she’s chomping at the bit to tell her. There is something sadistic about her barely repressed glee in leaking the details, and yet, there’s also a protective instinct, however warped. And, really, is there a better staging for a noir recounting than waking up in a Gothic-style house in the middle of the night to a narrator with a knife by her side? Talk about staging!

And still and all, I found her exchanges with Sally hilarious. There’s a definite chemistry between these two, even as Sally finds her so distasteful and terrifying. In Sally there’s an incipient understanding and even compassion for her. She’s genuinely shocked that her father was so violent. Pauline may claim he was protecting her. Sally’s not buying it.

I grew up with women just like Pauline. She’s a grotesque, but she is so very familiar, right down to her giving Sally a sleeping pill. When I was growing up in Venezuela in the 70s, surrounded by women, their tales of sádicos (perverts) who kidnapped girls for unspeakable ends confused me more than they scared me. I’d ask, “So did sádicos eat girls, is that it?” All I’d get was a sly smile, glinting eyes, and a non-sequitur as an explanation: “Oh, you see, she was a very pretty girl.” I was all the more baffled. What did beauty have to do with anything?! They refused to elaborate.

In the days before children were told about sex, women engaged in telling scary fairy tales to their kids, especially their daughters. Being a comely woman had its dangers. The unspoken message was: Men are dangerous. Having one in the house was akin to lodging with a werewolf. This episode abounds with instances linking sex, men, and murder: Richard Speck; the Texas university bell tower murderer who killed his wife and mother before going on his killing spree; Pauline’s father hair-trigger violent temper; and even Don in a fever-induced homicidal nightmare. But the fact that there’s a darker side to life, and to humans in general, does not mean that it’s the whole truth. After all, Henry himself is a pretty good guy and he’s still a relative stranger in Sally’s life.

No one tells you that a big part of adulthood is surviving whatever supposedly protective devices you got growing up.

Mystery Date! Will you open the door to see a dreamboat, a cad, or a serial killer wielding a knife? Milton Bradley evidently didn’t consult Pauline.


  23 Responses to “Cautionary Tales – Mystery Date”

  1. I’ve been bothered by some of the situations they’re exposing a young actress to, especially Roger’s interlude. I think they should be more restrained there.

    • We discussed this before. Given young Shipka’s rigorous parenting and her long tenure with the show (more than half her life by now) I think Weiner and crew were very careful about her actual exposure.

      Based on her interviews, I doubt that her parents will show the two Roger/Marie in powder room shots.

      She certainly has some catching up to do when she finally gets to view the entire series.

      • In addition to her parents, there are laws that MW has to abide by which forbid children to be in certain types of scenes. If you recall when Sally was brought home in the middle of the night from a sleepover, Betty told her to immediately go upstairs. Because of the laws that protect children, Kiernan was not allowed to be in the scene or even on set when the two mothers talked about masturbation. So she was sent upstairs. It worked for the scene but it was the law that dictated this.

    • I need to review the scene in “At the Codfish Ball” once again, as that seems to be the one that has most concerned those who are upset. But my guess is that if we watch it very carefully….Kiernan was not exposed to anything untoward.

      The best I recall, her reaction scene was a close up. For all we know she was just looking the the crew behind the camera.

      Her folks have been extremely protective of her… I don’t think she has even been permitted to view one episode in its entirety. She has been quoted as stating that she only gets to see the scenes she is in and other scenes her parents deem appropriate. It is also very obvious how protective MW and the cast are of her….unless I hear otherwise; I am not concerned.

      • That’s what I think too. I’m guessing she was told to open the door, and then look as if she’d seen something shocking/disgusting/disturbing. This brings up some interesting questions. Does Kiernan Shipka get a different version of the script? How do table reads work? Are there scenes where she is asked to leave the room and go to class?

        • Interest snippet for Kiernan’s part of the Lipton/Actor’s Studio interview.

          She’s now twelve and said that she gets to see some episodes. Also she now attends table reads.

          Given that the powder room scene had no dialog, they could have easily finessed the sex part.

    • I agree. Whether or not the child actress sees the episode or is told what she is supposed to have done/be witnessing, it is out there for anyone and everyone to watch. Inappropriate for a child and certainly not necessary.

      • To me, it’s a little immaterial whether she actually saw the simulated act itself. She is still a kid being used to portray an adult situation. I know acting involves putting oneself in different situations, but as a parent, if someone set up this scene for me, I’d say no way is my kid going to be part of that.

        My apologies for having missed the initial discussion and going over old ground, however.

        • I agree.

        • Unless young Shipka is throwing up a total smokescreen (in her interviews), she is well shielded from the adult portions of the show.

          I imagine this would include redacted and/or partial scripts, less than total participation at table reads, and Kiernan is not allowed to hang out for shots not requiring her acting magic.

          I very strong impression is that the senior Shipka’s have been heavily involved from the start. The Sally character is important – nearly central – to the show. Surely Weiner and staff are scrupulous about serving as parental surrogates for Kiernan during shooting.

          • In the DVD commentary, Kubrick mentions that the child actor in “The Shining” was unaware that the film they were shooting was a horror movie.

            With good direction, these sorts of scenes (whether illicit acts or mutilated ghost twins) are most definitely shot in a way that recreates the shock of a scene without actual exposure/explanation to the child actor of the content they are portraying.

          • How naive and disconnected from reality we all are.

            No matter what protections are provided on the set, in the table reads, etc., there is no way in the world other than placing her in both a cocoon within a cone of silence to keep her from hearing,reading, and perhaps even viewing these scenes. She has friends. she has access to newspapers, reviews, and perhaps even t.v./ computers/internet, if not at home, at friends, elsewhere. She is 12; she knows what is going on. Her adolescent couriousity will seek out what she hasn’t already been told or seen.

            Any parent who has used “best practices”, parental control devices, channel locks, cloisters, etc. knows full well the frustrations when learning the many ways children access forbidden fruits.

          • Skee head, you are so right on that. I am not a fan of using child actors for these sorts of purposes. They have friends who watch or they out of curiosity watch when out of the mindful eye of parent. Even younger than age 12 would seek it out if they acted in it and especially curious if it is forbidden.

      • I applaud MW for presenting an honest depiction of Sally’s development. The Codfish Ball scene was meant to carry shock value conveying how moments such as these shape a child’s life. When I was 9 or 10, a man exposed himself to me while I was walking in the park alone. This happened back in the early 60’s while my family lived in Germany…can you imagine today allowing a child to walk in the park alone? Anyway, I recall knowing this was “bad” (or “dirty” like Sally remarked) and recall not wanting to tell my parents what I’d seen. So Sally’s moment rang true for me and I am pleased that MW doesn’t censure sexual issues for any of the MM characters. MW has proven explicit detail is not necessary to convey the impact of the sexual act. For me the most troubling sexual act involved Joan being raped by the good doctor…and the scene was achieved with only a hint of the sexual act. The concerns expressed about Kiernan bring to mind Jodie Foster’s powerful performance in Taxi Driver at the age of 13.

  2. I found the fairy tale usage in the episode very interesting. First, the whole layer of the stranger as saviour (who has Cinderella’s shoe to save her from her hobbled run in the shadows), the stranger as danger (the unknown man with unknown motives). The layering of fear, danger, rescue, desire is fascinating and in some ways problematic. As I wrote elsewhere:

    “The last thing I want to discuss here is Ginzburg (or Ginzo, as Joyce calls him) and his “Cinderella” pitch. What a creepy event that was. As Ginzo recounts it, Cinderella is “wounded prey,” hobbling around by a castle. She’s surrounded by shadows and trying to escape but knows he’s catching up. And then he catches her, he’s handsome, and he has her shoe. And she lets herself be caught. First, how laden with rape fantasies was this for the men, who ate it up like a top flight meal (maybe the one Joan, her family, her husband, and his family had)? That overtaking a woman is a male fantasy is well known, as loaded as it is with the idea of deflowering and being “the first.” And for anyone who reads their Nancy Friday studies, it is one for woman too. … But beyond the rape fantasy layer, I also find there is a “saviour fantasy,” that a woman really needs and wants a man to rescue her. As Ginzo played it, he had her shoe. He had what she needed, was there to save her. These are both pre-feminist modes of thought– that women can’t really like sex so they have to play hard to get and be taken by the strong, handsome man. Women are all fragile creatures, looking for a man to appear and save them with their strength and ingenuity.”

    And the dangers of beauty is an odd juxtaposition with studies of fairy tales that explain how often beauty means moral goodness and brings women rewards. Beauty as inherent weakness, as creation of making a woman prey… contrast that with the central beauty and its pursuit plays in the lives of most of these women.

  3. I know I’ve said it before, but Pauline reminds me of Sybil’s mother — right down to the knife.

    • dirigentin, i saw another comment about pauline being a hattie dorsett a few weeks back, (i think on the thread that ran on easter), and i commented that i agree. did you put that one up? anyway, i can’t stop thinking there is so much of her like hattie! it’s the familiar/ matter of fact way she has of recounting information that is stomach turning. who played her in that movie version with joanne woodward and sally field?

      • it was probably me, it’s so omnipresent when I revisit Pauline. as for the actress, IMDB says Martine Bartlett.

    • Pauline & Sybil’s mother have something else in common: both are fictional. Sybil’s multiple personalities were a hoax. Source:

  4. Great post, but as a Texas Ex, I would like to point out that it’s the University of Texas, not Texas university. The latter is offensive to us Longhorns :)

  5. I’ve always identified with Sally Draper. She’s apparently about two months older than I am, in real life. She’s learning to “dance” with the mindsets and behaviors of the adults in her life circle.

    I’m looking forward to seeing her take what she’s been learning and apply it, as she grows and explores the complexities of the wider world of national and global events. The 1960s were an interesting time to grow up – and scary – but Sally will somehow come out of the experience smarter, wiser, centered and grounded.

  6. I’ve really like Sally this year — and I haven’t always been a fan — and her interaction with Pauline has been top-notch. That said, the one scene of hers I did not like is when she walked in on Roger and Megan’s mom. Not because I found it disturbing — Glen’s continued presence in Sally’s life I find more troubling than her unwittingly stumbling upon two adults engaged in a sexual act — but it dramatically cheapened everything that had led up to it; in other words, the whole night, in retrospect, had been building up to Sally seeing something she shouldn’t.

    Moreover, at this point, I can’t imagine it being a hugely scarring event anyway. We already witnessed her diddling herself to “Man from U.N.C.L.E” last year, and lord knows, Glen is probably penning letters to Penthouse Forum from his dorm. Plus, I enjoyed the chemistry between Roger and Megan’s mom. The ending made it seem subservient to Sally’s reaction.

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