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.