Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Mystery Date" (season 5, episode 4)

Mad Men - "Mystery Date" (season 5, episode 4)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers. (I updated the paragraph format of this piece in March 2022.)

Story (aired on April 8, 2012/written by Victor Levin and Matthew Weiner; directed by Matt Shakman): The star of the episode is a crime, not a person. Eight student nurses have been brutally raped and murdered in Chicago, but you'd think it was right next door given how frightened, fascinated, and titillated every New Yorker onscreen appears. The crime rather than the person is front and center because the killer remains uncaught at this point, still the macabre "mystery date" of the episode title - an elusive, diabolical, seductive figure more mythic than human. Nor do we dwell much on the victims' horrific subjectivity; only eccentric newbie Michael is offended on their behalf by the lurid thrill of SCDP's creatives (even normie Megan) when Peggy's pal Joyce brings slides of the butchered victims to their office and giddily passes them around. No, it's the act itself that feels alive and present, haunting the consciousness of each character and manifesting in a variety of striking images, a kaleidoscopic voyage through the incident's myriad, even contradictory aspects. If there is any one individual involved with the mass murder who provides an entry point for the ensemble, it's the single nurse who escaped. A ninth woman hid under her bed the entire night, watching the others taken away and terrified of what awaited her, only to be spared by oversight in the end. (You can read about the full lives of the survivor and all of the victims in a poignant 2016 article from the Chicago Times.)

For a few characters, the echo is brief, triggering more significant plot developments. Michael draws on the psychological pull of this real-life trauma by pitching a dark "Cinderella" ad to a shoe company, in which a woman flees in the shadow of a gothic palace, only to have a handsome man seize her...and return a lost slipper. Don is furious that Michael went off-script with the clients (and perhaps even more furious that they liked it) and threatens the young man's job if he ever goes rogue again, though Michael seems unfazed. "Do you have any idea how close you just came to get fired?" Ken asks him, incredulous. Michael shrugs, with a nonchalant, "Nah, I don't think so." Peggy's encounter with Chicago-fueled fear unfolds when she's alone at the office late at night, cheerfully packing a $400 cash bonus from a desperate Roger into her purse after working late on the Mohawk campaign, which the ever-irresponsible boss let slip until it was almost too late. She hears a noise, trembles as she glances across the quiet workplace, and eventually discovers an equally nervous Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris) - Don's confusingly named new secretary - sleeping in the Draper office. The source of Dawn's unease is more direct; the agency's first black employee lives in Harlem, where the spate of recent riots has brought an unwanted police presence. Peggy invites Dawn to her house and drunkenly regales her with tidbits of office wisdom, asserting that despite their differences in race, status, and experience, they understand each other...but any potential for female solidarity is destroyed in a silent instant. Peggy lingers with trepidation over the purse flopped down in front of the couch where Dawn is about to spend the night - and Dawn very much notices. Peggy doesn't take the purse with her, but she doesn't need to. The damage is done.

The storyline most indirectly related to the Chicago slasher - at least on the surface - is Joan welcoming Greg home from Vietnam. He's on leave for ten days and they plan to make the most of that time, especially once Greg tells her that he has to return for another whole year rather than the expected month. Disappointed but stoic, Joan is horrified to learn (in the midst of an ostensibly romantic diner where Greg awkwardly salutes a fellow soldier and berates an allegedly unpatriotic waiter) that her husband has actually chosen another tour of duty over settling into fatherhood at home. Determined to prove to himself and the world that he is not just a man, but a good man, Joan finally spits the truth: "You were never good, not even before we were married. You know what I'm talking about." He does, and so do we - and in this moment, the door which opened to welcome him home takes on a darker tinge: those nurses were not the only ones politely allowing their rapist across the threshold. However, it's left to Don and Sally - shown speaking on the phone in an early scene - to make the connection most explicit. A sick-as-a-dog Don encounters old flame Andrea Rhodes (Madchen Amick) on the elevator with his new wife; driven by illness and his and Megan's mutual embarrassment into a fever dream when he goes home, Don hallucinates that Andrea keeps breaking into his apartment to seduce him, insisting that they'll continue sleeping together because he can't change who he is. Don snaps, strangles the phantom to death, and kicks her body under the bed, only realizing in the morning that it was all a delusion. Sally, meanwhile, is fascinated by the newspaper her disciplinarian yet prurient step-grandmother keeps reading - disturbed by the details of the only dimly-understood sexual assault, she looks to Pauline for comfort and the knowing authority figure offers a butcher knife for protection and half a Seconal for escape. When Harry, Betty, and the boys return to the Francis estate the next morning, no one notices Sally sleeping the night away...hidden below the sofa.

My Response:
Although season five opened with a long, loose premiere, the two episodes since have been driven by tight, self-contained narrative engines - episode 4 in particular is one of the most clearly-organized of the entire series, hardly any scene untouched by the historical touchstone in incredibly subtle and effective ways. At times, admittedly, this feels almost a little too perfect for its own good; I'm not sure yet if the abrupt resolution to the Greg/Joan marriage works for me. On paper, it's a brilliant callback and curtain-drop but I couldn't shake the sense that the writers had grown tired of this couple's brittle relationship - particularly Greg's well-articulated but fairly one-note insecurity - and decided to finally cut this stiff loose. No reference is made to the child they share (questionably his, but he doesn't know that) as he walks out the door "for good"...will there be more to follow? Meanwhile, for all the striking images and heightened situations in "Mystery Date," the most powerful moment for me may have been that simple, wordless exchange between Peggy and Dawn. In a show which has touched on race more fleetingly than one might expect from its sixties setting, Peggy's almost inadvertent gesture is as devastating as it is delicate, with a sense of thudding finality as irrevocable as any of the more explicit threats or acts of violence onscreen. (The note atop the purse, on the other hand, may have been just a bit too pointed a placement especially given Dawn's hesitance to endanger her place at work.) "Mystery Date" is titled in reference to an all-too-pertinent board game, where players try not to open the door to the wrong man, and this moment reminds us that such mutual if lopsided fear can be racialized as well as gendered.

In its exaggerated style and via direct reference, the air of a fairly tale floats through the episode. Besides the Cinderella name-drop, Michael, Stan, and Don mull over the "sleeping princesses" like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty before dismissing that concept as too creepy for Butler Footwear. Yet there are sleeping princesses (and princes) all over "Mystery Date," accompanying twisted family relations right out of the Brothers Grimm. Andrea's leg and red-slippered foot sticking out from her buried body reminds us of the Wicked Witch of the East crushed below another farm child's bed. Don is awakened and redeemed - from infidelity, murder, and his own tormented conscience (more for the former than the latter) - by Megan's charming embrace. Pauline plays her vicious old step(grand)mother part with a dash of the fairy godmother's protective spellmaking; from the sound of it, though, her father was the true Beast of the family. "One time," she muses nostalgically, "he was sleeping on the couch in the living room and I walked by. And all of a sudden, he kicked me so hard that I actually flew across the room and hit a piece of furniture. And then he looked at me and said, 'That's for nothing, so look out.'" Sally is horrified by this parental abuse; right around this time, of course, her own father is fantasizing about doing just this to a woman he's conceptualized as a dangerous interloper herself. Fractured mirrors abound.

The Sally/Don relationship has often been used to underscore the Mad Men protagonist's troubled relationship to women; one thinks (speaking of mirrors) of the daughter staring admiringly at her father as he shaves in the bathroom, forcing him to drop the razor and gaze at his own reflection in horror (several scenes after engaging in sadistic sexual games with a lover). In this episode, we experience Andrea's aggression entirely from Don's self-justifying point of view, ending with a shot from the ceiling in which his body obscure hers. By contrast, Sally is hidden from the rest of her family but revealed to the viewers: in this shot, it's the suited man who is cut off at the waist as the girl slumbers below. Visual reflections of one another, they offer dual perspectives of male violence and female vulnerability. Nothing haunts the never-mothered Don like the idea that he is not living up to the idealized image in his daughter's eye, adding an uneasy undercurrent to his romance with the younger, more innocent Megan.

In addition to fairy tales, "Mystery Date" has strong Twin Peaks connections. Amick, of course, played Shelly Johnson on that series and this episode was coincidentally aired on the twenty-second anniversary of the groundbreaking Peaks pilot. Twin Peaks is also about the social ripple effects of sexual violence visited upon young women, as well as the twisted psyches of their killers and abusers, and both shows inform us that the monsters are more likely to be familiar faces that dangerous strangers. Andrea's suffocation at Don's hands could be viewed as one of the most shocking murders in TV history, not far off from a particular Peaks milestone...if of course you take it at face value. I didn't take it that way; I'd already stumbled across the nature of Amick's appearance given my own extensive work on Twin Peaks (one of my video essays even incorporated a clip from this episode a year before I watched it). Otherwise would I have believed that Don just killed someone, or would I have picked up on the many cues and clues that this was not meant to be taken literally? Although Andrea's presence in an episode driven so potently by misogyny carries a strong iconographic charge, the dramatic substance of the scene is internal to Don. Andrea is a projection of his own misbehavior, perpetually cast out and drawn back in, a demon he's wrestling with in an attempt to purge himself not so much of guilt but of the fear he'll lapse again after being granted a fresh start. That he has to project this temptation onto someone else, in order to grapple with it at all, suggests he may not have come as far as he hopes.

Next: "Signal 30"Previous: "Tea Leaves"

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