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TV Recap: Mad Men “Mystery Date”

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

(Image © Lionsgate/AMC)

This episode’s theme is nailed to the church door in its opening scene. Don Draper and his wife Megan enter the elevator to the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices; Don is coughing, and Megan moves to the opposite side of the elevator to avoid his germs. “Fine, if you think you’ll be safe over there by yourself,”Don croaks. Megan smirks, and is punished instantly by the appearance of Andrea, one of Don’s old flings. (Andrea is played by Mädchen Amick, whose name OpenOffice embellishes with wavy red underlines even though everybody loved her in Twin Peaks.) Because Don and Megan are standing so far apart, Andrea dives right into Don’s personal space and calls him “my bad penny.” Don has to introduce “my wife” immediately to avert disaster, but after Andrea departs (and Don tries out a little cough for sympathy) Megan lays into him. But it’s a brief attack and ends with Megan slumping theatrically against the elevator wall, miming resignation, implying forgiveness. It’s not at all the way Don’s ex-wife Betty would have played it.

We’re getting a fuller picture of Megan’s character all the time – we fans married her too quickly, after all, but most of us probably now think it was kind of a lucky break. Perhaps because of her own ambitions (which are symbolized, in Mad Men’s elegantly obvious fashion, by her oversized teeth), she works to keep the new marriage afloat when Don’s complicated past threatens it.

Meanwhile, somewhere across town, “he’s not used to listening to a woman” pretty much says it for Dr. Greg Harris, returning home from what his wife Joan thinks was his last tour of duty in Vietnam. Greg must have thought he was safe over there by himself and has reenlisted for another year, without telling Joan. When he tells Joan he’s going back to Vietnam, he allows her to assume that the Army requires it, but when Greg’s mother sets her straight – that Greg volunteered for another stretch – that’s the last straw for Joan. Greg’s always been opaque to us; he’s been mostly an unsympathetic character, and now he’s apparently gone for good we’ll never know if he figured out the baby isn’t his. So Joan figures she’s better off, if not safer, as a single mom.

Something all the women might need to feel safe from is ripped from yesterday’s headlines by Peggy Olson’s lesbyterian friend Joyce, who barges in on a typically desultory creative meeting with Peggy and her latest set of office pals, Stan the art director and new boy Michael Ginsberg, to share grisly photos of serial killer Richard Speck’s victims. Ginsberg is surprisingly squeamish about the photos, but when Megan stops by she’s eager to see them. (Since both these characters are fairly new to us, that’s some kind of information.) Stan explains how one potential victim managed to survive: “she hid under the bed…he lost count.”

Up in Rye, NY, Don’s daughter Sally has no one to protect her – not against killers in the afternoon newspaper, but against Grandma Pauline, Henry Francis’s mother. Henry and Betty are delayed returning from a political junket upstate, and Sally’s restless and bored while her brother Bobby is at sleep-away camp. Her grandmother tyrannizes her at the dinner table and all over the “haunted mansion.” Finally Grandma Pauline, who we are coming to realize has become horribly accustomed to getting her way for a long time, deliberately terrifies Sally with a highly inappropriate nighttime chat about the Speck murders (“those student nurses in their short uniforms…stirring his desire”) and then doses her with Seconal to get her to fall asleep where she feels safe – under the sofa!

One more time with this theme: Don’s cough turns into flu with fever, so he goes home and passes out in bed. Andrea materializes on his fabulous modern doorstep with no plausible explanation of how she knew his address or managed to get upstairs, bent on a nooner with Don who barely manages to hustle her out via the service elevator. She’s really just a fever dream, but because Mad Men is, for some reason, committed to treating dream sequences in a highly literal way, I didn’t catch on until Andrea reappeared later in Don’s bedroom. (The only visual clue is when Don returns to his bed and gets into it with a strange sliding move toward the pillow; that’s because it’s the scene where he got out of bed a minute before, played in reverse.)

Dream Andrea has dream sex with Dream Don and then Don dreams her dead. Her last words are “You loved it, and you’ll love it again, because you’re a sick, sick – ” and then Don strangles her for about twenty seconds. She’d been sexually aggressive, confident – felt safe, then all of a sudden she wasn’t. We’ve seen women feel safe and unsafe with Don before, sometimes in the same scene. We’ve also seen how Megan and Don enjoy fantasy play in their sex life, which requires a high level of mutual trust. By killing dream Andrea, is Don saying goodbye to the messy past entanglements she represents, which endanger his new marriage? How safe does Don feel in the marriage? Reply hazy, ask again later.

I’ve always liked the sequences in the office, when the SCDP folks are actually doing their jobs – much of the time these bits involve Peggy, and I think we all love Peggy. In this episode, Stan, Ginsberg, and Ken Cosgrove go after a footwear company (there’s quite a lot of business with people putting on and taking off shoes in this episode, if that’s the kind of thing you’re into). The team’s already rejected a Cinderella concept, because, Stan says, with shoes it’s a cliché. At the pitch meeting, a different approach wins the shoe company’s business, but afterward Ginsberg can’t help trying out the Cinderella idea – she’s “wounded prey…she’s not safe but she doesn’t care…she wants to be caught” – and the client prefers that approach. This nearly gets him fired because Don is pissed off, maybe a little because it’s the kind of thing Don himself would have pulled in his younger days. I don’t really think he feels directly challenged by Ginsberg’s skill and chutzpah, however. (There’s some internet chatter about Ginsberg replacing Don as creative director, or becoming Peggy’s new boyfriend. I think a young Jewish guy who doesn’t yet know how to dress for success is not going to steal Don’s job next season, but I could see it happening for him at another firm by about 1973.)

Peggy also gets a nice sequence in which she offers an overnight couch in her apartment to Don’s new black secretary, Dawn, who has been camping out in the office, afraid to travel uptown at night because there “was a – thing – in Bed-Stuy.” That’s in Brooklyn, but never mind. Back at Peggy’s apartment, they drink Budweiser late into the night and seem to bond fairly well. When it’s time to say goodnight to Dawn, Peggy’s gaze falls on her purse smack in the middle of the coffee table, which contains 400 bucks previously extorted from Roger Sterling. Peggy stares too long at it, then looks back at Dawn, whose face has fallen as she imagines Peggy thinking she can’t trust her alone with the purse. The thought certainly crosses Peggy’s mind, but she masters it and goes off to her own bed.

Overall, I think this episode shows the side of Mad Men that’s vulnerable to criticism that it tends to line up its ducks too neatly in a row, to make sure everyone can see them shot down.* I wasn’t really happy with the dream segment, but all of the previous dream scenes on Mad Men have also made me squirm so it’s not a new offense and it didn’t throw me off the horse. Whether this particular state of Don’s mind could have been depicted in some other way depends entirely on what that state is – it’s by no means clear to me.

*This is the kind of sentence you’re reduced to after you’ve made a point of saying you thought the phrase “on the nose” was overused.

Mad Men, Episode 5:4 “Mystery Date”: B-

Allan Ferguson was born recently near Disneyland and has lived up and down the great state of California for all the years since. He is currently in La Mesa near San Diego where he practices graphic design and recreational atheism. He can be reached evenings and weekends at and apparently on the YouTube, somehow or other.