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Mad Men: Episode 504 Mystery Date Commentary
This week’s episode of Mad Men is titled Mystery Date, a callback to a board game from the 60’s and 70’s. Matthew Weiner and Company connect this innocent board game to a grisly murder – the mass killing of eight nursing students by Richard Speck in July of 1966. It’s a commentary, by way of odd couplings, on the traditional role of women in society at the threshold of great social change. In the case of Don, we see how his relationship to women in general, and Megan in particular, is evolving in the midst of this.
The episode opens with Don and Megan on their way to work. He has a horrible cough, but he’s not sick enough to tenderly flirt with his wife, who has moved to the other side of the car to avoid his germs.
This sets the stage for what has turned out to be a steady stream of awkward moments, with Don running into old flames. Andrea, a former freelancer – and lover – from the old Sterling Cooper, steps onto the elevator, and seeing Don alone, steps up to him. “Don, my bad penny,” she says. Don immediately introduces Megan as his wife. Andrea steps off at the next floor, leaving Don to deal with Megan’s embarrassment.
The conversation stretches into the first part of their day, with Don at first trying to justify himself, as in the days of old. But this is Megan, not Betty, and soon he is doing the right thing, apologizing for the position these encounters put her in. Finally, she nails Don, telling him “that kind of careless appetite, you can’t blame on Betty.” She stops him in his tracks because he knows she’s right. “I married you,” Don says. “And I’m going to be with you until I die.” Again with the death talk.
Upstairs, Peggy and Ginsburg and Stan are already working when Peggy’s old buddy Joyce shows up with some gruesome crime scene photos of the Chicago nursing student massacre, with one girl surviving by hiding under a bed until it was safe.
They pass around the photos and a loupe, with Joyce pointing out the grossest photos with a macabre commentary, speculating on whether one of them will make the cover of the latest issue of Time. The contact sheet is passed around, and the gang looks at the photos like young kids at something naughty. That is, except for Ginsburg. He immediately pushes the sheet away, not wanting to see anymore of the violent images than his first glance. He lashes out at them all, including Megan, accusing her of being excited by the photos. He shames them by calling the photos what they are – pictures of a violent crime against women. Joyce teases him, Stan laughs, Megan is stunned, but Peggy feels convicted.
Ginsburg’s bucket of cold water breaks up the party, and provides an interesting counter-point to Don’s earlier encounter with Andrea. Each of this episode’s mystery dates are set against a backdrop of violence committed against women.
Which brings us to Joan and her creepy husband Greg, who’s due back from Viet Nam. Her mom Gail is still in town, helping with baby Kevin, and together, they plot the homecoming celebration, leaving plenty of opportunity for the couple to get re-acquainted. Gail is the Queen of Irony in this episode, and the first of her words of wisdom is a chilling callback to Greg’s past crimes. “He’s not used to listening to a woman,” she says, reminding us of – as Joan will him later – the night he raped his beloved on the floor of Don’s office.
Things seem to be perfect between them until Greg announces that he is returning to Viet Nam – not for another 40 days, but for a year. The peace is shattered by Joan’s disappointment. Greg tries to calm her, but she’s having none of it, calling the military a bunch of liars. The irony is, it’s Greg who is the liar.
A curious inclusion in this drama is Sally, who is paired with Henry’s mother Pauline in this episode. Sally calls Don at the office, complaining about the tyranny of a strict Grandmother. This season, we get perfect French from Megan and perfect Teenager from Sally. Kiernan Shipka, who just gets better and better as the years pass by, strikes a perfect tone as the put-upon teen, with equal amounts of sarcasm, arrogance and victimhood. But Don is having none of it. Sick with his cold and busied with a full schedule, he has no time for her nonsense, but their conversation illustrates the tenderness and complexity of their relationship. His barking of orders at her is done with a wink, and when he coughs, she interrupts her rant to ask how he’s feeling. They genuinely love each other, these two.
Don drags himself to a meeting with Stan and Ginsburg in which he lets Ginsburg make the pitch on a campaign for women’s shoes. Ginsburg knocks it out of the park, impressing the client. Don seems content to let his newest protégé bask in the limelight…to a point.
After the client says, “Sold!” they start to pack up their boards and go. The client calls Ginsburg a genius and says that Ginzo really knows women, that his campaign really gets inside their heads. Ginsburg denies the compliment by confessing how confused he is by women and that they almost pitched a campaign about Cinderella. He launches into a story about their “dark” pitch. It’s a great telling of a story of a woman being pursued by a man. It’s creepy and dark. The woman is the prey – a victim. And the conclusion by Ginsburg is that, in the end, the woman wants to be caught. The client, mesmerized by the story, says, “let’s do that.”
This sends Don through the roof. Why? Is it because of a break in protocol? Does Don not want to be surprised? I don’t think he’s worried about being outshined, or he would’ve done the pitch himself. So, what’s the deal?
Ginsburg, though he distances himself from the story by saying it’s “dark”, tells a story that Don would tell. It’s a perfect Don moment, except that it’s not Don who is doing the telling. In this moment, Ginsburg is Don’s surrogate, doing a perfect Don maneuver, the impromptu pitch-after-the-pitch that safely puts forward the edgy – dark – idea. And the client loves it, just as they usually love Don’s.
But here’s the rub. In this episode, as we will soon see, Don is trying to distance himself from himself. He’s trying to rid himself of some baggage, like a surgeon zeroing in on a cancerous cell. That part is the womanizing Don. The Don who can’t help but hit on every halfway hot woman who stumbles across his path – like the predator in Ginsburg’s story, or in the extreme, like Richard Speck. Don’s trying to kill-off that part of him, but I keep waiting for him to slip.
So. While Don may be getting on Ginsburg for showboating, warning him to give Don his ideas back at the office and not off-the-cuff in a presentation, I think Don’s reaction has more to do with Don’s struggles against his predatory nature. The client even says, just before Ginsburg’s story, that he’d like to see a French girl in the commercial. Hello? Megan? So, perhaps Don had a flash of him stalking Megan as Ginsburg tells the story.
Once Don is finished reaming Ginsburg, he excuses himself to make a call. As he walks off, Ginsburg turns to Ken and says, “He’s such a decent guy.” Ken tells him he almost got fired, just then, but Ginsburg disagrees. And though Ginsburg is right about not getting fired, it remains to be seen whether he’s right about Don being a decent guy.
One last thing on that pitch. It’s interesting that the client, who was sold on a clever pitch for the shoes, ends up changing his mind and going for the idea that is more primitive, more crude. Even though these guys wear suits and have receding hairlines, they still respond to the atavistic urge to stalk. All men have some Richard Speck in them – or at least some Don Draper – the show seems to be saying.
Peggy’s mystery date is set-up by another move in the Pete Campbell/Roger Sterling chess match that Roger is losing badly.
Pete stops by Roger’s office on his way out the door on Friday afternoon, reminding him that they have a Monday campaign review with Mohawk. Roger plays it cool, but he’s totally forgotten to deal with the campaign. Once Pete’s gone, Roger frantically searches for Ginsburg, who’s left early, feeling the sting of Don’s disapproval. He lands in Peggy’s office, where she and Stan are having an end of the week drink and laughing at Ginsburg’s expense. Stan treats Roger like a peer, as does Peggy when Roger attempts to bribe her into covering his ass. It’s another few notches down the power & respect meter for poor Roger Sterling.
After admitting his failure and agreeing to pay Peggy $410 to save him, Roger leaves Peggy to pull yet another all-nighter. Hours later, Peggy hears a thump that freaks her out. She gets her things and investigates, and ends up finding Don’s secretary Dawn sleeping in the couch in Don’s office. She’s there because of some rioting in the city, and after a brief argument, she agrees to go home with Peggy for the night.
At Peggy’s, they drink a little and talk about their lives. Peggy, drunk from the earlier rounds of drinking, topped off with additional drink as she worked on Roger’s campaign, is sloppy. As they talk, Peggy lets Dawn know that she was once Don’s secretary. After further thought, she tells Dawn that they are alike. She likens her situation as the only female copywriter to that of being the only African American at SCDP. “We have to stick together,” Peggy says. She asks Dawn if she acts too much like a man. Dawn answers neutrally, and Peggy goes on to confess that she doesn’t know if she has it in her to operate in a man’s world.
Finally, it’s time for bed, and as Peggy is about to turn in for the night, she spies her purse on the coffee table next to the couch where Dawn is going to sleep. Peggy is paralyzed briefly as she contemplates what to do about all the cash left in the purse unguarded. She glances up and sees Dawn watching her. There’s a beat before Peggy goes for the beer bottles, but the damage has been done. The next morning there’s a note – left on Peggy’s purse – thanking her for her hospitality and apologizing for putting her out. Ouch.
Prior to all of this, Don decided to knock out early and get some rest. He gets home in the mid-afternoon, while Megan is still at work, and falls into bed, only pausing to kick off his shoes. This has been a season of dreams. First, we had Betty’s death dream last week, and then we have Don’s fever dream. It takes place in two installments, both involving Andrea the freelancer. In the first, she shows up at his apartment, ready for action. He pulls her in, worried that Megan will see her. He threatens to toss her over the balcony before showing her to the service elevator entrance at the back of the apartment.
Later, she awakens Don from sleep, having snuck back in the unlocked back door. After Don protests, telling her he’s done, she reminds him of an indiscretion at Lincoln Center while Betty waited. That’s all it takes for Don to slide back into Don-mode and fall into the trap. Afterwards, as she is getting dressed, she suggests a hotel the next time. Don tells her there’ll be no next time. When she calls him out, calling him sick, he snaps and strangles her to death. Once finished, he simply pushes her body under his bed with his feet before crawling back in and collapsing in sweaty, coughing heap.
It was all a dream, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking of the way Don felt up Bobbie Barrett in that restaurant after she threatened him. The way he pushes the corpse of Andrea under the bed links him to the real-life Richard Speck and the way he victimized his innocent victims. It will be interesting to see what Don does with this experience. He seems dedicated to Megan in a way that we never saw with Betty, but we also haven’t seen him out of town on business, where it’ll be harder to keep his demons at bay.
That same night, Greg and Joan and Kevin and Gail and Greg’s parents go out for Italian food, to celebrate. Joan has come to grips with what she has to do and is putting on a happy face and standing behind her doctor. The problem is, Greg’s mom knows that Greg has volunteered to return to Viet Nam. He wants to go. As the evening unfolds, Greg’s mom can’t hold her tongue any longer and implores Joan to talk some sense to her son. Joan’s initial confusion turns to white-hot anger as she realizes what’s going on. It’s at this moment that another call back to a Joanie humiliation at the hands of Greg takes place. An old Italian accordion player steps up to the table and begins to play. Gail drives the point home by telling Greg’s parents that Joan plays the accordion. Indeed.
Joan holds it together in Joanie fashion until they get home, when she goes off on him. Rather than stay and work out the problem, Greg runs off to “have a drink with the boys.” Gail tells Joan to get some sleep, but instead, Joan sits up all night, plotting her next move, and in the morning, announces to Greg and Gail that she’s done. She wants to never see him again. And just like that, he leaves.
In the middle of all this Joan/Greg drama, we cut back and forth to Sally and Grandma Pauline, bonding over the grisly murder in Chicago. Grandma is on the couch eating Betty’s Bugles, a large carving knife at her side for protection. Meanwhile, Sally is upstairs, reading the paper – pulled from the garbage – with a flashlight, under the covers. She freaks out, and in a fit of desperation, seeks comfort from Pauline.
Pauline must be freaked too because she softens her hard line, and the two discuss the murders, with Pauline slowly talking through the details voyeuristically. This murder has stirred old memories in Pauline. Earlier, as she was explaining Sally’s need for discipline, she gave as an example her own father who, when she was a child, once kicked her across the room and into some furniture – just to keep her on her toes. “That was for nothing,” her father said. “Watch out.” After Sally declared it pure meanness, Pauline agreed, but said it was great advice.
It’s also a window into what Weiner wants us to see as the situation that women faced in that time – a paternalistic culture that devalued women, seeing them sex objects, house keepers, or secretaries – creatures who sometimes needed a whack to keep them in their place. And there’s a sense that even as Peggy confesses that she doesn’t know if she has it in her to succeed in a man’s world, things are about to change. We know what’s just around the corner – that the formidable WASP strongholds are not only under siege, but about to be taken by women, jews, blacks, gays and on and on. It may not be a perfect world we live in now, but it’s certainly not as exclusive.
Unable to conceive of sleep, Pauline bites a seconal in two, and from the swell of music, we are led to believe that this is only the beginning for Sally.
Night gives way to morning, and Henry and Betty finally return from Buffalo, stranded by the airline strike that has benefitted Mohawk Airlines. Pauline is asleep on the couch, and as the camera pans back, we see that Sally has taken refuge from the horrors of Richard Speck under the couch where Pauline is sleeping. It’s a poignant moment that captures perfectly the sense we have of Sally as a survivor of the carnage of Don and Betty’s marriage, Betty’s dysfunctional second marriage, and let’s not mention Glenn.
As Joan is sending Greg packing and Peggy is reading Dawn’s thank you note, and Betty is looking for Sally, Don is awakened by Megan, who brings him breakfast in bed. We get the same overhead angle, where in Don’s dream, Andrea’s foot and hand stuck out from under the bed. In the light of morning, there is no body, and Don is confused, unable to distinguish the dream from reality. So real was/is the struggle. He asks Megan where she was, and she tells him she was with him through the night, worried over his fever.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” Don tells her, re-committing to the battle.
The episode ends on a pan of Gail, Kevin, and Joan in bed. Gail and Kevin sleep, but Joan is dressed and alert. I expect to see her back at SCDP in episode 505, most likely pretending that everything is fine with her and Greg. What’s interesting is that with all the talk of and staging of women under beds, we see Joan laying ON her bed, not cowering beneath it.
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