April 12th, 2012
Amy: This episode wrapped its themes around itself so tightly the drama could have suffocated, but in the end it never got so arch that it failed to pack a punch even though as a construction it was pretty close to immaculate and, so, highly conspicuous.
Ad: Absolutely. It was testimony to the fact that Mad Men is only superficially realistic – realism is never so overtly self-conscious of its themes, or given to blurring the lines between dream and reality, for that matter.
Amy: It’s enjoyable to watch Weiner and co unpacking the theme of change in all these different ways, isn’t it? In Mystery Date it was all about the intrusion of an unknown element into the characters’ lives – a date with someone they didn’t know, a situation they couldn’t plan for. Basically they’re all Cinderella in Michael’s commercial, aren’t they, turning round to confront the stranger? We could break it down every which way, but that’s just a bit too anal for me. I think we should just play it by ear and discuss the threads we liked most.
Actually, no, we’re presented with two possible narratives, aren’t we? That the stranger is Prince Charming come to sweep us away from all the drudgery, or that he’s still Prince Charming, but he’s a rapist and a murderer and we’re fucked.
Illogical Volume: Aye, like Molly Lambert said:
The fairy tale that Ginzo pitched was Cinderella, but the psycho-sexual subtext of “Mystery Date” was all Bluebeard. What’s under the bed? Who’s tied up in the basement? You murdered all those other women in cold blood; I’m supposed to believe you won’t do it to me?
And trust mad men to blur the difference there, eh?
Amypoodle: I have to say I smiled when I realised Greg was Joan’s mystery date. As Gail said at the start, ‘it’s the idea of coming home and finding a hole in his life and sticking his elbow through it… until he gets all the way in’
Since he’s been gone she’s been through that most unknowable (for a man anyway) of all female experiences, childbirth, and then single motherhood, andhe’s been at war – and there’s a new person between the two of them making the distance even harder to overcome. But I think the problem goes deeper than their recent separation. They’ve never really known each other, have they? Or at least Greg’s never really known Joan (I think perhaps she knows him all too well), not Joan as she’s happiest, in her role at SCDP, the strong, ultra-capable, unflappable Mother of Mad(i)sons. And in the end of course that’s just a fucking disaster, because he could never have that Joan, he could only *take* her, and that Joan, the Joan that’s been on pause for their entire relationship, sacrificed for the security of the 50s nuclear dream family, is the real one. It could really only end one way, couldn’t it, for this Prince Charming? He always was a dream, a dream I’m bloody pleased Joan’s got herself out from underneath. I mean, he’s got everything you’d want hasn’t he? But scratch that: he’s the rapist afterall.
Just realised the mystery date in question also refers to when Greg returns to active service. You could unpack him forever wrt Henry’s mother’s retelling of the Chicago Nurse Murders. That line about how they probably knew their killer. That’s Greg. That tension right there. You let him the guy in because he got that reassuring smile you know from the movies, the hero’s smile, and he’s dressed in familiar clothes, but he’s…. someone else. Someone you don’t want in your life at all.
Illogical Volume: You’re definitely right about that square-jawed monster Greg. I always find myself squirming when he has a scene with Joan, more so in this episode than before – I guess the knowledge that he’s both rapist and cuckold comes loaded with the potential for violence, no matter how reassuring his smiles try to be.
Joan’s always been very good at being what she’s supposed to be, it’s what gives her the (limited, by what’s “acceptable“) power she has in the office and it’s what’s limited her in her relationship with Greg. Of course being what you’re supposed to be is never enough, can never be enough because it all comes down to “I’ve got my orders, you’ve got yours” in the end. I didn’t expect us to get from there to “I want you to go and never come back”, let alone to “you’re not a good man and you never were” and the following reminder of his pre-marital rape though. Fucking hell!
Like you, I’m glad Joan’s made this move, but Greg still worries me on a fundamental level.
Amy: Joan gets to the meat of it when she tells him she’s sick of trying to make him feel like a man. That’s Greg’s problem all over, that insecurity. It’s the reason he rapes his wife to be, why he goes to Vietnam and why he decides he wants to stay there. Even from a practical point of view Greg isn’t husband material. He can’t physically be with his wife for fear of being emasculated. This guy can’t bring up a child.
Illogical Volume: Joan’s perfect, practiced poise as she greeted Greg at the doorway was particularly gutting in this context. Really, honestly, this fucker’s enjoyed the “happy, obedient wife” pretense for far too long.
Ad: Gail’s line about sticking his elbow through brought to mind images of Jack Torrance. Forced entry. Probably wasn’t intended, but Greg is firmly associated with unpleasant things in my mind, and in an episode shot through with phantom strangers, serial killers, midnight stalkers…
It was great to see Joan kick him out not only because he’s about as close as Mad Men gets to having a villain (his comment about “Negroes in Saigon” being “plenty brave” was typical of Mad Men. We’re not allowed to get too comfortable with Greg the monster, however much we’d like to), but because for me Greg gives an outlet to the worst excesses of Joan, or at least the aspects of her character that I like the least. The subserviant Joan, the studiously demure Joan, the Joan who wants to live in the past.
Amy:That’s what I think’s really important here, not that Joan dumps Greg, but what it means. So many of us were disappointed at the end of last season when Don chose Megan over Faye, we saw it as Weiner’s gloomy prognosis for the possibility of real change, but change really is afoot wrt the female leads. Peggy’s not who she was at the start of the show and neither, it seems, is Joan. Mystery Date could mark the beginning of a new life for this character, where she’s got her priorities straight. She’s tried the dream home on for size and found it wanting, now it’s time for her to get back to SCDP and do what she loves.
Illogical Volume: There was something very gothic about this episode, wasn’t there? I think Don’s description of Betty and Henry’s castle as “that haunted mansion” was more than just a funny line in this respect. Sally’s mystery date with Henry’s mum was particularly charged with this atmosphere - granny’s early attempts to tut over the news every five seconds while keeping it from Sally were amusing, but by the time you got to her pills and her “burglar alarm” via the warmest description of child abuse this side of Ghostface Killah the arrival or a murderous rapist seems almost inevitable.
See, also: Don’s murderous dream logic and the genuine confusion on his face when he realises that his wife was the one who was with him the night before. Don’s never been particularly good at resisting the urge to medicate through sex, as Molly Lambert would have it, and it’s jarring to see him project his anger over this outward, which… I mean, you’ve just got to note the visual doubling of the body under Don’s bed with the image Sally under the seat at the end of the episode.
Amy:Oh yeah, you couldn’t help but pick up on the doubling. It kind’ve made me laugh and quiver at the same time. Ties in neatly with the date(rape) thing, Sally being drugged up – rohypnoled – by her mysterious stranger.
And well spotted, the haunted mansion ref’s definitely more than just a throwaway line.
Ad: To go back to my earlier point about the borderline between reality and dream, I liked what Sean Collins had to say about the Madchen Amick’s spooky reappearance in Don’s bedroom
“ability to disrupt Don’s life with her ever-increasing bluntness and directness had an uncanny air to it that went beyond “oh, it’s just a dream.” She literally only entered the story due to a physical separation between Don and Megan; she disappeared from Don’s apartment through a crack in the wall — that Gothic staple, a secret passage, one which may or may not exist in real life; she gave Matthew Weiner the opening for his most direct riff on David Lynch yet.”
Amy:You know, even though I knew it was a dream, when Don leaned over to check under his bed after his fever broke I felt really tense and I could’ve sworn I saw something poking out from beneath it.
I’ve just checked it.
There is something under there! Or the suggestion of something. Have we slipped into Labyrinth territory, where you bring a little bit of the fantasy back with you? New readers don’t know us, but just to say that the Mindless are unconcerned with intentionality when it comes to this sort of thing. I prefer the idea that, yes, we should still feel that creeping feeling. What *happened* in that bedroom was so visceral – Don huffing and straining, Andrea in close up, choking, her body kicked under the bedspread like a unwanted bit of clutter Don can’t make room for – that we can’t expect it to just disappear in a puff of smoke in the daylight. We musn’t expect it to. Do any of you remember the episode where Don passes out while getting a blow job only to wake up with a new woman in his bed and to the chilling discovery, courtesy of a phone call from Betty, that he’s lost a whole day? I’ve nearly been there, it’s horrible – the sudden realisation that the lulling fade to black never denoted sleep, but the complete loss of control. Mad Men always goes in close in these scenes, close on the hot bodies and the sweat. This episode was no exception. Andrea leaning over Don, over us, is like a suffocating blanket we want to throw off but are too weak. The sickness, Don’s sickness, the sickness he can’t get enough of and being reminded of, is still heavy in that room. Mad Men’s excellent at fever states.
And more slowness! I’ve only just realised it was Madchen Amick! My g/f and I have been watching Twin Peaks every night and I still missed it! It really adds to the gothic horror/dream reality vibe, actually. Fictions overlapping. The witchiness of Lynch.
Anyway, Don’s plotline weaves in and out of the Chicago Murders story in really interesting ways. There’s that inversion again, where we’re led to believe he’s the damsel in distress, only to see him murder his old flame at the end. Andrea comes across as really predatorial, doesn’t she? The moment when you realise it’s not Megan but her soothing Don’s fevered brow is proper horror movie. Interestingly, I’ve just rewatched the beginning again and just before Andrea appears – when Megan makes some space between herself and Don’s cold in the lift – Don says something to the effect of, ‘Fine, if you think you’ll be safe over there by yourself….’, and isn’t this just what we’d expect in a horror film, the couple, separated, become prey? But this is a modern gothic horror and so the twist is that it’s the man who’s the victim. And then the whole thing contorts again, and he’s not. I can’t help wondering if this is the way Don would like to see himself, as the victim of all the women he’s fucked. And if he’s in that movie, if these women really are vampires skulking behind the drapery of the princess’s four poster bed, then he’s right to get out the garlic. Only this is all bullshit. He’s the one responsible. No one else.
My g/f had a different take on everything, though – not that Don sees himself as having been the victim, but that he’s the victim now. Now that he’s commited and open, everything he wasn’t with Betty, he’s suddenly vulnerable, emotionally vulnerable in ways he’s never been before – genuinely terrified of losing what he’s finally found, an intimacy where everything is laid bare, an honest relationship. We’ve heard talk this season of the nicer, kinder Don Draper, as though it’s a weakness, something that’s happened to him, that he’s caught like a cold, but maybe it’s something far more conscious, something he’s entered into with his eyes open and prepared to guard so jealously that any threat to it makes him murderous.
Whatever, he really does not want to be having affairs. Or if he does, he really hates himself for it.
That dream is such a confused thing, it suggests so much while playing its cards very close to its chest. Be interesting to see how things play out. It’s the first time the spectre of infidelity has reared its head this season, isn’t it? Speaking of hauntologies, it’s been the thing haunting the margins of the first two (three, depending on who’s keeping score) episodes. The stuff no-one wants to look at. This episode had Don and the viewers feeling its hot breath on their necks. The tension between its absence and presence is quite delicious actually.
Illogical Volume:From the lift scene onwards, this episode was really good at presenting Don in two lights at once, as both the promiscuous stud and as a weezy, woozy older man. The space between Don and Megan in the lift was filled by both of these possibilities in the end, you could almost see the air between them thickening at the journey went on.
Amy: you’re spot on about the old man thing. Don’s age is a theme of this season, so that reading was always going to be there, but I think it was amplified by Betty’s cancer scare in Tea Leaves. The characters’ mortality can’t help but be on our minds after an episode like that. I half expected Don to wind up with cancer by the hour’s end.
Ad: Completely agree that this was one hell of a follow up to Tea Leaves. Don’s illness locks the two shows together. Deborah Lipp describes the amplification nicely in her episode recap:
“The dirty, violent, erotically-charged, drug-fueled, violent, violent, violent world is encroaching, and none of us can hide from it. Not Sally, not Pauline with her knife, not Don in his fever, not Dawn on Don’s couch”
But let’s remember, Don’s fever is part of the threat!
Illogical Volume: And you’re dead right, Amy, about the way Don seems to view himself (as a victim), and it’s also worth noting that Megan seems relatively clear-eyed about what he really is, or at least, what he has been. She’s got at least some idea of his history, so you can hardly blame her for being wary of what she can’t see here, despite Don’s weak assurances (“You don’t have to worry about me“).
Peggy had quite a strange episode here, taking advantage of Roger’s blatant desperation (“like a man“, maybe?) early on, before heading off with Dawn for their mystery date. Contrasting her seeming confidence in those early scenes, where she was busting balls like a pro (“Fly over the picket line, with Mohawk“), with her awkwardness in the later parts of the episode, you see the contrast between playing a part and feeling comfortable with it looming into view again, yet another absence made present.
This particular plot strand wasn’t as charged with the uncanny as some of the others in this episode – the tensions here were all very real, very social – but by the end Peggy’s still sweating as though she was in a horror movie with Don, possibly because she was feeling a different sort of breath on her shoulders. The dynamics here were maybe a little obvious, what with Peggy’s well-intenioned attempts at solidarity inevitably leading to self-reflection/self-obsession – “Go ahead, you can talk.” / “I’m trying to.”
Was the whole thing with her looking nervously at the purse at the end overkill, maybe, or did her unintentional racism need to come to a boil at the end of the episode?
Amy:Maybe it did. I think it’s difficult to imagine just how tense these sorts of situations must’ve been back then. I think what’s interesting about the way Peggy’s date ended up- awkward mumbling, bed vacated before she woke up, like a bad one night stand – is that all of this might not have signified anything at all. We just don’t know. But it’s Peggy’s hypersensitivity wrt her communication that’s the issue. We’ve all been there, when we just don’t know if we’ve made a massive gaffe. It was very well articulated. particularly the note on the handbag. An accident or……
Botswana Beast: Peggy Olsen Makin’ Dollars [POMD]
I find it really difficult because you’ve covered – and better, I didn’t see the Sally/Don synecdoche, for example, and I don’t like to watch things twice immediately – many of the bases I would have…
I mean, to me, I’d shift the accent, the inciting incident for ‘Ginzo’ (he is cool, he could be annoying, like Chachi, I’m always hyperconscious of Mad-Men-AS-TV refiltered, instagrammed, whatever) talking about Snow White was obviously the multiple rape-murder. At the end the rapist fuck gets his comeuppance: Bye Greg, you shit.
And the past and shit: cool facts from ex-Barbelither Flyboy here
Illogical Volume: lol @ that Peggy Olsen gif.
Amy: Peggy’s story initially sets her up as the victim, and in years gone by (the 1960s?) she would have been, the young, creamy white copywriter set upon by the jealous, thieving negress, but as we know it’s her tall dark stranger who’s the real victim here. Her story’s similar to Don’s in that the presumed vulnerable party turns out to be the aggressor. Sure, Dawn doesn’t wind up dead like Andrea, but she must’ve wound up feeling pretty shitty after a night of conversation focused on race, complete with well meaning but misguided comparisons between her own situation and her date’s (who, it turns out, is still beating the ‘I can’t do many of things they can’t do’ drum), and Peggy’s general overeagerness to make a new, exotic friend (or at least acting in way that could, if Dawn’s day had been bad, be interpreted that way). Dawn begins this segment of the story, just as black people began the 1960s, as the monstrous, shadowy other, but the irony is that in the end she’s as conspicuous – as exposed – and therefore as vulnerable as it’s possible to be. The irony’s there in her name. Sure, her skin’s dark, but she’s got a spotlight on her at all times.
Teyonah Parris is brilliant in this episode actually. She’s really convincing as someone used to negotiating the tricky minefield of colour – gracious, accommodating, but somewhere inside oh so weary of it all.
Illogical Volume: Parris definitely conveys a lot in those scenes through a couple of small looks and inflections. The more I think about it, the more I like the conclusion to that plot – something about the ambiguity of whether that note was left there on purpose really adds to the sting of it, and contrasts nicely with the confused revelation that there was nothing under the bed in Don’s story and the search for the Sally at the end of her story. The whole episode dissolves in a haze of wounded confusion, doesn’t it?
It occurs to me that the song that plays over the credits provides a link to a work that attacks the same themes as Mad Men through a poetic mix of archive footage, brightly coloured text, and pop music - Adam Curtis’ It Felt Like a Kiss.
Which… well, if you want to talk about new dreams collapsing into old nightmares, you could always talk about that (I did, here).
Amy: Getting back to Don and Andrea, I’ve only just noticed that like the nurse in the story she (along her real life echo, Sally) ends up under the bed. God, how slow am I? This episode really is a perfectly functioning mechanism. All that messy guilt (barely) tidied away. We’re just praying the corpse doesn’t reanimate Halloween style.
Illogical Volume:Ah Amy, you don’t mean to but you’re almost pushing me to make a stupid statement that it’s the ghost of the nurse’s story that’s haunting Betty’s mansion and Don’s dreams, but that it’s the ghost of RACISM that’s haunting Peggy’s apartment.
(Though, on that topic, note that this story is raised then dismissed when Peggy discovers Dawn in the office at night.)
Michael Ginsberg still feels like he hasn’t settled into a role yet in this episode, which is good, because that seems to be the case both in the show and in the office. So you get him freaking out at the monstrous smirks of his colleagues, doing good work in the office and then overshadowing Don while laying out the theme of the episode, and reacting to a threat from his boss like it was friendly advice (“He’s such a decent guy” - haha, really?).
There wasn’t much time for office politics in this episode, so the little bits of it we did see felt like a relief, even when they had their own sort of tension.
Amy:Yeah, you get the feeling young Peggy would’ve responded like Michael, don’t you? See? See what I mean about Peggy evolving into someone disappointing? Okay, her old self rears its head eventually (‘He’s right.’), but for a minute there…. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more examples of this tension inside Pegs this season. I know some people will want to construct it as Peggy trying to fit in versus the REAL Peggy, but I think it’s more complicated than that. She’s a hardarsed copywriter who’s had to claw her way up the ladder, jettisoning a baby on the way, and she’s also a moral person who picks a counter-cultural activist for a boyfriend. Both are equally true. Peggy’s large, she contains multitudes.
Ad: For an episode that did such a good job of soaking itself in horror I thought there were some brilliant laughs. Ginsberg’s inappropriately over-eager “and I’ll see you later!” to Don, for one. Roger’s latest bout spectacular incompetence had me in incredulous hysterics – what the Christ did he think he was doing? Collapsed, probably hungover, on some absurdly expensive reclining chair juxtaposed with him, twenty seconds later, prancing anxiously towards Peggy’s office. And what does he do? He offers the only person in the world who can come to his rescue ten fucking dollars.
God knows where he’s going this season. It’s very tempting to slip back into the perennial, he’s gonna die or commit suicide mode, but as I said in last week’s comments, that stuff just feels too obvious, too easy for Mad Men. To bring in the third Roger related cliche: hey, Joan’s single again… and she’s got his kid…
That shot of Henry glancing up from the knife he’s just pulled from his Mum’s drugged hands, his face totally consumed by “THE FUCK?!” was good for a chuckle or five too.
Amy: LOL!! I didn’t notice that on my first or second viewing, but I’ve gone back and checked and it’s really funny. Speaking of Joan, and lighter things, that’s the last mystery date, isn’t it, Joan and her baby? We’ve had all the creepy stuff and the confusion and what we’re left with in the end is a mother and her little boy. Who knows what he’ll be like? Will they get on? Share the same interests?
What a stunning bit of telly this was.