Wednesday, 11 April 2012

MAD MEN, 5.4 - "Mystery Date"




Unexpectedly this week, Mad Men does psychological horror; both real and imagined. "Mystery Date" focused on Don (Jon Hamm), Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy's (Elisabeth Moss) response to their own fears, insecurities, prejudices, and regrets. Don, already flagged as "middle-aged" this season, is now very sick and struggling with the realisation that wife Megan (Jessica Paré) has concerns about his lothario past…

An old flame called Andrea (Twin Peaks' Mädchen Amick)—a deliberate link to an eminent TV horror?—made a reappearance in an elevator and embarrassed Megan with her flirtation until she was made aware of Megan's connection to Don. It was a social squirm that sat uneasy with Don, who went home to bed with a fever that resulted in a nightmare: Andrea's reappearance like an insatiable Succubus of myth, demanding sex he couldn't refuse until he eventually snapped, strangled her to death, and pushed her lifeless body under his bed to get some sleep. At least this showed Don's haunted by his adulterous past, which was primarily the reason his first marriage fell apart, and deep down he knows this.

This fake-out moment, no matter how obvious (did anyone believe Mad Men would make Don a killer?), was also echoed nicely in the episode's background—where everyone's currently unsettled by news of a Chicago massacre, where Richard Speck murdered eight nurses after being let into their home. (A famous crime practically remade in an American Horror Story sequence last year.) Interesting to note that the final tableau of Don's dream (a dead woman under his bed with one shoe off) was both the opposite of a detail in the Speck case (a surviving woman hid under a bed to escape the bloodshed) and cleverly echoed the "one shoe off, one shoe on" Cinderella story that new copywriter Ginsburg (Ben Feldman) gave to some clients.

Joan suffered a more real trauma, when husband Greg (Sam Page) revealed he's planning to head back to Vietnam for another year in 10 days time. This was the straw that broke the camel's back, as Joan's been living the single parent life for so long that she, quite rightly, believe she's due some love and attention. But doctor Greg, who's likely achieved respect and purpose in his platoon that he never had in civilian life, is too keen to keep living that life away from his family.

Greg's a selfish and unreasonable idiot, and finally Joan realised she's being made a fool of. The moment when she announced their breakup also referenced a notorious scene from season 2, when Greg raped Joan on the floor of Don's office—although it's perhaps likely only committed fans will remember that. If I'm honest, I can't help thinking the Joan/Greg story has rambled on for too long, meaning the pleasure derived from seeing Joan dump the creep wasn't as strong as it might have been in season 3 or 4. But at least it's finally done, so now Joan will probably cosy up to soul mate Roger (John Slattery) again—especially as her baby with Greg is actually his.

The least compelling subplot belonged to Peggy, who discovered the company's first black employee, Dawn (Teyonah Parris), sleeping in Don's office because it's too dangerous to get the subway after a certain hour and cabs don't go past 96th Street. Peggy extended an invitation to stay at her place, thinking they'd bond because they're both woman in a male-dominated workplace, but instead she only communicated underlying racism after locking gaze with Dawn over her stray purse. This is the second time a character has been seen to believe, in the darkest recesses of their mind, that a black person is inherently untrustworthy—the other being the scene where Lane seemed unconvinced a black cab driver would return a passenger's lost wallet. (Although, as we said at the time, that scene may not actually have been a sign of racism, more Lane's desire to meet the woman whose photos was left inside the lost property.)

There was also a nice little story for Sally (Kiernan Shipka), who's been babysat by her stepfather's rotund mother Pauline (Pamela Dunlap). No wonder Henry doesn't have a problem with Betty's weight gain, right? This story showed the loss of innocence in children, now Sally's old enough to learn the truth about the world she's living in. After reading about the Speck massacre in secret, it gave her nightmares and she had to sleep under the couch Pauline's sat on (in a vague visual echo of Don's "dead woman under the bed" nightmare). Sally's learned that the world can be a frightening place, and that homes aren't impregnable barriers to evil people. I wonder if Sally's fears will be returned to this season. Moreover, I hope this isn't the end of the Pauline/Sally pairing, because it felt like Sally was learning a whole lot more about the real world via her strict yet respectful granny. And it still goes without saying that Shipka's one of the best child actors working today; communicating so much with the briefest of expressions.

Overall, I really liked this episode and it improves the more you think about it. Mad Men's the best show on TV when it comes to the amount of subtext and dual meanings each episode contains, or ways you can interpret a look or a line of dialogue, and "Mystery Date" was crammed with moments to chew on. We end with Joan lying on her double-bed with her sleeping mother and child, having cast her husband out of her life, the wail of distant sirens perhaps signifying that bad things will always be present… but you don't have to invite them in, and can always change things for the better.

Asides

  • Perhaps continuing the episode's horror theme, Stan's (Jay R. Ferguson) clownish wearing of pantyhose over his head may have been in-keeping with that, seeing as it's a common disguise for robbers and burglars.
  • It was great to see that new boy Ginsberg is fantastic at making pitches and not just hot air (with a particular skill when it comes to the female market), even if there's a feeling he's a loose cannon after he enacted a clichéd Cinderella concept without Don's approval. Or maybe Ginsberg's an omen of advertising's less distinguished future: just giving the clients what they want and pay for, not necessarily what they need?
  • I loved Roger's scene in Peggy's office, paying her to devise a campaign for Mohawk over the weekend to save his bacon. It was somehow more noticeable than ever how different Peggy is these days, compared to her mousy persona from season 1. She was very much an equal here, confident enough to play hardball with her male boss.
  • So what next for Greg? Will he fight for custody of his son? Would he stand a chance of winning in the '60s anyway? Is there any chance of that, seeing as he's committed to war for a year? Will he die fighting in Vietnam, as most people have long expected? Maybe he'll learn that he's not Kevin's father and go after Joan or Roger? Will he back this season, or the next? Will he come back from Vietnam in one piece?
written by Victor Levin & Matthew Weiner / directed by Matt Shakman / 10 April 2012 / Sky Atlantic
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