'Mad Men' Recap: 'Mystery Date' Haunted By Fear And Loathing

Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 5, Episode 4 of AMC's "Mad Men," entitled "Mystery Date."

I don't know about you, but I didn't sleep well last night. I blame "Mad Men."

That's not a dig at "Mystery Date"; all that tossing and turning is actually a tribute to the episode, which, I think, was meant to be deeply unsettling.

And it wasn't just that Don killed someone -- or thought he did. Aside from a couple of lighthearted moments -- and a wonderfully triumphant scene involving Peggy and Roger -- an atmosphere of ugliness and dread suffused the episode.

Before we get to the "murder," before we get to Joan's long-overdue break-up or anything else, let's take a moment to think about how different the world we're seeing now is from the world we first saw in 1960.

Back then, every character had secrets and flaws and there was ugliness, to be sure, but it wasn't on the surface. People dressed well. Their clothes were crisp, their hair was slicked down, their houses were tidy, their visual presentation, if you will, was just so.

Thanks to Tom and Lorenzo's Mad Style posts, which thoughtfully break down what's going on visually in each episode, I've been thinking a lot about the decay that "Mad Men" is currently reflecting. Social and personal barriers are breaking down, sure, and that's leading to a lot of interesting ferment and connections that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The agency's most respected copywriter is a woman. The firm has hired a Jew and an African-American. Roger is begging Peggy, of all people, for help. All sorts of people are losing control of what they thought was theirs and finding themselves with more or less power than they thought possible. All this change leads to something unexpected like Peggy having Dawn sleep over at her house. But change can be scary: No one had ever heard of eight women being murdered at once. Sometimes what's possible can be absolutely terrifying.

But things aren't just changing, they're actually decaying, at least for the privileged people of Don Draper's world. It wasn't just that dapper Don looked like a sweaty mess for the entire episode. As Tom and Lorenzo have pointed out, everything in New York just isn't what it was. People's clothes are rumpled (to the point that Michael Ginsberg's ill-fitting pants appear to be held together with pins or something). Peggy's air conditioner barely works; she's a damp mess inside her damp mess of a home. The gas stove at Joan's is useless.

And the water that comes out of the tap at Don Draper's office looks like it came from a muddy sewer. Yet he just accepts that and drinks it. To me, this is a touchstone for the entire episode, thematically. In that moment, he accepts a level of foulness that he would have utterly rejected before.

Even as all these changes (in society as a whole and within individuals) bring about new possibilities, they also bring about ugliness and fear and foreboding. Don't look under the furniture; you might not like what you find there.

There's the ugliness of how Peggy's evening with Dawn ended. Peggy looked at her purse, which was full of the money she got from Roger. Peggy wondered if she should leave her purse in the same room as a person of color. Without dialogue, we knew so much in that moment: Peggy was deeply ashamed of herself for even having that thought, Dawn knew exactly what Peggy was thinking, and they both knew that there was a gulf between them that would probably never be bridged. Their experiences in the industry did have many parallels, but they would probably never be friends. They were just too far apart.

But sometimes change and tumult bring about good things: Witness Peggy's moment of triumph over Roger. Is it me, or has Peggy become Don Draper? Her confidence was beautiful to behold, and the dialogue in that scene was absolutely delightful (i.e. "The lie is extra"). Peggy made sure that Roger knew who held the reins in that moment, and Roger had no choice but to agree to her terms. See how the mighty have fallen! (Yet we all know that Roger hasn't been mighty for some time. He had one major account to take care of, but, between naps, he essentially forgot to even let Michael know what Mohawk needed? Roger's really skating on thin ice these days.)

Violence against women was inescapable in this episode, but what made "Mad Men's" exploration of the topic worthwhile and compelling was the fact that two women in this episode asserted their power and control over their lives. It wasn't a story about helplessness and victimization; it was an episode about everything from sweaty discomfort to to outright terror, and how we deal with those emotions.

Peggy dealt with Roger's flop sweat by asserting her much stronger role in the company's hierarchy. And Joan, thank God, at last, admitted something we've all known for years: She doesn't need her husband to make her life complete. In fact, she's far better off without him and his obsessive need to control and dominate her.

Best of all: She referenced the one thing we've all thought of every time we saw that asshat on screen. She hasn't forgotten that Greg raped her on the floor of Don's office; he couldn't stand her independence then and he certainly can't stand it now. She finally read him the riot act, and rightly so: "You're not a good man. You never were. Even before we were married, and you know what I'm talking about."

You tell him, Joanie. Greg was an insecure, controlling predator who fed on Joan's weakness and insecurity. But she's got a kid now, and she's always had her own life. Greg's just a burden to her, one that she finally has the strength to throw off.

Predatory behavior and abject fear ran through the episode like a cold shudder down the spine: Michael spoke of the handsome stranger who inspires fear in Cinderella ("She knows she's not safe, but she doesn't care"); Peggy, filmed like a character from "Rosemary's Baby," stalked through the offices of SCDP looking for an intruder; Don couldn't escape his old acquaintance; and Grandma Francis luxuriated in the details of Richard Speck's murders* (her imaginative visualization of the crime was far more terror-inspiring than anything Sally read in the paper, because her version felt so real).

[*Maybe half the reason I didn't sleep well last night is because the Speck murders were something I heard a lot about growing up. My father and my uncle were Chicago cops when those murders occurred, and though I was a baby when the crimes happened, their effects on the adults around me didn't fade all that much over time. My uncle, John Keating, was one of the first cops on the scene, and he was pictured on the front page of a Chicago newspaper leading Corazon Amurao, out of the house where the murders took place. My mother had graduated from nursing school only a few years before the killings and, as it happened, both my parents knew the victims. However big a deal the murders were nationally, in Chicago, those crimes are still deeply etched in the city's consciousness.]

Of course, the centerpiece of the episode was Don's horrifying "murder" of his casual paramour. Talk about ugliness bubbling up to the surface; even though the woman was, except for the elevator scene, a construct of Don's subconscious, what exactly do those actions (the sex and the murder) say about his mental state? "You don't have to worry about me." Oh Megan. I'd say having a husband who dreams about killing the women he sleeps with is something to worry about. Just maybe.

But Don's loss of control, as extreme as it was in that moment, wasn't unprecedented. We know he has a dangerous side to him, and he's been through a lot of changes. Some of them are good; he's no longer as tormented by his past and has reached a detente with Betty. He's able to appreciate some of the good things about his life.

Still, the thing about change is that it's unpredictable. That's why we're both repelled and fascinated by the outliers, by the actions of people who do things beyond the range of our imaginations.

Cinderella was transformed, but she didn't get to control how that scenario played out. Joan tried to have the fairy-tale life, complete with a handsome doctor, but it was all an ugly lie. She tried to transform her existence, but the spell she put herself under didn't quite take. Peggy wanted to live in a world where she and Dawn could be friends, but she couldn't magically wave away her own prejudices and fears.

As for poor Sally, well, that's not the first pill she's ever going to take to rid her mind of fear and confusion. The Mystery Dates don't always turn out to be handsome princes; Joan and Peggy could tell her that. And sometimes, the man who comes to the door has far worse things on his mind. And is Sally's mother around to help her sort through all the changes that are going on, not just in her body and her life, but in the world? Hardly. Mom doesn't have rules.

Oh Sally. I love that girl, but there are so many pills in her future.

A few more notes:

  • Don Draper's patented cold treatment formula: Cigarettes and scotch. Bien sur.

  • I like that both Grandma Francis and Joan's mom aren't just stereotypically annoying characters. We got some insight into why Grandma is so hardcore ("That's for nothing. So watch out!"), and despite her tendency to meddle, Joan's mother said nothing once Joanie had finally thrown the bum out. They're not just shrieky monsters.
  • A tiny note of light comedy in an episode that needed it: Roger skulking after Pete in the hallway as Pete was leaving for the weekend.
  • Loved when Peggy told Roger, "Dazzle me." A very entertaining line in an otherwise compellingly dark hour.
  • The dinner at the Italian restaurant: Worst family dinner ever? Which Joan's mom lamely tried to rescue with small talk. "You know, Joanie plays the accordion!"
  • Jon Hamm said in this interview that there would be a "holy shit" moment in this episode. I certainly know what he meant now.
  • Seriously, child-care in the Francis home is just a little deficient: Baby Gene was wandering around a room in which a huge carving knife was on a low table.
  • Oh, poor Sally. The image of her under that couch is just so damn sad.
  • Lots of beds and bedrooms in this episode, being talked about or rested on or used for any number of purposes. We normally think of beds as a place of refuge, but they weren't in this hour. No wonder I couldn't sleep.
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