Last night’s episode of Mad Men featured another bit of history, Richard Speck raping and murdering eight Chicago nursing students in the summer of 1966, and wove it into the narratives of the characters’ lives in both specific and abstract ways.
I thought “Mystery Date” was artfully done, and there was a lot of plot movement in a lot of different storylines.
Let’s start with Sally, since she was the character most directly effected by learning of the murders, and her storyline gave the episode its name. She was staying at Casa Francis with her new grandmother, Grandma Pauline – Henry’s mother who has a tense relationship with Betty.
Scary Bedtime Stories
Pauline thinks Sally needs discipline in her life, because Sally has never had any rules and Pauline grew up with a father who would kick her across the room just for the hell of it. “That’s for nothing, so look out” is the kind of lesson that results in a Grandma Pauline. Her demands for Sally weren’t outrageous – take out the trash, eat your sandwich, watch less TV, etc. And she was right in shielding Sally from the terrifying news that eight women had been raped and killed for no reason. Sally is growing up, but she doesn’t yet need to know that these things can just happen, to anyone, for no reason.
Sally read the newspaper and couldn’t sleep, so eventually Pauline gave her a pill. Only in the 60s would a woman be as strict as can be when it comes to eating the crusts on a sandwich, but then turn around and hand a kid a sleeping pill. When Betty and Henry arrived home, Pauline was passed out on the couch and Sally was asleep under it.
I liked the Sally storyline a lot, and I especially loved her phone call to Don early in the episode. Sally still feels shafted by Betty, as her mother calls her brother at camp every day – probably because he keeps wetting himself – but barely gives her daughter a second glance. After the ice cream sundae scene last week and the sandwich thing this week I was worried Sally might be developing an eating disorder, but I don’t think that’s where they’re going. Still, as Sally gets older the damage her distant parents have inflicted on her will show itself somehow.
On the way into work, Don and Megan ran into one of Don’s ex-lovers in the elevator. (It was Sherry from Gilmore Girls – does she always play people so unlikable?) The scene was awkward in so many ways. When the woman enters the elevator Megan is standing far away from Don because of his cold, so you wouldn’t expect them to be husband and wife. The experience was just uncomfortable and embarrassing enough to ruffle Megan’s feathers without giving her a reason to be too angry. She knows what a philanderer Don was when he was married to Betty. Now he’s married to her, and this is embarrassing. But she chose to marry him, and she knows there’s nothing she can do but trust him.
Don powers through a meeting with a shoe company, yells at Ginsburg for selling the execs on a new pitch once they’d already made a successful one, and goes home to bed.
Don’s ex arrived at his home, essentially forcing himself on her. Knowing Megan was about to come home and knowing that she’d assume the worst, he demanded the ex leave and had her exit through the service elevator. Was this part real or dreamed? I’m pretty sure it was also a dream, but I don’t know for sure.
Later, Don wakes up thinking Megan is home, but it’s again the ex. I’m glad that we were never truly expected to believe this was happening. By now it was clear that it was a dream, and had it not been I think the storyline would have seemed really cheap and gimmicky. But this was about Don and his inner demons. In his woozy, feverish state he dreamed that he had sex with the woman and then strangled her after she said things about how sick he was, how he’d make this mistake again and again. These are Don’s fears. He couldn’t be a better man when he was with Betty, but he’s trying again with Megan and he’s terrified of failing.
Later Don woke up to learn that Megan had been there all along. It wasn’t a surprise to the viewers, but it was interesting to see Don go through the realization that it was all in his head.
I think what I liked best about this storyline was that it showed Megan can be up to the task of going toe to toe with Don. She made it clear that she wouldn’t tolerate the same philandering crap that he’d dished out to Betty. She made it clear that he couldn’t blame all of that behavior on his relationship with Betty. But Megan also made it clear that she’s an adult, and she can move on. She didn’t sulk or pout like Betty would have.
Meanwhile, Peggy had some incredibly likable and rather unlikable (but realistic) moments in this episode. Spending a late night in the office alone is rarely a good idea when you’ve spent the afternoon staring at unpublishable photos of a gruesome murder scene courtesy of your pal Joyce. But stay Peggy did, after an incredibly endearing exchange with Roger Sterling that has given us the gift of this gif.
Peggy, purse full of Roger’s $400 payoff, heard a noise and thought it was a murderer, only to discover it was really Don’s secretary Dawn. Dawn was spending the night in the office, something that sadly happens a lot, because her brother thinks the subway is unsafe (murders) and cabs won’t take her past 96th street (riots). Peggy invites Dawn home, an offer that is miles beyond what most people would do. But their conversations were so revealing.
Peggy understands what it’s like to feel different, even to feel oppressed, because she was once the only female copywriter. But Peggy knows that she can’t really know what it’s like to be Dawn, for so many reasons. Dawn’s challenges are far more difficult than Peggy’s. Their personalities are different – the way Peggy keeps cutting off Dawn, even though she doesn’t mean to be rude, is a good touch. Peggy asks Dawn if she wants to be a copywriter almost assuming that she’ll say yes but Dawn has no interest in moving up, at least not right now. She’s still happy to have the job she has, because she was the lucky one – think of all those people who showed up to apply after the “equal opportunity” ad.
Even though Dawn and Peggy formed a bond, there was still a moment at the end of the night when Peggy was hesitant to leave her purse in the room with Dawn. I thought there were a lot of layers in this one, tiny, significant moment. $400 is a lot of money to Peggy, and I think she’d be hesitant to leave it in the room with any stranger. But of course, of course, race played a major role in Peggy’s fears. Peggy is one of, if not the most likable character on Mad Men. She is forward thinking and young, she has a boyfriend who covers the riots in Chicago and she thinks that makes her cool. But she’s still a product of her time, she still cannot escape prejudice and stigma. I’m glad the show did this with Peggy, because it shows that even someone who’s been the product of discrimination can still discriminate. And then the best part, that Peggy was immediately ashamed of herself, and tried to cover up her moment of racism by clearing the beer bottles from the table.
In the morning Dawn had left, leaving a nice thank you note atop her purse.
We’ve known Greg is awful for a long time. He raped her and made her play the accordion for company, two things that are unforgivable on completely different scales. Greg is a terrible husband, he’s a terrible doctor, and he thinks that makes him a terrible man. But the war has made him feel like a big man, and he decided to go back.
I’m sorry that it was that decision that broke the camel’s back for Joan, that it was his decision to leave his family and go back to war. I’m glad she referenced the rape when she told him to leave, because she always knew Greg was not a good man. She knew long before he chose to leave his family.
Greg has been gone for a while (and the show has been off the air for longer) so it was possible, at first, to think he could be a good husband. In the glow of returning home to his wife and a new baby that he doesn’t know isn’t his, Greg was nice. Greg was also showing signs of being an alcoholic, so soon I remembered how badly I’d wanted Joan to kick him to the curb in seasons past. In some ways her move felt quick, because often things on Mad Men are a slow burn. But in other ways, this was coming for a long time.
This episode kept a lot of plates spinning with the Sally, Don, Peggy and Joan storylines this week, and there were certainly a lot of tonal shifts as we moved from arc to arc. But I thought it was a success.
Side notes and stray thoughts:
- Ginsburg doesn’t have Don Draper’s charm, but the way he sneakily pitched the Cinderella idea that Don had dismissed as “cliche” was classic Draper. The way he also brushed off Ken Cosgrove’s insistence that he’d almost been fired also showed a Draper-esque confidence.
- But unlike Don, Ginsburg was quick to call out his colleagues on their inappropriate delight over the murder photos. They were excited, not disgusted.
- “Y’all drink a lot.” Yes, Dawn. Get used to it.
- “You know, Joanie plays the accordion.”
- Mad Men knocks it out of the park again with an amazing closing image and song.