The horror of the Richard Speck murders loomed large over the story this week, sending multiple characters scrambling to (or under) their beds after opening the door on a Mystery Date they’d rather not have. Yes, the imagery was perhaps a little obvious and forced (Stan’s stocking head was a bit too on the nose as was the foot sticking out under the bed in light of the Cinderella pitch) but the themes it was exploring were both timely and timeless.
The doors open on the elevator and in steps Andrea, Don’s mystery date, here to wreak havoc. The door opens in Joan’s apartment and in steps Dr. Rape, Joan’s mystery date, here to wreak havoc. The door opens to Don’s office and in steps Peggy, Dawn’s mystery date, here to, well… not so much wreak havoc as to stick her foot in her mouth. And throughout the story sits our narrator, Grandma Pauline, flashlight in one hand and knife in the other, terrifying Sally with lurid details of the murders and then drugging her until she falls asleep huddled under the couch. The theme this episode was violence against women and even Cinderella couldn’t escape a darker fate when seen through the eyes of an SCDP employee.
Megan is coming up against the other big obstacle in her marriage (the first being Dick Whitman): Don’s long history of sexual compulsion and addiction. She once again shows herself to be pretty much perfectly suited to him. She challenges him on things he’d rather not be challenged on; doesn’t back down if she feels it’s important, and refrains from becoming too emotional about it. In other words, she talks about what she’s feeling and doesn’t let those feelings overwhelm her. More importantly, she forces Don to talk about things inside him; his fears, mistakes, and hopes. Betty never managed that (and to be fair to her, Don would never have been as open with her as he is with Megan). Don says he wants to be with her for the rest of his life and we believe him – that he wants it, that is. We simply don’t believe someone with as many demons as Don can just get on with his life without dealing with them or treating them in any way. In the real world, we don’t have such literal dreams that we can “kill” our darker impulses and fears and wake up healed and ready to grow. And Mad Men doesn’t trade in such simplistic life solutions. If anything, the theme of Mad Men has been quite the opposite: people don’t get over their demons; they merely learn (or not) to live with them. Don tells the angelic Megan that she won’t have to worry about him anymore, but come on. Who really believes that? He didn’t “kill” his sexual addiction, he fantasized about it and then shoved it under the bed. This hasn’t put the question of Don’s fidelity to rest; it’s opened it up and put it on the table.
And in fact, certain things about Andrea didn’t quite add up. There were freelance women copywriters utilized by Sterling Cooper six years ago, before Peggy was hired? Since when? She mentioned that he took her on the loading dock of Lincoln Center while his wife waited inside, but which wife? Most of what we consider Lincoln Center wasn’t completed until after the Draper marriage ended. We fear the whole reason Andrea’s presence bothered Don that much wasn’t because she was a dalliance from his distant past, but a dalliance from his recent past. He may have already cheated on Megan.
Across town, Joan is opening the door on her own set of problems. Greg has come back from Vietnam a changed man, but not in the way you would have thought. He’s become rigid and militaristic; highly impressed with himself for accomplishing something after a string of career disappointments. He’s finally found something to make him feel like a man and that has been his driving goal since we met him. Unfortunately for him, his definition of manliness doesn’t line up with Joanie’s and she’s had it with his insecurities constantly threatening to uproot her life or delay her plans. Mad Men is one of – if not the – most feminist television shows in the history of the medium, but even after all the trials and triumphs of its female characters, no moment was more overtly a feminist moment than Joan kicking out Greg. This wasn’t Betty kicking out Don after a decade of lies and adultery, only to run straight into the protective arms of another man. This was a woman looking at her husband and saying “I can do better without you in my life. Get out.”
And like all the other stories this episode, the specter of violence hangs over the Harris household. We didn’t think Joan would ever really bring up her rape again, simply because it would have taken a rare mind to even consider what happened to her to be rape. But Joan knows herself and she knows her husband. He’s not a good man. And good for her for making sure he knows that she never forgot that event and it forever tainted him in her eyes. It was a cheer-worthy moment and we have to say, of all the possible character developments, Joan as a single working mother really makes a ton of sense to us and opens up a lot of story possibilities (not least of which is the Roger question). Even better, she didn’t wait for Vietnam to kill her husband; she took care of it herself. In other words, she chose this path she’s now taking. It doesn’t get more feminist than that.
Peggy, on the other hand, as she so frequently does, takes a moment of career triumph (her scene with Roger was PERFECTION) and, through the power of her own awkward social skills and tendency to be a little self-absorbed, turned it into a night of embarrassment. She wanted Dawn to think that she’s sympathetic to her position and experiences, but with each word and action, she only revealed how out of touch with those experiences she really is and how she’s just as likely as anyone else to contribute to them. She couldn’t just have Dawn over as a co-worker who needed to crash for the night. She had to turn it into a “Let’s talk about how you’re black” conversation and even worse, “Let’s talk about how much I understand what it’s like for you to be black.” Dawn’s discomfort here was palpable. The violence themes weren’t particularly strong in this storyline (except for the brief horror-movie moment when Peggy was in the office alone), but we were struck by how uneasy Dawn looked, stuck in an apartment on a couch with someone who’s practically a stranger to her. And to make matters worse, Peggy all but accused her of wanting to steal her purse. It was an awkward moment made all the more so for its obviousness. To be fair to Peggy, there was a wad of cash in that purse, courtesy of Roger, and she’d have been just as likely to not want to leave it out for any slightly unfamiliar guest. But if it had been some white secretary crashing on the couch, she almost certainly would have found a way to get her purse off the coffee table without making an issue of it. Because of Dawn’s race, all Peggy could do was stare at it and make it perfectly clear why she was doing so. This is the second episode in a row where Peggy’s awkwardness and self-centeredness has caused her to hurt a co-worker’s feelings. With the equally-as-awkward Michael Ginsberg making waves (and let’s face it: his pitches were genius), we’re thinking Peggy’s relational issues are going to be front and center this season. If you base your entire adulthood on a man like Don Draper, it stands to reason you’re going to be dicey at best when it comes to personal relationships.
And finally there’s the supremely damaged Grandma Pauline, who’s so used to the idea of violence that she laughingly tells Sally stories of the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, and like a good victim, relays how good it was for her. And yet, for all the fucked-up things Pauline did this episode (like giving Sally her first -of many, no doubt – taste of recreational drug use), it struck us how her conversation with Sally was some of the most direct, honest dialogue that girl’s ever participated in. No one in Sally’s world really wants to talk to Sally about all the things she’s feeling and seeing. It’s not that Pauline would make a good person to turn to, but it’s a statement on how lonely Sally is that she’s probably her best option for an honest answer. Granted, one conversation with Pauline left Sally drugged and huddled under the couch (again, they weren’t subtle with the imagery this episode), but at least she had an actual conversation with an adult, instead of being told go to her room, go outside, or hang up the phone. Sally’s been the victim of such terrible parenting that her fucked-up and frightening step-grandmother may actually be a good thing for her.
[Photo Credit: amctv.com]