Sunday, April 8, 2012

"Mad Men" Review: "Mystery Date" (Season 5 Episode 4) - "Why can't you leave me alone?"

As Joan Holloway, Christina Hendricks gets some bad news...

The long-awaited fifth season of Mad Men continues, and I’m reviewing and analyzing every episode as it airs!  Tonight, we’re taking an in-depth look at the season’s fourth hour, the fantastic “Mystery Date,” which I believe is the best episode of the season so far.  To give the hour a proper analysis, this review contains heavy spoilers, so don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode.

Spoilers for “Mystery Date” after the jump….

Don: “Why can’t you leave me alone?”
Andrea: “I can’t.”
Don: “You have to.”

Mad Men is a show about change.  Being set in the 1960s, it has to be, but the irony of the program is that it’s never been overly concerned with the decade’s massive social upheavals.  It is, instead, a story about personal change, about a group of deeply flawed human beings trying desperately to become better and often failing in their endeavors.  The 1960s backdrop is used primarily because, as a decade of attempted sexual, economic, and social liberation, it was a period when people started realizing that they could change.  They’re just not very good at it, and it’s hard to claim that modern Americans are any better, which is the key connection Mad Men has always drawn to the present; humans simply aren’t skilled at self-improvement.

So what is it that’s prevented characters like Don, Joan, and Roger from achieving meaningful change in their lives?  That’s the question “Mystery Date” – a fantastic hour of television that stands as my favorite episode of the season so far – sets out to answer.  The conclusion drawn is simple for the omniscient audience to understand, even if it still escapes many of the characters: all of these people have something simmering below their surface, a dark force that threatens to consume them.  They are, for the most part, aware of this force – Don and infidelity, Peggy and insecurity, Joan and her horrible rapist husband – but have chosen to ignore the problem or bury it as deep down as they can.  And that, more than any other factor, is what’s holding these people back.  Don’s illusion of Andrea is absolutely correct when she asserts that she cannot leave Don alone: these people will never achieve significant change if they don’t confront their own flaws, fears, and failings, one step at a time.

The theme is most clearly articulated in Joan’s story, and it’s no coincidence that she’s the first character to take charge and actively confront the problem in her life, a problem she’s been repressing for a very long time: her wicked, cruel, petty husband, Dr. Greg. 

As awesome a woman as Joan may be, she’s always been defined by her inability to think outside the social box.  She understands that box better than any other person on the show, and in the early seasons navigated this world with ease and precision, but unlike Peggy, who took charge and broke down barriers to find a fulfilling career, Joan ultimately decided she had to follow social norms, and thus found a ‘good husband’ in Dr. Greg.  Shortly before they were married, however – in one of the show’s most disturbing scenes – Greg raped Joan on the floor of Don’s office.  Joan has never spoken of it again, went through with the wedding as planned, and has tried to build a stable home over the last two seasons, but for the audience, Greg’s horrifying act of evil has always been there, just beneath the surface, coloring all their interactions in an unsettling light.  I’ve always believed that the incident has weighed just as heavily on Joan’s heart as it has on ours, but she wants so badly to progress along the rigid social track she’s accustomed to that she’s refused to confront it all this time. 

The trend seemed to continue when Dr. Greg returned from Vietnam in tonight’s episode; Joan did everything and more that a loving wife could do for her ‘heroic’ husband, yet in the end, it all boiled down to sex once more for him – notice how quickly he looses interest in his son when it’s clear he and Joan might have some ‘alone time’ – and outside of the bedroom, he couldn’t even pay his spouse enough attention to explain that he’d volunteered for an additional year of service (Greg has his own denial issues, insisting that Vietnam isn’t dangerous and is a just war).  After two season of watching Joan roll over and take such abuse, I prepared myself for more heartbreak, to watch her once again repress all her problems rather than confront them.

Instead?  We got what might be the most applause-worthy, satisfying moment in five seasons of Mad Men:

“You’re not a good man.  You never were.  Even before we were married.  And you know what I’m talking about.”

That’s right, Joan finally stood up for herself and threw Dr. Greg out.  She is no longer pushing all her doubts and fears down as far as they will go, but letting them rise to the surface so that she can learn from them and make meaningful change.  Joan has always been a strong woman, but until she stopped lying to herself, that strength was never going to come in handy.  Viewers will have different opinions on what finally compelled Joan to take this radical step – Greg’s actions here weren’t significantly worse than what he’s done in the past – but for me, I think it all comes back to the baby.  It may be Roger’s illegitimate child, but Joan went through with the pregnancy hoping it would improve her marriage to Greg.  When it became clear that Greg had little to no interest in the child or in taking care of his new family, I think it all clicked into place, and Joan saw clearly for the first time in years. 

The rest of the cast hasn’t reached such significant turning points yet, but over the course of the episode, we gain much clearer insight into the repressed flaws holding the characters back.  A drunk Peggy admits she’s insecure about her status at the agency, and confesses how hard it is to be a working woman in a man’s world; Ginsberg turns out to be the talented advertiser we were promised, but his nervous ticks and inability to control himself around others threatens to undo him very quickly (“In my heart, I’m on the verge of throwing you in front of a cab”); pre-teen Sally, as we’ve always expected, is on the precipice of full-scale rebellion, with her stern grandmother being the only adult to recognize such danger stemming from the girl’s unhealthy upbringing; and we’ve already discussed Roger’s problems – pettiness, lethargy, bouts of toxically low self-esteem – at length this season.  None of these characters can look beneath their surface and deal with what’s there, so instead they suppress their problems and move on, and it isn’t healthy.

And Don “Dick Whitman” Draper, of course, is the master of repressing complex identity issues.

With Megan, Don has once again tried to get a fresh, healthy start in his life, and so far, he’s taken many of the right steps.  His proposal may have been hasty and impulsive, but he and Megan have so far been happy together, and he’s been open and communicative with her in ways he’s never been before.  He’s truly made progress.  But there’s one question that’s been eating away at the audience, and in tonight’s episode, we learn it’s been eating away at Don as well: can he be faithful this time? 

Don: “It happened a long time ago, and I was unhappy.”
Megan: “Because you were married?”

A chance encounter with an old flame, Andrea, reminds Don of his past and immediately makes him insecure.  Megan is initially perturbed – and to my mind, she absolutely should be, at least to keep her new husband on his toes – but quickly gets over it, while Don can’t get his mind off the mistakes of the past.  While Don is home sick, those mistakes manifest themselves in an allegorical delirium: a vision of Andrea comes to Don’s apartment, Don tries and fails to resist her, and ultimately strangles her to death when she refuses to leave.  The symbolism isn’t hard to interpret.  Don is very aware of his many sexual sins, and he’s terrified he lacks the discipline to defy future temptation.  He fails the test presented in his hallucination, and is so angry with himself that he fights back violently.  In that moment, Andrea isn’t a stand-in for any of his many concubines, but for the part of Don’s personality he can’t control, a piece of his own psyche he’d like nothing more than to strangle.

The fact that Don is grappling with this issue at all shows a certain amount of self-awareness, even if it is subconscious, and one could read the experience as a positive one: rather than accept his mistakes, Don chooses to fight.  But the last thing Don does with Andrea changes the path of this narrative: he shoves the body under the bed and goes back to sleep.  Once again, he’s hiding his problems away instead of confronting them, just as all our characters have done for the past five seasons.  The image is mirrored moments later when we see Sally hiding under the couch, retreating back to subtle forms of rebellion rather than learn from her experience with her grandmother.  The difference, of course, is that Sally is just a child.  The adults should know better than to repress and run away, yet in even the simplest of matters – such as giving serious consideration to a ghastly, violent news story – facing reality is a chore. 

But Joan broke through that barrier; Don is making progress; Sally may have found a positive influence in her life in her grandmother; Peggy confessed her doubts, etc.  It may be slim, but there’s hope yet for these characters, and we’re only four hours into the season.  There’s still plenty of time to move forward before all is said and done.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men"


--So, can we have a dialogue between Peggy and Roger every week from now on?  Their scene last week was the highlight of the episode, and Peggy slowly but surely working $400 dollars out of Roger in tonight’s hour stands as one of my all-time favorite Mad Men moments.  Those two have tremendous chemistry and impeccable banter skills, and bring out the comedic best in one another.  Really hope we get more in the weeks ahead.
--Continuing our theme of characters failing to look beneath the surface: I really loved the subplot between Peggy and Dawn (the secretary).  In addition to the aforementioned drunk-Peggy material (which was absolute gold), the scenes also demonstrated that even though Peggy is much more socially conscious than her colleagues, even she has trouble giving serious consideration to Dawn’s troubles.  Peggy gave Dawn a place to stay, yes, but still insisted on talking about her own issues, which are extremely minor relative to the immediate danger in Dawn’s life - and, of course, there's the moment where Peggy fails to resist a racist impulse, fearing Dawn may steal from her purse.  At least Peggy has the clarity to be ashamed of this feeling, which is more than can be said for much of the ensemble.  
--Betty was absent again this week, as with the premiere, and once again, the Betty-free episode turned out to be fantastic.  With last week’s Betty-centric episode being fairly lackluster, I have to wonder if Betty really has become in irreparable detriment to this show.  The lives of every other cast member are just so, so much more compelling that even relatively strong Betty material seems to pale in comparison. 
--I don’t single out the performances for praise that much in these reviews – the whole cast is always fabulous, so it would only sound repetitive if I did – but I must give a special shout-out to the ‘Mad Women’ tonight.  Christina Hendricks in particular becomes an early Emmy favorite if this is her submission episode (and if she gets anything better, I’d say she’s a lock); Elizabeth Moss was fantastic playing multiple fun flavors of Peggy; and I can never say enough good things about young Kiernan Shipka as Sally.  She’s giving a truly great performance, and we don’t even need to grade it on the standard child-actor curve.  Sally is, at this point, just as compelling as anyone else, and I can’t wait to see more of her. 

Come back next Sunday night for my review of
Episode 5, “Signal 30”

“Mad Men” reviews will go up every Sunday night an hour or two after the episode airs


  1. I found the scene on the sofa where Henry's mother brandishes a knife because she has frightened herself and Sally about the mass murderer, then gives the child--and herself--a Seconal (do you know how to take a pill?) extremely disturbing and not at all a grandmotherly event.

  2. I read the scene differently; I thought that the Grandmother was being there for Sally exactly as she should through most of the episode: stern and disciplined, but when Sally was scared, she created the girl like an adult and told her what happens. In short, the Grandmother showed Sally a level of respect that neither Betty nor Don have ever afforded her. And once they had the talk, I don't think Sally was scared anymore, at least not of the news item. She stays under the couch because she's scared of Betty, as we've known for a long time.

    I saw nothing wrong with the Grandmother wielding a knife. She's worried about her granddaughter's safety, and has a weapon. She's not using it on the child. She's not using it at all. It's just a precaution. A little bit odd, perhaps? Yeah, sure, but not disturbing.

    As for the Seconal, no, that's not good parenting behavior by our standards, but for an elderly woman in 1966, it wouldn't be the big deal we'd see it as today. She was just trying to help her granddaughter sleep - in that time period, she wouldn't be considering things like pill addiction, or overdosing, or dependency, or any of the other issues most people are fully aware of today. It's similar to when Sally tried smoking in (I believe) season 2, and Betty was worried about her making a mess, not about irreparable damage to her daughter's lungs. It's just the times.