Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sleeping With Mad Men: Mystery Date Reviewed

In Mad Men's Season 5 premiere, I remarked that everything happened around all these characters. The world was moving, and Matthew Weiner's creations, some of the most fully realized characters in TV, were intractably themselves. If there's one thing we can count on from Mad Men, it's a consistent theme of returning to the mean. Everyone is who they are, and Weiner doesn't let them change. In "Mystery Date," the world is still changing - we get our most direct story-lines about Vietnam and race yet - but the characters are even less capable of acting. They're all asleep.

Don's dream sequence is the second time in the past two weeks we've seen the show go to this trope, and it does come off as tired. Everyone knew Don would struggle with remaining faithful to Megan. Don Draper is a cheater, and no matter how open he is with his wife, even if she knows him as Dick Whitman, Don Draper will always on some level be a cheater. As should surprise no one, Don's admission was a manipulation. He's not absolved himself of anything by being honest with Megan about his past, but merely tried to convince her that he's changed from the philanderer he once was by being open with her. Maybe he holds out, and maybe he values his new wife more than Betty, but he is still Don.

Don's a self-made man in every sense of the term, and he doesn't like the past returning to haunt him. In one of the great early season episodes, when confronted by his brother Don buys him off to leave him alone (but the scene is constructed such that Don could be bringing either a gun or a wad of cash to the reunion. In either scenario, Don would emerge untethered). Unfortunately, for Don's desires to only see the future, he seems to have slept with half the women of Manhattan, and this leads to what we can presume to be a few awkward encounters with his new wife. When she sends him home sick, he dreams that one of his old conquests shows up (the same woman, Andrea, whom Don and Megan had encountered in the elevator). First, Don tries to force Andrea out of his apartment, but we know that's doomed. She comes back and Don succumbs to the old Don and sleeps with her, and then in the dream's third act Don kills her and forces her sloppily under the bed. He's literally trying to kill his past, but the significance of the foot hanging out from beneath is huge. No matter how hard he tries, he can't fully escape himself.

Okay, so the episode probably could have dealt with this in a more subtle way, but Weiner chose to give it to us in a dream, maybe tricking the viewer into thinking that Don was actually cheating. He's not (yet), but he's not the open book with his new wife he thinks he is. Bodies under beds dovetails nicely to Sally Draper's plotline, which literally ends with her sleeping under a couch. In a bit of salacious news (presumably again ripped from the headlines of 1966, though I haven't checked) which dominates the show, some sicko has kidnapped 9 women, killing and raping 8 (the last escaped by hiding under her bed). Sally, like Don, tries to act like something she's not, a grownup, and is spooked by the story, only to be mollified by some grandmotherly-dispersed medication that has her hiding under a bed as well.

Peggy, too, is having trouble pretending to be something she's not: a man. I was pleased to see her in a rare position of power, almost lording her abilities over Roger who was stuck in a bind, but she has some misgiving about wheeling and dealing to keep up in the workplace. The real meat of the episode comes in her interactions with Dawn, Don's new (black) secretary. Working late, Peggy discovers Dawn sleeping in Don's office, afraid to go home because the subway's unsafe and cabs won't take her north of 96th. Peggy, who knows what it's like to be the only one of something in the SCDP offices, sees a kindred spirit and invites/insists upon Dawn to stay the night at Peggy's place. There are power dynamics at play among Peggy and Dawn, just as there are among Peggy and the office in reverse, as Dawn always defers to Peggy, but Peggy genuinely empathizes with Dawn. Crucially, though, she still isn't certain that she should leave her purse full of cash out. She does, but the moment's tense.

As I said earlier, this storyline was as close as Mad Men has come to confronting race (the riots in Chicago are in full swing), and this episode didn't stop with politics there. Joan's husband, Greg, is back from his position as a medic in the army, but he's headed back out for another year, which comes as a shock to Joan. Even more shocking is that Greg is leaving by choice, because in the army for the first time it seems, he's respected.  He tells Joan that he has his orders and she has hers. Joan, at home with a newborn that isn't Greg's, sleeps on it and decides to kick Greg out, and he leaves Joan to lie in bed facing an uncertain future.

Don came back from war literally a new man (no longer Dick Whitman), but Greg returned just the same. Before getting married he raped Joan on an office floor and also proved himself to be a lousy surgeon. Just as Don is Don, Greg is Greg, and he's not a great guy (he made the decision to go to war in the first place without consulting Joan). Joan didn't get what she thought she was signing up for in Greg, and now she has an infant, a pushy mother, and a whole lot of questions. So to recap: Don chokes his past away while asleep, Sally has a hard time sleeping facing the realities of the world, Peggy and Dawn sleep at her apartment, bonding slightly over shared difficulties in their station, and Joan sleeps fitfully and decides to kick her husband out, finishing the episode in bed and still wide awake. It's getting harder to sleep soundly in the world of Mad Men.

A few added thoughts:

  • I didn't give a lot of my opinion of the merits of this episode. I thought it was a good but not stellar episode. The themes were a little too on point again, and I'm not sure where this season is headed. I'm optimistic, though.
  • I have a hunch part of the contract negotiations that held up Mad Men's return stipulated that certain characters basically sit out episodes. We hardly saw Pete, didn't see Trudy or Lane, and only saw Betty and Henry at the very end of the episode. It may be because Mad Men simply has too many characters (and Ginsberg is a great addition to the staff, but is yet another character to include), but that's my theory anyway.
  • Anyone else think Peggy might make a pass at Dawn? 
  • The accordion at dinner was a nice touch, Weiner.
  • I hope that's the last dream sequence of the season. Two is plenty. I hope this whole "death of the American dream" thing doesn't become too literal.
  • The elder Mrs. Francis' line delivery of "You just can't" when discussing raping 9 girls was hysterical. I wonder what the cut-off number for that statement would be in her mind.

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