Mad Men: “Mystery Date” (Episode 5.04)

TV Reviews Mad Men
Mad Men: “Mystery Date” (Episode 5.04)

If you look closely enough, you’ll find that every Mad Men episode has some overarching theme to it, whether it’s a lesson we’re supposed to glean or just a general mood or feeling that hangs over all the action. Sometimes it’s more obvious (see last week’s not-so-subtle hour on aging), but the truly artful episodes are the ones that seamlessly blend action and theme, allowing for significant character development and then delicately tying it all together, often with a single line.

Joan’s mother had that line this week, and it was kind of perfect. After Greg (who’s home on leave) and Joan have an explosive fight over the fact that he’s volunteered to return to Vietnam for a year, Greg storms out. “You should lie down,” she tells a livid Joan. “You don’t even know how tired you are.”

It’s true; Joan’s spent her entire marriage trying to convince herself and others that she’s happy. She’s been so committed to the charade that perhaps she didn’t even realize just how miserable she really was. When Greg arrives home, she greets him with a big smile and a fancy outfit, and he briefly meets his son (or, let’s be real: Roger’s son) before the two make a beeline for the bedroom. But even their passion seems forced; it feels like they’re doing it because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do after being apart for so long. Later, it’s revealed over dinner (in front of the entire family, no less) that Greg volunteered to extend his time at war, and poor Joan’s forced to endure a serenade by an accordion player—an allusion to season three’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” when her husband made her play the accordion and sing for their guests despite her obvious humiliation. All Joanie’s marital low points seem to be soundtracked by that cursed instrument.

After her mother tells her to lie down, Joan does—and she sleeps late. In the morning, however, it seems she has realized how tired she is. She’s tired of pretending, tired of bending over backwards to please her husband, tired of making excuses for him, so she tells him to leave and never come back. She even (sort of) finally acknowledges that time he raped her in Don’s office way back in season two, saying, “You’ve never been a good man. Even before we were married. And you know what I’m talking about.”

Joan wasn’t the only one who spent much of this episode lying down. Don’s got the flu, and after running into an ex-lover in the elevator and fighting with Megan about it, he goes home to try to sleep it off. He’s awakened by a knock on the door—it’s Andrea (the old flame), and she’s here to have her way with him. Don gives in, but when it’s over, Andrea won’t leave, insisting that she wants to continue their affair. In one of the series’ most shocking and brilliant scenes, a desperate Don strangles his mistress to keep her quiet before, disgusted with himself, kicking her lifeless body underneath the bed. Later we see that it was all just a fever dream. But perhaps it was one Don needed to have to realize that he, too, is tired. He’s tired of lying—tired of running around and having to cover his every footstep—and when Megan explains he was in a pretty bad state for a while, he looks her square in the eyes and says, “You don’t have to worry about me.”

Part of what made Don’s dream so eerie was the way it paralleled the real-life crime that the rest of the episode’s action was centered around. The 1966 Richard Speck murders—during which Speck raped, tortured and killed eight nursing students in Chicago—serve as the backdrop this week. Sally, scared by what she read in the newspaper, can’t sleep, and the murders provide a twisted way for her to bond with her step-grandmother. Meanwhile, Peggy discovers that Don’s new secretary Dawn has been sleeping in the office because she doesn’t have a safe way to get home. The whole episode was brilliantly shot; at times there was an almost Hitchcockian feel to it, thanks largely to little touches like reversed point-of-view shots and close-ups of hands on doorknobs that added an air of suspense not usually present on Mad Men.

But perhaps the scariest part of this episode was the fact that, for a second at least, we all really did believe Don was capable of murder. He’s already demonstrated he’d do nearly anything to preserve his identity and keep his family intact; when his brother tracked him down in season one, he paid him to disappear forever, directly resulting in the younger Whitman’s decision to commit suicide. It doesn’t seem like too big of a stretch that, in a moment of desperation, he’d kill to keep the charade of an idyllic home life going. We know it, and—here’s the important part—Don knows it now, too. He’s managed to scare himself, and now he’s tired of his old ways. Turns out all he needed to do was lie down to find out just how tired he really was.

Stray observations:
– I love the fact that in an episode where most of the characters were both physically and metaphorically tired, Sally’s the only one (besides Henry’s mother) who spends it awake. All the adults are running out of steam, sick of their own bullshit, but Sally’s just getting started. She’s gotten a little taste of the grown-up world now, and while it horrifies her, it also keeps her up at night, giving her a little rush of adrenaline while everyone around her starts to disengage with the lives they’ve built for themselves.

– Peggy’s interactions with Dawn indicated that maybe she’s a little tired of constantly trying to hang with the boys. She drinks a little too much (as all the office does, as Dawn points out) before asking Dawn if she acts like a man. Then, as she’s about to retire for bed, there’s an awkward moment in which she eyes her purse, debating whether to leave it out in front of Dawn or not (which mirrors Lane’s wallet situation from the season premiere). Have her coworkers’ prejudices started to wear off on her? She goes to bed for the night, and perhaps she too realizes how tired she is. When she wakes up to a thank you note from Dawn, she’s clearly remorseful.

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