Mad Men Recap: Fever Dreams

Mad Men
Mad Men
Episode Title
Mystery Date

A purse on a table and a dead woman's shoe poking out from under a bed: These are the images that keep reappearing when I think about "Mystery Date." Co-written by Victor Levin and and series creator Matthew Weiner and directed by Matt Shakman, this episode is a fine example of what the show is and how it works. It delivers plenty of dramatic incidents — so many that if you'd never watched an episode before, you'd feel as though the main rap against Mad Men, that it's just an intellectualized soap opera, is right on the money. But it also demonstrates that this series, like its main stylistic predecessor The Sopranos, is more than the sum of its melodrama. It's always operating on the edge of metaphor while maintaining plausible deniability.

On a pure plot level, there's plenty to talk about. Roger, who has always been borderline useless, seems headed for a disastrous reckoning thanks to his utter non-engagement with the Mohawk account; this is the second episode this season in which he's flat-out bribed another character (in this case Peggy) to get what he wants. The fissures that opened up between newlyweds Don and Megan in the pilot widen thanks to a chance encounter between Don and an old flame, Andrea (Madchen Amick of Twin Peaks!) in an elevator; Don, who's operating at half-strength thanks to some sort of flu bug, goes home and has a grotesque and meaning-packed dream about her.

Joan's husband Greg returns home from Vietnam and shows that he's still the same pig he was before he shipped out; when Joan realizes that he's more interested in feeding his masculine insecurities than in being a good husband and father, she tells him to leave and never come back. But this episode's horror movie visuals, crackpot film-noir moments (especially the femme-fatale-from-hell dream sequence) and plentiful references to the history and culture of that part of 1966 confirm that there's more going on than who's sleeping with whom and who's screwing up which account.

You can make a case for "Mystery Date" as an extended analogy for the psyche of circa-1966 white, middle-class America, which seems oblivious to the wave of political and sociological chaos that had already engulfed it and that was about to flip a lot of received wisdom upside-down. As my colleague Deborah Lipp writes at Press Play, "The swirling mass of chaos that is 1966 is affecting all the characters. Divorce, Vietnam, racial tension, sexual anxiety, promiscuity, rape, violence, drugs, the generation gap: they're all here." There's much discussion of random, horrific violence (everybody's talking about Richard Speck's July 14, 1966 murder of eight nurses in Chicago), but this happens at the same time as a wave of racial violence that only the new secretary Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris) seems attuned to. The script hints at two separate and unequal racial realities in the early scene where the copywriters gather around to gawk at Speck crime scene pictures that Peggy's friend, the photographer Joyce Ramsa (Zosia Mamet), has smuggled in; the scene confirms that the white characters and the media they consume don't really care what's happening in black America unless it affects them directly, and these murders are more random, terrifying and real to most of them than the more oblique menaces of racial injustice and civil unrest. (Joyce predicts that the murders will push the 1966 Cleveland race riots off Time's cover that week in sporting language better suited to discussions of competing NFL teams or Best Picture nominees.)

The overnight bonding session between Peggy and Dawn, who sleeps at Peggy's apartment because the riots have made her afraid to travel home to Harlem late at night, casts the black-white social divide into sharp relief. The moment where Peggy instantly seems to understand why Dawn is scared, then realizes that she actually doesn't have a clue, is one of the show's best historically conscious bits of screenwriting; it's attuned to 1966 specifics without being too on-the-nose (though it comes perilously close at times). The button at the end of that subplot — Peggy considering taking her purse out of the living room for fear that Dawn will steal from her, then being mortified by her own impulses and deciding to leave it there — is a sharp example of how even the most ostentatiously liberal white folks can harbor racist attitudes.

The subplot also links feminism and the struggle for racial equality without making a simplistic, "Yay, sisterhood!" analogy. In the scene between drunk Peggy and the more wary Dawn on Peggy's couch, Peggy reaches out to Dawn, recognizing her as a working woman surrounded by testosterone-addled alpha males, and offers to help her become a copywriter, a job Dawn evidently doesn't want. "I know we're not really in the same situation," Peggy tells her, "but I was the only one like me there for a long time. I know it's hard." "I appreciate that," Dawn says. After offering to help Dawn become a copywriter and being very politely rebuffed, Peggy asks her, "Do you think I act like a man?" "I guess you have to, a little," Dawn says, not quite answering the question; her quietly diplomatic responses here are just right. "I tried, but I don't know if I really have it in me," Peggy continues. "I don't know if I want to."

This scene, which wouldn't have happened if Dawn and Peggy weren't frightened of physical violence at the hands of men, ties the Richard Speck material and the extended fever-dream sequences with Don and Andrea. Both are aspects of the show's ongoing fascination with sexism, and more specifically with men's sexual and economic fear of assertive women. Just as Pete and other agency employees were inordinately scared of Peggy — and until recently tried to keep her in "her place" with locker-room banter and posturing — a lot of the show's male characters have periodically used sexual violence to terrorize and break sexually assertive women. I'm thinking especially of a couple of incidents from season two, Don's punitive groping of Bobbie Barrett (which Time Out New York's Andrew Johnston described as Don "us[ing] his masculinity as a literal blunt instrument") and Joan's rape on the office floor by her then-fiancé Greg Harris (Samuel Page). The latter is referenced in the final scene between Joan and her husband, who volunteered for another year of service without consulting her, denying her agency in a nonviolent way just as he'd done physically in that attack near the end of season two. As my predecessor Emily Nussbaum wrote in a 2008 piece about Joan's rape, "Joan’s power turned against her. And what made it particularly cruel was that her fiancé’s assault was a poisoned parody of the boss-secretary role-play that was her specialty, forced on her by someone who wanted to humiliate her for her history. Joan had always emphasized the importance of discretion, and now she was locked into a different kind of secret: If she had screamed, she would have been office gossip, and no one would have called it rape anyway." "You're not a good man," Joan tells Greg, by way of kicking him to the curb. "You never were, even before we were married, and you know what I'm talking about."

Don's fever dream, which feels "real" because there's no visual tell signifying that a dream sequence has started, melds the Speck murder, the rioting, and a vague and all-encompassing feeling that there's some awful threat forever lurking just beyond the boundaries of our perception, something that could spring up at any moment and destroy us. Andrea just seems to magically appear at Don and Megan's apartment like a succubus summoned by Don's repressed horn-dog urges. She's a film noir siren made hideous, so sexually insatiable that she seems more a projection of Don's own urge to conquer and possess women sexually. When she wriggles into bed with the sweaty, miserable Don, refusing to take no for an answer, even though he looks like he's at death's door, Don suddenly seems as paralyzed by terror as Joan on that office floor. It's as if he's being raped by his own masculine urges. When Don strangles the dream version of Andrea — a moment that reminded me of Tony Soprano nearly strangling his mistress Gloria to death in season 3 of The Sopranos when it became clear that she wouldn't end the relationship on his terms — the undercurrent of potentially homicidal male sexual panic that always courses beneath the surface of Mad Men breaks through and wreaks havoc.

It's a deeply problematic moment, maybe too overtly symbolic for its own good, but thrilling for that very reason; I love it when a TV show throws caution to the wind and tells the audience, in effect, "We know what our themes are; now let's set them out on this table, cut them open and look at their innards." When Don chokes the dream Andrea, it's a personal, character-specific moment, like a lucid dream that interprets itself as you're having it. But it also ties in with the show's historical-cultural fascinations. Don is psychically attacking the potentially happiness-destroying part of himself. He's battling the sexual compulsions that have always made him a rotten candidate for matrimony — impulses that Megan correctly identified in that early scene where Andrea slinks up to Don in the elevator, completely ignoring Megan and behaving as if they're still an item. But the image also works as comment on the darkness that seemed to be reaching out toward the once-protected bourgeois circa 1966, and as a kind of preemptive critique of certain tendencies on Mad Men. The show is highlighting one of the ugliest parts of its image in order to explore it and (hopefully) own it. The two overhead shots of Don and Megan's bed post murder — the one with the high-heeled shoe poking out, and the one without — also have a dream-logic potency. The shot without the foot suggests that the tendencies have been repressed for now, subsumed beneath the veneer of normalcy.

All the material in this episode dealing with crime, oppression, repression, and fear also shows how images of violence, whether real-life or fictional, can infect everyday thoughts, and even enter fantasies and nightmares and contaminate them. One of the many things I liked about "Mystery Date" is how it foregrounds Mad Men's imaginative power over its loyal viewers. A show that gets into our heads is doing an episode about the shows inside its characters' heads. Matthew Weiner's series often includes scenes that feel like borderline meta-commentary on Mad Men, and on pop culture in general. This episode had two doozies. One is the Don-Andrea extended dream sequence. The other is the scene where Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce employees gather to gawk over photos of the Speck murders. Many of the characters in the latter scene — Peggy especially — have demonstrated sensitivity to other people's misfortune in the past. But here, virtually to a man and woman, they all treat the crime scene photos with detached fascination. It's just something ugly and spectacular to look at; they seem to treat is an abstraction — a real-world version of the shower scene in Psycho or the murders in Peeping Tom, both of which were viewed through the eyes of a viewer (or filmmaker) surrogate. It's only later, when characters are alone in the dark, that the true horror of the crime sinks in and deforms their thoughts. "All those young innocent women in their nurse uniforms, stirring his desire," says Sally Draper's grandmother, feeding the girl's terrified fascination with the Speck killings before handing her half a Seconal. Sweet dreams.