Monday, April 16, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "Mystery Date"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: April 8th, 2012

Mark: You know, despite its title and the amount of time it spends focusing on Don, Roger, Pete and all the other mixed-up dudes in the ad biz, I feel more and more that Mad Men is secretly (or not so secretly) a show about women. Actually, maybe the title is appropriate along those lines, as I believe that Weiner and the other writers do some of their most powerful work when they explore what it means to be a woman in a Mad Mad Mad Man's world.

For the last couple of seasons, Joan has been reaping the whirlwind of female oppression in the Mad Men universe. She hitched her wagon to Dr. Greg even though he was a petty, useless little rapist, because she was told she needed stability and couldn’t have it on her own. Greg was going to be a doctor and provide for Joan, but he couldn’t cut the mustard. After a series of professional humiliations, being the scumbag he is, Greg asserted his dominance on Joan to make himself feel like a man. I thought Mad Men would go the rest of its run without having Joan or Greg reference the rape in Don’s office, so needless to say I was very satisfied to witness Joan throwing Greg out on his ass. Greg turning his back on his family (sure, it’s not really his kid, but he doesn’t know that!) so that he can voluntarily run off to play the big man in Vietnam was really the last straw, and I am relieved and excited for Joan that she took a stand. The final overhead shot of her lying on the bed with the baby and her ridiculous mother was equal parts funny, sad and unnerving. I’m worried for Joan. She’s still living in the patriarchal shell game of 1960s America, but change is on its way, and she is free to take control of her own life when she’s ready. I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of the final shots of the Kill Bill saga, another graceful overhead shot, of Uma Thurman weeping/laughing with joy having completed her bloody journey.

Like Joan, many characters this week were second-guessing the motives of those around them. As the news breaks of the Richard Speck murders in Chicago, a tense undercurrent of paranoia starts to run through the episode. On a side note, I have to say I’m really loving Michael Ginsberg. He’s a hot shot, and he went over Don’s head to a client (a definite no-no), but this guy’s got layers right off the bat. Maybe he’s just a normal person, compared to the callused copywriters of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce, for not wanting to see the gruesome pictures Joyce brings of the slain nurses, but this deliberate contrast seems to hint at something in Michael’s past. What happened to him? Or are Weiner and co. just trying to show that Michael comes from a place that the relatively-privileged SCDP-ers are disconnected from, a place where violence is very real. Anyway, he seemed extremely uncomfortable and brought that energy to his mesmerizing Cinderella pitch. Great performance from Ben Feldman. Michael Ginsberg understands women. Maybe I just have Richard Speck on the brain, but could Michael be a secret murderer just like Don? Just kidding, but more on that below.

Anyway, Peggy has Richard Speck on the brain too. After bilking Roger for $400 when he needs someone to pull an all-nighter on the Mohawk Airlines image campaign, Peggy finds herself alone in the dark office. She hears a pounding sound, and when she goes to investigate, the normally bright and welcoming corridors of SCDP suddenly look very creepy. The sound ends up not being a murderer, just Dawn. She can’t get a cab uptown because of the riots in Harlem. It’s interesting to note that Peggy initially thinks Dawn won’t ride the subway because she’s scared of a Richard Speck copycat. This is a parallel to the situation with Ginsberg. The riots present a very real, immediate threat to Dawn, not to mention her day-to-day of just being who she is. She doesn’t have time to get wound up about the murders that happened hundreds of miles away. Peggy, still feeling pretty proud of herself for putting one over on Roger, invites Dawn to stay at her apartment and tries to connect with her as a fellow female trying to make it in a man’s world. Unfortunately, Peggy is too caught up in her own narrative and never really listens to Dawn, who unsurprisingly doesn’t seem to care about being a copywriter. And in a few agonizing seconds as Peggy hesitates to leave her purse alone in the living room with Dawn, it seems like the door has been closed on any friendship that may develop between them. Peggy started out questioning the motives of the people around her, and ended up questioning herself.

I’ve made some tongue-in-cheek pronouncements about Sally’s importance to the series, but I’m really kind of serious about that. The ongoing slaughter of Sally’s innocence has been one of the most compelling aspects of the show for me. And just as she found herself drawn to the coverage of JFK’s assassination, poor little Sally can’t help but seek to satisfy her morbid curiosity about the Speck murders. Locked in the house with Grandma Pauline on a long, hot summer day, Sally too learns the hard lesson that she is in danger, in this case from men simply because she is a woman. Puberty is going to be brutal for Sally. While it was nice to see Pauline humanized a little bit and taking it easy on the young Ms. Draper, I sure hope Sally doesn’t think Secanol is the cure for what ails her.

I won’t say too much about Don’s storyline. This show has a problem with corny dream sequences, but I think this one was probably the least problematic of the series for me. I thought it captured the logic of dreams very well, and Madchen Amick continually showing up evoked the anxiety within a dream when you just can’t stop something from happening no matter how you try. Don attempting to wrestle with and kill his own predatory side was interesting, and gives credence to Jon’s theory that he is a changed man, but... I don’t know, it’s also starting to feel that the writers are just sidelining Don as a character quite a bit this season. I’ll reserve judgment on that one.

So what do you guys think? Are you happy Joan got rid of Greg? Will it stick?

Mike: Okay, first off, let's talk about the elephant in the room. A lot of people have been looking at me strangely in the streets and hallways this week because of the -- let's be honest -- wholly prescient comments I made in our last installment about Don becoming a Tony Soprano-esque murderer. I don't have any connections at AMC in the script department or any special knowledge of the upcoming season, but if there's one thing I know, it's Don Draper. It was only a matter of time until he took another step towards becoming the next Hannibal Lecter or Dexter Morgan. C'mon, guys, you just need to watch the show a little bit closer. It's all there, you just need to start paying attention, like I clearly have been.

BUT SERIOUSLY THOUGH, I thought it was pretty funny that, even though a post-coital Don squeezing the life out "Twin Peaks" alumna Madchen Amick was just a fever dream at best, there was definitely a part of me that wouldn't have been all that surprised to see the next scene be in a morgue or arraignment room. Don't get me wrong. I'm definitely rooting for Don (and company) to come out on top by the end of season seven. That said, this dream of his once again, for me, underscores again the bleak pragmatism of the Don Draper persona. To become the man he is today, and to remain that man in public and in private, Don has had to step over a lot of bodies, both in the figurative sense as well as literally in the case of the man whose name and life he stole. We've seen a more relaxed and personable Don this season and last (he even did some journaling!) but it's little grace notes like this dream and his behavior after the ill-fated birthday party that remind us that his other side is still in existence.

I like what you're saying, Mark, about "Mad Men" and its women. Yes, we are ostensibly tuning in each week to see what kind of hijinks Don is going to be pulling this episode. But the stories of the show's women, when the focus is turned there, can be just as compelling. If I had to pick just one for some reason, I've always identified more profoundly with eternal (but scrappy) underdog Peggy than with Joan, and it's not just because my office sexpot days are over. This week, I enjoyed the delicious tension ("Should I take my purse full of Roger's money off the coffee table or not, because it might look like I'm a racist? Because, you know, it does kind of mean that I am one if I do!") between Dawn and Peggy during the impromptu sleepover, and I hope to see more interaction between the two nascent friends as the season continues.

On the other side of town, we witness some pretty explosive events in Joan's life that, I'm sure, will only serve to pave the way towards her inevitable return to the SCDP offices. Her decision to sever ties with (as the Internet has deigned to name him) "Dr. Rapenstein" can only be described as brave. She still has a potential benefactor in Roger, who after all has been throwing a lot of money around lately and, even more importantly, is almost definitely the father of her child. In kicking Greg out, though, how much closer did she come to becoming just like her mother, who she can barely stand even in small doses and is on the verge of kicking out herself?

I enjoyed the throughline of the serial killer news story as it ran through the various environments and ecosystems of the show, too. From once again giving Megan an excuse to be disgusted with her workmates, to Don's dream which surely had at least something to do with his hearing about the elements of the story, to Sally cracking the stony exterior of Grandma Pauline, that huge butcher knife, and certainly not the last pill that young Ms. Draper will ever pop... what a great bunch of scenes.

Meanwhile at SCDP, Mike Ginsberg is busy letting Don down and proving that he's maybe not the golden boy that everyone thought he might be, Roger is losing his touch, and was Lane even in this one? Anyways, allergies and work pressures are going to make me cut this one short this week, but all in all I thought "Mystery Date" was a pretty darn fine episode.

Jon: I dug this week a lot too, Mike, even though I felt it was rather obvious from its beginnings that Don's murderous tirade was little more than a fever-induced dream. But there were plenty of other juicy bits throughout "Mystery Date" that more than made up for it.

The Joan/Greg breakup was unpleasant to watch, but wholly necessary. However, I fear things may get worse for Joanie before they turn around -- Roger may be that kiddo's pop but he's not going to be admitting that any time soon (if ever), reinserting herself back into life at SCDP likely won't go as well as she expects, and her mother is probably going to be around to bother me as much as Joan. But I also expect Greg to come back in a box before the divorce is able to be finalized, thus saving her from the dire straights I expect in the coming weeks.

As far as the Mad Wo-Men (betcha no one's ever thought of that one before!), yes, yes and yes. I've long loved our principal ladies (aside from Betty, as I brought up last time). To illustrate this, I will now tell a brief tale that you'll have to take my word on, but I swear it's a true story. Being a single fella in these modern times, I've had myself an online dating profile or two over the years. Having listed Mad Men as one of my favorite shows in some of those, one interested party asked me during a wonderfully awkward email exchange which character I related to most on the show, or maybe it was some other similarly pompous English major-esque inquiry, but I'm pretty sure this potential mystery date just wanted to know which misogynist I would compare myself to. But I was super bored that day and decided to answer her question honestly -- for my own curiosity more than hers. After a bit of deliberation, like Mike, I too realized it was Peggy Olsen that I best fit the mold of, being that she's forging her way through the workplace to find herself in the world, among other things (this was a few seasons ago before she'd established herself as an ace copywriter). So while Don's exploits generally take center stage week after week for me, I rarely am disappointed to share time with Ms. Blankenship and company.

And this was a particularly great week for the ladies to step into the spotlight since Don was hallucinating and bedridden for much of the hour. In his absence we were still treated to his two most prominent protegees displaying his power-play techniques. Peggy railroaded Roger's weak resolve as well as his wallet in record time during their negotiation, and while nowhere near as successful, Sally did her best to outwit Grandma Pauline by utilizing a couple of different tactics.

Speaking of which, Sally and Pauline impromptu sleepover was my favorite part of the week. I'm probably in the minority on this one, and it's the one tidbit I forgot to mention last week, but I've always liked the elder Mrs. Francis. Going back to last season, she sees through everyone's bullshit and is not shy about calling it out to those who need to hear it. Her frank conversation with Betty in "Tea Leaves" was marvelous. This week, she continued that stern manner with Sally only to have the Draper charm pulled on her, getting her to admit that perhaps she was a bit harsh. From there, the two begin to come to an understanding, if not a full-fledged bonding. Can't wait to see what she teaches Sally next time.

Now, I know I essentially dismissed Don's segment briskly at the start of my recap here, but I suspect there was something to be gained from it for future episodes. The dream was clearly a manifestation of his true nature, and it'll be interesting to see if he'll actually try to change that behavior to keep his marriage with Megan intact or if this is merely a sign of things to come. Personally, I'd like them to stay together happily for a while, but expect it's all but inevitable that their relationship will ultimately collapse. Any way, there's still plenty of time until that happens! See you guys back here next week.

Episodes 1&2 - "A Little Kiss"
Episode 3 - "Tea Leaves"

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