‘Mad Men’ Recap: An American Horror Story

Joan and her mom Mad MenThe title of last night’s episode of everyone’s favorite advertising psychodrama was “Mystery Date,” taking a cue, of course, from an advertisement Sally Draper watches with her big fat grandma Pauline during summer vacation. (Notice how we never see her watching real content on television, only the commercial, fitting for this show.) The spot of course is trying to sell teenage girls the game “Mystery Date,” but it’s really trying to sell the idea that one day a stranger can show up at your door and change your entire life. That’s what the episode was made up of, strangers arriving and causing imbalance to the natural order in the characters’ lives, but it also took on a rather sinister undertone.

At the top of the show, Peggy’s lesbian friend Joyce shows up with photos of a grisly Chicago murder that are too explicit to be published in Life magazine, where she works. Everything during the episode was corrupted by Richard Speck the man who murdered eight student nurses in Chicago in July, 1966. As Joyce says, though riots were breaking out in poorer neighborhoods all over the country, this is what knocked all of those off the front page, a sensational and gruesome murder. It’s interesting that, while gathered around the table in the copywriters’ room, it is the women (Joyce, Peggy, Megan, and some secretary lady) who are looking at the pictures, not the new male writer, Ginsberg, who shoos the pictures away and tells the ladies to get a grip. Here is how the mystery strangers and serial killers had an effect on each of the characters.

Don: The episode begins with him and Megan in the elevator and Don is seriously ill, which usually means, in the parlance of the show, that he is going through some sort of emotional or spiritual upheaval (remember him recovering at Anna’s house in California after his breakup with Betty?). Unlike in other episodes, we have no clue what that’s going to be yet. Then comes Don’s stranger, Andrea Rhodes (hello, Twin Peaks, Mädchen Amick, how have you been?) who is not a stranger at all. She’s one of Don’s conquests, a freelance writer he used to work with. This upsets Megan, who is tired of running into ladies that Don has dallied with, or at least tired of Don making it painfully awkward for her by tacitly admitting that he’s slept with them while she’s around. He later apologizes to Megan, who points out that it is embarrassing that it keeps happening, but what really aggravates her is that so many of these women he slept with he slept with them when married to Betty. If he cheated before, what is going to keep him from philandering again? But she lets him know that she is not going to be played like that, so he better be on his best behavior. With his illness getting even worse, Megan sends him home to recuperate, but says she has lots of work, so she’ll stay at the office for a bit. When he gets home, who arrives at the door but Andrea Rhodes (who seems to share a name with a certain Mad Men artist).

This, of course, does not make sense. How did she know where Don lives now? How did she get into the building? She tries to explain it away, but it all seems odd. She comes on to Don hardcore, but he says Megan will be home soon and shows her out the back door, because he doesn’t even want Megan to see her on the way out. Later, when Don is soaking the sheets with his sweat, Andrea arrives again. This time we know she is some kind of specter or fever dream, but she is one horny ass ghost, because she is going to have sex with Don on his deathbed whether he likes it or not. Finally, he lets his lust win and relents to her advances, knowing what it would mean to his relationship with Megan. When it’s done, Don tells Andrea it was a mistake and can never happen again. “It’s a mistake you love making,” she says (interestingly conflating the words “love” “making” and “lovemaking”). Don argues back, “I better not see you again. You’re not going to ruin this.” And she replies, “You’ll love it again, because you’re a sick, sick…” But before she can finish her sentence, Don has her on the ground choking the life out of her. He has become Richard Speck, killing the women he is simultaneously turned on and disgusted by.

We’ve seen Don get rough with plenty of women in the past, but this is the most violent he’s ever gotten and, while he is in the midst of a fever-induced fugue, it still shows us that, if driven to it, he could murder a woman. Of course Andrea is not real, she’s a manifestation of every women that Don has ever cheated on a woman with. He wants to change for Megan, he wants to be the perfect man but knows, somewhere deep inside, that he is entirely incapable of fidelity. That’s what is interesting about his relationship with Megan. He doesn’t want to be faithful to make her happy, he wants to be faithful to prove to himself that he’s not a sick man. That’s why this marriage is doomed.

Don hides Andrea’s corpse under the bed (an odd echo of Cora Amuro, the one nurse who survived Speck’s attack by hiding under the bed), but he does a really half-assed job of it, leaving her limps sticking out and her earring on the carpet. This could be because he is ill or it could be because he wants Megan to catch him, to know what he was up to and punish him accordingly (we know Don has a think for women who beat him). Of course when Megan arrives in the morning, backlit by the sun like some sort of angel, the demon of Andrea is gone, Bobby Ewing is taking a shower, and it was all a dream. Don asks where Megan was and she says she was in the bed all night next to him. He’s relieved that he behaved himself and exorcised his demon, but it seems to be more a prediction than anything. As for Megan, doesn’t it seem odd that he didn’t register her presence at all? Is it possible that she wasn’t there? That she was out having a dalliance of her own?

Hmm… Speaking of Megan, you can also look at the theme from her perspective, where Don is the stranger who arrived in her life and changed everything, and she’s slowly coming to the realization that he is also some kind of monster. He will cheat on her, he will take her for granted, and he won’t care that much about her in the end. Her dream of a prince charming has become sullied by the real world Don, who is just as human as anyone else.

Ginsberg: The new wacky copywriter isn’t haunted by a stranger as much as he is a stranger himself. When he and Cosgrove meet with Don about pitching an ad to a shoe store, he mentions that they thought about going the “Cinderella route” but Don says it’s a cliche and Ginsberg presents him with something nice and traditional. They present the pitch to the client, who loves their idea and is sold on it, but after that Ginsberg brings up the Cinderella idea and pitches a whole different commercial, one that seems to have shades of Richard Speck all over it. Cinderella is fleeing from something, some sort of dark menace, but when it finally catches up to her, it’s not an attacker, it’s a prince, and he’s holding her shoe and will change her life forever. It’s a great ad, if not a little dark. Don chastises Ginsberg for going over his head and making the pitch without clearing it with Don, but there are deeper dynamics at play.

Ginsberg is doing what Don used to do, go into the meeting, make it up as he was going along, and ending up with a stroke of brilliance. He’s gunning for Don’s job and would do the professional equivalent of murdering Don to take his place, and now Don knows it. He will one day take Don’s place, and that makes him very dangerous. What we don’t know is if he really did just make this up on the spot or if he had this intention all along, to go in there and upstage Don and the rest of the team so that he could hog the glory for himself. I’m gonna say he did, but we’re all going to be keeping an eye on this trickster.

Sally: I always like to refer to Sally as future lesbian Sally Draper or eventual drug addict Sally Draper, because it seems that she is forever destined to be one or the other. Last night we had some good evidence that she’s going to end up being both. Sally calls up Don, unhappy because she’s stuck in her creepy house with big fat Grandma Pauline, a virtual stranger, while Bobby is at camp and her mother and Henry are off ignoring their children, which seems to be Betty’s wont (when she’s not wanting to finish all the sundaes on the whole damn earth). She doesn’t enjoy Paulie because she enforces rules and discipline. “My mom has no rules,” Sally tells her and that is the truth. Betty’s idea of parenting is barking, “Go to your room,” when her kids get on her nerves. Pauline, on the other hand, shares a priceless story about how her father once kicked her clear across the room and said, “That’s for nothing, so look out.” If there was ever a Mad Men story, it’s this one! Life will just kick you for no good reason, so you better get ready to be knocked around. It’s the sort of story Don would tell Sally, but since he’s not around the only authority Sally has in her life is Pauline (an inverse allusion to her touching relationship with her late grandfather in past seasons).

One of the rules is that BF Paulie, while obsessed with reading about and talking about the Speck murder, won’t tell Sally anything about it. After slapping her hand to keep her from reading the paper, she then puts the front page up to keep Sally from reading the article and there is a huge headline about “MURDER” splashed across it. This is what it’s like parenting children in the media age, you can try to keep things from them, but the truth will always seep through. And isn’t it interesting that it’s the women who are so interested in the killings, as if reading and gossiping about it is a way to dispel their fear, some sort of talisman that will keep it from happening to them. Sally, being eternally willfull, steals the newspaper out of the trash and reads it in bed, terrorizing herself with visions of a knife-wielding mad man. She goes downstairs to find Paulie equally terrified and sitting with a knife. When Sally starts to ask her questions. Paulie explains that the man probably did it because the women drove him wild with their bodies. They were asking for it, is what she seems to say. She fills Sally’s head simultaneously with the idea of the irresistible erotic women and the evil sexual impulses of men — something that would seem to be a formative sexual discussion for a budding lesbian. Then, to calm Sally down, Pauline gives her half a Seconal to sedate the poor child into submission after scaring her half to death. Great, now Paulie just created a lesbian junkie. Way to go, Pauline.

When Betty and Henry arrive home the next morning, they find Pauline passed out on the couch and can’t find Sally. She’s hidden under the sofa, the only place she feels safe from a murderer. It’s also the place where her father stashed a corpse earlier in the evening. While it’s unfair to say that Don killed Sally, we can see how not having his influence in her life and leaving her to Betty’s awful parenting is having a negative effect on her. It’s as if she’s trying to stay safe under the couch too, but can she ever really be safe and grow up normal in a family like this.

Peggy: Peggy’s stranger and upheaval comes thanks to Roger. She has her fierce green pumps up on her desk on Friday afternoon when Roger shows up frantic because he never asked Ginsberg to start on the Mohawk Airlines campaign. He begs Peggy to do it over the weekend, and instead of just being a pushover and the eager beaver we once knew, she bilks him out of $410, behaving confident and entitled, just like the men in the office would. Then she gleefully counts her money.

Late in the night she hears a noise and is convinced that it’s some sort of serial killer. She goes into Don’s office and finds that Dawn, his new black secretary, is camping out in there. For a second, I was afraid I was watching a Tyler Perry presents situation and she was living there, but Dawn explains that there have been riots in New York and a cab won’t take her home and her brother won’t let her take the subway at night, so she’s going to crash on Don’s couch. Peggy, like the other women, is worried about this serial killer, something insane and very far away, whereas Dawn is more worried about the riots, something very real and very local. She has her priorities straight out of necessity. Peggy, who thinks herself so progressive (with her boyfriend covering the race riots and all) that she invites Dawn over her house and won’t take no for an answer. They have a nice heart-to-heart and Peggy opens up to Dawn, saying that she was the only one of her kind there for a long time too and they should stick together. Very sweet.

Then Peggy does that awful thing she does and assumes that all women want to be her and that she could turn Dawn into her mentee and turn her into a copywriter. Once Dawn says she’s happy with her job, Peggy says she is too. This is the shadow that Speck is casting on her. Not only were those women that he killed but nursing students, professional women. She sees their being in school and trying to make a career as what lead to their murder, as if it was some kind of punishment. Peggy herself worries that she is becoming a man, and Dawn tells her the obvious truth, that to survive she’s going to have to behave a bit like a man. Drunk Peggy decides it’s time to go to bed and before she turns in and leaves Dawn on the couch, she eyes her purse, full of Roger’s $410 and thinks that maybe she should bring it with her becuase she doesn’t trust this stranger. Dawn, who is seeming to loosen up in Peggy’s presence, sees Peggy seeing the purse and you can imagine the disappointment she felt realizing that this white lady, while nice and trying to be progressive, is just like all the other white ladies who don’t trust her. But Peggy leaves her purse there on the coffee table and goes off into her room. In the morning, she wakes up to find Dawn gone, the sheets and blankets folded neatly, and her purse unmolested on the coffee table. There’s a note that says, “Thanks for your hospitality, sorry to put you out.” Peggy is ashamed of herself for saying they should stick together but not trusting Dawn regardless. And Dawn knew she was an inconvenience and while Peggy’s intentions were good, the outcome wasn’t exactly what she hoped it would be.

Joan: The funny thing about Joan’s story is that the stranger at her door was actually her very own husband Doctor Rapist. Well, he’s now Sgt. Doctor Rapist and he is home from Vietnam to see his son (which is really Roger’s son) for the first time. She’s happy to have him home and after a visit with the baby, a roll in the hay, and the debut of the most gorgeous nightgown I have ever seen on prime time television, Sgt. Dr. Rapist has an announcement: he’s going back to Vietnam for another year. Joan, of course, is not happy about it, but he says that the Army left him no choice and he has to do it.They go to dinner with Mr. & Mrs. Sgt. Dr. Rapist and the parents tell Joan to convince him to stay in the U.S. Joan, is trying to be supportive and do what she always does, putting on a brave face during adversity. She stands by her husband, even while both her mother and his parents fight to get him to stay. Then they reveal that he’s not being forced to go back, but that he’s going back voluntarily. Oh snap! Joan is not happy about that. Then an accordion player comes over and shoves his instrument between Joan and Sgt. Dr. Rapist, keeping them apart when Joan playing the accordion once saved a dinner party he was throwing, bringing them together. Oh, how the times have changed. They go back home and get in a giant fight and Joan locks herself in her room for the night.

When she emerges in the morning she says, “I think you should go,” and Sgt. Dr. Rapist is glad that she came around, and Joan says, “No, I think you should go for good. Get out. I don’t want no scrubs, a scrub is a guy that can get no love from me.” OK, she didn’t, but I wish she did. Sgt. Dr. Rapist gets all upset and abusive, as we have seen before, and explains that he wants to go back to Vietnam because it makes him feel important. He’s good at his job and that’s where he’s needed. If anyone should understand that it’s Joan, whose identity comes from being good at her job and necessary in the workplace. But she doesn’t. She snarls, “I’m glad the Army makes you feel like a man, because I’m tired of trying to, and you know what I’m talking about.”

She is, of course, bringing up when he raped her back in season 2. Joan seemed to have conveniently forgotten that he did that to her so that she could go ahead with the fairy tale version of what her life should be like. But, just like the stranger Richard Speck ruined those nurses or Megan’s Prince Charming Don turned out to be a scallywag, Joan’s knight in shining armor left a lot to be desired to. She says she’s sick of it and would rather rely on herself than have to keep struggling with her husband.

Of course this is all very convenient for Joan, who is hiding the secret that her baby was fathered by Roger, not Sgt. Dr. Rapist. Is she really sick of making her husband feel adequate when she knows he’s not, or is this a convenient way to get him out of her life. She tells him to get out because he picked the Army over her, then their breakup is his fault. If she waits until the baby gets old enough to have hair and it’s steely gray like Roger’s and the jig is up, then he might dump her and the breakup would be her fault. As always, Joan need to be free from blame so maybe this is as good excuse as any. While putting on her brave face and steeling herself up for a life of self-sufficence, what we see at the end of the episode isn’t a strong confident Joan, but her lying awake in bed with her mother and her child, thinking about the future, worrying about how she’s going to make it happen, pondering just how she can be big bad Joan at work, nice daughter Joan at home, and still raise her son to be the Prince that she always wanted. She’s wondering just how she got here, how she picked the wrong man, and how things never work out for her. She’s just like that Cinderella in Ginsberg’s commercial: a dark force has been chasing her and chasing her for all these years and she’s finally turned around to confront it and instead of it being a prince holding out a shoe for her and putting it on her foot he just drops it right there in the gutter and it’s up to her to bend over, pick it up, clean it off, and put it on her foot herself.

Follow Brian on Twitter @BrianJMoylan.


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