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'Mad Men' recap: Fright night

April 9, 2012 | 10:11 am

Joan Greg Accordion Mad Men

“Mad Men” has never been the kind of show people tune into for some heartwarming escapism. It’s a congenitally bleak — if occasionally very funny — show in which characters rarely remain happy for longer than 30 seconds at a time. Yet even for such a pessimistic series, “Mystery Date” represents something new: A genuinely scary episode of “Mad Men.”

While fans (myself included) have drooled over Don’s new sunken living room, Betty’s haunted mansion is more indicative of the almost Gothic tenor of this season. A show about the discontent beneath the placid façade of suburban conformity, embodied so perfectly by the Drapers’ old Ossining abode, has essentially been turned inside-out; the spooky new Francis residence is an obvious outward manifestation of all that once-sublimated darkness. While Matthew Weiner has frequently cited the influence of John Cheever’s fiction on “Mad Men,” I have to wonder if he spent the show’s 18-month hiatus reading Edgar Allan Poe.

Similarly, while male sexual violence has popped up now and again on “Mad Men,” it’s never been quite as explicit as in “Mystery Date,” an episode that suggests a perilously thin line between desire and cruelty. As the hour begins, the newlywed Drapers share an awkward elevator encounter with Andrea, one of the hordes of women in Midtown Don has slept with at one point or another. He handles the situation as tactfully as possible, under the circumstances, but it’s a pointed reminder of two things: how much the Drapers still don’t know about each other and how little Don has actually changed since he was with Betty. Later on, Don tries to explain away his promiscuity — “It was a long time ago, and I was unhappy” — but Megan is right on the money when she replies, “That kind of careless appetite, you can’t blame that on Betty.”

Which may be why Andrea’s appearance at Don’s apartment, and his eventual submission to her sexual overtures, didn’t immediately seem that far-fetched. While Megan seems less than entirely trustworthy, the idea that Don would just give up on that whole fidelity thing the first time a floozy barges into his apartment is upsetting. We desperately want Don to be a better, happier person, but we’re just as unsure that he’s capable of it, which is why his seeming relapse is so devastating. And although Don’s sordid, violent encounter with Andrea turns out to be merely a fever dream — and a rather literal one at that — there’s almost no sense of relief when Megan wanders into their bedroom the next morning, making it clear that it was all just a nightmarish hallucination. (Seriously, is Don on ayahuasca or something?) 

I hope I won’t be exposing myself to too much ridicule when I confess that, for a second or two there, I believed that Don had added “murder” to his already-lengthy list of vices. To some extent, I blame Weiner for using a second dream sequence — a storytelling device that’s always seemed a tad contrived to me, given how inscrutable real dreams actually tend to be — in as many weeks. As heavy-handed as it is, there’s also something terribly convincing about the link “Mystery Date” posits between Don’s seemingly insatiable sexual appetite and his personal demons. If only these things dissipated as easily as a fever.

While “Mystery Date” finds Don brutally exorcising the ghost of his past exploits, it also finds Joan dealing with her ugly private history. When we first see her, Joan is about as frazzled as she ever gets , frantically preparing for Greg’s long-awaited homecoming. Given her hyper-competence in the workplace, there’s an added poignancy to the utter mess of her personal life: All the preparation in the world can’t possibly rescue her marriage to Greg. But, hey — can’t exactly blame a girl for trying, can we? 

At first, Joan’s Herculean efforts do pay off, and she and Greg slink away to the bedroom to make up for lost time. It’s only after their afternoon of bliss that the cracks begin to emerge. Greg tells Joan that he has to go back to Vietnam for an entire year. Though he frames it as a simple matter of patriotic duty, it emerges that he readily accepted the assignment. Greg, has, finally, found a place where he feels not just useful but important — and where his subordinates are even required to acknowledge said importance with salutes.

I worried that Joan, resolute perfectionist that she is, would actually try to stick it out with Greg, but a night of sleep only hardens her resolve to leave the bozo. She wakes up and, with that trademark vicious calm of hers, tells Greg that their marriage is over. Some of you probably wonder why someone like Joan would have ever married Greg in the first place, but her determination to make it work made perfect sense to me. After all, she is anything but a quitter.

It’s almost as if there was an unspoken agreement between the Harrises: She’d never bring up the rape as long as he dutifully played the part of a handsome doctor husband. (I don’t mean to suggest that Joan is some kind of callous manipulator — quite the opposite. If anything, I think she has an almost deluded belief in her own ability to make things right.) So, by essentially abandoning his family, Greg has failed to  uphold his end of the charade, and Joan decides to unleash hell on him. “You’re not a good man; you never were even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about,” she says, and indeed he does, fleeing the apartment in shame. There was something simultaneously exhilarating and profoundly sad about their final showdown. It’s a Pyrrhic victory for Joan, who now faces the dim prospect of life as a truly single mother. The only silver lining I see is that all this personal disappointment makes Joan even more ripe for a feminist awakening. My fingers remain crossed.

Of course, “Mystery Date” also plays out against the historical backdrop of the Chicago student nurse massacre of 1966, which lends the entire thing an extra of dose of menace. There’s something almost reminiscent of “Summer of Sam” about the episode, what with all the sex, racial strife, serial murder and humidity. While everyone’s gossiping about the gruesome crimes, no one seems more affected by them than poor little Sally Draper, left at home in the haunted mansion with her wildly inappropriate, perfume-soaked, Bugle-munching step-grandmother, Pauline. Kiernan Shipka absolutely kills it — no pun intended — with her performance this week, which is at once petulant, droll and deeply vulnerable. Sally has long been my favorite “Mad Men” character, and there’s something especially relatable about her in “Mystery Date.”  (And no, it’s not just because she watches too much television and doesn’t seem too fond of brushing her hair.) As someone who frequently kept myself up at night reading terrifying books about alien abductions, serial killers and Bigfoot sightings, I can completely understand Sally’s morbid fascination with the murders. Of course, the explicitly sexual nature of the crimes only fuels Sally’s adolescent curiosity.

Unfortunately, though, the only person there for Sally is Pauline, who exacerbates the situation with a monologue seemingly borrowed from Large Marge, then caps things off by giving her thoroughly terrified step-granddaughter a Seconal. The pill-popping would be disturbing no matter what, but it’s all the more disconcerting given that Sally already appears to be developing an eating disorder. And here I thought Betty was the most abused character on “Mad Men.”

Rounding out the episode is Peggy, who, in what’s become something of a pattern for her, has yet another interesting late-night encounter at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Staying late to work on the Mohawk pitch — how great was her negotiation with Roger, by the way? — she discovers that Dawn has been sleeping at the office to avoid the riots uptown. Peggy kindly insists that she stay at her place, and, lubricated by several beers, she opens up about the difficulty of being a female copywriter. She even admits to consciously acting like one of the boys — and not particularly liking it.

Yes, Peggy sounds a little cocky and self-aggrandizing, but she’s also very thoughtful. “I know we’re not really in the same situation. I was the only one like me there for a long time. I know it’s hard,” she tells Dawn, with just the right mix of self-awareness and empathy. But, like so many other relationships on “Mad Men,” the understanding is fleeting and tenuous, wiped away by a single paranoid glance at her purse. It's a potent reminder that Peggy’s good intentions — and, indeed, our own — will only get her so far. 

Stray thoughts:

--How great was that closing shot of Joan, Gail and wee Kevin lying together in bed?

--The song that played over the closing credits, “He Hit Me, And It Felt Like a Kiss” by the Crystals, was a perfectly apt choice, and not just because of those creepy, love-and-violence-conflating lyrics: It was, of course, also produced by convicted murderer Phil Spector.

--Peggy’s wardrobe this season — button-down tops, ties — seems to reflect her more masculine attitude in the workplace.

--Wonderfully creepy touch: Stan, a pair of pantyhose on his head, poring over pictures of the slain nurses.  

--I’ve never been a huge fan of Zosia Mamet’s performance as Joyce in “Mad Men.” I’m hoping she’s better in “Girls.”

--The accordion player at Joan and Greg’s ill-fated dinner was a rather self-conscious nod to the most heartbreaking Joan moment of all time, from Season 3’s brilliant “My Old Kentucky Home.”

--Once again, I wish Don would just man up and try to get custody of Sally instead of letting her go crazy under her mother's care. 

 

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— Meredith Blake

twitter.com/MeredithBlake

Photo: Greg (Sam Page), Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Gail (Christine Estabrook) share an awkward dinner on "Mad Men."  Photo credit: Michael Yarish/AMC.

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