“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.