thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Mad Men’s Terrifying “Mystery Date”

In gender, Mad Men, race, Television, violence on April 12, 2012 at 8:39 am

Sarah S.

This most recent episode of Mad Men initially stumped me. It linked its many plots with a theme of sexual violence against women that, at first, seemed heavy-handed and obvious. Yet after contemplation I think it might represent one of the smartest episodes to date. Mad Men makes a lot of hay out of gender relations in the 1960s, leading to a lot of smug pearl clutching over how far we’ve come; “Mystery Date” (season 5, episode 3), however, resonates because it reveals how far we have not come in certain respects, and the way that threats of sexual violence still keep women in check.

The episode begins with Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) friend Joyce (Zosia Mamet) sashaying into the office with pictures of the recent nurse murders in Chicago, “unsuitable for publication.” The responses range from horrified fascination from most of the team to revolted contempt from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s newest hire, the marketing prodigy Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman). Ginsberg, however, takes his disgust and translates it into an ad pitch for Topaz pantyhose that involves a single-shoed Cinderella running in a panic from a dark, looming castle while a stranger chases her. When he finally grabs her, he’s handsome, but it doesn’t matter because her face indicates that she wants to be caught. Topaz eats it up, and Don (Jon Hamm) is annoyed at Ginsberg for going rogue with his vision, but everybody thinks it’s a great idea for a commercial. The nurse murders remain a theme throughout the episode, coloring every interaction we see. But the linkage between the “Cinderella” commercial and the violent rape and murder of nine nurses highlights the disturbing relationship that America has to controlling women. (Note: I’m breaking this up mostly by sub-plots rather than chronologically to get at the main themes and points.)

The theme continues after Don, sick with a bad flu, runs into an ex-lover on the elevator (much to Megan’s [Jessica Paré] annoyance). He goes home sick for the day but the woman, Andrea (Mädchen Amick), shows up at his apartment. Don hustles her out but she returns and, Don being Don, they have hot sex. Afterward, Don tells her this is the last time but she sasses him back, pointing out that he’s too twisted to say no. In a rage, he throws her to ground and strangles her, finally shoving her body under the bed before passing out. We discover, of course, that he hallucinated the whole thing in his fevered state. This twist stands out as particularly heavy-handed and opaque. Are we meant to view it as a Freudian peek into Don’s psyche, the legacy of a violent father, or, rather, to contrast “bad girl/slut” Andrea against “good girl/wife” Megan and see that Don believes entirely in such dichotomies? He certainly has a history of mistreating “bad” women (i.e. every meeting of his affair with Bobbie Barrett [Melinda McGraw]) although his track record with “good” ones isn’t very impressive either.

 

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The Season 5 promo poster. It seems kind of freaky and fitting actually.

 

 

Beyond these overt themes of sexual violence, the episode reveals other, perhaps more legitimate threats to the women of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce. Peggy, working late, begins to feel antsy in the dark office, particularly when she thinks she hears something ominous. Bursting into Don’s office, she finds his new secretary, Dawn (Teyonah Parris), on the couch. As the African American secretary SCDP hired for image purposes, Dawn draws attention to other violence going on in Chicago—race riots. She fears to take the subway or walk home to Harlem during a time of such racial tension so planned to spend the night on Don’s couch. Peggy takes her home and, drunk, tries to create common cause between them as women if nothing else. The gap, however, becomes evident when Peggy, heading to bed, notices her purse sitting on the coffee table and hesitates—a heavy pause that Dawn notices. Peggy covers by gathering up their empty beer bottles but the damage is done. This scene stands out because it remains unclear if Peggy means to grab her purse because Dawn is a “negro” (in the parlance of the day) or if she would have taken her purse if it were anyone else but, because she does not want to seem racist, leaves it. This scene highlights the more quotidian, yet no less legitimate, slings and arrows of outrageous fortune flung at women. Moreover, it emphasizes that such troubles are doubly compounded if one is an African American woman. Having said that, it was nice to see a bit more of Dawn, to get a smidge of her perspective, but she still largely remained a mirror reflecting back on Peggy and not a fully-developed character herself. The show will prove very disappointing if it fails to ever feature a dynamic black character (beyond the ill-treated and sorely missed Carla [Deborah Lacey] from the earlier seasons).

Speaking of quotidian, Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) husband Greg (Sam Page) (aka Dr. Rape) comes home from Vietnam! He buys the lie that Roger’s (John Slattery) baby is actually his and all seems rosy until Greg announces that he must return to the war. Joan tries to be supportive until she finds out that he volunteered. After spending the night contemplating, Joan tells him to leave and never come back. She points out (rightfully) that Greg enjoys the army and war because it makes him feel like a man. She declares that she’s not going to try to do so herself anymore because he’s not a good man. And, as she states: “You never were, even before we were married. You know what I’m talking about.” In referencing Greg’s rape of her on the floor of Don’s office (season 2, episode 12) Joan finally throws off the odd control Greg had over her (more on that in a minute).

 

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Right before things get awful.

 

Last, young Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) finds herself stuck for the weekend with her stepfather’s mother, Grandma Pauline (Pamela Dunlap). The two clash (no surprise there) but they end up bonding when Sally sneaks the newspaper, reads all about the nurse murders, and cannot sleep. When she goes downstairs to talk to Grandma Pauline about it, G.P. tells her a sordid tale of nurses unconsciously stirring the killer’s desire with their short skirts and vulnerability. She winds up giving Sally a sleeping pill and Henry (Christopher Stanley) and Betty (January Jones) return in the morning to find Grandma Pauline unconscious, a butcher knife beside her, and Sally passed out under the couch—evoking both Andrea, shoved under the bed by Don in his delirium, and the one nurse who escaped the massacre by hiding deep under a bed.

Okay, so why do I think this episode is great? Because it reveals how society uses threats of sexual violence to control and contain women. Going back to Joan, her marriage to Greg even after he raped her has remained one of Mad Men’s great enigmas. Joan seemed so strong, confident, and capable—why would she stay with such a man? I contend that this episode shows there were two reasons: first, he’s a doctor and a woman in her early 30s in the 1960s (particularly a traditional woman like Joan, even if she is confident) does not reject a doctor-fiancé lightly; second, they’ve already had consensual sex and, indeed, Joan’s had consensual sex with lots of people, a fact that Greg used to justify his rape on the grounds that that he’s trying to give her what she’s into (while, in the process, asserting a twisted sense of his masculinity). It’s horrifying to us but, at least to a point, Joan bought it. She bought the story that she’s a “bad girl” and bad girls don’t kick up a fuss when they get what’s coming to them, particularly if it still ends with white dresses and surgeon husbands. However, the depths of Greg’s weakness and disrespect finally become evident to her in this episode and Joan finally (finally!) stands up for herself. Moreover, the Joan/Greg plot in this episode emphasizes the people most likely to hurt women—not unknown serial killers but, rather, husbands, fathers, boyfriends, brothers.

However, we still have Grandma Pauline and young Miss Sally. Pauline embraces her fascination with the murders, gossiping breathlessly with a friend over the phone and turning it into a horrifying bedtime tale for Sally. However, despite her age, affluence, lack of being in the medical profession, and safety in the suburbs, Pauline still sits through the night with a butcher knife for protection. Her story equally terrifies and titillates Sally, thereby establishing the merging of two narratives that make up sides of the same coin: nurse murders and Cinderella, terrible violence and secretly wanting to be rape/murdered/abused/told what to do. This story reflects back on Joan’s situation, revealing the insidious ways that such narratives have real repercussions in women’s lives. It also reflects on Dawn, facing legitimate danger from racial violence but being denied acknowledgement of that threat through Peggy’s drive to link them as women. Moreover, we see Sally, a girl on the cusp of young womanhood, being inculcated with the message. (And finding salve for her terror in prescription drugs, an interesting plot point.) She learns that women can be prey so she’d better do anything she can to be a nonthreatening little rabbit. The show thus takes viewers beyond a relieved feeling that we have progressed so far to an awareness of how these menacing narratives get perpetuated through the generations.

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  1. This is great, Sarah! Well said.

  2. Excellent analysis. By the way, did you know there was a board game for early adolescent girls in the late 60’s/early 70’s? It was as awful as you might imagine and I wished for one with all my heart.

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