The Carousel: Revisiting Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 4: “Mystery Date”

Hi everyone, and welcome back to The Carousel! I’m excited to talk about this episode, but orders of business:

1) While Miss Rim and I adopted the common 12-episode numbering of this season in our synopses for the poll last week (that is to say, we counted “A Little Kiss” as one episode), from now on we are using the 13-episode numbering, counting “A Little Kiss pt. 1” and “A Little Kiss pt. 2” as two episodes, because that’s how the show’s production and the mothership and news sites at the time counted it and I foresee myself going crazy.

2) We’re gonna do this season’s reviews chronologically! In the past we’ve been reviewing 4th / 3rd place in the poll, then 2nd place, then 1st place, which luckily usually worked out to be roughly in chronological order, since later episodes tend to get more upvotes.

But Miss Rim thought this season would benefit from going in episode order, and I agree. So “Signal 30” is up next week, then “Far Away Places”, then “Lady Lazarus” / “At the Codfish Ball”.

OK, onto the episode. “Mystery Date” is a horror homage where the villain is sexual violence (which is inextricably tied to misogyny, but not identical – I’m borrowing Lovely Bones’ awesome summary and changing the “misogyny” bit for my own purposes. You’ll see why when I talk about Don’s nightmare.)

Horror movie tropes utilized, almost all of which invoke sexual violence (plus the main Speck references of Andrea under the bed and Sally under the couch): Peggy walking down the dark hallway and turning the knob to investigate a strange noise. Pauline turning in the dark and seeing the creepy little girl standing silent behind her. The meat cleaver. Stan wearing the grotesque pantyhose mask. Michael’s trope-y ad. A board game for little girls where a man hides behind a door. The home intruder who won’t leave until you give her what she wants.


It was fertile reference ground for the writers, in other words, and if I didn’t love the concept so much I’d accuse them of idea overkill. The smorgasbord they went to finding all possible parallels between horror fiction, sexual violence, and what was going on in the characters’ relationships makes it astonishing to me that anyone was able to miss the point of the episode.

But Todd VDW, with a B review (his lowest of the season!), thinks this episode is about the rather less specific “fear of your own impulses / dark side”. His interpretation is based on the idea that Don’s nightmare, clearly meant to point the direction for the episode, is all about Don’s fear of himself and his own dark urges. It’s not only about that.

Prior to the last few moments of the nightmare when Don kills the aggressor who keeps waltzing into his house, Don is a victim in his own dream, chased by Andrea the relentless and unsexy sex predator. The gender optics make it harder to see, but it’s true nonetheless. And gives this episode an extra layer in hindsight, knowing Don was victimized as a child by a different older woman who didn’t want to hear “no”.

So both Todd and Sepinwall missed what I think was the goal of the episode – to capture the feeling of sexual violence. How for women and girls the abstract threat of it is all-pervasive in the air, constantly coming up in conversation, holding a weird, alluring fascination; how it quietly winds its way into relationships like Joan’s; how it even holds fear for men like Don. Which means Todd called Joan and Greg’s storyline disconnected from the rest of the episode and out of place, which is frankly hilarious to me. But enough arguing with Todd! Onto my own comments.

When Pauline’s father kicked her across the room, he told her “That’s for nothing, so look out”. This bit of insight comes long before Pauline and Sally discuss Richard Speck, but it’s so closely tied to it I remembered it as part of the same conversation. Random mass murder was not heard of prior to 1966 in America – Richard Speck set off a long, long wave of followers – but the arbitrary and yet strangely specific rage women feel directed against them by men they may or may not know was not a new feeling for anyone.

As for Greg, he’s the “handsome man knocking on the door just before bed” Pauline describes – and later, as he pounds furiously on the bedroom door until Joanie opens it, he’s that same man’s mirror image. Joan’s yelling scene isn’t nearly as satisfying as her final scene, when she quietly gets out a couple devastating burns and finallyacknowledges the events of Season 2.

Here’s a ballsy move, as a writer’s room: have a main character be sexually assaulted by her own fiance. Ballsier move: have her go ahead and marry that guy in keeping with the times, and then show the more-or-less-normal surface of their marriage for years – seasons! – without ever discussing the rape scene, letting Joan and the viewers act as though it was all a horrible dream.

When the show finally brought up the fact that Greg once raped Joan, and let Joan say something about it, it was always going to be a huge moment. The writers’ room would appear to be aware of that, as they built an entire episode about sex and violence and gender around Joan’s single line. (Which makes it all the more ridiculous that Todd said the Joan storyline was out of place – NO, FOCUS SPINY.)

Meanwhile, Roger has offered to pay Peggy to come up with some Mohawk copy, and thanks to a “thing” in Bed-Stuy, Dawn ends up staying the night with her.

When told that cops are handling the riot in Dawn’s neighborhood – “Well, THAT doesn’t keep you safe. My boyfriend covers the riots in Chicago.” Rudimentary awareness of police brutality! Not bad for a girl who barely knew Malcolm X’s name last year!

The end of the Dawn / Peggy bonding session. Which vaguely connects to the themes of the episode in the “fear of strangers / crime” sense, but mostly serves to make Spiny very sad as that friendship is killed.

I almost don’t like that Peggy had over $3,000 in today’s money in her purse, even though that was a clever little plot movement. Because the massive amount of money confuses the issue. If Peggy had the thought ingrained in her head somewhere that black people steal, and then an awkward impulse to deny that thought existed, the amount wasn’t going to make a difference. The scene would play out identically if she had 20 bucks.

(It also kind of blunts the intended impact of the scene, in that if I had over $3,000 cash just sitting around in my purse you better damn believe I’d be keeping that thing real close on instinct, whether anyone else was around or not.)

What I like about “Mystery Date”, aside from the fact that it commits to its “serious episode about sexual violence and societal fears told through an overabundance of horror movie references” with balls-out panache, is that the tone doesn’t stay experimental throughout. Don and Megan’s marriage angst is normal, until it isn’t. Peggy’s just walking down the hall that happens to be shadowy, until she’s doing more than that. The gloomy old mansion Sally’s in is just a boring house, until it isn’t. Objects of fear are the ordinary objects in your bedroom when you were a kid that could suddenly look like anything when the lights were switched off.

Stray Observations
(yelling over accordion) “YOU KNOW JOANIE PLAYS THE ACCORDION!”

Greg pulling the self-righteous veteran act on the flustered waiter and putting on his Big Man voice is, to be honest, fully the second-worst thing he’s done to this point in the show. It gives me hives.

Discuss: Has drunk Peggy ever been more adorable than she is in this episode, and if so, when? Her little evil cackle of agreement when Dawn says “y’all drink a lot” is, objectively, worth four Emmys.

We’ve seen Don Draper through a lot of low points, but that angle from above of Jon Hamm naked, sitting on the floor, pushing a dead body away with his flailing feet is… wow. It’s somehow much less dignified than I remembered it.