Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 4: “Mystery Date”
Written by Victor Levin & Matthew Weiner
Directed by Matt Shakman
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
Set against the tense landscape of Richard Speck’s, July 1966 rapes and killings, and the ever-present specter of the Vietnam War, ‘Mystery Date’ is without doubt the strongest episode produced by the show to date.
Exploring the untenable nature of desire and its encompassing issues, the fourth episode blends wonderfully measured suspense, subtle humour and adorns it with an understated, but perfectly scored soundscape. The overwhelming, foreboding tension affords this episode uniqueness amongst the Mad Men pantheon. Pardoning the cliché, ‘Mystery Date’ can literally be described as heart-poundingly suspenseful and should receive due praise come Emmy nod time.
This week, Don is plagued by both a cough that won’t dissipate and as Megan describes it – his “careless appetite” for other women. Following Betty’s cancer scare last week, Weiner and Levin seem be to hinting at possible health issues for Don too, associated with his penchant for chain-smoking. Megan even warns him not to smoke. Along with David Carbonara’s ominous cues and Leo Trombetta’s cutting, Don’s coughing (as well as the establishment of Speck’s killings), provides much of the early tension.
While it was expected sooner or later, Don’s test of loyalty towards Megan comes perhaps sooner than anticipated. Madchen Amick (of Twin Peaks fame) plays Don’s former lover, Andrea Rhodes. She complicates things when bumping into Don and Megan in the SCDP elevator. Not only does this perturb Megan, it also encourages Don to subconsciously question his own devotion to his new wife. This exhibits itself in a well-directed sequence that blurs reality with sleep-induced fiction. Post intercourse, both alarmingly and violently, Don strangles Andrea and kicks her limp body under his bed to hide it – a visual motif echoed two other times during the episode.
Meanwhile, Sally’s thirst for knowledge has her again clashing with Henry’s mother, Pauline. In a succession of scenes between Pauline and Sally, we witness Sally’s desire to both be treated as an adult and comprehend the world around her. As Pauline follows the events of the Chicago Student-nurse Massacre, Sally yearns for insight and is more than anything, simply curious. She even goes as far as rummaging through the garbage bin for Pauline’s newspaper, then reading it by torchlight, under her bed sheets. However, Sally’s newfound awareness belies her incomprehension of these events, and scared, she once again attempts to extract answers from Pauline.
In a superbly written scene, Pauline queerly elaborates on the title of the episode. Having watched the television commercial for the board game Mystery Date earlier in the day, Pauline unwittingly draws a comparison between Speck’s victims and the players from the board game. “Those girls got ready for bed and there was a knock on the door, and a handsome man was there”, she explains. Then, in a telling moment, Pauline claims that the nurses must have “[stirred] his desire”. And so, desire it seems is not just endured exclusively in this episode by Sally and Don.
We are later shown an ambiguous image of Sally sheltering underneath the couch in the living room. Once again, this moment is channeling Speck’s sole surviving victim, Cora Amurao (who Stan points out hid underneath a bed in order to survive).
In the meantime, Joan’s desperate wait for Greg’s return is over, but with it brings more anxiety and distress. Having already spent twelve months in Saigon, it is revealed that Greg has volunteered to return for a further year. After believing her plight was over for at least a time, Joan festers on this sobering news. In a thoroughly taut and dramatic confrontation with Greg, she reminds him that he is “not a good man”. She continues, “you never were, even before we were married”. And then in a monumental moment for both characters, she alludes to the rape, which Greg committed toward her, when they were first lovers. Somewhat of a monkey in the room in seasons gone by, suddenly all tension is lifted, as Greg storms out, apparently extinguishing their relationship.
Finally, Peggy’s desire and impulse for open-mindedness is put to the test by the prejudices of the time, as she strikes up a new friendship with Dawn, SCDP’s latest secretarial acquisition, and first black employee on the floor. Peggy is usually a picture of progressiveness, with homosexual friends (Joyce in the early part of this episode is an example), a champion of women’s liberation, female career advancement, and receptive to the concept of race equality.
Stumbling upon Dawn sleeping in Don’s office, Peggy convinces her new colleague to stay the night at her place. Having earlier noted that she happens “to have a lot of cash for once”, Peggy sets up a bed for Dawn. Upon noticing her handbag full of money near the makeshift bed, Peggy debates removing it, hesitating for a moment. Awkwardly, this draws attention to it and so she attempts to cover it by clearing nearby beer bottles off the table. The next morning, we see Peggy contemplating the thankful letter left by Dawn. Peggy seems disappointed in herself, having not met her own desire for liberal thinking.
Now having set the bar so high, so early, it will be fascinating to see where the rest of the series takes us. There are sure to be more marital tests for Don. Joan is free game again for Roger (as though that ever stopped him). Pete and Roger’s tempestuous relationship is sure to culminate in fireworks near season’s end and naïve, new copywriter, Ginsberg looks certain to learn hard and fast lessons, under the tutelage of the ever-crotchety Donald Draper.