This week on "Mad Men" was all about fear and unpleasant surprises, and uses as its touchstone the real tragedy of the Chicago nurse massacre, in which Richard Speck murdered eight student nurses. The incident has a profound effect on many of the characters, from Peggy, Joyce and Stan (who are distressingly titillated by it) to terrified Dawn to poor Sally, who gets an early introduction to the world of sleep aids.
Just as the nurses found themselves tragically invaded by homicidal stranger, many of the characters here found themselves dealing with something scary and/or unwanted. Don alone gets multiple unpleasant surprises, starting with his awful cold. But, of course, the thing that really throws him off his game is seeing Andrea, a freelance writer with whom he once had an apparently sizzling fling. He bumps into her in the elevator while with Megan, which is mortifying for everyone. Megan, in particular, is forced to remember that her new husband was a serial adulterer, and that even her relationship with him started while he was seeing someone else. It's a haunting reminder to both of them, and Don finds himself literally haunted back at the apartment, when he begins having what turn out to be fever dreams about Andrea coming in and seducing him.
Now, normally, I find the shows dream sequences hokey and obviously fake, but these were actually fairly creepy and effective. Don knows deep down that he'll always be the guy who cheats. Like an addict, he can suppress his urges, but they're always a part of him. Much like he tries to stash the dream Andrea's body under the bed, and leaves a tell-tale foot sticking out, Don's philandering side is only partially, haphazardly hidden right now. It's not gone.
Others in this episode dealt with their own unpleasant surprises. Roger learns he has to finish the Mohawk campaign early because of the airline strike. Peggy discovers Dawn sleeping in Don's office to avoid traveling through Bed-Stuy (and discovers that she's a lot more prejudiced and shallow than she realizes). Sally discovers that the world is an ugly place where innocent young girls can be killed for no reason (and that her awful new step-grandmother is almost as terrible a mother figure as Betty). And Joan learns that, after a short-time home, worthless Greg has volunteered to go back to Vietnam.
Let's start with Joan, because that story ended in a way that was both surprising and inevitable. Joan's relationship with Greg has always been obviously unhealthy, from his rape of her in season two, to his treating her like a servant in much of season three to his abandoning her to work as a doctor in Vietnam after flaming out in his job at the hospital. He's been so obviously unworthy of the fabulous Joan, but she's been bound and determined to make him her prince. Like the stalker in Michael Ginsburg's disturbing Cinderella ad pitch, Greg was appealing to Joan because he represented what she needed (or thought she needed) at a certain point in her life. He was the doctor husband she was supposed to have. She clung to that dream so hard that, when her adulterous fling with Roger yields a child, she pretends it's Greg's, not wanting to disturb the fantasy.
But something in her snaps when she learns that Greg is willingly returning to Vietnam for completely selfish reasons (yes, he's going to help people -- but he's motivated less by altruism than by the way that his work makes him feel. The show argues, not unreasonably, that the really manly thing to do would be to support his wife and what he thinks in his son). I've got to tell you, at this point, I didn't think Joan was ever going to throw Greg out. But it makes sense that someone as smart and strong as Joan wouldn't be able to keep lying to herself. So yay Joan! Sorry you're going to have to raise Kevin alone with your awful mom, but if anyone can make this work, it's you. So hang in there!
Before heading to the hail of bullets, I want to briefly deal with Peggy and her awkward attempt to provide help and support to Dawn. Yes, she does the right thing by giving the new secretary a real place to sleep (though it is her couch -- which is exactly where she was sleeping in Don's office). But she's so weird in her attempts to relate to Dawn. It's true that, as the only female copywriter on staff, she's an outsider too. But she also knows how flimsy that analogy is. She's never been too scared to go home. The nurse massacre photos excite her, instead of filling her with horror and dread. She doesn't quite realize how appalling she's being until Dawn catches her eyeing her purse on the table. Though Peggy leaves it on the coffee table in front of Dawn, the damage has been done. She's well-aware that, despite her attempts to relate to Dawn, her prejudices run as deep as almost anyone else's. Her shame in that moment -- and the one the next morning, when she discovers Dawn's note on top of her purse -- is palpable, and the whole episode in general is a lovely showcase for Elisabeth Moss (and Christina Hendricks).
Here are some more thoughts on "Mystery Date":
- Note the way this episode mimics and pays tribute to the many kinds of horror stories. Peggy's trip down the office corridor to discover Dawn plays like a horror movie, with the dim lighting and spooky music and the ominous close-up of her hand on Don's office door. Grandma Pauline telling poor Sally the story of the poor nurses reads like a campfire ghost story. Michael's shoe pitch is intended as a dark fairy tale (and you can argue that Joan's story also reads as a dark fable, about a woman learning that her prince is really evil). And then there are Don's nightmares, which twist the image of the co-ed hiding under the bed during the massacre into the image of Andrea's twisted body lying under Don's bed (there's another call-back to that when we see Sally passed out under the sofa).
- Let's talk briefly about Sally. This was another fine performance by young Kiernan Shipka and, if we're going to focus on any of the Draper women, I vastly prefer Sally to Betty or even Megan. Her rage at being stuck with yet another woman who treats her like a burden (and who won't even let her watch TV!) is channeled into terror when she steals the newspaper containing the nurse story. And, of course, Pauline explains the incident to her in a way that only serves to terrify her more. And she handles Sally's sleeplessness by giving the poor kid a Seconal. Good lord. Between that and her boozy visit to her dad's office a few seasons ago, Sally will be in rehab before she learns to drive.
- There was humor in this dark episode, particularly in Peggy extorting Roger to work on the Mohawk campaign. She needs to make someone pay for being passed over in favor of a male writer, and Roger conveniently volunteers for the job. Her look of glee when she pulls $400 off Roger is another great moment for Moss.
- Don is starting to get disenchanted with our friend Michael Ginsburg, isn't he? Yes, his creepy impromptu Cinderella pitch works, but Don doesn't like curveballs and nearly fires him. The fact that Michael apparently doesn't realize that he almost lost his job is either annoying or endearing or both.
- OK, finally, we get a callback to the rape. And Joan, true to her personality, is not as willing to sweep it under the rug as we might have thought. It's something she's never forgotten and it's the thing that (I think) ultimately makes it impossible for her to overlook Greg's latest transgression.
- Was it just me, or did January Jones's fat make-up look marginally less ridiculous in this episode than it did last week? Maybe it's just because we saw her saw briefly, but her phony jowls were way less visible.