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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mad Men: “Mystery Date”

Illustration for article titled iMad Men/i: “Mystery Date”
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Inside of every man—perhaps every person—there’s a sociopath just waiting to get out. Life doesn't exactly bear it out, but that’s a fairly common fear to have, particularly in a city, where strangers are around every corner. But it’s a fear that’s only heightened by the actual sociopaths out there, the Richard Specks of the world, who make their way into a home and kill eight out of nine student nurses on an otherwise normal summer evening. The Speck murders are foremost on the Mad Men characters’ minds in “Mystery Date,” not necessarily because they legitimately fear that they might be taken in by a somewhat-attractive stranger who then kills them, but because they worry what they—or the people they know—are capable of. Sally Draper’s the one who seems most affected by all of this, spending the night underneath the living room couch with Grandma Pauline. But even her father works the raw bits and pieces of the story into his fever dream. We fear there’s something deep and terrifying inside of all of us, sometimes.

Let’s not start with Richard Speck, though. Let’s start in the place that seems to have the least to do with the murders: the dissolution of the Harris marriage.


Greg Harris has been portrayed as a lot of things: rapist, piss-poor husband, piss-poor doctor, someone who doesn’t know how to count to nine. The thing all of those items have in common is that they’re in no way seen as “good” things to be. The union between Joan and Greg has always beggared belief just a bit, because regardless of how accurate it was to the period, it was easy for viewers to read into the character of Joan and not understand why she didn’t escape a sinking ship at the first possible opportunity. We’ve gotten perilously few scenes explaining what she saw in him in the first place—outside of the fact that he was on his way to becoming a doctor, and her childhood had a lack of security—so in some ways, when she kicks him to the curb at the end of this episode, it feels like something that’s been coming since late season two. (She even references the famous rape scene when she drops him.)

Before that, though, we get a few scenes where Greg almost seems like a reasonable facsimile of a caring husband. He gives Joan a big kiss when he comes home for the first time in a year. He takes his son in his arms—and if he knows the baby’s not his, he doesn’t let on for a second. He’s apparently a good enough lover that Joan has no complaints. The only thing causing strife in the Harris home is the fact that he’s going back to Vietnam for another year, something he announces is no big deal, since he’ll be perfectly safe (which would be a death knell on any other series). Well, that and the presence of Joan’s mother, who’s still around and insinuating herself into everything that happens in the tradition of busybodies since the dawn of time.


Then, of course, Joan finds out that Greg actually volunteered to go back to Vietnam—and this when he’s a new father—and everything falls apart.

Let’s circle back to Speck here, because there’s something interesting I didn’t know about him until I started researching this article: He was only in Chicago in July of 1966 because he missed out on a chance to be on a ship headed to Vietnam. Granted, Speck wasn’t volunteering to join the war effort—he was simply trying to get a berth as a seaman on a merchant ship headed for South Vietnam—but he lost out on that berth to someone else. Why he killed the nurses is one of those things that’s never been satisfactorily answered (if such a thing can be satisfactorily answered), but why he was in Chicago is fairly cut and dried. There’s far more going on in the relationship between Greg and Joan than there was between Speck and the women he killed, but the superficial similarities are fascinating. Here’s a guy who looks like he has it together, but really doesn’t, a guy who seems to a lot going for him on the surface, even if deep down, he’s got a level of anger and rage that is only rarely seen. All he wants is to get away, and he’s not in a hurry to ask others to bless what he’s going to do. (It’s there that Greg and Speck diverge: Speck was essentially forced into getting the job by his sister, Martha, who no longer wanted him hanging around the house.) Greg seemed good on the surface—the Mystery Date you let into the house—but once he got inside, all hell broke loose. The episode ends on a note of uncertainty, a beautiful shot of Joan, her son, and her mother all resting on the bed. But there’s something in Joan’s eyes that lets us know she’ll be better off without the dick.


Meanwhile, Don’s confronting his own inner sociopath in the episode’s clumsiest storyline, a long, multi-part dream sequence that shows his home being invaded by a former sexual conquest, whom he eventually strangles and shoves under the bed. Thank God the series doesn’t once attempt to make us think that Don “really” did it, because this would have been far too much if so. Even as is, it’s a curious choice, the filmmaking attempting to take us into the mind of a man who often works best when we can imagine the conflict roiling beneath the placid surface. Granted, he’s sick, and we often get little glimpses into Don’s psyche when he’s off his game. But as powerfully acted as the whole storyline was by Jon Hamm and Madchen Amick, it was also a touch obvious. Don’s a callous man, who doesn’t terribly care about the feelings of the women he beds, beyond wanting to give them a good time. In many cases, he’s fine with simply abandoning them, as he did to Faye last season. (Give Megan credit: She’s totally ashamed of his past behavior, even though she’s the wife he hasn’t cheated on—yet.) Director Matt Shakman shoots almost all of these fever dream sequences from woozy, off-kilter angles, which clues viewers in fairly quickly about what’s going on (Don’s logic about how to dispose of his problem by sending her down the service elevator also has a bit of dream logic to it), but the dream sequences on this show can be a little disappointingly surface-level, and that was the case here.

In some ways, the series has covered this ground before. The first half of season three was all about Don Draper as ticking time bomb, a man who wanted to be faithful to his wife but wanted not to be faithful to her even more. However, I think what’s going on here is slightly different: The marriage between Don and Betty was already rotting from within. The marriage between Don and Megan is full of new promise, and even if it seems like a bad idea on some level, there’s a chance it could all work out, if both partners really commit to making it work. Don, however, has all of this baggage. He’s still a ticking time bomb who’s almost certainly going to cheat on his wife, then try to shove that action under the bed. This is perhaps an over-dramatic way to show this, but it’s also not something that can really be expressed subtly to full effect. (Somebody I know called this the weirdest episode of Mad Men ever, and I’m not sure I disagree.)


Even Peggy got in on the “everybody’s suspicious, and I’m not sure what to do about that” game, when she invited Dawn to spend the night at her apartment after a particularly harrowing night at the office. Peggy first fears that she, herself, has been marked for murder, when she hears someone else in the office—the murder is on everybody’s mind because America’s favorite photographer Joyce brought in unpublishable images of the murder scene—but it turns out to just be Dawn, bedding down in Don’s office for the night. Peggy’s around because Roger’s tossed a wad of cash at her to get her to come up with a campaign that will drive business toward Mohawk during the protracted airline mechanics strike (a strike that doesn’t affect Mohawk because their mechanics aren’t in the union, apparently). Dawn’s around because she can’t get a cab past 96th Street, due to the summer’s riots, and her brother won’t let her take the subway, thanks to the Speck murders. The scenes between the two are short but fun, and they conclude with a fairly significant moment: Even with the bond they seem to have formed, there’s still a moment when Peggy worries about leaving her purse where Dawn could take the cash she’s just left lying around in there. It’s based on nothing more than race, and it puts up the wall between the two of them again. When she wakes in the morning, Dawn isn’t there anymore, having left a nice note. The threat of someone turning out to be not what they seem returns again.

The storyline most directly related to the Speck murders is that of Sally, stuck with Grandma Pauline in that big, almost haunted house on a long summer’s day. One of the things Mad Men has always been great at is evoking a particular type of event, like a long, hot party that slowly falls apart or a late night spent talking with a friend. These things are universal, and they cut across the show’s period to our own time. Here, we get a perfect rendition of a too-hot, too-long day in which Sally’s imagination is free to run wild. Intellectually, she probably knows that she’s no longer supposed to be scared by this sort of thing, but there’s also the sense that this is the price of the womanhood she’s soon going to inherit. Grown women have to put up with this; sometimes, you answer the door, and the mystery date is someone who wants to do you harm. Having the storyline end with Betty and Henry returning home to Sally sacked out (on pills prescribed by Pauline) under the couch could have been too cute, but there was just the right element of remove to it, unlike in the Don storyline. This really did feel like the end of a long night filled with bad dreams and an overactive imagination. I know the long gap between seasons was unintentional, but I like that Kiernan Shipka grew enough that she’s just on the cusp of adolescence. It informs all of her storylines with a weird sense of longing for something that’s just about to pass.


Sally, of course, watches the famous ad for the board game Mystery Date around the episode’s halfway point, and it acts as a gateway to the episode’s other ideas and themes. You can’t ever really know what another person is thinking, no matter how well you know them, and when you come down to it, all of us have darker impulses that we keep hidden because that’s just the best thing to do. We’re functional adults, who are able to behave ourselves. Yet on some base level, there’s always that fear that everything could descend into chaos, that the person ringing our doorbell late at night might mean us harm, that the woman we’ve invited into our apartment might have other motives than simply needing a place to crash. Shutting off suspicion is necessary to build friendships and relationships, but it’s impossible to ever shut it all the way off. We’ve all got skeletons in our closets, things we’ve shoved under the bed, even if only in dreams.

Stray observations:

  • Megan: She’s also really good at taking care of Don when he’s sick. My God, what can’t this woman do?
  • I would pay good money for a spinoff where Pauline and Sally drive around the country in a vintage VW Beetle and try to run cons on gullible small town folk.
  • Pete Campbell exits the office like he does everything in his life: like an extremely irritating guy who gets everything he wants but doesn’t seem to understand he’s not owed even more. In other words: my hero.
  • I asked last week for more Peggy and Roger scenes, and the universe delivered. Also, if the series could feature a scene where Roger pulls out an enormous wad of cash and tosses it at someone in every episode this season, that would be just peachy.
  • Say what you will about January Jones’ fat suit last week, but Jon Hamm looks exactly like he’s about to die from the galloping consumption. Good work, makeup department!
  • Is it just me, or are the “Next week on Mad Men” segments even more unhelpful than usual this season? We seriously got a two-second shot of Don leaving the meeting room tonight, which was helpful in exactly no fashion. I get that Matt Weiner doesn’t want spoilers to get out, but if he’s intent on making previews this nonsensical, why not just skip them altogether?
  • I was going to suggest the Speck murders getting the magazine cover instead of the riots or strike was a nice critique on the sensationalism of crime in the era (something that led to the rise of Richard Nixon and the Republican Party), but then I realized sensationalism of lurid crimes is a constant in every era. Still, I think we could be looking at the start of some sort of mini-arc about the topic. It would have been very much on the minds of the people of this universe in 1966. (Read Rick Perlstein’s terrific Nixonland for more. And beg HBO to make a four-season series of it!)

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