Mad Men season 5 episode 4 review: Mystery Date

An infamous murder case is the backdrop to the fourth episode of this series of Mad Men. Read our review here…

 

This review contains spoilers.

5.4 Mystery Date

“You don’t have to worry about me” Don tells Megan in Mystery Date. After that little glimpse into your subconscious Don, I wouldn’t be so sure… A macabre fascination with the 1966 Chicago student nurse killings percolated throughout this gloriously dark episode of Mad Men, giving everybody something to worry about. 

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The inclusion of big headline news always runs the risk of turning Mad Men into a Wikipedia stub instead of the poised, revealing drama it is at its best, but like season three’s treatment of the JFK assassination, Mystery Date parcelled out its real-world shock neatly, using the Chicago murders as a backdrop for its characters to reflect on their own fears and weaknesses.

The killings seemed variously to revolt, turn on, and unhinge members of the Mad Men ensemble. Newcomer Michael showed his sensitivity when Joyce paraded her gory Time magazine photographs around the office, but then seemed inspired by the massacre to conjure up a racy Cinderella-themed pursuit fantasy for the clients. Don cast himself as the woman killer in a feverish dream, which conflated elements of the Cinderella shoe campaign with a haphazard encounter with an old hook-up, while Grandma Pauline, the world’s most inappropriate babysitter, gave herself a hot flush lasciviously describing the murders to a curious young Sally. 

It wasn’t all murder of course; the Chicago race riots were also name-checked, as was the continuing airline strike, and with the return of Greg Harris, the Vietnam War. 

The episode may have focused on Mad Men’s women – Joan and her mother, Peggy, Dawn, little Sally and step-grandmother Pauline – but it was the male ego (or id, in Don’s case) that was really under the microscope in Mystery Date. Richard Speck’s monstrous act had Don hallucinating his guilt and self-loathing into a femicidal nightmare, Peggy admitted she imitated male behaviour to fit in at work, and failed surgeon Dr Greg was enjoying the ego massage his uniform and military status afforded him so much that he’d chosen a return to service over his wife and son.

The spectre of Speck’s horrific attacks on his victims found an unexpected mirror in this week’s Joan/Greg story: with the first (if memory serves) mention of Greg having raped Joan in season two. Like Peggy’s baby or Dick Whitman’s identity theft, the rape happened, but Joan compartmentalised it, choosing like Peggy and Dick to live a public version of events in which it didn’t. A lesser show (or a more sensationalist one with less faith in its audience), might have made a different job of the moment Joan reminds Greg of the attack. Other writers may have given Joan a monologue instead of a loaded allusion, or – God forbid – used a flashback to explain it to new viewers, but not Mad Men

Christina Hendricks was once again fantastic as Joan, her performance in this week’s episode rivalled only by Elizabeth Moss’ comic, forthright extortion of hush money from Roger to cover up for his laziness.

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Peggy’s story this week saw her extend the hand of female solidarity to SCDP newcomer Dawn, but not before checking whether this incarnation of Don’s secretary shared her predecessor’s copywriting ambitions. Peggy embarrassed Dawn and herself with a momentary lapse in trust concerning a purse stuffed with cash (the same bigotry that made Lane not trust his African-American taxi driver to return that wallet in episode two), reminding us that however much a modern liberal she seems, Peggy is still the product of a racist society. Dawn provocatively leaving her thank you note atop the purse in question was a clear acknowledgement that while grateful, Peggy’s hesitancy at leaving her alone with the money had been duly noted.

Speaking of great female performances, Kiernan Shipka as Sally rightly got the screen time she deserves this week, sulking and sassing Pauline like a real chip off the old Betty block. Sally was experiencing the summer holiday from hell, trapped in the Addams family-style home under the care of a grotesque guardian with a strange idea of what made suitable night-time stories for kids (and who offered up prescription sleeping pills before hot milk as a solution to Sally’s night frights).

Incidentally, like Mork calling Orson, the phone call between Sally and Don should be made a mandatory part of every episode, so enjoyable was their shared mockery at how “important” Henry is. 

All of which leaves us with Don, a man sick not just in the flu sense, but in the damaged psyche sense. Mystery Date was Don’s darkest episode since he spent that post-divorce Thanksgiving being slapped around by a hooker. Not only doesn’t he like himself, he also doesn’t trust himself, panicking in this episode that his taste for seedy adultery wasn’t just a phase, but a pathology he’s destined to repeat. It’s a little cruel, but Megan’s exasperated “How many times is this going to happen?” after running into yet another of Don’s past conquests raised a chuckle in my house. Somebody had better buy that girl a box-set. 

Since episode one’s chirpy fade to On the Street Where You Live, the end-credits songs in Mad Men have ever functioned as a kind of punch line, and none so much as the twisted logic in The Crystals’ He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss). Not content with naming an episode about sexual violence after a children’s board game, Mystery Date was also topped off with a chillingly apt song. Provocative and immensely enjoyable stuff.