Monday, 9 April 2012

Television - Mad Men 'Mystery Date' analysis / review

A new era may be dawning for the characters of Mad Men, but the sins of the past are not so easily left behind. Though the instigators of change may be sudden and shocking, it takes a long time for one thing to become another, and for old ghosts to finally fade away. Don knows he's onto a good thing with his new wife, but his philandering history keeps rearing its head for both of them. Megan's influence is turning him into a better person, but it can't and won't happen immediately: Dick Whitman is still sitting on Don's shoulder, whispering evil temptations into his ear, and won't give up control to the new girl without a fight.

A massacre lingers in the background of 'Mystery Date' (a blackly comic title), the real-life tragedy where Richard Speck raped and killed nine student nurses. When Sally asks Pauline, Henry's mother and her babysitter, why Speck did what he did, she sarcastically responds that it might have been because he hated his mother. Her guess turned out to be not far from the truth and judging by the solution she offers to Sally's sleeping problems, it looks like the generation set to bring about change will have to live through the damage inflicted by their elders before being able to make it happen.
As both the most prominent young member of the cast, Sally finds herself the most vulnerable to the different mindsets at war in a transitional world. Her mother, Betty, is not someone willing or capable of offering guidance or support, a self-indulgent creature who feels betrayed by her dream life turning dark, leaving her with nothing but a husband she can't relate to and a double chin that just won't quit. Interesting piece of visual symmetry, having Pauline chowing on the same snacks Betty was eating on the same chair in the previous episode, reinforcing the idea of Betty transforming into the kind of bitter old woman who came before her and she despises.

Pauline is Betty multiplied by years of festering resentment, making her the worst person, perhaps short of Richard Speck himself, to leave on babysitting duty. When Sally finds herself confronted with a vision of the world as a nasty, dangerous place, she asks for comfort and is given a pill to medicate her problems away. The shot of her in a drug-induced sleep under Pauline's chair, just as one of Speck's victims hid under a bed, is a horrible omen for the path Sally may find herself having to navigate - her generation is going to have a defining connection with drugs of all kinds - and the fat, spiteful woman who set her down it.

Her father isn't having an easier time, not only suffering from a fever but also being confronted, in front of his wife, by a woman, Andrea, with whom he previously had an affair. Megan is usually pretty composed about the murkier points of her husband's history, but even she is put on edge by Andrea's overt display. She knows Don's weaknesses, pointedly reminding him that he can't blame all his old trysts on Betty being a bad wife, but also that he's not someone who responds well to confrontation. Once her point is made, she returns to her usual supportive self, reminding him of what he would be missing out on by lapsing into old habits.

He returns home to sleep off his illness, only to find Andrea knocking on his door. He dismisses her, but an angry nightmare later suggests he knows how ill-equipped he is to deal with the pressures of monogamy, even to a woman he loves and who loves him back. I suspect the nightmare will be a bone of contention for many viewers, a clich├ęd way of showing a character's inner turmoil and possibly even a dramatic cheat for the lack of identifiers as a dream state. It ends by Don going back to sleep, for example, which seemed an unusually gradual way for a dream to end, while the literalism with which its scenario was confronted (Andrea explaining how she got in through an unlocked back door) suggested reality, even if the amount of time Megan would have to be away hinted otherwise.

The guilt-driven strangulation is no less of a creaky device - the reflection of the Speck murders, with Andrea's leg poking out from under the bed, can at least be explaining away by them logically influencing Don's state of mind - and the point at which it became clear to me that it had to be a dream, but only because I have enough confidence in Mad Men not to go in such a lazy direction. While the sequence played into the episode's theme of suffering from the mistakes of the past, it could have done so in a more original manner. Megan subsequently turning up in a haze of heavenly light, symbolising her role as Don's saving angel, wasn't as graceful as it wanted to be, either.

Such turmoil was not only restricted to the characters' home lives: in a campaign pitch, Ginsburg sells the agreed-upon idea to the clients, only to describe a rejected idea in detail to them afterwards. They prefer it because it reflects their old-fashioned 'Cinderella' view of women, regardless of its hideously insensitive echoes to the very recent massacre. The original ad being pitched presented women with a degree of respect and power in a relationship, whereas the rejected 'dark fairytale' version regresses to the worst kind of scared damsel in distress, wanting nothing more than a handsome man to appear and save her. The clients, three older men impressed by Ginberg's ability to 'understand' women (even though he can't actually understand anyone), do not exactly seem ready for the social revolution about to come their way.

Peggy, meanwhile, has a very good start to the day, taking advantage of Roger's laziness to get a hefty cash bonus for working on his Mowhawk campaign - another example of Roger using money to keep his redundancy at bay - before taking Dawn home after discovering her sleeping in the office to avoid getting mixed up in the riots. (How tense was the scene where she wandered through the dark offices, again evoking the Speck murders?). As awesome as Peggy is - you don't get a nickname like Pegasus from a wry lesbian photographer without being able to kick some arse - even she struggles to throw off the shackles of her upbringing. Resoundingly drunk, she confides her fears to Dawn about behaving like a man and appearing unfeminine (calling back to her singing 'Bye Bye Baby' to herself in the third season to satiate her worries about being undesirable), then stares worriedly at her handbag out of fear at leaving it alone in the drawing room whilst Dawn is sleeping there.

Dawn notices the reaction and is gone the next morning, leaving behind a note written in sad formality after their friendship had initially blossomed. Peggy isn't a racist, but has grown up in a world that is, leaving behind the traces of suspicion and fear that Dawn has had to deal with throughout her life. She's at the forefront of an evolving culture, demanding freedom and acceptance for all, but such deeper scars will only be healed by time, not riots and legislation.

Joan was the only character to emerge in a position of relative strength from a conflict with a previous mistake, even though her life now looks harder and more lonely than ever. She put all her trust in her husband to whisk all her problems away upon his return from Vietnam, only for him to spring the double whammy that not only was he returning to service for another year, but had actively chosen to volunteer. It's the final straw that allows Joan to finally accept what a terrible man he is, finally confronting him about his raping her in the old Sterling Cooper offices. In an episode full of visual callbacks, the accordion player in the restaurant was the most potent, playing on Joan's third season rendition of 'C'est Magnifique' as a moment when she wrestles victory from humiliation by her husband. The scene where she sends him packing is at once thrilling for her bravery and terrifying for its implications.

The shot of her looking at the ceiling from the bed, baby and mother asleep at her side, tainted the victory with an awareness of the hard consequences to come from the fallout. Whether Don struggling against his unfaithful impulses, Peggy discovering some part of her parents' discrimination may still exist in her, or a man driven to murder nine young nurses through anger and confusion over his troubled background, the sins of humanity have to be atoned for eventually, if not by the mothers and fathers, then the children through inheritance. It's an idea playing to a sinister modern realisation, where today and tomorrow's young will have to deal with the financial, environmental and social troubles caused by a post-war generation gorging on their new freedoms, a hypocrisy justifiably skewered in 'Mystery Date'. Cultures and laws may change, but humanity irrevocably stays the same.

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