Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mad Men 5-04: Mystery Date

There's a lot I didn't like about this episode of Mad Men, but I'll start with the one storyline that really worked, which didn't start until about halfway in.  As part of Roger's ongoing rivalry with the ascendant Pete, he hires Peggy to do some on-the-side overtime for their big new client.  The scene where this happens is kind of brilliant, with a flustered Roger trying to hide his desperation through his carefully-developed slick machismo, and Peggy completely seeing through it and managing to empty out his wallet in exchange for a little overtime.  This isn't the first time we've seen this scene, either.  Roger made a similar payment to Harry a couple weeks ago for his part in a battle over office space.  Roger is no longer able to fast-talk his way through the world, a failure that seriously bothers him.  Unlike his partner Bert, he still entertains fantasies of being a sexy young thing, that are plainly undercut by the younger generation's actual reaction to him.  But even in these moments of humiliation he still has recourse to the privilege of his wealth.  The changing epoch brings not necessarily a crumbling of the smooth old power relations, but it does make their barbarity bare.

This leads to Peggy staying up late working and discovering that Dawn, the company's accidentally-hired black secretary, has been sleeping in the office for lack of a late train home.  So Peggy offers her her couch in a moment of solidarity.  Peggy is, to the extent she has a strong ideology, a second-wave feminist and this colours her attempts to relate to Dawn.  She explicitly describes gender as the critical dividing line, and implies that Dawn and her are comparable: "We need to stick together.  I know we aren't exactly in the same position, but I was the only one like me there for a long time".  Racism and sexism are then the same thing in the same package, and can be addressed the same way (and that awareness of one necessarily entails awareness of the other).

But "Mystery Date" cuts the floor out from under this notion even as Peggy tries hard to argue it.  Of course, part of this is just having Peggy be sloppily drunk during the conversation, which is a pretty easy tactic.  But it's also in the assumptions that she makes, and her imagination that she should be a role model for Dawn.  Peggy asks if Dawn wants to be a copywriter, clearly imagining a yes, but receives a firm no instead.  There's a culture gap here -- Peggy can't imagine Dawn having any other goals than the middle-class white ambitions that she herself grew up with, and the value on creative and mental work that went along with that.  She then starts dumping her insecurities onto Dawn, reducing her to a supporting character in her life.

And then there's a brilliant, almost silent moment where Peggy goes to take her purse into her bedroom, away from where Dawn is sleeping.  She stops herself, but Dawn notices, and whatever trust was established between them is broken instantly.  This scene is brilliantly underplayed by Elizabeth Moss, who is able to convey her thoughts so effectively without words, and is aided by Teyonah Parris's world-weary look and the efficient direction that triangulates eyeline matches between Peggy, Dawn, and the purse.  A friendly, if one-sided, conversation is suddenly turned into a struggle between two opposing forces with the prize in the middle.

The social commentary of Mad Men has always been a bit of a mixed bag.  A lot of people have criticized it for using the past as a contrast to suggest contemporary society is enlightened and equal. There are times when the show embodies the patriarchal institutions it claims to criticize -- witness how, in this episode, it simultaneously castigates Betty for being a too permissive mother and Pauline for being a strict killjoy.  But it also recognizes the complexity of oppression, the many different forms it comes in and how women, for instance, can function as enforcers of patriarchy.  (Elsewhere in this episode, Sally's step-grandmother Pauline shows this through her half-disguised prurient delight at the Richard Speck murders and the punishment of girls in too-short skirts.)  Peggy, the hip barrier-breaking liberal, succumbing to racism despite her best intentions shows the complexity of oppression as well as anything else the show has done.  On the one hand, it's not as though Peggy does anything really wrong -- she ultimately leaves the purse there, seeming disturbed by her racist thoughts.  But the mere intention of eradicating racism doesn't eliminate the kind of internal racism learned since childhood, and that will always be an obstacle to being an "ally" to oppressed groups.

Along with all the racial dynamics, Peggy's paranoia over her purse reflects the overarching concern of the fear of the stranger that takes place throughout "Mystery Date".  The obvious historical referent is the mass murder dominating the news, one of those nice forgotten-history moments that Mad Men uses so well.  There the stranger is literally murderous and a genuine threat, but this threat is distorted in ways that make the normally precocious and tough Sally terrified of the outside world, with all its frightening Otherness.  And then you have the sexualized stranger, the other woman (or perhaps the Other woman), an old flame who Don runs into in the elevator and, through her role as a stranger, becomes a threat to the new marriage of Don and Megan.

To tell the truth, this is one of the plotlines that majorly misfires.  Don's ex-lover is made into the kind of evil temptress stereotype that seems to exist solely for men to project away their own responsibility for their infidelities, as well as their own sexual attraction (to play a bit of Six Degrees, Christina Hendricks played another rendition of the Evil Sex Lady way back in Firefly.)  Even if this is ultimately revealed to be an illusion, "Mystery Date" still depends on us reacting in the same way a soap opera audience would to a temptress character -- hissing at the vile woman and hoping that the sanctity of our favourite couple stays strong.

Of course, this whole plotline is eventually revealed to be Don's fever-addled dream, as becomes obvious when Don accidentally kills his seducer.  The main problem with this is that dreams don't really work like that.  Media constantly treats dreams as narratives, and often uses them in order to make meta-narrative commentary (hello, Inception).  The use of dream sequences on Mad Men certainly plays into the show's meta-narrative contemplations, with the dream being possibly just another story being "pitched" much like the characters pitch advertisements every day.  But dreams operate on a fundamentally non-narrative, non-linear structure that could, even if it could somehow be represented accurately on a television screen, could never be confused with a realist drama like Mad Men.  This, in addition to the inherent hackiness of the "it was all a dream" twist is what makes this plotline feels so contrived and groan-inducing.

I think that Matthew Weiner (both creator of the series and accredited writer for this episode) is trying to get at something interesting, though.  When Don kills the woman, he stuffs her under the bed, the same place where the lone survivor of the Richard Speck murders hid.  The sequence suggests that maybe Don is not so far removed from the horror-movie serial killer, that his misogynist use of women is just a bit less extreme.  Perhaps the viewer is also implicated here, through what was presumably supposed to be anger at Andrea for being a homewrecker, and then the startling result of that anger.  I personally never felt that way, which signifies that in my mind this is still a failed storyline, albeit one with interesting intentions.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the show's visual style (which is, at any rate, much more critically interesting than this week's Joan plotline that sits squarely in the evening-soap portion of Mad Men's generic makeup).  This may merely be echoing the visual aesthetics of the time, but in a lot of ways Mad Men looks like a commercial: bright lighting, soft and comfortable colours, and attractive people in generous makeup.  This can even make the series a bit off-putting at times, as it's a style that evokes coldness and restraint at the same time it glamorizes the proceedings.  This looks and feels like professional, institutional television (as opposed to, say, the rough stylistic realism of Friday Night Lights or the gonzo arthouse stylings of Breaking Bad.)  It's a style so well developed that episode director Matt Shakman, who's worked on a seemingly endless array of entirely different television shows, can easily step into the house style and direct an episode that looks just like any other Mad Men episode.

Halfway through "Mystery Date" things change -- night comes down, and it gets hard to tell what's going on as the frame becomes more and more covered in shadow.  Rather than glamorous, the characters look ugly, with the sweat-slicked and feverish Don Draper being the most dramatically debased.  This coincides with the nightmarish experiences of both Don and Sally, and (at least theoretically) pulls the audience into their dreamscape.  Even the conversation between Peggy and Dawn takes on a frightening tinge.  This is one of the advantages of developing a consistent, identifiable style -- when that style changes, it's immediately jarring, and this can be deployed to any number of effects.

At the end of the episode, the long night has past, the cinematography is back to normal, and we and the characters have escaped danger.  But the Other is still out there -- and this is the paradox of Mad Men, and most other serial dramas.  Each episode comes to its own narrative conclusion, but the underlying issues seem to be never truly resolved, because things are never resolved and done away with in real life.  Instead of pretending that these characters are ever going to reach a genuinely happy conclusion, Mad Men presents us each week with ruminations on a theme.  And this is what makes the sometimes clumsy execution so forgivable.  After all, how many TV shows out there privilege theme over narrative so consistently?

Next week: "Today armies, countries, organizations and families have changed for you.  You are an egg that hatches into a comrade."

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