SONIA BRAND-FISHER: An episode filled with uncharacteristic terror, suspense, and agitation, the episode titled “Mystery Date” of “Mad Men”‘s Season 5 left me, quite literally, breathless. With Hitchcockian camera pans and dialogue to make the blood curdle, I am wondering if this was Matthew Weiner’s attempt at exposing the precise horror of the characters, their lives, and the times all playing off the disjointed tones of the first two weeks. Hallucinations of sex and murder, a grandma with a kitchen knife, a killer on the loose, and that ominous accordion over Joan’s shoulder in the Italian restaurant were all physically and psychologically violent attacks on the characters of “Mad Men.” What made this all even more terrifying was the fact that all of these characters we know so well, their insecurities and their deepest fears. When we see them manifest on screen, all at once, to everyone, in the span of 60 minutes… one can’t help but feel the shock.
I honestly have no idea where to start, and I know Howard is going to want to weigh in a lot on this, so I’m going to begin with my personal favorite amazon, Joan. Even with her, I don’t know where to start. The tense, forced romantic reunion with her husband, Greg, was eerily emotionless and heavy on the performance of “the motions.” The silence in the background of the home scenes left an uncomfortable amount of room for anticipation of the (in my mind) glorious ending of their disgusting relationship. However, the moment that made my blood run cold was when Joan realized that Greg had volunteered to return to Vietnam, leaving Joan and “his” son behind. Over her shoulder emerges the awkward and imposing presence of the accordion, an overt reminder of her forced “C’est Magnifique” serenade for Greg’s colleagues in Season 2. In that episode they shared a glance while she sang, implying that all was not magnificent despite the song’s insistence. Here, in Season 5, she has had enough of pretending that c’est magnifique, and the accordion’s presence behind her is ominously telling her to get out. And Joan tells Greg off after he barks at her, “I have my orders, and you have yours,” and she retaliates the next morning with the hauntingly definitive “You’re not a good man, you never were. Even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about.” The audience gasps, some of us (myself included) burst into cheers when Joan told Greg to leave. She has intentionally put herself in the position of a single mother with a newborn in the mid-1960s, however, who wants to pursue a career that she finds fulfilling and essential to her identity. She is a brave woman, and Christina Hendricks is the stand-out performance for me during this episode.
I have never seen an episode of “Mad Men” that I would consider to be “spooky” but this one certainly attained a level of horror for me with a few nods towards the style of Alfred Hitchcock. Deceptively routine camera angles that worked to subtly expose shots that alluded to the themes of the episode created the same uneasiness as the shots of the dangling rope do in Hitchcock’s “Rope.” Don’s hallucination scene was lit in a way that paid homage to the tower murder scenes in “Vertigo” with the contorted legs and shoes of the murder victim being lingered on by the camera. The woman-under-the-bed motif was terrifying considering the Richard Speck murders that were going on at the time that this episode takes place, as if the “NATION HUNTS MASS KILLER” bolded headline wasn’t enough to curl the toes of the audience. The sequence of Betty and Henry Francis coming home to find grandma drugged on the couch with a kitchen knife beside her and Sally under the sofa, also drugged, immediately following Don’s hallucination was better than many horror films that I have seen because of the elements of artistic restraint taken so that the audience would have to work to find the horror. The camera doesn’t throw Sally passed out under the sofa in our faces, nor any of the disturbing headlines, and even Don’s hallucination just had us more shocked that Matthew Weiner was going in THIS direction with the show than the fact that the “murder” itself was taking place. All of it was so well executed (no pun intended) that it is difficult to find anything wrong with the way this episode unfolded.
I look forward to more episodes like this that bring us, as viewers, so out of our comfort zone that we cannot believe what we are watching, and yet we can, because it’s “Mad Men,” and it’s just so damn good.
HOWARD MEGDAL: Oh, like you, Sonia, the highlight had to be seeing Joan give Greg his dishonorable discharge. This was unlike any Mad Men episode before it, and yet not a departure from either the characters or something that took the show to a place it could have difficulty navigating.
I loved the interplay between Sally and Henry’s mother, with the latter’s stories giving us insight into exactly how a woman like that ends up that way. Mean, needing sedatives to sleep- a memo to fathers everywhere- don’t kick your daughter over nothing!
Peggy and Roger’s comic relief- a device Hitchcock so often used to great effect- in no way detracted from the episode. Watching Peggy navigate her own feelings on race, with that awful moment where she looks worriedly at her purse, was pitch-perfect. (It actually called to mind, for me, some of Larry David’s moments with Wanda Sykes on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)
Oh, and regarding Michael Ginsberg, a Neil Simon character added to the Mad Men scene- I am wholeheartedly in favor. I already care about him. Is this from watching Lost In Yonkers too much as a child? Who can say?