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Mad Men's Master Class in American Studies Rolls on to Some Mystery Dates

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Well, that was one of the spookier Mad Men episodes, complete with not one but two dream sequences. As always, there be some spoilers ahead discussing this episode, the aptly titled "Mystery Date."

The horizon of the future, i.e., the later '60s, is getting much darker, and a lot closer. New York City has slid past its peak, at which it glittered as the series began. Things increasingly don't work, we're seeing some people who look rather unkempt. And they're not the hippies, because those folks have yet to arrive.

Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, going back to 2009, here in The Mad Men File.

It's mid-July 1966. The worst things are happening elsewhere, but they're getting closer. Richard Speck raped and murdered eight student nurses in Chicago, and race riots have cropped up in the Windy City as well. Much of the Mad Men crew is neurotically ogling death pictures from Chicago, chattering uneasily about the salacious brutality of the mass murder and worrying about racial unrest.

Much closer to home, there've been violent incidents between blacks and Puerto Ricans and blacks and police in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district, where later in the year Senator Robert F. Kennedy will join with liberal Republican Mayor John Lindsay and liberal Republican Senator Jacob Javits to launch a new public/private partnership to deal with community problems.

The Vietnam War is ramping up. And drugs as an answer to unease and unhappiness are becoming widespread, across the generations.

Mad Men, the great American novel for television that doubles as a master class in American studies -- advertising, arguably the quintessential American industry for its stoking of desire and aspiration, providing a perfect milieu -- incorporates all this into the lives of our beloved and not infrequently benighted characters.

Let's deal first with the dream sequences, something I hardly ever like. Don Draper and his new wife Megan Calvet Draper have the first Mystery Date, running into Andrea Plotdevice, an old sex partner of Don's who flirts inappropriately with the now abashed admeister before grasping that the beautiful young woman in the elevator with them is his wife. After she departs, Don and Megan go through their pattern of bickering and then making up, which of course will never get old, either for them or for us.

Andrea Plotdevice is played by Madchen Amick, one of the glamour girls of Twin Peaks, David Lynch's great cult fave series of two decades ago which, unlike Mad Men, could not sustain its premise. (It was sort of the Lost of its day, but got to the ultimate disappointment much faster.)

Andrea turns up not once but twice after, both times appearing at Don and Megan's fabulous Manhattan apartment, to which Draper, sick as a dog and looking it, has repaired to recuperate. Don, initially resistant to Andrea's entreaties for sex, gives in for a sweaty performance. Then, angered by her taunting admonition that they'll do it again because he is sick and loves it, he murders her and pushes her body under the bed.

These were clearly dream sequences. Otherwise, Mad Men was suddenly becoming a very different sort of show.

What do the dream sequences mean? Well, when Bobby Ewing came out of the shower, we learned ... Wait, that's not it. Ain't no oil derricks on this show.

I suppose we'll find out what the dreams mean. I generally don't like dream sequences, so I'm willing to wait. The obvious interpretation is that at least part of Don's subconscious is acting out against his longstanding impulse to cheat on his wife, which he evidently has not indulged in this marriage.

But Don intoned a few years ago: "People don't change." Circumstances, however, sometimes do.

In any event, murder, and quite sexual violence against women, is in the air after the Richard Speck murders. Just wait till these people get a load of Charles Manson, who has not yet written a song for the Beach Boys but is just three years away from being extremely famous.

A more interesting, if less sensational, mystery date takes place at the darkly Gothic new Francis manse.

Betty Draper Francis, who seems to have found a wondrous instant weight-loss technique, and Henry Francis are away visiting nine-year-old Bobby Draper at camp, leaving 12-year-old Sally Draper in the care of her step-grandmother, who has won some favor from the element of the audience that hates Betty.

I would bet that's gone after this episode.

Incidentally, there was a time, before she married Don, when Betty was a happy person, as Don recounted to his soul mate Anna Draper (a wonderful character greatly missed) toward the end of Season 2 when the Don-Betty marriage imploded following his very destructive and publicly embarrassing affair with Bobbie Barrett. (Don and Betty got back together in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and, oh yes, her pregnancy.)

Back to Sally and Pauline Francis. After finally ferreting out on her own the shocking details of the nurse murders, Sally elicits a chilling explanation for the crimes from Grandma Pauline, who incidentally has a butcher knife out for self-defense. The young nurses' outfits turned on the killer.

When Betty and Henry return, they find grandmother and grand-daughter both zonked out on Seconal.

How much do we think that the malign influence of Grandma Pauline will overshadow the benign influence of the late Grandpa Gene? And how close to absolutely sure can we be that this is only the first of many times that Sally will use a controlled substance to alter her consciousness?

A far more amusing mystery date occurs between Peggy and Roger.

The ever witty name partner, chafing with the emergence of Pete Campbell as the dominant business presence in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, perhaps because of his busy schedule of doing nothing has forgotten to order needed creative work for Mohawk Airlines from the newest agency member, Michael Ginsburg, who in this episode shows an almost Draper-like facility for insightful advertising.

It was Roger who gave Peggy her first real office -- the one without the copy machine in it -- back in Season 2. But so desperate is he for immediate assistance from a good copywriter that he doesn't remind Peggy of that, he simply empties his wallet to buy her help. It's a funny sequence between two characters who've had surprisingly little time together on the show but always make it count.

But it leads to a far less amusing mystery date between Peggy and Dawn, Don's (I know, groan) new black secretary. Working late, in the swanky but now spooky darkened SCDP offices, Peggy hears an alarming sound. Investigating, she finds that Dawn is sleeping in Don's office.

Why? Because the racial trouble in Bed-Stuy has her fearing the subway, and cab drivers won't go into her part of town late at night. So Peggy, invoking emerging sisterhood and her status having started out as Don's secretary, invites Dawn to stay with her.

It's a little awkward, because part of Peggy imagines that her experience is similar to Dawn's, but it goes well enough till she notices that she is about to leave her purse containing the loot she's liberated from Roger near her black house guest.

Peggy's ingrained racism, notwithstanding her lefty writer boyfriend who's off covering the unrest in Chicago, rears its head in a telling look, which Dawn intercepts and correctly interprets.

As if Peggy is going to be robbed by the only other person in her apartment, who works with her and is her boss's secretary. Not that there's anything logical about racism.

Seeing that Dawn has seen, Peggy is embarrassed. And even though it would be perfectly natural for someone to take her purse into her room -- after all, there's more in that purse than money -- Peggy makes a point of leaving it where it sits.

By the time Peggy, not exactly a slug-a-bed, is up, Dawn, and I'll avoid a play on her name and the time of day, is gone, having left a note thanking Peggy for her hospitality. These two have a way to go on the bonding front.

Naturally, I've left the most satisfying mystery date for last.

That's the one between Joan Holloway and her not so beloved husband, Dr. Blockhead, er, Dr. Greg Harris.

We've had rising brutality, with an emphasis on violence against women, rising racial tension, and the encroaching drug culture. Here the Vietnam War makes its presence felt.

In the penultimate episode of Season 2, the not at all good doctor raped Joan in Don's office after meeting her old flame Roger and noting that he seemed to know a lot about her. Roger, of course, knows even more now, especially the paternity of the baby whom Joan introduces for the first time to her husband.

Doc Block doesn't seem to suspect, and Joan puts on a convincing show of welcoming her Army officer husband home from Vietnam.

Joan, having convinced herself that a handsome doctor husband was the way to go, even after he raped her and showed repeatedly that he was really a boring jerk, has made a practice of making making do work. And it's going pretty well here, till, in one of the more awkward family dinners in a series which has had its share, the truth comes out. (The show, incidentally, makes a glaring error in having an enlisted man salute Captain Harris inside the restaurant. That's not done indoors in such a situation, not now and not in 1966, either. A nod of recognition and perhaps a respectful "Good evening, sir" is all that would have happened in real life.)

The hubster, Joan learns, is headed back to the Nam for another year. And, oh, by the way, it turns out that it's his decision to go back.

Why? Because he's needed. He feels important, like he's making a difference. He's not a good doctor in New York, but in Vietnam, he is. Hmm. All those enlisted men saluting him (outdoors) probably doesn't hurt, either.

To Joan's, and the show's, credit, that tears it.

I was concerned that Joan would become a war widow, and that's how the oncoming disaster of the Vietnam War would manifest itself in Mad Men. Certainly a lot of fans -- most of whom I'd bet are against capital punishment -- have been wishing for his death. But that would have been quite a cliche, and creator Matthew Weiner has been good about that sort of thing.

It also would not have been very empowering for one of the show's strongest and most interesting characters. So she dumps him, telling him his return to her abode will no longer be required. And that, no, she has not forgotten that he raped her on the floor of Don's office nearly four years earlier, which she puts rather more eloquently than that.

He says that the Army makes him feel like a good man and she, having finally had it with his errant nonsense, tells him that he was never a good man.

Which leaves Joan's future, as a single mother in 1966, looking quite unclear. And leaves the show's connection with Vietnam unclear as well.

Unless, of course, Dr. Blockhead decides that he must prove that he is a good man by becoming a hero and getting himself killed in the process. Since the divorce is unlikely to happen any time soon as he is about to ship out again, that would leave our Joan accepting the medal and the flag that accompanies it in an ironic ceremony.

That would be almost as ironic as Don Draper's Purple Heart.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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