Monday, April 09, 2012

Mad Men 5-4: Mystery Date

He hit me
And it felt like a kiss.
He hit me
But it didn't hurt me.

He couldn't stand to hear me say
That I'd been with someone new,
And when I told him I had been untrue

He hit me
And it felt like a kiss.
He hit me
And I knew he loved me.

If he didn't care for me
I could have never made him mad
But he hit me,
And I was glad.

Yes, that song - released in 1962 - is for real, although it didn't get much radio play (gee, I wonder why) despite being written by Carole King(!), performed by the Crystals (who hated it) and commissioned by Phil Spector (this is when you say "aha!"). The lyrics were apparently based on what a female singer told King and lyricist Gerry Goffin when they asked her why she stayed with her abusive boyfriend. As such, they're an obviously ironic counterpoint to the last shot of this week's "Mad Men," which shows a contemplative Joan lying next to her baby and her mother after giving her husband the heave-ho. But as a disturbing sadomasochistic vision of male-female relationships, the song also made a fittingly creepy capper for what has got to be the creepiest MM episode yet.

Aptly titled "Mystery Date" (it certainly featured all kinds of peculiar "dates"), the ep could also have been called "My Beautiful Dark Twisted 'Cinderella' Fantasy." I bet as a kid Matt Weiner loved the original Grimm fairy tales - in their telling of Cinderella, the evil stepsisters cut off their big toes so the shoe would fit - and his version is, if anything, even darker. Introduced in a shoe sales pitch that plays off the fantasy of woman as prey that wants to be caught, later echoed in the sight of a single reddish shoe peeking out from under Don's bed, the Cinderella motif becomes inextricably intertwined with the grisly real-life rape and murder of eight nurses by Richard Speck, which had women all over the country on edge in the summer of 1966. That sense of unease - heightened by the seemingly-ubiquitous race riots occurring at about the same time - permeates the entire episode, from the horror movie-like sequence of Peggy moving gingerly through the office at night, to Don's fevered nightmare of seduction and murder, to Sally's impromptu slumber party with her menacing step(grand)mother, which ends with Sally, like Speck's only surviving victim and Don's imaginary one, hidden under a piece of furniture.

I'm still not sure if I actually liked the episode. It seemed a bit overworked. "Mad Men" always has layers and nuances, but it doesn't always have subtlety or, shall we say, believability, as this week demonstrated in spades. For example, Michael Ginsberg's shoe pitch was way too damn weird and twisted to be such a hit with the client; it was plainly scripted less to convince us that Ginsberg's a "genius" than to set up the theme(s) of the week. Similarly, Don's storyline was almost laughably heavy-handed in telegraphing that the intrusion of "Andrea" was (1) a dream (I called it the minute she turned up so improbably at his door) (2) the embodiment of Don's deepest sexual fears - the prey turned predator, the inability to control his illicit desires or to preserve his marriage, the desire for violence - which he literally had to "kill" to overcome.

Still, the episode did get under my skin, so in that sense it worked. And in the less melodramatic plot lines, Peggy and Joan both had some great moments: Peggy blithely skimming $400 off Roger, later awkwardly trying to "bond" with Dawn - only to undermine her good intentions with one fatal moment of hesitation; Joan telling Dr. Greg in a tone that could cut steel that she's tired of propping up his insecurities, before dropping the final bombshell - "You're not a good man. You never were ... and you know what I'm talking about." Yes, Joan, we all do, and we've waited a long time for you to say it.

Random observations:

-What the hell was Stan wearing over his head in that first scene in the office?

-Interesting that Ginsberg, the guy behind the creepy Cinderella pitch, was also the only one to be revolted by his co-workers' ghoulish fascination with Joyce's photos of the Speck murders. Some have speculated his parents or other relatives might be Holocaust survivors (or victims), but I'm not sure that explains his visceral reaction to the photos.

-The sight of mama Francis wielding by turns a butcher knife and a tube of Seconal reminded me of no one so much as Kathy Bates' character in "Misery." It also made me laugh, even though poor Sally's mental health isn't really a laughing matter. Step-grandma's scary enough to make Betty look positively inviting by comparison.

-Speaking of Betty, is it just me or did she look a lot slimmer in her brief appearance than she did last week? She must have started popping those diet pills after all.

-I may be the only person I know who harbors a little bit - a very little bit - of sympathy for Greg, aka "Dr. Rapey," who's probably the only character on "Mad Men" more despised than Betty. Like Betty, he's clearly not intended to be a totally one-dimensional villain - he's shown tenderness to Joan before (albeit interspersed with plenty of dickishness and whininess), and in this episode we see signs that his service has done his character some good (although not, it appears, in the department of consideration for his wife). But also like Betty, he's colossally ill-matched with the person he married, and like Don (though for totally different reasons), he won't give his wife the respect that a true partnership requires. Unlike Betty, Joan's able to end the marriage before it drains all the life out of her. Where there's Joan, there's hope. So far.


Blogger EC said...

Stan's wearing Topaz pantyhose over his face. This is supposed to be a joke on the stockings' transpaency, but also plays into this week's creepiness / violence themes. The man with a stocking over his face = bedroom intruder.

1:39 PM  

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