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A Return to Maidenform

by Mike Anton

Brett Vetterlein's 140 Character or Less Mad Men Wrap-up for Season 5, Episode 4's "Mystery Date"

DrBigBoobs is coming home. SilverFox carries alot of cash. DrBigBoobs is leaving home. Don murders a woman. Or does he? - @imnotcharles / tumblr

The Lede: Ladies....

I had no idea that I was celebrating an annual tradition last night, but Matthew Weiner and Company gave us a pleasant surprise. "Mystery Date" is the latest in the ongoing "Mad Women" series-within-a-series, a collection of the most female-centric episodes over the series run including season 2's "Maidenform," season 3's "My Old Kentucky Home," and season 4's "The Beautiful Girls." This is the unofficial cover art.

While “Mad Men” as a whole has done a fine job in showing the ever-shifting gender roles throughout the series' length, Weiner and Co. tend to group the major social awakenings together, usually once per season. This creates a very specific through line, where upon we can easily check back and see how far our ladies have come (and how far they still have to go).

Today, we're going to look back over last night's big episode and thumb through the previous three mile markers that make up this continuum that shows Peggy's rise as the underdog female in a world full of men, Sally Draper's struggle to be an adult, and Joan's assertion of herself over the role that she should fit in to.

First, though, who else can we discuss but Joan Harris? Joan was happily going through all the motions of the life that was expected of her. After being a stalwart in the secretarial bullpen (and a party girl outside of it) she was ready to find a successful man, get married, move to the suburbs and trade that awful job at SterlingCoo for the honor of tending to a house full of children, nestled comfortably in the way-out suburbs.

Enter Dr. Greg.

Greg was always a quarterback without a team to rally behind him. He has the smile of a winner, the work ethic of a champion, and the demeanor of a spoiled, entitled brat. The military is a good place for his patriarchal tone. Joan married someone whom she thought would take care of her. Dr. Greg thought he married a servant that came with his own personal vagina that he could use at his discretion.

But that did not deter Joanie. Even when he demanded that Emily Post's entire guide to seating be tossed at the window to accommodate his own neediness ("My Old Kentucky Home") and then later forced her to play a song on the accordion because she was the only winning thing about him (as mentioned by literally all the other party guests), she stood by his side. He signed up for the army without consulting her, then learning that he was getting shipped to Vietnam, making him not available to protect her from a harrowing experience ("The Beautiful Girls"), she still stayed with him. Even after she had sex with Roger and kept the child, she stuck with him and tried to make a family out of this entanglement.

Oh, and he raped her on the floor of her boss's office. Wasn't in any of the four episodes, really, but seems rather pertinent.

With Dr. Greg overseas, his void in child rearing was temporarily filled by her mother, Gail, whose presence felt like one of these women is a complete anachronism. How did the smart, sophisticated, driven Joan come from this woman who so easily and ceaselessly bends to Greg's every pointed direction? Who takes the news of their husband signing up for another year in Vietnam, not only without consulting his wife but lying about it being his decision to do it voluntarily, and then says frankly "you're a military wife," as if this sort of situation is to be expected?

The marriage effectively ends in “Mystery Date” with a double punch to Joanie's system. The first comes after she screams at Greg that he never learned he "can't make a decision without [her]," to which he retorts, "I've got my orders. You've got yours," before storming out. Then comes Gail, who tells her to sleep it off (“you don't even realize how tired you are”) and meets her ailing daughter in the morning with a smile and some pleasant flapjacks to make eeeeverything better.

And in that glimpse she saw the rest of her life unfolding in front of her. The doting totem, once a person is now turned into an artifact someone can dig up to say, “ah, yes, this is from a marriage!” Joan is too vibrant, too lively to be held down like this; a long way from her inherently closed-off worldview in “Maidenform.” This is a woman that wants to keep working, who wants to stay in the city, and who wants to raise a baby her way. Who's to say that's impossible?

When Roger first impregnated Joan in "The Beautiful Girls," it seemed like the worst thing that could have happened to her (even the chief of surgery's wife warned against having a baby in "My Old Kentucky Home"). And as she sits in the kitchen at that table, with Dr. Greg's orders waiting to be laid out, I realize now that the baby was a gift. It's one thing in that apartment that came from pure love.

Peggy Olsen has long been our underdog, and “Maidenform” was indicative of this. Even though Peggy is a full-fledged writer -- and she's a woman -- she was still in the dark during the casting session for the ad she inadvertently pitched (though every penis-carrying SC employee was in the room). In order to not miss the next meeting, she takes Joan's advice and dresses sexily (not like “a little girl”) and ends up at the big meeting... held at a burlesque show. Sure she ended up on an executive's lap, but at least she could hear the discussion this time, right?

Peggy had enough clout by "My Old Kentucky Home" to keep Harry barred from casting calls (a nice callback). But that doesn't mean she'd truly earned anything. Peggy still had to prove her worth to the men, announcing "I'm Peggy Olsen and I want to smoke some marijuana" and knocking out excellent copy as the boys slept. Now, she's clawed her way high enough to where she can confidently fleece Roger Sterling of $410 for a last-second ad campaign, which is about a third of an office if we check this in the SCDP market.

Throughout this battle against the glass ceiling, Peggy's never had someone to share the grief (or pleasures) with. When she tries to discuss career aspirations with Joan in “Maidenform,” she's met with a derisive comment wherein she only ever wanted to be a secretary. Peggy's former secretary, the matronly Olive, disapproves of Peggy's pot-smoking ways from “My Old Kentucky Home.” Peggy calms her by saying, "Don't worry about me. I'm going to get to do everything you want for me. I'm going to be fine, Olive. I really am." That gumption is what so disappoints her about Abe after they meet for a drink in "The Beautiful Girls." Here is this lefty radical who falls over himself to defend equal rights but scoffs at Peggy's assertion that "most of what the Negroes do, I can't do either. And no one seems to care."

Peggy finally gets the opportunity to test her assertion, that kinship, when she states there could be Negro copy writers if "they fight their way in, like I did." All she needed was Dawn, Don's black secretary, taking shelter in his office. Seeing this an opportunity to do a good deed -- and maybe find a like-minded companion -- she implores Dawn to trust her, and uses her personal history as a former secretary to the Don Draper as a note to bond on (eyebrows). Keeping on this "equality" tip, Peggy, sitting on the couch like she's gossiping at a sleepover right before the makeovers start, asks Dawn if she ever wants to be a copywriter. She happily declines, saying "I like my job."

So she's not really an equal. But Peggy treats her like one anyway (or at least someone to rant at), going on about how tough it is to be a female copy writer, being the only person of your kind in the office, how Peggy might act like a man (is that a bad thing?) but trailblazing is tiring work. "I tried," Peggy confesses, "but I don't know if I have it in me. I don't know if I want to." And then, to cap off this lesson in equal rights, Peggy goes to leave and is unsure whether or not to take her purse, a look not lost on Dawn. For as bad as Peggy has had it -- and she's surely had it bad -- no one has ever invited her into her home and then treated her like a criminal.

If that faux pas wasn't enough, Michael Ginsberg, the man Rizzo warned Peggy to not hire because he'd take her place? Well, he just sold two different ad campaigns to the same company for women's shoes. He, the man, was christened a “genius” by, you guessed it, another man. For as far as she's gone, Peggy is nowhere near finished climbing (especially out of the hole she has dug for herself in front of Dawn).

Sally Draper, like most kids her age, bridges the gap between being a child and an adult. But most kids her age didn't grow up in the Draper residence, where maturation can occur fairly rapidly. If Sally's not exactly sure where her age distances from her experiences, she's not alone. Throughout the series -- and especially in the Mad Women episodes -- Sally has spent her time among adults who aren't quite sure what to make of her, either.

To Betty, she is a little nuisance that is better left unnoticed. Betty has no idea that when Don chastises her for the bikini she wears in "Maidenform" that Sally hears every bit of Don's condemnation about her "desperate" attempt to be "ogled by men." I'm not saying that Betty should protect her daughter from such depravities, but she should, you know, turn, face her, and discuss what just happened, right? But “Betty” and “adult conversation” are two words that don't go well together, even when two adults are involved.

In fact, Don has more adult conversations with his daughter than with his wife. It's what makes him order pizza when she stows away on a train from Ossining to visit her daddy at his office, or kibitz with her while she shits on Henry's inability to get home in "Mystery Date." "You'd think Henry could get a flight," she dispatches cattily. "He's sooooo important." Don just nods along.

The biggest test of her maturity came last night, thanks in no small part to Paulina, her grandmother-in-law. At first, she treats Sally like a child (much like she treats Betty, to be frank). Paulina utilizes methods gleaned by her own upbringing from her father, a man who needlessly kicked her across a room to teach her that bad can come at any time, from any direction. (That Depression sure was Great!) When Paulina threatens to ground Sally by sending her to bed while it's still light out, she assures the girl that looking out the window with her head on the pillow "is the saddest thing in the world."

If only that were the case. Unfortunately, a story much more sad, graphic, and troubling is ripping through the nation, at the moment. Eight women, all nursing students, were raped and murdered, one by one. The images are too much for Ginsberg to take, let alone a teenage girl. But Sally insists, getting some information out of Paulina, whose discussion of the “innocent nurses, short uniforms, stirring his desire” counts as the most frank discussion Sally's ever had about sex, and is much more honest than Don ducking around what Faye means to him in “The Beautiful Girls”. Thankfully Grandpa Gene prepared her for such a conversation by making her read about a time when “fashion was the only law, passion the only pursuit” in “My Old Kentucky Home.” Not satisfied with the details she's been given, Sally swipes the day's newspaper out of the trash and reads the full story in the proper location for such a ghoulish tale: under the covers, in the dark, lit only with a flash light.

Sally fails this test of her maturity, running to Paulina in the middle of the night to try and get some comfort. Paulina sends a mixed message: she allows Sally to stay for a while, letting her admire the giant butcher knife Paulina keeps for such emergencies. She also gives the small child half a pill of Seconal to get her to sleep. Considering how hard it was to wake the considerably older and heavier Paulina when Henry and Betty arrive the next day, how stoned must Sally be? And how do we reconcile Sally hiding under the couch for comfort in a nod to when she stole her beloved Grandpa Gene's money in "My Kentucky Home" and hid under the dining room table with her taking the same drug that killed Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, and Tennessee Williams?

In "The Summer Girls," Don makes Sally promise to never run away again. She turns 16 in 1969, just in time for Woodstock. I'm not sure if the question is “will she get there?” or “will she make it back alive?”

The Rest: Beaten

- The Mad Women Quadrilogy is also a good way to track Don's insatiable lust! First he's with the voracious, terrible Bobbi Barrett while shaming his bikini-clad wife to the point where she covers herself up while standing in her own house ("Maidenform"). He evolves slightly by attempting to stick with his wife, and turning the ire on others. No one's jealous of Roger for marrying the much younger Jane, as Roger believes. "They think you're foolish," says Don, a thought he immediately represses ("My Old Kentucky Home").

By "The Beautiful Girls," he's still having lamp-knocking-over sex with Faye and treats her less like an equal and more like a proxy for his just-deceased secretary, dispatching her to watch Sally (even though she knows so little child psychology). She mentions how she feels that she failed a test, and while Don insists that isn't the case, that's exactly the case.

“The Beautiful Girls” also signifies the emergence of Megan who, by the time we reach "Mystery Date," is now Mrs. Don Draper. And, because of his adoration for her or his desire to not screw this marriage up (or both), he metaphorically chokes the life out of his desires, throttling the embodiment of all his sexual vices and tossing the body in a shallow grave under the bed. Only in "Mad Men" can you see someone respect women more by brutally killing another in a crazy fever dream. And we all know bodies in shallow graves never come back up no sir, not at all, no way.

I also want to take the time to note how truly terrible it was to watch Don strangle that girl. For every nice thing that a woman does in one of these episodes, there is an incredible amount of shit like that which makes your head spin (no, I didn't forget Dr. Greg grabbing Joan's arm before she kicks him out).

- In case you were wondering, “My Old Kentucky Home” was eventful for Betty Draper as well: it's where she first met Henry Francis. See, even demons with vaginas we casually refer to as women can get ahead in the Mad Women series!!

- This was the second dream sequence in two weeks, and certainly the most vivid. The last time a character got such a long dreamscape was ol' Betty Draper waaaay back in season 3's “The Fog.” While doped up trying to deliver (spite) Baby Gene, Betty dreamed of catching a cocoon in her hand and crushing it. As of this writing, she has yet to crush (spite) Baby Gene. But I wouldn't place bets against it...

- I was fortunate enough to interview Christina Hendricks for the movie Drive and was able to discuss "Mad Men." She was, at the time, filming this exact episode. Here's a question:

And Joan seems to be getting more vulnerable through the series. Is that something that continues?

Like I said, we’re only on episode four, so there’s a lot yet to be seen. But I was talking to one of the guys in the crew the other day and he goes, “I was just watching seasons one and two and Joan was a lot sassier back then!” And I think she was really sassy, but that’s what’s so great about Matt’s writing and all the writers on the show is that these characters change and grow and you’re not going to see the same thing over and over. They’re living as real lives as fake people can live (laughs). Y’know, she’s had a couple of rough years and it’s beaten her down a little bit, but she keeps getting back up. But it’s taken a little bit of sass out of her pants I think (laughs).

Here's the rest of the interview. Yes, she is just as gorgeous in person as she is on TV, and is somehow doubly as kind and generous. I don't know the math on that, but it's true.

Series newbie Matt Shakman directed this episode, using a very open style he probably gleaned from the 32 "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" episodes he helmed. The style fit this specific show well (and its use of space echoes the other Mad Women episodes), showing just how much distance there is between friends, co-workers, and lovers who you swear you know well.

To really punctuate it, they used a series of very wide shots with just the two people shown, usually on opposite sides, who would probably run off the TV set if they weren't kept in by that blasted frame. Here are the moments where characters were given wide two shots (meaning only two people in the frame) to show just how much of a gap there is between two characters:

- Don and Megan in the elevator

- Greg and Joan both when he first "needs to tell [her] something" and later at dinner (as an accordion takes up the space between)

- Pete and Roger, when Pete gives an update on the account

- Peggy and Dawn when the purse sits between.

The Nit-Pick: Connections Within Mad Women

This might be the result of a modicum of sleep and a heaping helping of coffee, but I found a plethora of connections between "Mystery Date" and the other three Mad Women episodes. Indulge me, if you will, because some of these are downright bizarre.

One of the shared themes throughout is violence and disrespect to women. While "Mystery Date" racked up the highest death count (eight women murdered by a serial killer, one murdered by fever dream strangling), let us not forget Ida Blankenship, the grande dame awarded for her lifetime of secretarial work at Sterling Cooper (Draper Price) by having her corpse unceremoniously dumped out the back door so as not to upset the powerful Men in the conference room. For as much as that was played for a laugh, there's something terribly sad about it in hindsight. But holy hell did I laugh at the time. ...And a little bit right now when I think about it. It's Pete! He's so animated!

Racism abounds! In two episodes, a black woman was thought of as a crook (Carla by Grandpa Gene in "My Old Kentucky Home," Dawn by Peggy in "Mystery Date"), the only two episodes where this instance occurs. And from the "whacky shenanigans" file, Sally mistakes a bottle of rum made to look like an indigenous person with the normal bottle for Aunt Jemima ("The Beautiful Girls"). Oh, and blackface ("My Old Kentucky Home"). You come to see women held down, you stay to watch everyone else get it, too!

- Instruments! Not only was the accordion coming between Joan and Greg a great, hilarious gag, it is also a call back to a similar situation where he made her do something without counseling her beforehand. If memory serves, there have been no non-Mad Women series accordion cameos.

- The number of strong female characters who were sought to give guidance to another female: Gail and Paulina (“Mystery Date”); Faye and Ida Blankenship (“The Beautiful Girls”); Olive (My Old Kentucky Home”); and Joan herself (“Maidenform”). So far, only Joan has proven herself relevant in the fifth season, thanks to a bit of adjusting in her own views. (I'm counting Faye for talking to Sally, not for her quick departing chat with Peggy in season 4's "Blowing Smoke" as that clearly occurred outside the strict boundaries of the Mad Women series).

- Pete was apprehensive of going to Roger's party in "My Old Kentucky Home" because he might run into one of Trudy's old "beaus," the same problem plaguing Megan in “Mystery Date.”

- Speaking of Megan and Don, they open the episode going up in an elevator, while "The Beautiful Girls," ends with Joan, Peggy, and Faye all going down in one. "Mystery Date" also ends with a nod to the elevator shot, with Joan laying on her bed in the same position, except her child takes Peggy's spot and her mother takes Faye's (couldn't find a good screen grab, unfortunately, so remember or take me at my word).

- Joan's "getting ready" outfit in "Mystery Date" is the same she wore to prepare for dinner in "My Old Kentucky Home."

- We can't forget about the troops! Besides Dr. Greg saluting a fellow military man at dinner in "Mystery Date," the good people at "Mad Men" honored the troops by holding the annual "Ribs and Fashion Show" on Memorial Day in "Maidenform." They even showed off a Rough Rider! Talk about anachronisms....

Tune in next week, when I don't take nearly 24 hours to write a friggin' review.

Image courtesy of 30 FPS / Mocksession.com

 

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Mike Anton is the Editor-In-Chief at The Inclusive. Mike writes movie reviews and interview pieces for The Film Stage as well as screenplays, sketches, and the like. He lives in New York City and though he's an avid beard and flannel enthusiast, he does not consider himself a hipster. Contact him at mike.anton[at]theinclusive.net or @mpants