Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 4–Mystery Date

“You were never a good man. Even before we were married. You know what I’m talking about.”

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In this week’s Mad Men, Don Draper had a cold.

This is a first. As a larger than life character who bestrides the show like a colossus, Don has previously only fallen prey to Big Dramatic Ailments. We’ve seen him struggle with depression and alcoholism, and by extension the terminal cancer of Anna Draper, wife of the real Don, whose identity he stole. But never before have we seen Don brought low by something as mundane as a cold. Not that it stops him from valiantly smoking through it, despite his uncontrollable cough.

It’s yet another chip in Don’s armour, an example of human frailty that’s becoming more and more common in the former king of Madison Avenue. As if to underline the increasing sense that Don’s day in the sun is winding down, he has to cope with a brilliant presentation to some important clients by new boy Michael Ginsberg – the sort of presentation that Don himself used to carry off effortlessly. Obviously shaken, Don is furious, and Ginsberg is almost fired immediately: “Everything I’m about to say to you is followed by ‘or else’… Never do that again.”

Of course, the reason for Don’s discomfiture is that Ginsberg is brilliant, just like Don used to be. He may not have Don’s effortless skill at seduction, but he certainly has an insight into women’s psyches, vital for the shoe campaign he’s working on. But as a more liberal product of the enlightened 60s, he has more morality than we usually see from Don; he’s sickened by the other copywriters’ (including Peggy) ghoulish fascination with the crime scene photos from the Richard Speck murders.

In fact, what with his sensitivity, single status and professed lack of knowledge of women, I wonder if Ginsberg is going to turn out to be gay? If so, it would be an interesting angle to explore in times that have become a little more enlightened since the departure of the show’s only previous gay character, Sal Romano; but times that are still not that enlightened if you’re Jewish, never mind homosexual.

Be that as it may, Ginsberg actually didn’t feature much here, except insofar as piquing Don’s insecurities. The core of the episode was a long dark night of the soul for several of the characters, the sort of thing the show has done before and is very good at. Variously, Joan had to deal with a shocking surprise from her none too nice husband when he returned from Vietnam; Sally had to cope with being babysat by her stepfather’s dragon of a mother; Peggy spent a revealing evening with Don’s new secretary Dawn; and Don himself, being incapable of just having a simple cold, struggled with (apparent) fever dreams in which his guilty history of infidelities returned to haunt him.

That all kicked off with a light and funny scene in the elevator, as a coughing Don and new wife Megan encountered Andrea, one of his old conquests. This led a frustrated Megan to acidly enquire how often this was going to happen, which was amusing; but later it turned very dark as Don was visited at his swanky apartment by Andrea. At first he hustled her out in fear of Megan seeing her; later, after a manful struggle with his conscience, he couldn’t stop himself from having sex with her again. Afterwards, his guilt plainly driving him wild, he sprang out of bed and in a truly shocking moment, strangled her to death before carelessly shoving her body under the bed.

It was a jaw-dropping moment. Obviously it came as no particular surprise when Megan came in the next morning, and told Don of the feverish delirium in which he’d spent the previous night – the whole thing had been nothing more than a fever dream. But that scene felt so shockingly real that, in the moment, you believed it had really happened, just like Don when he checked under his bed the next morning. Of course, if it had happened, the show would probably have turned into The Fugitive, so with hindsight it was obvious that it hadn’t. But it’s still a revealing glimpse into Don’s demon-driven psyche, particularly where his relationships with women are concerned; and a glimpse that he too was privy to.

The other major plot strand concerned Joan dealing with the much-anticipated return of her sexually violent husband Greg from Vietnam. Greg’s obviously under the impression that the baby fathered by Roger is his, but even that’s not enough to keep him by Joan’s side. Like all husbands of the 60s, he expects his faithful, obedient wife to deal with raising the kid, and he’s decided to sign on for another year in the army, much to Joan’s horror.

Not that he has the guts to tell her that, insinuating that it was an order he had no choice in. The truth came out at a supremely awkward dinner with his parents, as even his own mother couldn’t stand his lying to Joan and told her that his return to the army was entirely his choice.

This was a moment of decision for Joan, always one of the show’s strongest characters. She may not be subverting career expectations like Peggy, but she’s always plainly been stronger than the men around her. She showed that here by offering Greg an ultimatum; if he returns to Vietnam, he can’t come home again. It’s no surprise that when he decides just that, Joan seems perfectly happy. She even takes the chance to remind him of his own failings as a husband, his history of marital rape. No wonder she’s happy to be rid of him. But where does this leave her in terms of returning to work at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? She still has her catty mother to help with baby Kevin, but it’s looking like her return to the office has just been postponed a bit longer.

Back at that office, Peggy was working late on a piece for Roger, part of his ongoing attempt to subvert Pete Campbell on the Mohawk Airlines account. Satisfied at having forced Roger to part with $400 in return for her secrecy on that, she was about to go home when she discovered (in a scene worthy of a horror movie) that the creepy sounds in the deserted office were actually caused by Don’s new secretary Dawn sleeping there.

This led to Peggy offering Dawn a room for the night, and a revealing (for both) open chat about their work. With the increasing focus on racial liberation this year, we got to see a side of the avowedly liberal Peggy that was (unthinkingly) patronising and a bit offensive. She hadn’t figured out that Dawn couldn’t go home because no cabbie would go to Harlem after dark, and that Dawn was worried about riots and racist police rather than being murdered by the nurse killer in Chicago.

They did bond over a few beers back at Peggy’s apartment, with Peggy drunkenly empathising that she knew what it was like to be the only one of her kind at the office. But she was plainly a little surprised that Dawn didn’t want to take the same path and become a copywriter; she’s perfectly happy with the job she has.

And then all their bonding was totally undone by the awkward moment when Peggy, glancing at her purse, hesitated over whether to pick it up and take it with her into the bedroom. To do so, after the obvious pause, would be tantamount to showing that she assumed a black person would obviously steal from her; to not do so would look condescending, as though she was offering some sort of trust exercise. It was another supremely awkward moment, portrayed (as is so common in Mad Men) entirely without words – just a series of glances, close-ups and revealing expressions. Another gem of a scene, it was played to perfection by Elisabeth Moss and Teyonah Parris. Peggy’s crestfallen expression as she found the neatly stacked sheets and terse thank you note from Dawn the next morning was priceless.

The final characters living through this dark, dark night were Sally Draper and Henry Francis’ battleaxe of a mother Pauline. Sally’s been one of the most tormented characters in the show, having to deal with the onset of puberty amidst her parents’ messy divorce and her own mother’s obvious inability to cope with children. It was good to see her to the front of an episode again, as actress Kiernan Shipka has consistently delivered an amazingly mature, wise beyond her years performance.

She was on top form here as usual, showing how Betty has virtually abandoned her into the care of step-grandmother Pauline. Always a little spoiled by Don, she’s now playing Pauline off against Betty, claiming that her mother lets her basically get away with almost no rules.

But Pauline’s no slouch, with her old-fashioned and perhaps not entirely suitable approach to childcare. Admittedly, dealing with Sally’s constant demands must have been wearing. But whether it was out of frustration or a total lack of awareness, Pauline’s way of dealing with Sally’s fears over the Speck murders – telling her every ghoulish detail then revealing that there was a great big knife handy if the likes of Speck should turn up – was probably not the wisest course. Inevitably, that scared Sally even more than the news article did, so Pauline took the interesting choice of feeding her sleeping pills. The episode ended with her huddled – asleep, unconscious or perhaps even dead – beneath the sofa, while the returning Betty called her name.

Dark stuff indeed, this episode, as over the course of one traumatic night a handful of the show’s characters were brought shockingly face to face with their failings in relationships, their attitudes to race and gender, and in Sally’s case even her own mortality. It was a better script even than usual in its tight focus on a small group of the show’s large ensemble; the events may be game-changing for some of the characters, but knowing Mad Men, they may be slow to learn their lessons.