Scenes from Mad Men, Part 2
“Mystery Date” fascinated me. A lot of viewers on blogosphere had a very similar reaction to the one I had. There was an unsettling tone throughout the episode, akin to the feeling I used to get as a 7-year-old staying up too late to watch re-runs of “Unsolved Mysteries”. For this post, I’ll be focusing primarily on the single most disturbing scene the show has had yet.
It’s no mistake that one of the episode’s running plots involved Sally trying (and eventually succeeding) to read the news story of the Richard Speck murders. The Speck murders, still one of the most shocking crime stories in American history, connected the storylines this week. Sally wanted to read the story, and couldn’t sleep. Peggy looked at the crime scene photos, laughed them off initially, but then couldn’t go home alone (not to mention, her boyfriend was in Chicago, where the murders took place). Don was too caught in a literal fever to care, but his resulting nightmare had more than a few parallels to the case. And Joan, by far the most insular of the show’s main cast, lived out what she had thought would be a nightmare, and finally confronted another one she had endured years before. (Remember what I mentioned a couple of weeks ago about the show’s tendency to let some storylines play out in what feels like real-time?)
The single most unsettling scene in the whole episode was Don’s fever dream murder of his old flame, Andrea. As Alan Sepinwall pointed out in his review, the only way that scene, and the subsequent reveal that “it was all a dream” works is if we’ve already figured out it was a dream. Otherwise, it’s a form of cheap bait-and-switch that “Mad Men” never engages in.
But more than that, we still need to believe that Don Draper has his humanity. Don Draper isn’t an anti-hero, in that he’s not driven to consistently do despicable things in the name of some quest or goal, one that we want to see resolved regardless of the protagonist’s “goodness”. He’s a deeply flawed, often selfish person who we still need to believe has a grasp on the bare minimum of human decency. He can’t quite be Walter White, who we watch hypnotized, amazed at his amoral audacity. When Walter White suffers petty failures (i.e. every talking down Gus Fring gave him in seasons 3 and 4), we feel a twinge of gratification, since he’s such an irredeemably bad person by now that it lets us have our cake and eat it too (i.e. see him suffer for being a horrible person while still seeing his thrilling knack for survival pay off time and time again). We’re not yet there with Don, who we still willingly forgive and want to see succeed. When Don is vulnerable, we still feel for him. And even that slight twinge of suspicion that maybe, just maybe, his dream of murdering Andrea was real was as unsettling as the scene itself. We forgive Don Draper many a sin, but murder is one we can’t. And we need to be able to forgive Don Draper.