Human nature haunted young and old in Season Five’s fourth episode as everyone sweated through summer and tried to remain unnerved by rising tensions, from race riots in Chicago to the Vietnam War escalating, and the gruesome murders of eight student nurses in Chicago. But if it weren’t clear enough that a boiling point is inevitable, Don was given a fever and some wicked fever dreams in which, through brutality, he confronted his fear that he is brutal by nature and can never really be “good.” Ah, subtlety. But “Mystery Date” delivered by progressing the narrative of the changing ’60s and exploring the series’ strongest female characters — Joan, Peggy and Sally.
Overshadowing everything is the July 14, 1966, crime, in which Richard Speck systematically raped, stabbed and strangled women. It’s sensational, and no one can look away, not even from the pictures of the crime scene Joyce brings to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It’s hard to explain away a senseless act, and the notion that such an end could theoretically come to anyone — that no one really knows what’s going to happen to them in life, or even what she is specifically signing up for in, say, a relationship — has everyone on edge. When the topic isn’t creeping its way into conversations, it is mirrored in the characters’ lives as they examine what they want and how far they’ll go to get it — or how hard they’ll fight the urge to get it. Even Cinderella can’t escape the metaphor, and Michael’s psychoanalysis of the fairy tale maiden as not only prey, but prey that desires to be caught by her predator, is only beaten in the Most Disturbing category by Don’s adventures.
Don begins “Mystery Date” sick and only worsens after an encounter with a former flame, Andrea, on the elevator. She gets close enough to him to imply everything about their past before he can introduce an unamused Megan, who later wonders to Don how many times she’ll have to endure such humiliation. “It was a long time ago, and I was unhappy,” Don tells her about the affair. “Because you were married,” Megan replies, soon adding, “That kind of careless appetite — you can’t blame that on Betty.” Don knows he can’t, but he also questions whether his appetite can be controlled, whether he can really change. Perhaps confronting the fear was the cure; after Dream Don gives into temptation, he implores Dream Andrea to leave — “I better not see you again. You’re not gonna ruin this.” — and when she refuses, he strangles her, stopping her taunts that such “bad” behavior is in his nature. Then, using his feet, he pushes her body under the bed. Problem solved. Relieved to see Megan when he wakes in the morning, he promises her that, when it comes to him and other women, she has nothing to worry about.
Henry’s mother, Pauline, only eggs on Sally’s curiosity about the murders when she tells her not to worry herself with such news — news “not meant for children.” Sally learns the details soon enough, though not after battling Pauline on everything from eating a sandwich to watching TV, where she sees a commercial for the board game Mystery Date. Kiernan Shipka’s growth on the series has been remarkable, and her comedic chops were on display as she endured the strict step-grandmother: “I know you don’t think so, but I’m a good person,” she told Pauline, dumbfounded at her insistence on rules and echoing the theme of the night. If Pauline was punishing Sally for past behavior — or better yet, the behavior of her mother — she softened when Sally came to her at night, frightened by the story of the murder. Pauline hadn’t escaped it, either; she kept a butcher knife at her side. Sally opted for sleeping underneath the couch, mimicking the lone survivor of the mass murder (and, interestingly, Dream Andrea), who hid under a bed to escape the fate of her friends. Yes, Sally is a survivor all right.
Peggy had fewer scares that night even as she stayed late to work on a Mohawk pitch for Roger. She gleefully swindled him out of $400 for the assignment, which will go against whatever Pete cooks up, and her easy rapport with her co-workers only reiterates how far she’s come since her days as a secretary. Her past surely plays a part in her kindness toward Dawn, who, without a safe way to get home, was sleeping in Don’s office. “I know we’re not really in the same situation, but I was the only one like me there for a long time. I know it’s hard,” Peggy told Dawn after she’d brought her back to her apartment. “I appreciate that,” Dawn said. While that moment felt genuine, Peggy’s concern for leaving her purse in the living room near Dawn rang false, as if the writers couldn’t let a pleasant moment pass without reminding viewers about racial tensions. Perhaps, though, this lapse demonstrates that Peggy doesn’t know herself as well as she thinks she does — that even she, with her fairly progressive views and journalist boyfriend, has prejudices. We can never really understand others, and often, we can’t even understand ourselves.
Joan, at least, was given her chance to finally be honest to herself about Greg. Greg, the man who raped her before they were married and who didn’t consider consulting her when signing up for another year of duty in Vietnam. As a character, he’s been drawn fairly thin, and we’ve never been given a good reason why Joan stuck with him. But this was her moment to give in to knowledge that she and Kevin are better off on their own. She tried to make the marriage work, and she did her best to welcome Greg home with loving arms. But Greg needs to be needed, and that kind of dependency is something Joan can’t provide. When his mother relayed the truth of his redeployment and Greg chalked it up honor and duty, Joan came out swinging. “I will throw a parade for you every day to thank you for preserving freedom!” Joan yelled at Greg, who tried to counter with patriotic talk of World War II and enlisting without question. “I’ve got my orders, and you’ve got yours,” he said before storming out.
Round Two went differently:
Greg: “Damn it, Joanie! They need me.”
Joan: “Well, then, it works out because we don’t. … I’m glad the Army makes you feel like a man because I’m sick of trying to do it.”
Greg: “The Army makes me feel like a good man.”
Joan: “You’re not a good man. You never were. Even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about.”
Greg: “If I walk out that door, that’s it.”
Joan: “That’s it.”
She dumped her dud of a date, a man she should have seen so clearly all along but somehow didn’t. Or wouldn’t. At least she was able to escape.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in Texas, and this is still her favorite Joan moment.