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3 YEARS

'Mad Men' Spoiled Bastard: Episode 4: 'Mystery Date' (Vacation Delayed!)

A mysterious misstep creates a bad episode of a great series.

"Mad Men"
Frank Ockenfels/AMC

This is a Spoiled Bastard. It contains spoilers. That's the point. If you haven't watched this episode, come back when you have.

As purely an exercise in the thematic display of fear, “Mystery Date” worked wonderfully if in an overly obvious fashion. But as a Mad Men episode, it felt wildly out of place – and not in that creatively adventurous and surprising way that some of the very best Mad Men episodes of the past seasons have turned out.

And this is where it gets very tricky in trying to evaluate the ongoing greatness of Mad Men. A series that doesn’t take creative risks is going nowhere. So I like the idea of periodically shaking the creative Etch-A-Sketch. Also, “Mystery Date” was just the fourth episode of the season – and one that comes after three very strong episodes. So, yes, now is not the time to raise a red flag. It’s too early. But it might be the right time to reiterate one of my worries about the whole idea of recaps (or deconstructions, as I call them, perhaps wishing to add some bonus criticism to the format rather than just a litany of paragraphs about what happened in the episode). I see diminishing returns in the very idea of recaps, as I’ve already written, and these days only deconstruct Mad Men and Breaking Bad. But I’ve considered not doing either because in doing so I’m just as guilty as the next person in perhaps committing the sin of putting too much emphasis (and premature importance) on one hour out of 13.

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In that way, I agree with a lot of the worries expressed by David Simon (The Wire, Treme), which he laid out in an interview with Alan Sepinwall of Hitfix.com (although I disagree with Simon’s overly touchy belief that having fun with the greatest series ever created somehow diminishes its message. Further, I think that Sepinwall, along with Todd VanDerWerff of the A.V. Club are two in a very select club of excellent critics who do recaps).

However, with that very long caveat, “Mystery Date” was a curious misstep for Mad Men in that the tone was off and there were a number of insincere feints and the episode's lone effort at advancing the plot was to dismiss Joan’s husband Greg – an element long expected and one that had a tacked-on reference to his rape of Joan in a previous season, which neither adequately addressed the original incident nor felt realistic.

This was an episode about fear, clearly. It begins with Joyce bringing in pictures of the infamous Richard Speck Chicago nurse murders – an event that casts fear, apparently, all the way to New York, disturbing half the cast of Mad Men. (And by the way, Ginsberg’s reaction – calling everyone "sickos" as they look at the pictures – was an odd reaction by an odd character. Later he tells a dark story about Cinderella that, yes, could be excused as him being eccentric but read like it was a hint that he’s got his own dark side. Let’s just hope he’s not being set up as  some similarly dangerous threat somewhere down the line).

The fear extends to Sally, who’s being babysat by Henry’s mother, Pauline, who in this episode comes off like she’s sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories (including holding an enormous carving knife for protection). Sally, who has read the newspaper accounts of the murder with a flashlight under her pillow, ultimately gets so frightened that Pauline gives her some Seconal to sleep.

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I suppose there’s something to glean from their relationship and Sally’s desire to be with Don instead of Henry. Or maybe her sassy back-and-forth with Pauline is meant to highlight Sally’s rapid maturity. But all of that was lost in what seemed like a silly ghost story side-plot that culminates with Sally sleeping under the couch that Pauline passed out on. Whatever.

If you’d mistaken this episode for a highbrow horror movie, you probably weren’t alone. The scene of Peggy, working late in the office and hearing noises, just indulged this bad idea even more by her asking “Who’s there…is anybody there?” and then giving us a close-up shot of the door knob she’s about to open and – boo! – it’s just Don’s secretary, Dawn, not a mass murderer. Turns out Dawn is also afraid to go home, but for more reasons than those striking fear in the white women of SCDP.

Peggy invites Dawn to spend the night at her apartment instead of staying in the office, which sets up two other elements of fear. Race, the bubbling undercurrent, pops up in a scene where Peggy momentarily worries that leaving a purse full of money near Dawn might be a bad idea. Earlier, a drunk Peggy confides to Dawn that being a female copywriter is hard and that she’s tired of having to act like a man to succeed. OK, those are both interior worries on Peggy’s part, but they were still illustrated.

As for Megan, the opening scene where Don meets Andrea in the elevator and it’s immediately clear to Megan that the two have a sexual past is cause for her to worry. How many women from Don’s past are going to pop up, like ghosts? But it’s Don’s fear – of losing Megan – that gets examined in this episode. And it’s done in a way that was as anti-Mad Men as any scene I can remember. Any time the series has employed a dream sequence or flash-back memory, the scenes have been clearly delineated. On Sunday, the decision was made to present Andrea coming to Don’s apartment and sleeping with him as real, with Andrea teasing Don that he’s got no impulse control for hot sex and that she’d definitely be back to cause havoc – which resulted in Don lunging at her, choking her on the ground and eventually killing her – then panicking and kicking her under the bed.

Yes, it was a fever dream, but you can’t used the word “obviously” in this sentence. It was done for shock value, to confuse people. Now, clearly, not everybody fell for it all the way through the fever dream. But that’s not the point. What Mad Men did here was cheat in a way that it hasn’t really before – and that cheapened the scene and put an exclamation point on how out of form the whole episode was.

Don’s fear is losing Megan. Check. Don also fears his past. Check. And deep down, Don fears that he has no real control over his life. Check. All good points to make, just poorly done with a fever dream that pretended too long to be real.

In a short aside, we glimpse Roger’s ongoing fear of Pete’s surging status at the firm. Roger knows he’s been mailing it in and his real talent resides in drinking with clients, not presenting campaign strategies to Pete, so he panics and asks Peggy to do it.

With the fear theme all but complete, we’re left with a fairly significant development – Joan dumping Greg because he’s volunteered to go back into service. Why? Because he’s needed and the Army validates him as a good man. Joan rightly tells him he’s never been that, even before they were married. And Greg should know what she means. He does. We all do. But if this is how the rape gets answered – too late by half – it seemed like a tacked on sentiment. Before that dismissive line, how much of any of that argument seemed believable? Greg comes home, he lies about willingly going back into service, and Joan is outraged at the breach and the apparent notion that he loves the Army more than he loves his wife and child. So it's over. Goodbye. Cue the door slam.

Maybe there will be more to this – again the perils of reading too much into one episode. But it sure felt like a fast and convenient way to get rid of Greg and open up some Joan-Roger-baby storylines. Normally that might be a dramatic clunker that could be forgiven and swept away, but it came in an episode that was wholly off the mark. Perhaps if the horror-movie elements – that damned door knob! – and Don chocking Andrea to death in a fit of rage (fooled ya!) weren’t already in play, “Mystery Date” would have been just a forgettable dip in the quality we expect from Mad Men. But put it all together and this episode becomes scary bad.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine