Domestic violence, random violence, brutality at the hands of a handsome man. The stuff of fear, surely. And what else?
Against the backdrop of an increasingly troubled 1966, the gender gap splits wide open in unexpected fashion in Mad Men’s Episode 4. “Mystery Date” strings together a collection of references to the potentially explosive anger of men, and the women who deal with it.
The Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce creatives gawk over photographs of nurses who are raped and killed by serial murderer Richard Speck.
Sally watches something on television referring to Mystery Date, ominous in its presentation, and somehow creepier in the Gothic Manse of Henry Francis. Worse still, as Sally is left alone to her disagreeable step-gran, the redoubtable Pauline.
But look again. Sally does attempt to stand up to the older woman, speaking her mind. And she isn’t the only female who does so in this episode, despite an ambiance of uncertainty, deception, and legitimate dread.
Violence, Fear, and Self-Protection
How do the women deal with their fears?
Don’s new secretary, Dawn, is afraid to make her way back to Harlem. With racial unrest playing the devil at her door, she sleeps at the office occasionally in order to stay safe.
Peggy holds her own in most of the agency’s politics. She even manages to out-Roger Roger in a battle of wills, winding up with a fistful of dollars.
As for the possibility that an intruder might enter their home (Betty and Henry are away), Sally is understandably afraid, especially reading about the Chicago murders. Pauline sits up through the night on the couch armed with a butcher knife, as Sally falls asleep on the floor underneath.
I sometimes believe that Megan is the bravest of the women this season. Maybe it’s her youth. Maybe it’s who she is. And she’s no fool when it comes to Don’s indiscretions. She lets him know what she thinks, how she feels, and so far so good – even as Don struggles to remain faithful. But unlike Betty, Megan isn’t in denial about the man she married.
Parental Dark Shadows
As for the legacy of violence – sexual or otherwise – what if we consider the parental examples of Mad Men’s leading characters?
We’re well aware of Don’s birthright – born of a prostitute mother, turned over to a callous father, and raised in poverty. Betty is cruel, cold, and at the very least, unpredictable in her dealings with Sally. Her deceased father Gene was hardly a picnic; our impression is that Betty’s mother was no better.
Joan’s mother, Gail? She seems harmless, albeit obsequious when it comes to men, while critical of Joan’s every move. And speaking of the Holloway-Harris clan, at the family dinner, Greg’s Momma mouths off while Dad sits Mum. Shouldn’t we suspect that the all American Doc’s issues stem at least in part from their example?
As for Megan?
In contrast, she seems to have a good relationship with her mother.
If Don’s history is one that brings out patterns of self-destruction – drinking to excess, smoking to excess, whoring behind Betty’s back – we saw him clean up his act in Season 4. He continues to do his level best to stay on the straight and narrow with Megan, but it certainly isn’t easy.
Her discomfort with his past (which keeps popping up all over midtown Manhattan), and the open way in which they discuss it, suggests their relationship has a shot in hell of making it. Don is willing to deviate from his self-destructive tendencies – so far – and doesn’t try to hide them from Megan.
But Don is sick, and off his game. He’s caught by surprise when a former conquest steps into the elevator and puts the moves on. Megan is annoyed, Don offers an honest explanation, but the wedge remains between them throughout the episode.
Later that day the woman appears at Don’s apartment. In a startling scene that shows a brutality we don’t expect, he screws her, strangles her, and in a panic shoves her body under the bed. He wakes in a sweat to the morning’s Good Wife Megan, and we realize the violence was a feverish dream.
We’re used to that. We’ve seen him obliterate pain with alcohol, with work, with sex. But lashing out explosively at a woman is something new, at least to the viewers. What more is lurking behind his handsome face?
Joan, Joan, Joan… Alone
It appears that Joan is destined to be a single mother after all. And likely a divorcee. When she realizes how little she and the baby mean to Greg – that he chooses Vietnam as a means to feel manly over being a husband and father – she’s had it.
In her own inimitable way, she mentions the marital rape (before they were married), and tosses him out – out of the house and out of the marriage!
She and her mother and the baby are on their own.
And the credits roll to a 1962 recording of “He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss” by the Crystals – a musical reminder of dependence and interdependence, sexual power plays, cycles of violence and fear that are often confused with love – or simply tolerated as if that’s all there is.
Photos by Michael Yarish / AMCTV.com. Click images to access originals on AMC site in full size.
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© D. A. Wolf