Mad Men: It’s only a Dream…Really?…It’s only a Dream?

Mad Men: Mystery Date (Season 5, Episode 4)

Okay, let’s talk about this.  I was out of town and a little late getting to the most recent episode.  I purposely avoided the blogs, and I’m glad I did, because I cannot imagine that they were kind.  It’s entirely possible that this episode will be spoken of, by those of a more alarmist bent, as the harbinger of end times for this series.  Let’s begin by pointing out some of the more egregious missteps:

1. I’ll allow that this season has had a lighter, more madcap tone—“Zou Bizou Bizou”, Harry’s White Castle splurge, etc.–but forcing Roger Sterling to creep behind Pete in the hallway, like some stooge in a junior high production of Tartouffe, was pretty painful to watch.  Mad Men has never been a farce, and it came very close to Three’s Company/Scooby Doo territory here.  In addition, are we to believe that Roger Sterling has become such a worthless sot that he would forget to put together an entire presentation for the only account he’s even marginally responsible for?  Wasn’t he bird-dogging Pete’s accounts just days before?  Which leads us to…

2. Peggy’s Blackmail.  Does Peggy do this?  To Roger?  Has he fallen so far?  Would she overstep so egregiously?  Apparently he has and she does.  Of course, I would to if management was so lax as to…

3. Let the new guy run the presentation for the panty-hose account.  What has this guy done to show Don Draper that he isn’t a loose cannon?  He has done nothing to demonstrate that he isn’t a mouthy, untrustworthy–albeit talented–flake.  Do you give that guy the main speaking role when you’re trying to nail down an important client?  And Don basically lets it slide.  If this is the brand new Don we’ve seen the past few episodes, I’m done, because one of the main pleasures of this show is watching Don Draper emotionally destroy people.  Of course Dan wasn’t himself.  He was sick, and having…

4. Hallucinations.  Again: he was hallucinating.  Oh my Holy Jehovah, no.  No.

I’m going to let the Joan subplot slide, because I thought it was handled pretty well and any way they can get Joan back to work and get her husband out of the picture is fine with me.  Let’s forget the fact that the guy was a rapist and a Class-A d-bag.  He’s also boring as a dog’s ass and provides nothing for Joan to bang up against.  He’s too dumb to do anything but hurt.  Good riddance.  Look out for land mines.

Also, the pieces that dealt with the Chicago murders and Sally were deeply creepy, if a little heavy-handed.  The shot of Sally in a deep, Seconal-induced sleep is a disturbingly framed masterpiece, especially since Don’s—ahem—hallucination mirrored her position.  Her step-grandmother is a monster.  Sally’s ordeal has become something that would make Dickens vomit in his mouth.  Don’s a good dad, if being a good dad involves being present and nice when the circumstances demand it, and the less we say about Betty the better.  Sally’s about three years away from a stripper’s pole.

Look, we demand that Mad Men maintain a level of excellence that may well be unattainable, and truth be told, it has never shied away from the soapier aspects of the format.  In a piece written last year, Daniel Mendelsohn, whom I deeply respect and admire, took the series to task for its lack of Drama (read: classical, traditional, Greek) in favor of Melodrama (convenient, manipulative, Common), and I bridled at the criticism, not because it’s wrong, but because it’s wrongheaded.  Mad Men IS melodrama, and commonly employs tropes that are shopworn and, even, hackneyed.  This is the show that has given us hidden pregnancies, rampant infidelity and convenient misunderstandings.  The central mystery of the show, that “Don Draper” is an assumed identity, and Dick Whitman is always on the run from an unfortunate past, is pretty cheap, and when you strip off the silky veneer, the fine performances, and the metaphorical hullabaloo about American entitlement, re-invention, substance vs. surface, and the plastic bombast of the lovingly recreated period at which take place, the boards and nails that make up the frame are that of a dime-store novel, far more James M. Cain that F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And I think that’s intentional, and instructive.  The trick has always been to make a TV dinner taste like filet mignon, or, more appropriately, to make Falcon Crest look like, well, Mad Men.  Isn’t that what the men of Sterling, Cooper Draper, Price are supposed to do?

And yet…hallucinations?  As a way to show the internal struggle of a Don Draper disposed for the first time in decades to care about what he has to lose?  Look, I like that Don’s growing.  Has anyone noticed that he hasn’t had a drink so far this season (I could be wrong.  He’s certainly cut back.)?  My wife believes that the woman in the “dream” is someone Don’s fucked since he’s been married to Megan, but I don’t think so.  I think he’s been faithful.  I also think that he cannot, by his nature, remain so, and that the struggle will kill him.

And that’s where the hope lies.  The idea that Don Draper will be done in by his best intentions is very interesting, and in fact Dramatic, as opposed to Melodramatic.  If we, as an audience, have to endure an episode that feels more like Dallas than the Sopranos to get there, it will be well worth it.

Maybe it’s me.  I didn’t like the dream-sequence shit in The Sopranos either.  It seems too convenient, too Freudian, to manipulative.  It lets the seams show.  It pokes through the silky veneer and shows the board and nails underneath, which is simply unacceptable.  Matthew Weiner wrote for The Sopranos too, so it’s understandable that this would be a trope he’s comfortable with, and I will go so far as to say that the direction of those scenes was off in an interesting way.  It felt wrong, without looking obviously wrong, even when he was strangling her and tucking her under the bed (another nice touch, what with the serial-killer story that haunted the entire episode).  Altogether the episode was an audacious curveball, and I admire the chances it took even though I fear the episode, as a whole, was unsuccessful and at times embarrassing.

One more thing: wouldn’t it be great if Dawn stole the money from Peggy’s purse?  If the show took the very obvious “white-guilt-clutch-the-purse-lock-the-car-doors-when-black-people-are-about” bit that has been in every show that concerns white and black people since television was invented and turns it on its head?  What if Dawn is a thief?  What if she’s more than “the black girl in the office”?  What if she’s an asshole?  Like a real person?  Everyone else in the office is an asshole.  Why should she be any different?  Not to mention it opens all manner of complications at SCDP.  Would Peggy confront her?  It’s a lot of money.  $400 in 1966 is like, let me do a little math here, a bajillion dollars today.  Would Peggy have to admit where she got the bajillion dollars?  That puts Roger, who has become the King Midas of shit recently, in the crosshairs again.  Lots of possibilities.

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