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The Pursuit: Fever Dreams on Mad Men

"You loved it."

What does it mean to be a good man? Is it the ability to uphold one's vows--constancy, fidelity, honesty--or is it that one's actions echo forever in a relationship? We're given a prism in this week's episode of Mad Men ("Mystery Date"), written by Victor Levin and Matthew Weiner and directed by Matt Shakman, through which to view both Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Greg Harris (Sam Page), as well as the notion of the pursuit, which looms large over the action, casting a dark spell from which several characters find they cannot wake.

It's telling that Michael Ginsburg (Ben Feldman) offers a disturbing fairy tale to the pitch clients rather than the agreed-upon campaign that he had already discussed with Don, putting everyone on the spot. He offers up a narrative that's certainly not in line with the Disney version of Cinderella, but casts the heroine as the prey of a deranged man, who pursues her down the darkened alleys and cobblestone streets of a dream-like European castle city. Despite the fact that this Cinderella is happy to see the man, who has her missing shoe, there's an innate darkness and sense of violence to the story, one that clearly connects to the news of the student nurse slayings that Joyce (Zosia Mamet) gleefully discusses with the copywriters at SCDP. (For reference, Richard Speck raped and killed eight student nurses in Chicago in 1966; one nurse, who hid under the bed, escaped with her life.)

It's the reporting on this gruesome incident, as well as the imaginations of those reading and hearing about it, that comprises much of the action of the episode, drawing the viewer in, just as it offers both fictional and real pursuits upon the women in the episode. It's also through this narrative that we're taking into the subconscious mind of Don Draper, witnessing a fever dream that acts upon his own sense of guilt, his own discomfort about his role as a "good man" as he's forced to contend with the phantom appearance of a former lover.

In reality, his chance encounter in the elevator with freelance writer Andrea (Mädchen Amick), in which he's forced to introduce his ex-lover with his current wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), is awkward and slightly tense, a visual callback to his philandering ways when Don was married to Betty (January Jones). But it's little more than that, the subject of an even more awkward conversation between the two newlyweds and a further expansion on the idea that Megan knows all of Don's sins and failings. But it's this encounter, along with the knowledge of the Speck murders that inform Don's fever dream when he returns home from the office.

A number of stray details from the day creep into his subconscious: the meeting with Andrea, the pursuit of Cinderella (manifesting here as both Don's pursuit of Andrea, Allison, Faye, and a multitude of his other female co-workers, apparently, as well as Andrea's dogged pursuit of Don), the knock at the door (reminiscent of Richard Speck), the strangulation of "Andrea" and Don "disposing" her body under the bed (again echoing the one surviving girl of Speck's terrible crimes), while her leg sticks out of the bed, missing one shoe, a visual callback to the Cinderella story that Michael spins to the clients. Here, it's that missing shoe that's terribly disturbing, casting Don in the role of Cinderella's crazed pursuer, as Richard Speck, as the terrible man beset by guilt over his actions that he strangles his lover and shoves her under the bed.

It's as if all of Don's sins come back within the subconscious desire to purge himself of weakness. He's proven incapable of remaining true to Betty, a philanderer who repeatedly slept with other women and then blamed his wife for his own shortcomings, something Megan refuses to do and refuses to let him do to Betty. Don is flawed because Don is flawed, full stop. An encounter with a past mistake of his reminds of this in no uncertain terms, and while he "gives in" to the advances of "Andrea," he attempts to purge his conscience by making sure she can never return to haunt him again, never darken his doorway or his bed. His impulse is violent and final, the strangulation of a lover he just took in his marital bed.

Are these the actions of a "good man"? Or simply nothing more than the dreams of a fever-ridden man, a jumbling of subconscious motifs and desires, a manifestation of deep-seated guilt within his heart? Don is visibly relieved when he wakes up from his slumber to find Megan there, an angelic figure entering the room with a tray of orange juice, and no corpse under the bed. One of Speck's victims may have gotten away to safety, but Don's dream victim isn't so lucky. She's punished for her hunger, for her sexuality, for being a woman, for simply being there. And the knowledge that it was just a dream still shakes Don to the core. So has he exorcised his guilt? Or simply been reminded of what he's capable of in a heightened and imaginary sense?

Likewise, Joan (Christina Hendricks) has constructed her own dream world, one in which Greg returns from his military service in Vietnam and they become this smiling, happy family: professional Joan with her beautiful baby boy and her handsome doctor husband. But this dream is just as illusory as the one that Don envisions. Greg has volunteered for another tour of duty in Vietnam, saying that the military "needs him." He's done so without consulting Joan, concealing the real reason why he'll be returning after just ten days. It's a blindside of the worse kind, offering Joan the emotional whiplash she's been hoping to avoid.

But the fairy tale that Joan has spun herself is darker than she envisioned. There is no happy homecoming for Greg, no photos with his new son Kevin (who, let's not forget, is not even Greg's baby), no perfect cake and perfect reunion. Their ten days together become torture for Joan but she also refuses to let herself continue to be chased down those darkened alleys by her seemingly perfect husband or answer that fateful knock at the door. Greg is far from perfect and far from being a "good man." I've been waiting several seasons now for a callback to the fateful night Greg raped Joan on the floor, but Mrs. Harris had done such a good job of pretending it didn't happen, pushing it to the back of her mind, that it emerges, fully formed, here like a fever dream, as she confronts Greg about his choice to return to the war, and about what happened between them.

It's Joan's suggestion that the military might make Greg feel like a man, because she's no longer willing to try to do it anymore that transforms her from a victim into the hero of her own story, fighting back against her pursuer even though she's only got one shoe on. Her notion of Greg not being a "good man" is entirely true, and she reminds him here of what he did to her, urging him to walk through that door and out of her life forever. It's a transformative moment for the wounded Joan, one in which she takes back control of her life and her destiny. She won't be a military wife, standing on the sidelines, but an independent woman. Bravo, Joan.

Poor Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is trapped in the "haunted mansion" of the family's new home in Rye, under the strict and unwavering supervision of Henry's mother Pauline (Pamela Dunlap). It's when she reads the newspaper that the killings spring to life within her imagination... and, apparently, Pauline's as well. Sitting downstairs with her "burglar alarm" (read: a very long kitchen knife), Pauline is attempting to read and eat some of Betty's Bugles but she's frightened by the appearance of Sally, whom she then further torments by sharing the details of the Richard Speck killings.

Does she do it to snap some sense into Sally--a verbal version of the "kick across the room" that Pauline's father gave her in order to open her eyes--or to connect with her? Is there a sense that fear is a communal emotional, something to be shared and savored, or that there is something somehow freeing and cathartic about unburdening your sense of terror by sharing with someone else? All possibly true.

While there is finally a moment of rapport between the two (though Pauline's storytelling abilities are clearly not what Sally needed at the moment), Pauline breaks the spell by offering Sally a half a Seconal so she can sleep. The sight of little Sally asleep under the sofa when Betty and Henry (Christopher Stanley) finally return home that connects back to the notion of dark fairy tales. Here, Sally is cast as a figurative Sleeping Beauty but it's fear that led her to her slumber, and she's cast herself in the role of the "girl who survives," hiding under the sofa and the sleeping Pauline. (Anyone else get a Valley of the Dolls vibe from Sally's storyline this week?)

(Aside: I loved that Sally was watching Mystery Date here and then that became the episode's title, an image that echoes throughout the episode, from Don and Andrea's imagined pairing, to the Richard Speck crimes, and throughout...)

Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) hears a noise while working late at the offices (again, further suggesting what I wrote about last week about the seeming dynamic building between John Slattery's Roger and Peggy), only to discover that it's Don's new secretary Dawn (Teyonah Parris) sleeping in Don's office, rather than risk traveling home late on the subway. (Peggy's naive and sense of privilege shows painfully here; she suggests that Dawn flag a cab or take a taxi; when Dawn says that her brother won't let her, because it's too dangerous, Peggy immediately jumps to the student nurse slayings, rather than the more realistic threat that the riots pose to Dawn's safety.)

In an act that she likely sees as "modern" or "progressive," Peggy invites Dawn to spend the night at her place, where she too attempts to cast her own fairy tale, seeing Dawn as a victim of oppression, the only one of her kind at the agency, whom Peggy might pluck from obscurity and "discover," transforming her from hapless secretary to important copywriter. But Dawn doesn't want to be a copywriter, and admits that she likes her job, and she unwittingly denies the similarities between her situation and Peggy's, even as Peggy forges ahead blindly. Yes, they may have both been Don's secretaries, but their situations couldn't be more different, and Peggy approaches Dawn with all the condescension and privilege of a white person in the 1960s. It's clear, however, that Peggy doesn't even totally buy her own spin, wondering if she acts too much like a man, questioning whether she really wants this life, transforming their beer-fueled discussion into an existential crisis that's all about Peggy again, as Peggy continually interrupts Dawn, making the entire conversation all about her, rather than her guest.

And she breaks one of the most important codes: that of hospitality. Despite her "modern" views, Peggy proves herself to be just as prejudiced and racist as anyone else at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. After telling Dawn earlier that she's come into some cash (courtesy of Roger, in a sequence that acts as a callback to his negotiations in Episode 501/502 with Harry Crane and proves that Peggy is more astute and clever than Harry when it comes to negotiating, talking Roger out of $410 for secretly doing some work for him for Mohawk Airlines), she is about to leave the room and go to bed when she notices her purse on the coffee table. There's a moment of frisson between the two women--Peggy notices the purse, Dawn notices Peggy noticing the purse, Peggy notices Dawn noticing Peggy, and on and on it goes--and Peggy is unsure how to break the terrible moment they've found themselves in. She tries to recover, grabbing the beer bottles and mumbling an excuse about how she ought to clean up, but the spell is broken between these two: Peggy is revealed to be not "good," connecting her not with the victims of the story but with the male pursuers (hence her line of questioning about being too much like a man), and with privilege and societal majority.

More troubling: Dawn's polite note, placed purposely atop Peggy's lime-green purse, thanking her for her hospitality, her sheets and blankets neatly folded on the couch, a sad reminder of the chasm that exists between them, despite Peggy's best intentions. Sometimes being good isn't as easy as it appears, especially when dealing with one's subconscious faults. Sometimes, the survivor gets away by hiding under the bed, and sometimes the Big Bad Wolf can take all sorts of forms.

Next week on Mad Men ("Signal 30"), Lane strikes up an interesting friendship; Pete entertains guests.


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