“Mystery Date” was a nice return to form in the wake’s of last week’s semi-letdown in the wake of the previous week’s fantabulous premiere. With the exception of Dr. Greg Harris’ homecoming (more on that in a moment), this was mostly a series of character vignettes, some of which set the stage for what is yet to come.
Linking these together is our characters’ reactions to the infamous Richard Speck Murders. Sally’s reaction is probably the most haunting. Initially, like most children, she’s simply curious, and Henry’s mother, Pauline, doesn’t think the topic is appropriate for a growing girl. But Sally is nothing if not resourceful, and soon she learns of the eight nurses who met their end, raped and tortured, at Speck’s hands. Some might think that Pauline’s insinuation that the victims were asking for it is unbelievably cruel, but on some level this is advice that might serve Sally in the future (I grew to like Pauline over the course of this episode). As for the Seconal, at least it put the kid to the sleep, albeit under a couch, hidden like the lone survivor of Speck’s rampage.
On the Don side of the story, a summer cold and a chance encounter with a former hookup lead to some fever dreams that had their moments, but Tony Soprano realizing that Big Pussy is the Judas of the group they were not. And again we see a woman stuffed under a bed with only her shoe visible (because Cinderella waltzed in and out of the episode, running in her famous shoes, wanting to be caught). But Don was arguably the least interesting aspect of last night’s outing, really only commanding attention when Ginsberg improvises his own vintage-Draper pitch (shades of Cinderella again).
Back at the office, Peggy’s working late as a result of Roger’s second bribe of the season (wonder if Stan with his “more necrophilia than shoes” comment is next; that was the first time Stan made me laugh). Alone in the dark, Peggy is startled by strange noises, but instead of a crazed murderer, she finds Don’s new secretary, Dawn. Her revelation that she occasionally crashes in Don’s office leads Peggy to invite her home. A couple of beers later, Peggy finds herself admitting how much she’s gained since she picked up that basket of kisses but also how much she’s lost (wonder which part of the lesson Dawn will heed).
The only character not consumed by Speck and his actions is Joan, who is wrapped up in her husband’s return from the battlefield. I think it’s safe to say that every self-respecting Mad Men fan hates Greg, but give Christina Hendricks props for selling and allowing us to share in Joan’s total delight at showing Greg his “son” and taking him to the bedroom to welcome him home as only Joan can. But Greg is only home for ten days, and a remarkably awkward Harris/Holloway family dinner reveals that the return to Vietnam is Greg’s choice. And that, ladies and gentleman, leads to one of the most rewarding moments in the history of the entire series.
We hate Greg because long ago he was threatened by Joan and the power she wielded at Sterling Cooper. So he raped her on the floor of Don’s office. Now as much as I’ve loved Joan throughout the seasons, how could she marry him? She wanted to be the wife of a doctor. Fine. But it was revealed that Greg was all thumbs when it came to his scalpel. And still she stayed. So he tried his hand at psychiatry, only to verbally attack Joan when he botched the interview. She stayed when he decided to run away to the the army, when they couldn’t conceive, when she became the breadwinner via her job at the re-imagined SCDP, when her dalliance with Roger left her pregnant, and Roger offered her a way out. But still she stayed and hoped that the Sterling heir might fill whatever void exists in Greg’s soul.
None of it was enough. Because Greg is not a man but rather a collection of insecurities. Another man might have risen to the occasion with a goddess like Joan on his arm. But Greg had to pull her down to feel whole. Greg needs the illusion that he’s important. That’s the appeal of Vietnam, abandoned wife and newborn son be damned. So it falls to Joan to awesomely point out, “I’m glad the Army makes you feel like a man, cause I’m sick of trying to do it. You’re not a good man. You never were. Even before we were married. And you know what I’m talking about.”
Snap! That’s what we’ve been waiting for. That’s why you watch a TV series, why you suffer with and for a character, why you yell and groan when their choices lack wisdom, why you sympathize anyway and continue to root for them, and why you finally cheer (as I did) when they stare their demons down and emerge victorious. And make no mistake, Joan is triumphant. Just beneath the surface you could hear her say, “I am Joan-fucking-Holloway, I’ll survive you, my son is better not knowing you, and I’ll forget you even before you’re lying dead on some foreign soil.” Just an amazing moment. Can Christina Hendricks get her well-deserved Emmy now? Please!