Monday, April 9, 2012

"Mad Men," Season 5, Episode 4, "Mystery Date"

Crime and urban riots, two key issues during the 1960s, moved to center stage in this week’s episode, “Mystery Date,” which takes place in July 1966.  The Vietnam War and drugs made a secondary appearance, though one can safely assume they will return in prominent fashion during upcoming episodes and seasons.

Violent crime rose dramatically in cities across the country during the 1960s, especially during the second half of the decade.  In New York City, crime increased by 137 percent between 1966 and 1973 (Cannato, Ungovernable City, 527).  Working alone on a Friday evening and afraid that someone may have broken in, Peggy cautiously explores the office and discovers that Dawn, Don Draper’s new secretary, has been sleeping in his office on some nights. Dawn feels she doesn’t have a choice because no cab will take her back to Harlem at night and her family thinks the subway is unsafe.  Her fears are heightened because of the highly publicized rape/murder of eight nurses in Chicago as well as the race riot in the Second City.  

Peggy insists that Dawn stay with her and they seem to bond over being outsiders at the firm.  After all, Peggy was the only female copywriter at Sterling Cooper for several years and Dawn is now the only African American working at any position at the office.  Their bonding ends on an awkward note when Peggy glances nervously at her purse and appears afraid that Dawn might steal her money during the night.

Meanwhile, Henry Francis’s mother Pauline and Sally Draper are also frightened by the nurse killings, even though they would seem to be safely out of harm’s way in the Westchester County suburbs.  Sally’s adolescent fears are understandable, but Pauline Francis’ bizarre behavior, which includes conspicuously holding a knife for protection, only serves to heighten them.  With Sally unable to fall asleep, Pauline gives her some kind of sleeping pill.  Could this be the start of a larger drug problem for Sally?

The urban riots of the 1960s, which characters have mentioned in previous episodes, continue to garner attention in the show.  While there were several disturbances in 1966, they have been overshadowed historically by the more violent and destructive riots in Watts in 1965 and Detroit and Newark in 1967.  Several characters mention upheaval in Chicago, which did boil over in what civil rights historian Taylor Branch described as a “miniature Watts,”  where two people were killed between July 12 and July 15 (Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 501-505).   Erupting after police shut off fire hydrants during a heat wave, Mayor Richard J. Daley blamed the violence on Martin Luther King, who was then in the middle of a major campaign for open housing in Chicago.  In fact, King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who were in the midst of their first foray into the North, worked hard to prevent the riot.

Vietnam also enters the picture as Joan’s husband Greg returns following a tour of duty in Southeast Asia.  Instead of having a joyous homecoming, Greg, who is an Army surgeon, tells Joan that he has to go back for a second tour.  Joan is furious when she discovers he volunteered to return, declaring, “Who goes back?” sarcastically adding,  “I will throw a parade for you everyday for preserving freedom!” Reflecting the growing domestic divisions during the second year of an Americanized war, Greg alleges that, “If this was World War II and the Japs were still attacking us, you’d say yes! Of course!”  Joan responds, “Soldiers wanted to come home from World War II also.” 

Unable to continue with Greg, who has repeatedly shown contempt for her throughout their relationship, Joan asks him to leave for good.  The episode ends with Joan in bed with her mother and son, with sirens blaring in the background, perhaps another sign of the growing disorder in America during the mid-1960s.

Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, (New York, 2006)
Vincent Cannato, The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York (New York, 2001)

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