Monday, April 9, 2012

Cinderella Retold--or Dealing with the Darkness

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Four, "Mystery Date"

"You really know women," the client tells Michael Ginsberg, after he successfully pitched an ad campaign for women's shoes, focused on secrets that women hold. Ginsberg protests that he's actually baffled by women and exhibits his excellent story-telling ability by launching into a narrative about the Cinderella campaign that the copywriters initially considered, but rejected as too cliche. The tale of Cinderella--as presented in this ad--is "too dark." The fairy tale protagonist is fleeing down a dark alley, hampered in her escape by her missing shoe. She is a "wounded prey," pursued by a handsome man holding the shoe she needs. Cinderella looks back in fear, but "we know in the end, she wants to be caught," Ginsberg tells his rapt listeners.....And, so we see throughout the episode: several manifestations of this cultural myth of Cinderella that many women have bought into, only to realize that it actually is a dark story. We are prey who want to be caught, not realizing until it's too late that the handsome man is a trap. There's Sally Draper, who's trying to figure out how to negotiate her way in a world that offers her the allure of a "mystery date" knocking on her door, in the ad for the popular girls' game (I remember that commercial and spent hours playing Mystery Date with my friends when I was her age) at the same time that its headlines scream the terror of a mystery man who knocked on the door of the home of eight student nurses in Chicago. There's Joan, who also bought into the fairy tale, but has been realizing for some time that there's something wrong with the story of the handsome man in uniform who knocks on her door after returning from Vietnam. And, in a fascinating twist, there's Don, who for years had been the handsome man knocking on many women's doors and now realizes he must contend with that past and finally 'kill' it off if he is to make his marriage with Megan a success.

The episode begins on July 14, 1966, when news of the brutal rape/murders of eight young Chicago women in their South Side home hit the headlines. The women of the show don't know how to receive this news. Peggy, Joyce, and Megan look at photos Joyce brought in from her magazine, speculating about what might have happened, giggling, and seeming to enjoy them. Michael is the one who is shocked and upset at their reaction. Pauline Francis--babysitting for Betty's kids while Henry and Betty are in Albany--talks on the phone with a friend about the murders and the woman who avoided the killer by hiding under the bed. Pauline, too, is titillated as well as shocked to imagine herself having to watch and listen to the horrors perpetrated upon her friends. When Sally finally retrieves a newspaper from the trash so she can find out what's going on, she's scared--of course--and goes to Pauline, whom she hates, for meaning. "I don't understand what happened," she says. Pauline tells Sally of all the "innocent nurses" who were likely watched for some time by the man who knocked on their door, watched "in their short uniforms" that stoked his desire. "For what?!" Sally wonders. She doesn't understand how desire can have anything to do with such a horrible crime. Rape and murder aren't supposed to be part of the fairy tale, but Ginsberg is right. This tale is dark. Pauline is not capable of helping Sally construct any meaning out of this event. To all of the women, these killings are an aberration--the story gone wrong. There is no frame for understanding them. She gives Sally a sleeping pill to help her avoid her insomnia, rendering her as helpless as Sleeping Beauty at figuring out how to deal with her world.

Joan, however, has been dealing with the fairy tale gone wrong for some time now. In the first season, we heard her talk about wanting the house in the suburbs, husband, and kids--what all women were supposed to want. Yet with Greg Harris it started going wrong early on. She went forward, though, despite his apparent belief that she was his to own, not the equal partner she came to realize she wanted to be in a marriage. Upon hearing that he will be returning to Vietnam, she yells, "You can't make a decision like that without me. You've never understood that." But, what Greg understood was the fairy tale as it was supposed to be: women prey who ultimately want to be caught. What Joan wants is a different story--a story she's actually been living for years, though she wanted to see herself in the other story. From Greg's rape of her before their marriage--to put her in her place as HIS sexual property--to his inability to be a good provider to her own decisions about her pregnancy and child, Joan has not been Cinderella. And, she finally realizes that she does not need a man. In trying to justify his decision to return to war, Greg tells her, "They need me." "Well, then, it works out because we don't," she retorts. "I'm glad the Army made you feel like a man because I'm tired of trying to do it." She gets him and what's motivating him so well. When he responds that the Army has made him feel like a good man, she asserts, "You're not a good man. You never were. Even before we were married and you know what I'm talking about." YES!! How long have I been waiting--have many fans of Joan been waiting--for this? She does realize that Greg has always just seen her as "prey." And, as he's buying into the traditional story about Vietnam, war, and manhood, she casts off the traditional story about womanhood. It's too bad that Sally doesn't have Joan to talk to about what to do with the specter of Richard Speck.

And, finally--Don. When an old lover of his gets on the elevator with Megan and him, Megan wonders how many times that is going to happen. She's realizing just how unfaithful a husband he was. And, she calls him on his story of justifiable predation: "I was unhappy." "Because you were married," she says. He wants to be seen as--and see himself as--a victim. As someone who's playing out a traditional, understandable story. But, she won't have it: "That kind of careless appetite--you can't blame that on Betty." While in the season opener, she set herself up to be the object of the male gaze, in this one, she forces Don to see out of a female gaze. And, in his feverish state, the former lover comes to him, making him see how in spite of the fact that he now claims happiness, he could still end up being unfaithful. To his credit, he resists--to the point of strangling the woman to death in a most disturbing "this has to be a dream, right?" scene. Though I still couldn't help but wonder if, as Megan walked away after bringing Don some juice, if we would see some sign on her clothing or somewhere that she had disposed of the body. A thriller movie from the era would have done so. But, no--what Megan Draper may have disposed of, though, is Don the Philanderer. That would be interesting.

And--one final time: GO JOAN!

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post, Cathy. Yes, Cinderella turned inside out in such meaningful ways. Just a note of how much I love Peggie this year--the scene of her standing up to Roger in a flirtatious and powerful way was delicious. And I always want more of Sally. I think it was the AV club where someone hoped for a Sally and Pauline TV show where they're grifters traveling the countryside.

    I was appalled by the women giggling at the grisly photos and cheered Ginsburg for his reaction. I can imagine looking but laughing? Really? I didn't buy it. And I'm glad we won't be seeing much more of Peg's friend--irritating. I hope she's easier to take in Girls (which I'm really looking forward to). Michael is a priceless addition--what a delightful character, just what we needed--Roger can't take on all the responsibility for humor in the show.

    And yes, Joan has never been more beautiful--I raised both my arms in the air and cheered! (Cathy, I bet you can guess who wrote this).