Mad Men: season 5, episode 4

Cinderella, rape, and a murder dream we wish was real.

Oh Red, we knew you had it in you. If “Tea Leaves” was dominated by Betty’s blubber, episode four ventured deeper – historically, socially and more subtly – into female physicality. Mad Men doesn’t get more triumphant than this: Joanie, all woman, ridding herself of her scumbag husband in one stoical swoop. Never have we forgotten that crude, heartbreaking scene from Season Two where Greg overcomes his fiancée on Don’s office floor. Now, finally, Joanie vindicates herself that awful act: “You’re not a good man. You never were. Even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about”. Was it inexplicable from the show’s start that Ms Holloway would be our feminist heroine? Now a single mother and, presumably, returning soon to work (note Peggy's referral to “Joan’s office”), her attempt to take charge of both whilst handling her mother (a traditionally subservient wife) and miserable-in-marriage Roger will be fascinating to watch.

Rape, of course, looms over the entire episode. On the surface is the 1966 Chicago nurse murders; Peggy’s friend Joyce presenting the gruesome photos (the story did indeed make the cover of TIME) so salaciously that Ginsberg’s disgust has us sweet for him. As important as these overt political references are - and increasingly will be as the show moves through the latter part of the decade - Mad Men’s beauty lies in its poetic allusions to current affairs, its ability to tap into the nation’s climate through the intimate and personal. So as the ninth nurse escaped death by hiding under the bed, so the dream corpse lies on the carpet beneath Don, her Cinderella foot exposed; Sally sleeps fast on the livingroom floor underneath the sofa. There’s actually a lot of women struggling to sleep in the second half of the episode: Dawn on Don’s couch; Joan on the bed with her mother; Sally under the sheets, horrified by the newspaper story. 

Our other troubled sleeper, then, in Don. What is this dream sequence fad? Unlike Betty's funereal breakfasting vision, Don's nightmare is quite (a)rousing. Don't you rather wish it were true - Don sweaty, fevered and adulterous? There's not too much to analyse here, though. What do we learn about our protagonist we didn't know already? Probably most interesting is Andrea's (read: Don's subconscious) passing comment on his interior decoration skills, "Everybody probably thinks she did this but I know it was you."

To Peggy: it's taken us four episodes but here she finally is in all her nuanced glory. What many marvellous things has Peggy become? Let us count the ways: the pithy copywriter, the teamplayer, the attempting mentor, and – most thrillingly – the player's player (does "the racist" really fit in here? How believable was that handbag suspiciousness?). Peggy won’t be taken for granted at SCDP, least of all by Roger, and counting her bills with nervous glee we know she's thrilled, too. This self-respecting and playful act can't be what leads her to wonder out loud to Dawn whether she behaves like a man. Why this concern, Peggy?

A final note on the episode title which neatly plays off the innocence/ experience theme. A TV commercial for the boardgame Mystery Date plays in the livingroom while Sally, intrigued by Grandma Francis's gossip, wonders exactly what happened to the Chicago nurses. A young girls’ game about welcome/ unwelcome men behind doors recalls not only the murderer Richard Speck but cobbled alleyways, a stranger's hand on a shoulder, and a Butler glass slipper for a princess.

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Ditching Harris: Joanie's back. From Mad Men episode "Mystery Date"

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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“The Hole-Up”: a poem by Matthew Sweeney

“You could taste the raw / seagull you’d killed and plucked, / the mussels you’d dug from sand, / the jellyfish that wobbled in your / hands as you slobbered it.”

Lying on your mouth and nose
on the hot sand, you recall
a trip in a boat to the island –
the fat rats that skittered about
after god-knows-what dinner,
the chubby seals staring up,
the sudden realisation that a man
on the run had wintered there
while the soldiers scoured
the entire shoreline to no avail –
you knew now you had been him
out there. You could taste the raw
seagull you’d killed and plucked,
the mussels you’d dug from sand,
the jellyfish that wobbled in your
hands as you slobbered it.
You saw again that first flame
those rubbed stones woke in
the driftwood pile, and that rat
you grilled on a spar and found
delicious. Yes, you’d been that man,
and you had to admit now you
missed that time, that life,
though you were very glad you
had no memory of how it ended.


Matthew Sweeney’s Black Moon was shortlisted for the 2007 T S Eliot Prize. His latest collection is Inquisition Lane (Bloodaxe).

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt