4:32 pm Apr. 9, 20122
The strangling of eight student nurses—and the complete loss of power they suffered at the hands of their killer, Richard Speck—serves as the extreme against which everyone else’s control issues are measured.
The nurses are introduced into the episode by way of Peggy’s photo-editor friend Joyce, who breezes into the office with negatives of the crime scene. Peggy and Megan huddle, forming a tableau of modernity, describing the photos to us, which we never see, in a way that conjures up as much a sexual image as a violent one. That’s how liberated we are, they seem to be saying, how at ease with ourselves; we’re not afraid to admit out loud what everyone is thinking. Their new colleague, Ginsberg, who partly sold himself to Don in his job interview through his flair for risqué copy but who, in the flesh, is more uncomfortable in his own skin than even Pete Campbell, appears sickened by the girls' reactions and shames them, thereby attempting to win control of the room.
That ebb and flow of power reverberates throughout the hour, as each character grapples with the issue of control: who has it, who wants it, who's losing or gaining it. There’s a psychological rhythm this show falls into when it’s hitting its stride, a sort of hypnotic tug of war between the script and the subtext. It’s like being caught up in an undertow, that sensation of being both soothed and jolted, set free and drowned.
It’s a testament to how much this show can pack into an hour that it managed to deliver an episode that centered around Sally and Joanie and Peggy. To be able to watch all three of them at such length was such an embarrassment of riches, such a second and third helping of the sundae, that I almost felt guilty.
Last week Roger warned Peggy about the dangers of being surpassed by one's protégé, but Ginsberg doesn’t yet take her seriously enough to bother scheming to unseat her. His eye is on the king, he is after Don’s throne and, in his Cinderella pitch, he exploits the very same dark urges about which he condemned the girls earlier: that there’s a sexual thrill around the idea of women being preyed upon and caught.
It’s such a chilling moment, one that sets the real-life horror-movie tone of the rest of the episode. We’ve seen these characters work late nights so many times before without ever worrying about them, but now it seems that from out of every shadow could jump either a flesh-and-blood murderer or, more likely, the most malignant thoughts of even the characters we unequivocally love.
Before the darkness, though, comes the light, embodied in Peggy’s delightful scene with Roger. It was pointed out to me after last week’s episode that we’ve barely seen these two interact up until now. It’s the sort of thing that I didn’t even know I wanted until I had it, and now I can’t imagine a time when it wasn’t there. Roger’s method of maintaining control involves the continuous emptying out of his wallet; but whereas the cash he doled out to Harry allowed him to maintain some semblance of authority, with Peggy it’s the opposite. With her he has no leverage, and she’s able to outmaneuver him in the same way that Don did a few seasons out, when he got a raise without re-signing his contract. Later, though, with Dawn, as the two gingerly try to build a fragile friendship out of twigs and sticks and late-night beers, Peggy asks “Do you think I act like a man? I try, but I don’t know if I have it in me. I don’t know if I want to." That’s the overt line, the thematic tidal wave, but under it are the gentle lapping waters of Peggy giving Dawn permission to talk, in the same way that Don did with her, and Dawn’s quiet, assertive, slightly impatient, and real feeling in response: “I’m trying to.”
The look on Dawn's face after Peggy hesitates to pick up her purse reminds us that there are all types of ways, and at least two in this scene, to feel unsafe while you sleep.
Sally, being the youngest and thus a portrait of the baby boomer at twelve, ushers in the beginning of her self-entitled generation. She doesn’t think twice about talking back to her step-grandmother or letting her demands be known. Writing a kid character that isn’t a one-dimensional cliché is about as rare as doing the same with an older character (and an in-law at that), and I’m massively impressed on both fronts. I loved the back-and-forth between these two as they wrestled for control of the reins. Henry’s mother, Pauline, finally won only by ceding to her young charge's desire to be treated like an adult, which meant loading her up with a cocktail of graphic details mixed with half a sleeping pill. Whoever came up with that the exact cracking sound that her teeth made biting into it should win many awards. (I still think I’m right about Sally’s eating disorder.)
Then there was Joan. In the same way that Peggy’s happiness is like a tonic for me, so is Joan’s sadness. It’s been there since episode one and is such a byproduct of circumstance and timing that I don’t know if there’s any way out of it for her. Her ability to control is instinctual; it's what makes her able to run her office and household so smoothly. Her mother could barely find time to put on her face and go out and buy a cake; Joanie would’ve been able to whip one up herself while looking impeccable, but all she has ever wanted was to be the type of woman who could give herself up fully to a man.
She made a conscious decision to do this with Greg, but he is so terrified of taking the lead that he has even given up his freedom in order to ensure he doesn’t have to. And while we don’t doubt Joan will be able to raise her little man on her own, we also understand just how tired she is.
The only misstep for me last night was Don. The earlier stuff with Ginsberg was great, but otherwise there were moments when I thought, “Do we even need this Don Draper guy around anymore?”
I’m sort of kidding, but there’s definitely something going on that is a combination of the show intentionally asserting his impending irrelevance but also, I think, losing its footing with his characterization as they do so. Was there anyone who watched him strangle that girl and didn’t see the words “dream sequence” virtually flashing across the screen as he did so? Even if it wasn’t meant to fool us, it felt like a very heavy hand in an otherwise well-crafted hour.
I'm familiar with Chekhov’s gun and I know that when a character coughs they've either got TB or are setting up a gag about it. But never have I heard the one that says you can’t, in your first act, mention a madman who strangled women without having your lead character do the same in the third.