Mystery Date

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Nonfiction by Meriwether Clarke for MQR Online.


Sometimes, when I’m stuck in traffic or lying in bed, scenes from Mad Men’s fifty-sixth episode, “Mystery Date,” play in my head like a home movie on mute. I envision Sally’s authoritarian step-grandmother, Pauline, wilting in the heat. She sits in Betty and Henry’s gloomy living room like a stone giantess. Her only movement is a repetitive fanning as she gossips on the phone.

Later in the episode, she’s in almost the same position except it’s the middle of the night and she’s reading a romance novel. Sally walks in, afraid, nearly startling her to death. She can’t sleep, frightened and shocked after reading in discarded newspapers about the grotesque Richard Speck murders in Chicago. The viewer can feel the animosity in the air between them, like humidity, or smoke. Sally wants the presence of an adult, yet the one before her is no figure of maternal warmth. But there’s also a mutual curiosity. Both are bound by their frustration at Sally’s mother and stepfather for being out so late, and both are intrigued by the story of eight women raped and killed eight-hundred miles away. The two could be sitting there for hours as the camera pans out from them, Pauline pawing the large knife she’s hidden behind her back.

Time feels like that now, too. What used to just be a day sometimes still is. But sometimes it’s much longer. I wait, sitting at my desk, for the news that another senator or congressman has been touching women, silently or loudly, for decades. I wait to find out how many bodies will wash up in the neglected wreckage of Puerto Rico. I wait to see how long it will take for my countrywomen to stop only choosing candidates because of their views on abortion and consider that without a habitable planet, we will all die. I wait and I wait, feeling as though my age has doubled in the past dozen and a half months. I don’t have a weapon behind my back, but sometimes I wish I did.

What I love most about “Mystery Date” is something no other show pulls off like Mad Men—a capturing of the dark and desperate moment in history that its characters are a part of. Every scene feels like it’s edging the episode closer to a tipping point. The Speck murders loom in the background of the office (and at copywriter Michael Ginsberg’s macabre presentation for Butler shoes). The Vietnam War is a phantom-like presence between Joan and her husband, Kevin. Race riots divert Betty and Henry, making them late. None of the actual horror is shown on screen, but it settles like a fine mist over the characters—changing their plans, causing them nightmares, exposing their weaknesses.

The other strength of “Mystery Date” is the attention it pays to the show’s female characters. The episode’s second scene opens with Peggy, her friend Joyce (a photographer for Time Magazine), and a few coworkers gawking at unpublishable images of the dead nurses. This immediately draws the viewer’s attention to women’s bodies. How they were exploited, ridiculed, tortured, and destroyed by a sad, sinister man. How the skirts of the office are exploited and ridiculed every day.

In his presentation for Butler shoes, about one third of the way into the episode, Michael Ginsberg delivers the tagline, “A woman, and her secrets…oh the things she’ll never tell….” But the action of the episode is really about men’s secrets and the ways women are pressured to conform their lives to them. It’s a sinister setting for female empowerment, made even more so by the grim backdrop of the eight dead women in Chicago. Though it’s a fitting piece of copy for the product and the era, it’s intentionally ironic that Ginsberg, no Lothario, is charged with delivering it. He begins the episode as one of the only allies the women in the office have. He alone refuses to look at the photos of the victims, “trussed up like dolls.” But as he regales the story of Cinderella to clients in an impromptu coda to his official presentation, a blush of sexual predation enters his rhetoric: “She wants to be caught,” he says, as if shoeless and frightened women running through dark streets want anything but to be back home, safe and behind a locked door.

This interest in the attempted, successful, and imagined destruction of female bodies necessitates much of the episode’s best (and most uncomfortable) scenes to take place in the classic realm of women: the home. The carnage starts before the episode even begins, when Speck meticulously rapes and murders eight students in their dorm. It continues in upscale Rye, New York, where Sally and Pauline sit and wait, eat sandwiches, and watch television. There’s also Peggy and Dawn, drinking beers together in Peggy’s apartment because Dawn is afraid to return to Harlem, where police-fueled violence is erupting in its streets.

Peggy has played the role of the self-satisfied white liberal almost to perfection, until the final moment between them, when she’s saying goodnight and cruelly pauses, realizing her cash-filled purse is still on the coffee table beside Dawn’s makeshift bed. And, of course, there’s the penultimate scene, one in which the sublime Joan is at her best. Every cell in her body gravitates further and further away from her husband as she sits across from him at the breakfast table in her apartment. “If I walk out that door, it’s over!” he yells, slamming his hand on the table. “It’s over,” she says with the coolness of a marble statue, a slight lilt at the end of the ‘r’ as if there is, at last, some relief to be had. He leaves and her home is the same as it was two days before, the look in Joan’s eyes only a bit glassier.

But let’s return to that earlier moment in the shiny offices of the new Sterling Cooper Draper Price, when all but Ginsberg are gawking at the nurse’s bodies. Joyce intones dramatically, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee” when describing the single victim who got away. This is a quote from the book of Job, the Old Testament chapter where a man’s faith is tested as God curses him with every imaginable plight, save death. That reference—the suggestion of a hell on earth—looms over the episode like a storm cloud. Even apart from Speck’s horrific crimes, it feels as though the world the characters inhabit is breaking at the seams. Riots. Strikes. War Crimes. Uninhabitable heat.

The episode reminds me of the current cultural atmosphere in more ways than one. The social order of the office, of the city, of Megan and Don’s marriage seems this close to breaking. The famous slogan “the personal is political,” personified—just like now, almost fifty years later. There are Salvadorans and Haitians and DACA recipients who have been told the only country they call home isn’t actually theirs. Every other week a new story emerges about aggressive cops arresting, shooting, attacking, killing black Americans while our leaders stay silent. There are children watching the news over their parent’s shoulders and thinking that because the person in charge is a bully, they can be, too.

And of course, there’s gender. It’s unpleasant to admit, but I feel increasingly unsafe in my country. At any given moment, a group of sixty-year-old white men could be sitting in a room in the Capitol, debating what I should be able to do with my uterus. Then there’s the matter of the man so many of them have sworn allegiance to. I don’t spend my days engulfed in literal fears—the unmistakeable privileges of white, middle class heterosexuality protect me from that—but a dark dusk settles on my mind each time I remember the leader of my nation is a sexual predator.

His nasally, cruel voice is in my head all of the time. The man who uses words as if they’re playing cards, merely symbols, stand-ins, entirely without meaning, echoes in my brain when I’m driving, walking, or staring out of the window. I feel anxious and frustrated; I have dreams where people I love die. I read reports about an increasing number of Americans going to see mental health professionals in the past two years, and I understand why. I’ve never felt this way about a public figure before. I’ve only ever felt this traumatic, echoing worry about men I’ve known in real life who have frightened me, harassed me, assaulted me—with their bodies, voices, or eyes.

Of course, there’s no way to create a hierarchy of the issues Trump represents for American identity and morality (much less for our physical safety and international standing as a nation). I don’t want to suggest that his hatred of women supersedes his hatred of immigrants, his hatred of African-Americans, his hatred of Mexicans, his hatred of Muslims, his hatred of facts (since all of those, of course, should still be discussed ceaselessly, endlessly, until every person who voted for him begins to understand what that vote meant). But I have to wonder, why have we stopped talking about this President’s clear contempt for over half the population? Maybe it’s not as strong as Richard Speck’s hate, but maybe it is. Either way, he hates us; I am sure of it. He hates women just as I’m increasingly sure he hates this nation and the job of leading it.

~

It was during the second Presidential debate that I decided I would never let myself feel sorry for him again. It’s embarrassing to admit it took so long—partly because I was convinced he’d lose. But still, in between volunteering for Hillary for America phone banks, canvassing in a nearby swing state, and fanatically reading polling analysis, I found time to occasionally feel faintly sorry for the man. How could you not? I sometimes wondered when I’d see him publicly stumble on his words and rhetorically fall flat.

But it was the second debate, when he paraded Bill Clinton’s accusers in front of the press and then down to the front row of the debate stage, that something in me broke. I realized, all at once, that he wasn’t a nouveau riche caricature in over his head. He was as calculated as they came. In that moment, his calculations were used to project the air of someone who cares about women, despite his own, manifold, transgressions against our bodies.

Politically, it was risky but strangely brilliant. The kind of idea that, like so many things Trump does, a conventional candidate would wish he or she could do but would never dare. Bill Clinton himself was not running for President, but the fact that multiple women have accused him of harassment (and one of rape) over his multi-decade political career was a certain type of stain for his wife, the unapologetically feminist candidate attempting to be her country’s first female leader. I understood the political desire to use these women to prove a point. But to actually do it. To use them. As if we’d all magically forget that “grab them by the pussy” ever happened.

And then the debate itself, when he followed Hillary around the stage like a predator stalking its prey: it’s the way creepy men follow girls and women in stores, parking lots, and sidewalks every day. And then the growing chorus of accusations: Jessica Leeds who sat next to him on a plane in the 1980s and alleged he was “like an octopus,” his hands groping her “everywhere”; Kristina Anderson who remembered him sticking his hand up her skirt and grabbing her vagina in the 1990s; five teen beauty queens who recalled him purposefully walking in on them changing in the dressing room in 1997; Rachel Crooks, a receptionist at a real estate company in Trump Tower who described him forcibly kissing her the first time they met in 2005; his first wife, who went on the record accusing him of rape; an unnamed woman who alleged the same crime was committed against her two decades ago, when she was thirteen. The list goes on.

And then the other stories, the quotes and rumors. The ones I saw women at work or in my classroom or online talk about. The ones we looked up when we couldn’t sleep in the middle of the night, wondering how bad he really was. In a 1992 New York Magazine column about dating advice: “You have to treat ’em like shit.” In 1994, on ABC News: “I think that putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing.” In 2011, in court over a failed real estate project, calling a female lawyer who had to take a break to breastfeed the same adjective he later called Hillary Clinton for needing to use the bathroom during a debate: “Disgusting.”

It’s the oldest type of rhetoric in the misogynist’s handbook. Women and our bodies are good for one thing only, and when you’re done with them, you’re done. Sometimes I wonder if the men of the world—both the ones we go to the movies with and the ones interrupting their female colleagues on the Senate floor before signing bills about birth control—know about these secret conversations women have every day. Not just about the coworker that makes them uncomfortable, or the lewd stranger on the bus, but about the one in the Oval Office. The one who is supposed to be leading all of us.

“Mystery Date” gets its title from a 1958 Milton Bradley Game. You can buy it online for $27, or you can watch the commercial on YouTube for free (the same commercial Sally Draper watches early in the episode). I don’t have much to say about it that isn’t obvious. The infantilization of young women for the sake of unrealistic love. The glorification of faux chivalry symbolized by something as meaningless as presenting a corsage. The strange economic shame implied by the blue collar dress of “The Dud” (the date the players aren’t supposed to want).

What I find interesting, for these purposes, is how the game’s conceit involves opening a door to proverbially let your date come in. It’s worth noting because it wasn’t until the moment when, for the first time, I physically feared the man leading my country, that I realized how truly intimate politics can be. Not just because of the way policies and rhetoric directly affect the lives of voters, but because every night when I check the New York Times and Washington Post, Donald Trump is there. Every day when I open my computer to read the morning headlines: his face, his voice, his drooping eyes.

“Mystery Date” reminds me of the potency of this burden. When people in power—whether a husband, an employer, or a country’s leader—commit crimes and keep secrets, it creates a weight we all must bear. This weight spawns a particular type of shame, guilt, and fear. Only history will tell what Trump’s secrets will do to us all, what they’ve already done. All we have now, in between protests and calls to senators, is more waiting.

~

Sometimes, in all this endless stagnation, when time feels most empty and languid, I wonder what the President would do to my body if left alone in a room with it. In this scenario, I am not me—she of too many thoughts, too many feelings, she who dreams of carrying a knife behind her back. Instead, I’m exactly as he’d see me: emotionless, feelingless, desire-less. A piece of meat.

The scenario only plays, of course, if he fails to realize I’m past my prime. I’m not yet thirty, but gray hairs sprout from the right side of my head, along the hairline. I’m sure I’m too fat for him, too. My legs are not well-shaven; my front teeth are a bit crooked. I haven’t, as he noted about the First Lady of France, always taken “good care of myself.” But maybe that’s not what matters when power is all that’s at play. Maybe all he’d care about is putting his hands over my mouth, stopping that annoying female habit of talking too much. He could tell me I’m ugly as he wounds me, breaks me apart, and enjoys the hurting even more.


Image: Scene from Mad Men, Episode 56: “Mystery Date.” AMC, 2012.

Meriwether Clarke is a poet and essayist living in Los Angeles, California. Recent work can be seen in, or is forthcoming from, Gigantic Sequins The Journal, Juked, The Superstition Review, Leveler, Memorious, Prelude, Salt Hill, The Blueshift Journal, and elsewhere.

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