“He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)”, the Crystals
Mystery Date, Season 5 Episode 4
First of all: Yes, this was a real hit song. The horrifying content of the lyrics was glossed over in its era, but even then it must have pushed the envelope in terms of misogyny. This selection represents the demeaningly titled “girl groups”, a subsection of the popular 1960s Motown scene. These groups were label-manufactured, vocally-oriented teen pop combos consisting of talented young female singers and many session musicians playing note-perfect, dreamy accompaniment that gave the tracks an almost baroque feel. This innovative offshoot of the Detroit record companies was led in part by Phil Spector, a disgusting and abusive psychopath who just happened to be a talented producer as well. Reigning over the studio and his performers, he had these women under his thumb and was notorious for threatening them viciously. It’s all the more ironic that out of this toxic environment came some of the decade’s most beautiful and anthemic love songs.
While this may not be the showiest or most complex tune, it’s yet another example of a tonally, temporally, and thematically fitting choice. It opens with a discomfiting, uneasy bass guitar part rumbling against the stark cruelty of the lyrics, while harmonious voices blissfully croon about their own violent entrapment. The result is grandiose and hypnotic, despite its abhorrent ethics. And that is precisely the effect Matt Weiner was going for.
Mystery Date is a TV episode about women living in fear of men. It’s perhaps Mad Men’s darkest hour, and certainly one of its best. Its message is underlined by a spur-of-the-moment pitch regarding the subtextual vulnerability and submissiveness of women in myth and fairy tales. Delivered by Alan Ginsberg, he intends it to seem preordained and romantic – a notion that’s startling by our modern standards. But, contrasted with the dire things happening elsewhere in the hour, the show cleverly presents his speech in a despairing tone.
Joan, as ever under male scrutiny, makes a huge breakthrough in this episode, getting fed up with her domineering rapist husband’s cruelty and incompetence. She finally kicks him out of her apartment and her life, which is precipitated by his complete disengagement from their family, not to mention his emotional and physical abuse.
In one of Sally’s best storylines, she hides from the nightmarish threat of a Chicago serial killer named Richard Speck who stalked and murdered women in July 1966. (The creative team gasps over newspaper photos of his handiwork at the top of the hour.) She spends the night with her aunt, who holds blinkered and horrific opinions on womanly conduct and masculine overtures because of the constraints placed on her throughout life. After scaring her niece half to death, she falls asleep with a knife for protection while Sally passes out under a duvet.
Peggy also struggles with the boundaries of a patriarchal world, being perceived as masculine because of her ambition and strong personality. In this installment, she feels alienated from womanhood and unable to find a stable relationship or earn respect from her peers because of it.
Meanwhile, Don suffers from a symbolic head cold and nausea as he explores the consequences of his infidelity. Though he’s currently on the straight and narrow, he debates having an affair with an old fling who, it’s revealed, is almost entirely a figment of his delirious imagination. In a sinister development, he literally grapples with this dream woman, strangling her to death a la Richard Speck, and becoming the man his daughter most fears. There is a clear visual correlation between Cinderella’s slipper in the ad, Don’s fever dream victim stuffed under a bed, and poor Sally in the same place, all facing an identical threat.
Mystery Date is named after a then-contemporary game show, where eligible bachelorettes tried to find a suitable anonymous beau. But in the show’s time (and still to this day), there is an understandable apprehension among women regarding romantic partners. You don’t know what you’re going to get. It could very well be Dr. Greg, Don Draper, or Richard Speck – some unknowable force that will dominate and ruin your life, make you extremely sad and unfulfilled, or just outright murder you.
With unchecked power and privilege, the passion of love can lead to emotional and physical violence. And nobody in America had, and still has, more power and privilege than white men. Scariest of all, however they hurt and destroy and take advantage, they’ll still believe their own narrative – the fairy tale of the Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella that they manipulate. Mystery Date explores the horrifying reality all women face daily: the male id gone wild. As Ginsberg says in his delusional, self-aggrandizing speech, “It doesn’t matter what he looks like… in the end, she wants to be caught.”