"Mad Men" Gets Dark. Really Dark.
Good Lord, Mad Men is getting dark. A reader sent me an email last week saying that she gave the first three episodes a try but couldn't get into the show because the characters were all unsympathetic, nasty people. She's not wrong.
It's been especially interesting watching Mad Men this season and seeing how the writers weave the happenings of '66 into the show. In past seasons, especially the last one, references to current events often were clumsy, ham-handed -- like Peggy blurting out to a co-worker "Did you know Malcolm X was shot last week?" To be fair, this may have been the point -- the show's main theme for the past five years has been how privileged and isolated its main characters are from the tempest engulfing the rest of society. Nevertheless, it's done far more effectively in "Mystery Date," when Peggy's (openly lesbian!) friend Joyce, a photojournalist for Life Magazine, gleefully saunters into the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with "crime scene snaps from Chicago's student nurse massacre ... not suitable for publication." That the staff salivated over the graphic photos brought the earlier emal.
That a sense of morbidity and macabre hung over the episode was probably inevitable, given that it was set against the backdrop of the Richard Speck murders. Speck, for those unfamiliar with the case, broke into a dorm for student nurses on the South Side of Chicago on the night of July 13-14, 1966, systematically killing eight of the nine nurses living there and raping one of them. He was on the loose for only two days, but that was enough time to spark for the national panic shown on Mad Men. It certainly caused hell in South Deering -- my dad grew up a couple blocks away from the murder house, and, while he was at camp in Wisconsin when the actual murders took place (Bobby Draper, also absent at camp, was presumably somewhere up north in the woods and mountains of upstate New York; Chicago kids went up north to Wisconsin), everyone else in my family vividly remembers the palpable terror in the atmosphere and the swarm of media coverage.
It's to the great credit of the writers that they've managed to avoid rolling out the well-trod stock images of the 1960s (though hippies, acid, the Black Panthers, MLK, RFK, Nixon, the moon landing, and the worsening situation in Vietnam all lie in the future) and focus instead on the more mundane events that provide a real sense of texture -- plane crashes, airline strikes, and now murder scandals. It's lampshaded by Joyce: "I think this is going to make the cover, not the riots [she's almost certainly referring to the then ongoing Hough Riots in Cleveland]. ... We did the riots this week -- Watts a year later -- plus there've been five riots this summer. I say it's better than even money Mr. Luce finds a tasteful way to do this." She was right:
Life Magazine, July 29, 1966
Four days after this magazine hit the newsstands, Charles Whitman holed himself up in the clock tower of the administrative building at the University of Texas and proceeded to kill thirteen people before he was taken down by the police. Though the show will inevitably continue with an undercurrent of menace and violence (I've already read a couple of fan analyses about which member of the cast will jump off of the Time-Life Building in the finale -- the smart money's on Pete, evidently), I doubt Whitman will be featured as prominently as Speck, though, because Whitman's massacre, as awful as it was, didn't have quite the same charged sexual tone. *SPOILER* I wasn't surprised that Don's assignation with an old mistress turned out to be a feverish dream (Take note, would-be writers: if you're going to make a violent scene a dream, a fever is always a classic trope), but I was surprised that he ended up strangling her to death in his delusion. Was the sequence a symbol of his desire to overcome his pathological sex addiction and remain faithful to his wife? Possibly, though he did end up in the sack with his hallucination before killing her. Did it cement, once and for all, Don's deep self-loathing and misogyny? Absolutely. He's been known to get his jollies from getting slapped in the face by a hooker, but he only pounced after he heard "You're a sick, sick..." (Well, he was abused pretty badly as a child -- and so was Speck. He probably did it "because he hates his mother," Grandma Pauline snarked to Sally.)
There were lots of other great moments in this episode -- the ongoing saga of the hyper-competent nebbish Michael Ginsberg (no, that's not an oxymoron), Peggy's aggressive bargaining with Roger over wages and her subsequent self-doubt ("Do you think I act like a man?" she drunkenly asks Don's new black secretary Dawn, who's clearly weirded out), Sally's horrid day and sleeping-pill popping night with her magnificently grotesque step-grandmother (who, spooked by the Speck murders, proudly waves about her "burglar alarm," a six-inch butcher knife). The best moment of the entire show, though -- and the most triumphant, a bright spot in a largely bleak episode -- belonged to Joan, who finally casts aside her worthless husband Greg, who earned himself the fan nickname "Dr. Rape" from his actions in season 2. Having just finished a tour in Vietnam, the good doctor, who has been consistently shown to be borderline incompetent and willfully oblivious to his wife's humanity, volunteered to go back for another year. "I'm glad the Army makes you feel like a [good] man, because I'm sick of trying to do it.... You're not a good man, and you never were. Even before we were married and you know what I'm talking about."
I wasn't the only one waiting three seasons for that anvil to drop -- the moment the line was read, I heard cheering in the apartment next door.