Mad Men has an ending. It’ll go seven seasons, which I’m guessing will take us just about to the end of the 60s. I don’t know what Matthew Weiner’s exact game plan is, but it seems pretty obvious that part of it is showing us the massive ways the roles of women changed in America during this time period. While the focus of Mad Men has always been, in the public eye, the boozing and smoking of handsome Don Draper, the show’s heart seems to have always been with the rise of feminism.
This week’s episode, Mystery Date, crystallizes that more than possibly any episode so far. This was an episode almost entirely about women, and as a result Don’s strange fever dream takes on a much more sinister implication.
It’s the summer of 1966, and the comfortable America of the 50s, the one that this show began with, has crumbled. And it crumbled suddenly, without warning (interestingly it did so right about the time Don married Megan). What’s happening on Mad Men this season is we’re seeing the characters begin to realize that the world around them has irrevocably changed. There have been a couple of shots this season of city streets full of litter, a hint at the collapse of New York City in the 70s, and war and race riots have become constant topics of conversation. The world has become a scarier, uglier place, and Richard Speck’s brutal crimes reinforce that in a big way.
I wrote about the real Chicago Student Nurse Massacre here. In the episode Speck’s crime serves a couple of purposes; as our own Phil Nobile pointed out to me, it’s a lurid sex crime that gets more attention than the racial problems tearing America apart. But more than that it’s a moment when the crazy, fucked up world that has been in the newspapers suddenly bursts into the homes of decent people. What happened to these young girls was unthinkable, and all of a sudden any sense of safety evaporates.
Against the backdrop of this terrible crime against women, the show pairs up female characters. Each pairing attempts to help the other, but there’s always a fundamental disconnect. Young Sally is first kept from the news by her grandmother, and when she finds out about the crime she freaks. This finally brings her closer to her grandmother, who has some pretty weird ideas about the relationships between men and women. In fact the way that she retells the crime to Sally almost sounds erotic - those nurses in their short skirts - and when juxtaposed against her casual, light hearted recollection of being beaten by her father for absolutely no good reason you have something really creepy going on.
Meanwhile Peggy and Dawn, Don’s new black secretary, have a moment. While Peggy has been using the chaos of the world to get ahead - signified by her ability to jump in on the Mohawk account, which is now valuable because of a nationwide airline mechanic strike that doesn’t impact the company - she remains vulnerable, afraid in the office late at night. When she takes Dawn home she tries to open up to the woman, but they have nothing in common - Dawn doesn’t share Peggy’s ambition (or at least not as Peggy understands it. As a woman, Peggy wants to climb the male ladder of success. As a black woman, Dawn just wants to get in the door). And when Peggy has a split-second reaction about leaving her purse unguarded with Dawn, we see that there’s a lot of complications ahead.
As a side note on Dawn: the show is in a tough place. Even the most forward thinking characters on the show would have attitudes that would be considered fairly racist today. Nobody’s going to bring in a black copywriter in 1966, unless it’s a stunt. None of these characters are likely to engage with a black person on a real, personal level. While it seems weird that the show’s black characters exist only to comment on the attitudes of the white characters, there’s an element of truthfulness to that. It would be interesting to follow Dawn home to her brother - and I suspect the show may yet do that - but her story will probably always be almost hermetically sealed away from the stories of the white characters.
Finally there’s Joan and her mom. Where Sally gets weird old fashioned vibes and where Peggy makes an aborted attempt to do some girl power stuff with Dawn, Joan ends up choosing a path of strong independence. The Speck case makes less of an impact on the Joan story, but that’s because she already has the threat of violence hanging over her head - the threat of violence happening to old Dr. Date Rape. How thrilling was it to hear Joan confront him about how he had always been a bad man, referring to that date rape scene?
Joan, Peggy and Sally represent women moving into a new world. They’re on different paths in some ways, and I think that the series is going to ultimately be about their journeys.
Meanwhile, the Speck case haunts the male storylines, but in different ways. The murder scene photos influnce Ginsberg’s pitch to the shoe company, giving him a dark twist on the Cinderella tale that feels suited for Sally’s grandma. And then Don...
In any other episode Don’s fever dream murder of his ex might have represented something sort of positive - he’s really, truly committed to Megan, even in his dreams - but when it’s juxtaposed against Speck’s crimes it gets pretty scary.
If you go back and read my article about Speck you’ll see that he spent his final years in prison transforming into a woman. It seems that his crimes stemmed from some weird fear and discomfort with women, and we see Don having that same problem. In his dream his ex comes to the door suddenly and forces her way in, just as Speck did. And then when she is killed Don tries to hide her body under his bed, a callback to the Speck case - the only surviving nurse lived by hiding under a bed (so if anything this means that Don is unsuccessful in getting rid of her).
Don’s feelings about women are complicated - remember, he paid a hooker to beat him up - and this just adds another layer. His lothario ways seem to be a cover for a fear of women in general.
This episode was pretty exciting for me because it worked so well narratively while containing a ton of metaphor and meaning. It also was full of small details that reward the long-time obsessive viewer, like the decorations in Peggy’s apartment or the callback to Joan playing the accordion. As the show moves deeper into the back half of the 60s the culture and current events will invade the lives of our characters more and more; Mystery Date really proves that Mad Men knows how to properly use those elements without overwhelming the personal drama.