History is not the most useful dramatic backdrop for a television show. It is, really, just one big spoiler alert: we already know what happens. But “Mad Men” is canny enough to twist this problem to its advantage, letting the past knock on the door in the middle of the night.
Last night’s episode, “Mystery Date,” a Hitchcockian brew of anger, anxiety, and brutal murder, could easily have dropped a few references to the Chicago race riots and left it at that. Instead, it took another event — a grisly massacre of eight student nurses, much hazier in the historical record — and rendered it crystal clear. Along the way, in a beautifully constructed, near-perfect hour, we caught a glimpse of the series at its best. Because “Mad Men,” admittedly, often doesn’t do much more than nod at history as it passes by. But when the two lines in the narrative come together, when distant killings become a smart analogue to the travails of the show’s mad women, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
This is a series that has been moving determinedly in the direction of its female characters, the dark Cinderellas that SCDP’s newest copywriter dreamed up on the spot for a shoe campaign in “Mystery Date.” Even as Betty has hardened and now largely disappeared, Peggy and Joan and Sally and Megan and Faye and all the other, more minor female characters have achieved a ripe sort of complexity. Peggy worries over her position at the firm but can, a few drinks deep and feet on the desk, extort from Roger $400 for a little work on the side; Sally, who’s quickly coming to resemble a potential revolutionary, an East Coast Patty Hearst, can be willful and innocent at once.
The murder of the eight student nurses is, on one level, a far cry from these problems. But last night’s episode was, in fact, all about women coming under threat — facing dangers that have shifted over the course of the series from sexual harassment in the office to something darker, more elemental. This is what I mean by history knocking on the door in the middle of the night: in lieu of taking on 1960s politics directly, “Mad Men” has instead relied on an organic buildup of resentments that promise, in coming episodes and seasons, to burst forth in a torrent. Joan’s telling off of Greg last night nodded in this direction, as did Peggy’s lament to Dawn that she, too, was the only one of her kind at work for a long time.
Given the fervor over whether the GOP is waging a “war on women,” the timing of these developments in the show is felicitous — it’s no longer clear that the generation of Peggy and Joan resolved the “question” of feminism as we thought they had. “Now and Then” is predicated on the idea that movies of the present have something to say to movies of the past (and vice versa); “Mad Men” does a double trick by being a series made in the present about the past, in which past and present politics collide.
It seems to me, in fact, that “Mad Men” has slowly turned into a sharp feminist credo, in which the women defend themselves from all manner of attacks and the men recede into the background. In “Mystery Date,” the men who’ve come to represent the series’ (and the era’s) particular brand of machismo, Roger and Don, are pretty much incapacitated. In thinking of how excited I am to see what happens next — in both the political and the personal narratives of the women in question — I’m reminded of another great polemic, Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” (1976). The subtext of Joan’s cathartic takedown of Greg at episode’s end read, in effect, as a quieter version of that film’s iconic line. I’m mad as hell, she was saying. And I’m not going to take this anymore.