Wounded and Willing Prey: 'Mad Men' Goes Dark

“Mystery Date,” last night’s episode of “Mad Men,” closed with The Crystals controversial ode to love and abuse “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” a fitting theme song for an episode all about the dark things that lurk in the night or in our own subconscious.

The installment was pinned to Richard Speck’s July 14, 1966 rape and murder of eight student nurses in Chicago (one hid under the bed and got away), a lurid incident that draws many of the show’s characters in, though it also frightens them. If last week’s episode explored how a health scare can make peeople rethink and reevaluate the lives they’re living, this week’s observed the allure of danger and the way we all have a touch of the death drive.

It’s only newcomer Michael Ginsberg, played by Ben Feldman, who’s tuned into his own frequency and continues to misread everyone around him, who’s actually disturbed by the photos from the massacre that Joyce Ramsay (Zosia Mamet, soon to be seen on “Girls”) brings in for the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce creatives’ room to gawk at.

And it’s Michael who, in trying to explain why the Cinderella story is too disturbing a narrative to use in an advertisement, even one about footwear, ends up inadvertently pitching their clients on a grim fairytale campaign worthy of Angela Carter.

The heroine is like “wounded prey,” he notes — not what he sees as the stuff of a good ad, but one that the company men love. “You’re excited by it,” Michael noted with disgust when Peggy and Megan peered at the Chicago images, but it’s clearly not a feeling exclusive to them. We’re given further proof of that when we see Sally’s attempts to get details of the story from her enthralled babysitter and step-grandmother Pauline (Pamela Dunlap).

When she finally digs the paper out of the trash to read it herself, she’s terrified and unable to sleep, and her caretaker doesn’t offer her any comfort — “Those girls got ready for bed, and there was a knock on the door,” she notes in a recounting of the incident that’s even more likely to disturb her poor charge.

We’re drawn to the dark until we become aware of how it might consume us — Peggy, creeping out of her office to explore a spooky sound late at night; Sally, hiding under the sofa in the embrace of Seconal; Dawn, bunking down in her new workplace out of fears about riots and racial tension (“You’re not a nurse,” Peggy laughs at her fears, before realizes she’s got very different threats on her mind).

But the episode’s most disturbing sequence came in the form of Don’s fever-addled dream about an old fling returning to his life refusing to leave. The imagery is quite clear — Don’s afraid that no matter how committed he is to Megan and his new life, his old ways will return.

His encounter with the woman, who he imagines finding her way into his apartment somehow, is reluctant and joyless, one in which he sees himself helpless in the face of a biological imperative. In this scenario, though he’s the one being stalked, he’s also the predator, unable to turn down willing prey, a metaphor the show takes to its end when he strangles his (thankfully nonexistent) visitor and hides her under the bed — Don Draper, murderer of his own impulses.

Joan isn’t so lucky, but by the end of this episode she may have finally shucked off the awful Greg (Sam Page), who returns from Vietnam only to reveal he’s volunteered to go back without discussing it with his wife as she raises their (well, her) baby alone. It may not be a death wish that Greg’s feeling, but he’s certainly willing to risk death for the feeling of belonging and manhood the military’s given him, something that so enrages Joan that she gives him the heave-ho after finally confronting him on how he’s treated her (“you never were a good man”).

It made for the episode’s most satifying scene, and one that’s been a long time coming, though Peggy extorting money out of a desperate Roger comes a close second. She’s come a long way, to shrug off his threats and hold out for cash, knowing exactly the position of power she’s holding at that moment.

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