Tuned In

Scary Movie: The Fear Factor of Mad Men’s Season Six

The foreboding this season has had fans spinning dark theories about who will get whacked. But the show is telling a more intimate kind of horror story.

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Jaimie Trueblood/AMC

In the end—at least for now—it was not a Manson-style murder, a violent home invasion, a riot or an office bloodbath that befell Mad Men last Sunday. It was Ken Cosgrove getting unceremoniously Cheneyed in the face by a trigger-happy GM executive and surviving to tell the tale, wearing the eyepatch prefigured by Stan’s poster of Moshe Dayan.

Violence in “The Quality of Mercy” came as violence does in Mad Men (when it comes at all, which is rarely): it was sudden, sparingly shown, and bathetic. (Think Lane’s suicide, or Guy’s run-in with a riding lawnmower.) It was, in this case, not much more than a subplot point, setting up the larger business of putting Pete Campbell and Bob Benson in conflict over the Chevy account.

And yet it came in the penultimate episode of a season that has been overhung with a sense of dread and menace, and–unusually even in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of Mad Men speculation–distinguished by especially elaborate fan theories about what horrible things the show was hinting at. Even before the season started, there were portents of danger and crime; see the season-debut poster in which NYC beat cops figured prominently.

As the season went on, the Bob Benson mystery loomed, and the scene-setting news was full of assassinations and riots, viewers began to speculate: Bob would turn out to be a homicidal psychopath, or, most prominently, the show was hinting that Megan would die violently in the manner of Sharon Tate (or was already dead). The rumors and guesses were so thick that creator Matt Weiner, usually tight-lipped abut details, went to the point of declaring: “No one’s going to die,” at least this season.

So we can take a couple things from that. (1) Someone is totally going to die in the season finale. (I’m joking. Unless it turns out to be true, in which case, called it!) And (2) while Mad Men does foreshadow and drop hints, they’re not clues to a puzzle but notes in a theme, and they don’t necessarily telegraph the dramatic developments you might expect.

Season 6 of Mad Men has been filled with images and reminders of horror, public, private, and pop-culture. It’s set in 1968, so naturally the background was inevitably going to be death- and violence-haunted: the MLK and RFK assassinations, the Democratic National Conventions, the Tet Offensive. There were allusions to the way nightmare terrors were working their way into the culture. The cult TV show The Prisoner, a surreal story of sci-fi totalitarianism, appeared in the background and felt like an inspiration for the trippy amphetamine-injection episode. We saw Sally reading Rosemary’s Baby, which showed up in “The Quality of Mercy” as a scary matinee and the inspiration for Peggy’s St. Joseph’s campaign pitch. Don and Megan’s surprised unsettlement at the Satanic-horror movie echoed another example, earlier in the season, of a very different movie that dramatized social fears: Planet of the Apes, which was not only an apocalyptic vision of Earth but was read at the time as an allegory of the racial turmoil in America.

As always, Matthew Weiner is telling a story on this show not just of a people but of a time. And 1968, as season 6 is defining it, was a time when the national sense of horror and chaos became not just pervasive but inescapable: it was on TV, in the movies, and it came into your house. The Grandma Ida story, though badly executed with its borderline racial stereotyping in a show that’s never totally figured out how to handle race, was clearly an example of this: 1968 marks the time when even a high-priced 17th-floor apartment did not elevate you above the dangers of the street, and you could hear the police sirens even on your balcony.

The danger was here. The intruder was in your living room. The draft notice was in your mailbox. The rat was under your couch, bleeding.

That Don Draper ended up in “The Quality of Mercy” watching a Nixon ad bemoaning crime in America and promising law and order was not just more historical window-dressing (or a callback to the failed Nixon campaign of the first season): it was the culmination of all this. That sense that nowhere was safe, coupled with an unparalleled electronic-media campaign, was about to make Nixon the President. In 1960, Nixon lost to JFK’s “High Hopes”; in 1968, for better or worse, the language of dashed hopes was the key to power.

All of this has played out in this season intertwined with the stories of characters we care about, whose relationships and happiness are precarious. So it’s natural that, anxious and trying to figure out the season’s direction (as, honestly, it took its time wandering about), fans started to spin theories about the Big Bang that this was all going to build to. Megan was going to end up butchered. Bob Benson would have a murderous side. Something terrible would happen to Sally. Pete’s gun would finally go off.

And look, I can’t say that any or all of that won’t happen in Sunday’s season finale. But I’m inclined to believe Matthew Weiner when he says this show doesn’t work that way. I don’t think Mad Men is dropping clues of a disaster. I think it’s telling a story, and that story is of pervasive fear. If you spend this season wondering when the awful thing would happen, and who it would happen to, then maybe the season has on some level succeeded, because it’s put you into the mindset that 1968 itself encouraged.

The thing that makes a scary movie most scary, after all, is not the awful thing that happens: it’s waiting and dreading for that thing to happen. Maybe someone will die in Sunday’s Mad Men, but I don’t think that’s the kind of horror movie we’re watching. In the one that we’re watching, the horrible thing is that you survive. And you worry. And you wait.

7 comments
deerush76
deerush76

This article is a good example of Weiner's failure to explore race on a personal basis, via Don Draper's secretary, Dawn Chambers.

hivemaster
hivemaster

Bob is a gay version of Don, ashamed enough of his past to discard it and create a new identity, hitting on co-workers in the office with abandon, and as handsome and charming as the devil, even as he is screaming in Spanish on the phone.

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

In spite of my response to paul.abbotson below, the story of the 60's isn't really a "story arc."  It's a paradigm shift.  In a paradigm shift, you don't wrap up the previous plot lines.  You just start asking different questions.  You no longer ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  You take angels out of the equation.  In further response to Paul, I too would love to watch a few episodes in which the guys actually do get it right.  I'd love to see the agency pull off a brilliant coup with a great concept.  It would be fun to watch something like that taking place.  But to my mind, this show isn't about success.  It's about us.  The way we were.  And, I'm convinced, the way we are as well.

paul.abbotson
paul.abbotson

I used to like this show   a lot but the  current season which is nearing its  end indicates that  after  a while a show should be allowed to die in peace before it gets this stale. Don is  a rather unlikeable anti-hero.Nobody  in the firm seem to  have any real bright ideas and one wonders how an advertising  agency with so little brain would have  survived even in the  primitive 1960s. I worked in  market research in a London agency back then . Although it was not   dazzling its account executives  would have outperformed Don's crowd at any time.

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

<roteHoobielament>Ack, I'm behind on season 6*</roteHoobielament> (partly because it's been hard to gear up to watch a-hole Don keep making the same a-hole mistakes**), but I actually quite liked last season's "Mystery Date" for the reasons James describes above. IIRC, a number of critics and viewers didn't like that episode very much, which surprised me. I thought that episode depicted and created dread very effectively. It's neat to hear that season 6 seems to be doing that, too.

*I never mind being spoiled by reading reviews of MM episodes I haven't seen, though. As James et al have said, this really is fundamentally a spoiler-proof show.

**With James's post here and some other reviews of recent episodes, I'm starting to get intrigued again and reinvested in Don's fate. It's starting to look interestingly like it might not be so much that Don is spinning his wheels, doing the same damage to himself again and again, but instead that he has to fall through even more levels of hell before he hits bottom and can then start to climb up. (Or, you know, stay and be eternally poked in the butt with pitchforks. Whatever Weiner decides is best.)

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

@paul.abbotson It is, I believe, slated to end next season with 1969.  I think Weiner et al. have a story arc in mind for that decade.